A place to linger longer

Flash­back mission ac­com­plished on a Thai is­land in the An­daman Sea

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Asia - KEN­DALL HILL

IT was prob­a­bly a vain hope. On the sil­ver an­niver­sary of my first visit to Thai­land, I won­dered if would it be pos­si­ble to re­cap­ture the care­free seren­ity I found there 25 years ago? A quiet beach, a cheap bun­ga­low, a blur of care­free, ham­mocky days?

We’ve both changed so much since then, Thai­land and I. The whole world has changed. With the on­slaught of mass tourism, no-frills air­lines and The Beach (book and movie), it was folly to think there was still an un­touched cor­ner of the king­dom where I could linger like it was 1989.

But with very lit­tle ef­fort and an aw­ful lot of dumb luck, I do it. I chance upon an is­land in the An­daman Sea that has, so far, es­caped the tourism ex­cesses of the 21st cen­tury. In place of high-rise re­sorts and wa­ter­sports there are dol­phins and mon­keys and rau­cous horn­bills. There are nei­ther dis­cos nor night­clubs, but beach bars that play reg­gae and roots (how 1989 is that?). There is no kids’ club apart from a wooden bench on the shore stocked with candy-coloured buck­ets and spades. Help your­self, lit­tle peo­ple.

The is­land’s name is Koh Phayam and, while far from undis­cov­ered, life here is so laid­back that it is still con­sid­ered a ma­jor sell­ing point if a prop­erty can of­fer 24-hour elec­tric­ity. Hot-wa­ter showers are still some way off in the fu­ture.

Bel­gian Paul Vors­sel­mans ar­rived on Koh Phayam nine years ago af­ter his planned over­land odyssey from Europe to Australia by Citroen hit a road­block at the Ira­nian bor­der. He came here to vol­un­teer on a dog ster­il­i­sa­tion pro­gram and stayed be­cause of a lo­cal girl, Pearl. Within months they be­gan build­ing a re­sort on a 300m stretch of beach­front on the east coast. They called it PP Land (no snig­ger­ing please) and this is where my nos­tal­gia has led me.

There are no chilled tow­els to greet me when I ar­rive by mo­tor­bike taxi from the is­land jetty a few kilo­me­tres away. No paths strewn with rose pe­tals or wel­come cock­tails. It is just as I hoped it would be. A beam­ing Thai man, Mass Ha­ji­uma, re­lieves me of my bag and leads me down a gar­den path to bun­ga­low num­ber five. It sits on stilts in the sand, shaded by palms and rub­ber trees and tow­er­ing she-oaks.

Its teak deck has two wicker arm­chairs cush­ioned in red and gold, a small cane ta­ble, and a ham­mock. The beach is ex­actly 33 steps away (I mea­sure it). In­side, the bed is dressed in pretty hibis­cus-print sheets with a pris­tine white mos­quito net over­head. On the wall a sleep­ing Bud­dha hangs above an ori­en­tal cabi­net and my per­sonal ewer, which I fill with cool drink­ing wa­ter from the restau­rant for THB10 (40c). Plas­tic wa­ter bot­tles are banned. Laun­dry costs THB60 per kilo of clothes. Be­hind the bed­room there is a small hang­ing space, a van­ity and toi­let and a semi-out­doors shower be­neath a canopy of leaves. This is the bun­ga­low I dreamed of.

Over the next few days I ex­plore the is­land on two feet and two wheels, just enough to re­as­sure my­self that Koh Phayam re­ally is as peace­ful as it seems. The busiest beach, Ao Yai (Big Bay), is a broad, post­card-beau­ti­ful cres­cent of sand backed by jun­gle and fronted by gar­den bun­ga­lows, cafes, bars and a surf­board-hire shack. Ev­ery 15 sec­onds or so an­other per­fect blue roller breaks and washes the shore with snow-white foam.

When I visit there is a grand to­tal of 12 bathers in the sea, in­clud­ing one surfer and two stand-up pad­dle-board­ers, on a beach that extends for 2km, and one ex­hausted puppy snooz­ing on the sand. Vors­sel­mans tells me it was the Ger­man travel guide au­thor Ste­fan Loose who “dis­cov­ered” the is­land. “He was the Robin­son Cru­soe of Phayam,” he says. Loose listed Koh Phayam in his guide­book’s Top 10 Things To Do In Thai­land (2010), and his com­pa­tri­ots duly came. But not in huge num­bers, not in Novem­ber.

“The big at­trac­tion here is na­ture, and the quiet and the re­lax­ing,” says Vors­sel­mans, who spends most days dressed only in a pair of fish­er­man’s pants, look­ing af­ter busi­ness on his iPad (there is WiFi in PP’s restau­rant). He shows me pho­tos he took two years ago of ot­ters gam­bolling on the beach in front of my bun­ga­low. He hasn’t seen them since but as­sures me there are still many mon­keys in the for­est, dol­phins and dugongs in the sea. And al­ways horn­bills soar­ing over­head, in­stantly iden­ti­fi­able by their ma­jes­tic beaks.

He has built 20 bun­ga­lows here, though you’d never guess there are that many be­cause they are spread out along the shore, among the trees. There are few other places to stay in this part of Phayam.

“This is one of the least de­vel­oped is­lands,” Vors­sel­mans says. “It’s an is­land to chill out.” Which is pre­cisely what I do. On my fi­nal night I lie in the ham­mock read­ing, with a light rain drum­ming the leaves and the faint sound of waves at ebb tide. A black and white dog called Odi, this man’s new best friend, is asleep on the floor. Three days has been great; a week would be even bet­ter. A life­time? I’d con­sider it.

The only thing I find slightly odd about Koh Phayam is that most peo­ple here seem to be around my age or older, which seems a rare thing in the Thai is­land scene. But per­haps, like me, they are chas­ing mem­o­ries from their youth.

Clock­wise from above, a beach on Koh Phayam; boards for rent; the no-frills of­fer­ings of the ‘kids’ club’

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