A place to linger longer
Flashback mission accomplished on a Thai island in the Andaman Sea
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’