I have a place where I can go, where the sound of silence is interrupted only by the buzzing of fish jaws munching on their coral lunch. Following the flow of the water, I pass giant white boulders and seaweed gardens, hovering above mauve coloured coral; bulbous mounds that resemble swollen brains. I get lost in this landscape of undulations and crevices, where, floating above fish homes, I feel like a guest – peering in, uninvited – more than I feel fear. Below me, and as far as I can see, are cities of rock and coral guarded by urchins of hypnotising beauty, with shiny black needles – porcupine pom-poms – protecting pearlescent blue beads.
This underwater world – a pocket of water in the vast Gulf of Thailand – was where I happily spent day after day in the ocean. Staggering sideways from the sea in flippers, I emerged onto an island that was, to me, serenity itself: Koh Mak, a retreat from noise and bustle, and from the mass tourism that has overwhelmed so many Thai islands. For me, it was also a retreat into rare moments of beauty, and into myself, where silence was the sound of the water curling its way up the sand. Each morning, I woke from soothing dreams and, with the smell of salt in my nostrils, walked across a patch of lawn and straight into the sea, a new day ahead of me. As the days went by and the sun imprinted itself on my skin, I began to slip further and further into a state of relaxation I’d never known before. I breathed this island with every breath and fell deeply in love with its calm.
Holiday Beach Resort became our home for ten days, and was easy to fall in love with too. From the moment that Iain and I saw its row of bungalows dotted along the lawn, just across from the sea, each with a hammock hanging from the porch, I sensed that we would stay for longer than we planned. We unlocked the door to our bungalow, stacked our bags in the corner and were in the ocean within minutes, wading in shamelessly turquoise water, watching the sky grow darker as the day drew to a close. We smiled wide smiles at one another and, looking around at how ridiculously perfect it all was, couldn’t help but laugh. After cursory showers on the lawn, we padded across the bungalow’s wooden floors, soon to be scattered with beach sand, and had Chang beers and pad Thai overlooking the ocean, just five or six skips away.
The owner of the resort was a stout Thai man, perpetually jovial and shirtless. He called himself “Pom”, which he had written in inverted commas on the resort’s contact card: Holiday Beach Resort – Enjoy Koh Mak! Private resort experience, with ‘Pom’. The card, with its idiosyncrasies, painted an apt picture of the Holiday Beach Resort experience. ‘Resort’, though, seemed an ostentatious description of such a low-key place. Beach bungalows lined a green lawn, separating them from the sea, and on the far side of the lawn were several tables and chairs, arranged on an outdoor patio with a thatched roof to shelter us from the rainy season’s afternoon downpours. Pom could always be found there, either watching over the day’s proceedings from a hammock, silent and sage-like, or propped up against the bar counter-cum-reception desk, chatting to whoever was so inclined. It depended on the people, he told me, explaining what he’d printed on his card.
“Some people like private,” he said, mentioning a young Australian couple who I’d noticed in the restaurant. “Those guys, they are here for four weeks,” he told me. “The boy, he’s making songs on his guitar every day. In the beginning, the song comes very slowly – he too much noise in the mind,” Pom said, pointing at his head. “But after one week, two week, the song is very good. There no noise here, only the sea – his mind is clear and the song comes very easy.” I’d often seen the girl on her laptop looking up details about travelling by train through Europe; they obviously had onward travel plans. I asked Pom why they had spent so long on Koh Mak. “I don’t know,” he said. “They like private, so I no talk to them.” Though the couple had kept to themselves, Pom seemed to have gained some kind of insight into the frame of mind they were in. And as he watched Koh Mak take hold of them, he saw their tension unravelling.
My own tension was unravelling too – but perhaps not enough for Pom. One evening when Iain and I were having a beer in the restaurant, our conversation turned to Chinese artists and how their formal training affects the art they produce. We were debating our different points of view – perhaps more loudly than I realised – and before long, Pom had approached us. “Don’t fight”, he said softly, placing a joint on the table, before returning to his seat. Unsmiling debates were not part of the mellow Koh Mak experience, it seemed, but soon we were mellower than a pair of sea cucumbers.
Koh Mak was peaceful to a degree that entranced me – and not because I’d just left the bustle of Bangkok. Even Gokarna, perhaps the smallest coastal town I’ve ever visited, had its share of noise – in particular, the incessant horn hooting of the motorbikes and cars that passed through. But Koh Mak’s road was set back from the beach, and there was never more than a passing scooter or two on it anyway. Koh Mak was still something of a secret, and it wasn’t uncommon for its visitors to smugly ask one another, “How did you hear about this place?”.
Two good friends in Shanghai had discovered the island a few months earlier. They described it as a paradise, where you were likely to have the beach to yourself. We took their word for it, and when I thought about Phuket and Phi Phi Island with their year-round hoards, it was hard to believe how few people were actually on Koh Mak. I couldn’t fathom why so many thousands of people want a beach holiday on a coastline crammed with deckchairs, patrolled by armies of hawkers and lined with tacky bars. I began to suspect that they don’t – they are merely attracted to the idea of Phuket. Three and half million other people go there every year – it’s famous. If you book a package holiday to Phuket, other people will have heard of it; they may even know which country it’s in.
Too often, I feel, holidays and overseas trips are about your and other people’s perception of a place – about bragging rights and following the crowd. It’s because of the crowds that Phuket has an airport, and being able to fly directly onto the island is important for people who don’t want to waste precious holiday time travelling – I understand that. But this need for convenience doesn’t stop there; it often goes as far as needing to eat your own country’s national food when you’re on another continent, or to having an Irish pub down the road, with air conditioning and your favourite beer on tap. Unfortunately convenience goes hand in hand with predictability and soullessness, two of the most common marks of mass tourism.
Thailand has been hit by mass tourism like few other countries. Some of the first groups of foreign visitors to arrive were American soldiers, coming to Thailand from Vietnam for ‘Rest and Recuperation’ during the sixties. In 1967, the country received 336,000 foreign visitors, excluding American soldiers. Forty years later, that number had reached 14 million. If a tourist destination has an airport, or can be visited as part of a package, then that is where the hordes will disembark. But convenience is not the only draw. Today Chiangmai, a city with a rich cultural heritage – once the capital of a Northern Thai Kingdom – receives just a third of the number of visitors to Pattaya, the country’s most notorious destination for go-go dancing and underage prostitution, where sex tourism is the major earner.
You can’t buy a package holiday to Koh Mak and you can’t fly there either. While it isn’t featured in many guidebooks or marketed by travel agents, discovering it only requires an online search. It is easily accessible from Bangkok too: Iain and I took a bus from the centre of Bangkok to the coast, about five hours south. We waited for a speedboat for long enough to eat the tastiest prawn pad thai we’d had yet, and have a beer with a Brit who only had a night to spend on Koh Mak.
Neil was in his early forties and well built from years working on oil rigs around the world. He worked offshore for three months at a time, with a month off in between. During that month, his company paid for a flight anywhere he liked, and most often he chose Thailand. His holiday was almost at an end, and he would soon return to an oil rig off the coast of Angola. The very limited time he had on Koh Mak came after making the mistake of going to Koh Samet, the nearest island to Bangkok, which is extremely popular as a weekend getaway for the city’s residents. It is also the island where travel agents often send foreign package tourists who only have a few days to “do Thailand”. Neil lasted four hours. Koh Samet was a muddy dump with a ring of tasteless bars, and he said he couldn’t wait to leave. Unfortunately, that meant backtracking to Bangkok and taking another bus to the coast – to the pier where we were waiting for our speedboat to Koh Mak.
Pom didn’t like mass tourism either, and because he was not another tourist selfishly moaning about their paradise lost, I listened carefully when we discussed its pros and cons. Holiday Beach Resort has the potential to grow and be more profitable. Its twenty or so bungalows are almost always full, but Pom didn’t have a marketing strategy or a website – he wasn’t interested. The growth of Koh Mak’s tourism industry has been steady and organic, making it sustainable. The relatively slow speed of development has also minimised the impact on its environment and some resorts actively promote eco-friendly tourism. Pom said the island’s guesthouse owners don’t want nightclubs and big hotels to come to Koh Mak. The island’s guesthouses are unpretentious, with their own small bar-restaurants, and he hoped it would stay that way.
“I don’t need so much money,” he told me one evening, and shrugged. “I think I have enough.” And he did seem to have enough. His son and daughter, who attended a reputable boarding school on the mainland, were spending their school holiday on the island, playing with Pom’s new iPad. “My daughter, she said ‘Daddy, I need an iPhone.’” He exhaled, enveloping us in a cloud of heady smoke. “She twelve years old. And she say she need iPhone!” He paused, but I waited to hear the rest. “I told her: “‘Daddy can afford iPhone – no problem. I have enough money. But you too young – you don’t need iPhone!’” Her friends at school apparently had iPhones, but Pom wasn’t concerned. “I told her she can have a Nokia. That is enough. Look at my phone – it’s piece of shit, only three hundred baht! Nokia is OK for her.” His point made, he unscrewed the lid of a pungent, local type of Tiger Balm, brought it to his nose and inhaled deeply before offering me some. I inhaled too, remarking at how well it cleared your nasal passages. He gave a chuckle and brought Iain and me another beer.
The next day we met Sandeep, a solicitor from London in his late twenties. He had been in Koh Mak for a few days with his brother, his brother’s wife and their two year old son, but his family had already gone back to Bangkok, where they lived. Now on his own, he decided to move from the slightly more expensive guesthouse next door into Holiday Beach Resort. There were two key things that the three of us had in common: we like snorkelling, and need a fair amount of distraction from work to truly relax. We quickly became friends.
Iain and I had spent the past two days snorkelling off the beach, looking for one of the coral reefs that is part of a national marine park surrounding the island. I had been hesitant at first. The last time I’d been snorkelling was in Kenya with Iain, seven years before. I was stung by a bluebottle and panicked – not knowing what I’d been stung by – imagining it was the large red octopus we’d just seen. I spent the next half hour waiting in the boat from where we had jumped into the middle of the sea. I liked the idea of starting out in the shallows; in Koh Mak I just walked into the sea, snorkel and mask in hand. It appealed far more than being dumped into the depths where you can barely make out the ocean floor. But, after two days with Iain in the water, and a third when Sandeep joined us, I had grown increasingly confident and the three of us decided to go on a boat trip to snorkel in the marine park’s deeper, richer waters.
We climbed aboard a boat captained by a middle-aged German with a deeply tanned beer belly, nurtured – no doubt – over years of heartfelt Chang consumption. He had lived on Koh Mak for the past fifteen years, leading diving trips, and seemed to take pleasure in leading a life that was envied the world over. The boat sped through the clear, aqua water, which sprayed my feet, dangling off the side. The sun prickled my skin, its rays sending energy shooting to the tips of my toes. Sandeep slathered sun cream onto his already burnt neck.
The previous day hadn’t seen the usual afternoon showers, leaving the water clearer than crystal. We dropped anchor at our first diving stop, a few metres’ swim away from a tiny piece of land, jutting out of the sparkling sea. “Take as long as you like,” the German said. He and a friend were dressed in wetsuits and scuba diving gear; they weren’t in any hurry.
The water right beside the boat was spotted with coloured fish, and as I swam away from the boat, they followed beside me, most of them darting ahead, but some keeping pace as before, unperturbed by my presence. As the waters got deeper, so, too, did the colour of the fish. I swam down towards the ocean floor, chasing an angelfish whose bright royal blue fins seemed to gleam through the water. Sandeep spotted a large shoal of needle fish, their silvery blue scales well camouflaged in the water. They moved as if one, with such precision it seemed their long, needle-like noses were being pulled along by a single string. Iain peered between the rocks on the bottom, floating up for breath, and then calling out to Sandeep and me to report his findings. The three of us moved around the circumference of the rocky island, elated, swimming into gullies of worn away white rock, where shoals of tropical fish gathered in bubbly corners.
Time passed strangely; two hours may have gone by, but – equally – we may not have been in the water for that long. We devoured bowls of fried rice on the boat and sped off to another diving spot. The day slipped away, dreamlike, save for a few moments of intense clarity after my foot was pierced by one of the hypnotising black-needled sea urchins, clinging to a rock beneath me.
A car drove us from a pier to the beach on the opposite side of the island and Iain, Sandeep and I gleefully made our way along the sand to a resort with an infinity pool, its waters melting into a horizon that was soon coloured peach. We sipped cold beers in the water, looking out onto the sea – which I felt I was still in – and, faces brimming with smiles, made a toast to an incomparable day, and the good fortune of meeting one another.
Pom was in the restaurant that evening when we stumbled back along the beach, still feeling the rock of the boat. He welcomed us with his contagious smile and, not wanting the day to end, we chatted into the night. Sandeep would leave the next day and, with that, our balance of work and travel would continue. For now, we prolonged our euphoria, and went to bed, rocking happily.
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