SuR­RounDeD by no one

Southeast Asia Globe - - Life - Words and pho­tog­ra­phy by graeme green

“W e’re look­ing for a brown colour, like this,” says lo­cal guide Suriya Had­den, pat­ting his hand on a plank of wood. It’s go­ing to be a tough ‘spot’. Even though the summit of White Rock on the Trang is­land of Koh Li­bong is bet­ter known as Du­gong Point, the like­li­hood of see­ing an ac­tual du­gong is far from guar­an­teed. The view­ing plat­form we’re stand­ing on is 150 me­tres above the ocean. From up here, even with binoc­u­lars it’s hard to tell if a dark shape is one of the rare sea cows or just a shadow.

Thai­land’s Trang is­lands are one of the best places in the world to spot the en­dan­gered du­gong, one of 16 pro­tected wildlife species in Thai­land. “There are around 100 du­gong around Li­bong and the Trang is­lands,” says Suriya, who prefers to go by his nick­name Yad, adding that the abun­dance of sea­grass makes this a good place for dugongs to graze.

Swal­lows loop around the lime­stone cliffs. The forested peaks be­hind us on Li­bong were once used by Ja­panese sol­diers as a van­tage point when they oc­cu­pied the is­lands in World War II, Yad in­forms me, mim­ing the ac­tion of sniper fire. We watch and wait – with­out suc­cess.

It’s dif­fi­cult to feel bad, though. Not when the jour­ney up to the summit was so en­joy­able, hik­ing along a cool for­est trail, navigating a maze-like system of caves, pulling our­selves up cliffs on wooden lad­ders, and climb­ing over craggy vol­canic rock. And the view is am­ple re­ward, the plat­form look­ing out across the forested is­land and along the coast of Li­bong, in­clud­ing the mosque and pier at the vil­lage of Na Baan. Across the shin­ing ocean, there are sev­eral more is­lands. “All of th­ese are Trang is­lands,” says Yad, proudly.

Any­where else, a cool hike and an ex­cep­tional view­point such as this would likely be mobbed. Here, there is not a sin­gle other tourist. Such peace, space and an ab­sence of crowds are par for the course in the Trang is­lands. Other Thai is­lands, from Phuket to Koh Tao, can some­times feel over­run with the 30 mil­lion in­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors that

here, there’s not a sin­gle other tourist. such peace, space and an ab­sence of crowds are par for the course in the

trang is­lands

A quest to see Thai­land’s elu­sive du­gong has in­spired many a trip to the Trang is­lands, but it’s the im­pec­ca­ble isolation that en­chants most vis­i­tors to this charm­ing ar­chi­pel­ago

hit Thai­land each year, but, though well known by main­land Thais, only 171,498 for­eign­ers come to the lit­tle­known, sparsely pop­u­lated Trang is­lands. The sprawl of about 44 is­lands off south­ern Thai­land’s largely Mus­lim west coast have a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing like the ‘Thai­land of old’: a clas­sic is­land experience, but with­out boozed-up Full Moon­ers, sleazy girly bars or mar­ket stalls sell­ing Singha T-shirts. The pace is slower; the prices are gen­er­ally lower. There’s a no­table ab­sence of big chain ho­tels and re­sorts. What you do get, in­stead, is plenty of beau­ti­ful beaches, forests and warm, crys­talline ocean to ex­plore. And, some­times, dugongs.

“The Trang is­lands are very quiet, com­pared to Koh Lanta, Phuket or Sa­mui,” lo­cal tour op­er­a­tor Ekkachai Bin­waha tells me on my first morn­ing, as we board a tourist board out to the is­lands from Pak­meng pier. “Phuket is very fa­mous. Krabi has an in­ter­na­tional air­port, so it gets lots of tourists. We have beau­ti­ful is­lands, but peo­ple fo­cus on other places. Many peo­ple don’t know about Trang.”

One rea­son the Trang is­lands are not so fa­mous, he sug­gests, is be­cause the is­lands and main­land coast­line are pro­tected as part of Hat Chao Mai Na­tional Park, mean­ing it’s dif­fi­cult to build ho­tels and re­sorts here and to de­velop tourist in­fra­struc­ture. “Peo­ple come to Trang who are look­ing for a quiet place, peo­ple who don’t like Phuket and crowded places. They’re ex­plor­ers. It’s more ad­ven­tur­ous here.”

It’s easy to see the charm of this southerly re­gion, sailing across the rolling An­daman Sea, pass­ing long­tail fish­ing boats and lime­stone karsts jut­ting out of the wa­ter. We reach one of Trang’s most pop­u­lar day trips, Mo­rakot cave (or Emer­ald cave) on Koh Mook, where steep cliff walls sur­round a small la­goon. “Lo­cal peo­ple come here first for the bird’s nests, which are sold and used for soup,” Ekkachai in­forms me. “They’re very valu­able.” The hid­den cave was also pre­vi­ously used by pi­rates to stash their trea­sure, he claims.

Our boat motors on, stop­ping for snorkelling off Koh Kradan, “the most beau­ti­ful beach in the Trang is­lands”, ac­cord­ing to Ekkachai. It looks as if it can live up to that claim, and the wa­ter above the coral is busy with bright yel­low, blue and sil­ver fish.

When the boat drops me ashore at Koh Hai for the night and the day-trip­pers head back to the main­land, the is­lands truly start to work their magic. The sky and ocean turn slowly pink. Lo­cal men pad­dle out on kayaks to fish. Long­tail boats rest on the shore. Chil­dren play in the warm, shal­low wa­ter. It would be im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore the in­struc­tions on the sign at a lo­cal beach bar: “Kick back, re­lax!”

Time on the is­lands de­vel­ops a rhythm: catch­ing a long­tail each morn­ing from a beach to head out to ex­plore, the ad­ven­ture-filled days end­ing each evening with a small num­ber of lo­cals and tourists gath­er­ing to watch colour­ful, calm­ing Trang sun­sets. For me, the next morn­ing her­alds a re­turn to Koh Mook, meet­ing guide Taord Bang­jak – nick­named Ood – to pick up kayaks from Farang Beach and head out on the choppy seas. “Yes­ter­day had very big waves: boom, boom, boom,” Ood says with a smile. “To­day’s bet­ter.”

Black rocks close to the cliffs are bat­tered by waves as we pad­dle up the west coast of the is­land. Ood knows all the lo­cal boat­men, stop­ping reg­u­larly for

a quick chat, usu­ally com­ing away with a cou­ple of cig­a­rettes. Two hours later, we pad­dle past a line of palm trees on the ap­proach to Koh Mook pier, com­ing in for lunch in the vil­lage where women and girls wear­ing head­scarves and men in white taqiyah (prayer hats) run er­rands on mo­tor­bikes. As we eat spicy prawn curry, one of the daily calls to prayer sounds out across the is­land.

The next morn­ing, the long­tail chugs across to Koh Kradan. The snorkelling boats will not ar­rive for hours. Yad, a dive in­struc­tor as well as a guide, leads our roll off the side of the long­tail and into the wa­ter, de­scend­ing into a land­scape of au­tum­nal fan corals in brown, yel­low, orange and red, and long sea plumes ris­ing up from the ocean floor. A sur­prised st­ingray dis­ap­pears across the sand into the deeper wa­ter. Yad, with his keen eyes, finds a large, ven­omous stone­fish, well cam­ou­flaged against the coral.

The sec­ond dive site is Hin Nok, out in the open ocean. Yad drops the an­chor at the clus­ter of black rocks pok­ing above the sur­face. Around the un­der­wa­ter coral gar­den, there are puffer fish, swarms of ban­ner­fish and clown­fish, an el­e­gant squid and mo­ray eels star­ing out from their homes in the cracks. As with the first dive, there’s not a sin­gle other diver around the site. The quan­tity of marine life down here, though, is re­mark­able. Shoals of yel­low and sil­ver fish are mes­meris­ing as they move along the coral, their num­bers seem­ing to never end. In wa­ters where divers are a rar­ity, it feels like the fish are less skit­tish, too, happy to swim along, close to us. Two puffer fish, for ex­am­ple, come close enough to eye­ball me. “Krabi and Koh Phi Phi, Koh Tao… Places like that are much busier,” Yad says. “This is nor­mal here. Very quiet.”

Koh Li­bong, Trang’s big­gest is­land, is the fi­nal stop. We hire a cou­ple of mo­tor­bikes to ex­plore Li­bong, turn­ing off the smooth main road onto a dirt track, fol­low­ing signs for ‘Point Du­gong’, where an en­joy­able, and tourist-free, as­cent to the summit awaits. With­out see­ing any dugongs from the plat­form, our de­scent be­gins, but Yad is soon ges­tur­ing to the edge of one of the cave’s open­ings over­look­ing the ocean and point­ing to a brown shape far be­low. From so high above, it’s just a speck, not much to get ex­cited about, but it’s a suc­cess­ful sight­ing nonethe­less.

Next comes Na Baan vil­lage, home to a small mosque and nu­mer­ous stilted houses on the wa­ter­front. Along the pier, lo­cal women are shelling fresh crabs over large tubs. We then ride down a nar­row for­est trail to a “se­cret beach” that Yad knows. There are a few fish­ing boats out on the shin­ing wa­ter, but the beach is empty. It’s some­thing you get hap­pily used to here in the Trang is­lands; as beau­ti­ful as this place is, it’s ours alone to en­joy.

Look­out: coastal view from the summit of White Rock, bet­ter known as Du­gong Point, on Koh Li­bong

Lazy days: Long­tail boats rest off the shore at Koh Rok Nok beach in Thai­land’s south­ern Trang is­lands

Re­turn jour­ney: a view of the Thai coast through a long­tail win­dow as the boat comes in to dock af­ter vis­it­ing the Trang is­lands

Insider knowl­edge: lo­cal tour op­er­a­tor Ekkachai Bin­waha shows off the Trang is­lands

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