Friday, April 22, 2011

Searching for the Perfect Thai Beach

Over seven and a half weeks I visited 23 islands and over a dozen mainland beaches along Thailand's Andaman Coast. My purpose: to update Lonely Planet's Thailand guidebooks. It was of course a pleasure getting to re-visit one of the world's most beautiful regions, but it was also exhausting moving around so fast and often it was disheartening to see how over-run with tourism many places have become. As time went on, the beach of my own personal vacation dreams seemed more and more elusive.

Ko Phi Phi, a strong contender for most stunning island on the planet, is the poster child of my dilemma. The island has been a tourist favorite since the 80s but ironically it was Alex Garland's book The Beach that made it go from busy to spoiled. The film version, starring Leonardo DiCaprio was filmed on Phi Phi and now that site of the mythically quiet strip of perfect white sand in the middle of a national park is descended on daily by hundreds of tourists in uncountable boats. Worse, these tourists toss their cigarette buts and beer cans into the water and are generally loud, drunk, unsmiling and rude to the locals and each other. But if you look over their heads and wear earplugs, the view sure is nice.

The saddest place for me was Ko Lipe that only four and a half years ago (the last time I visited) was still a place where you could find a bamboo shack on the beach for $8, dazzled, conscientious travelers and plenty of empty stretches of beach. Since I was last there, a tourist super highway has been built connecting the two main beaches and every block of beach has a resort built on it. The sea gypsy islanders who were one omnipresent have been cordoned off in a village towards the middle of the island. On the site of my old bamboo bungalows of yesteryear are three concrete resorts. The visitors to Lipe are a cross-section of package tourists and twenty-something flashpackers - a step up from the rowdy sunburned Phi Phi crowd, but degrading quickly just the same.

So when people ask me what beach to go to in Thailand what do I say? Luckily there are still a few places that remain relatively un-crowded but honestly I don't have much hope of them staying that way. Ko Bulone Leh right near Koh Lipe is still mostly owned by locals who run inexpensive bungalows and has beautiful beaches sans rows of beach umbrellas; Ko Jum near Ko Lanta is quiet as can be with long stretches of grey white beach and a lively population of local fisherfolk; Ko Payam near the Myanmar border has seen a lot of development over the past few years but most of it is tucked away in the trees and is locally owned so you hardly notice it's happened - pick between the lively backpacker beach or the quiet and far more beautiful white sand beach to the north.

But it wasn't until the last day of my trip that I found my perfect beach, the place I would actually pay to go to and bring my family. No one has really heard of Ko Phratong and I hope it stays relatively unknown (no, not that many people read my blog). There is no regular transportation and the only resort, The Golden Buddha, is a yoga retreat attracting lovers of peace and quiet. But I wouldn't go to the Golden Buddha. No, I'd go to the totally unknown bamboo thatch huts of a certain motorcycle-riding Thai hippy named Mr Chuio ( Not only are his bungalows tucked slightly inland from an empty white beach with chalky-blue water and two small beach-laden mini-islands a swimmable distance from shore, but Mr Chuoi's place has style. He propagates rare orchids found around Ko Phratong and hangs them around his "resort." The bungalows are decorated with paper flowers and shell mobiles handmade by the man himself. Then there's his bar. The island is home to a few community based tourism projects and a dive club (at the Golden Buddha) and everyone who's looking knows that fun times are to be had at Mt Chuoi's - nothing loud and obnoxious, just fun. The locals like tourists thanks to the community based tourism and there are all sorts of fun projects to get involved in from turtle conservation to fishing. Yup, this is where I'd like to turn up and stay a few weeks. It's the kind of place where you'd know half the people on the island by the time you left. I'm saving up already. It will be in the next Lonely Planet but Ko Phratong with it's lack tacky T-shirt shops, girly bars and transport isn't likely to attract the tourist throngs too soon.


  1. This is really interesting to me as my husband and I haven't been down to this area since before the tsunami. I had heard that about the development on Ko Payam and wondered if it had extended to nearby Ko Chang (the little one, not the one in the Gulf). It was a favourite of ours because the water wasn't clear enough to attract many visitors (and there is nothing to do) so we often had the place virtually to ourselves! We also felt sad in worrying about how the few people living on the beach there fared in the tsunami. Any idea about this area?

    That's sad, too, about the sea gypsies on Ko Lipe. It seems they have been being pushed out for a long time now. Sigh! We'll defintely check out Ko Phratong the next time we are in that part of Thailand though:)

    Marie at

  2. Hi Marie,
    Little Koh Chang (not to be confused with the big one on the Gulf Coast) is still very quiet. There are probably about 15-20 places to stay on the island but they're all spread out and are still of the bamboo or wood shack variety. Actually Little Chang was the only place I went to on this trip that hadn't changed much at all in the 4.5 yrs since I last went. You wouldn't be dissappointed if you went back!

  3. Sounds perfect. It's typical that you find your favourite place on your last day! I'm definitely bookmarking this page for my next visit to Thailand. You really do need a few months to see everything that Thailand has to offer.

  4. For me, a perfect Thai beach has to have snorkeling! I feel the same way about Ko Bulone Leh as you do about Ko Lipe. I would add to your post staying at Paradise Lost on Ko Kradan (beach extra-nice after daytrippers leave; coral is damaged but still good for the region). My other thought about perfect Thai beaches is to check out a few of the national parks - they offer tents for camping. I expect they may attract fewer tourists because of the afore-mentioned tent situation and plan to visit next time. Thoughts? Nora,

  5. I agree Nora but unfortunately the great snorkelling spots seem to be the first to get destroyed by development - few secret spots remain on the Andaman coast at least. That said, you are totally right about the national parks. One of my favorite spots this trip was Koh Turatao (again near Lipe). It has great snorkelling off-shore (you have to pay for a boat or be a very confident swimmer) but also hiking, biking and a glorious cave you can kayak into. National parks keep away the masses by keeping booze against the rules (although some sell beer anyway . . )and also I think people expect the accomadation to be bad (shhh, it's not - Koh Turatao has some of the best deal, nice modern bungalows in the area). No party (although I found friends with guitares and sang on the beach till midnight) but plenty of natural bliss.

  6. Right, Koh Turatao is in my future. Enjoyed your post and the memories it sparked! Nora



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