Apr 25 2012
Straddling Thailand‘s west coast near the town of Khuraburi, the relatively large but little known island of Ko Phra Thong – or Golden Buddha Island — is wide, flat and desolate. It’s no wonder people gave up searching for a solid gold Buddha image that was supposedly buried here centuries ago. At first glance there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot to draw travellers here, but many come back again and again, and it’s easy to see why. It’s something of a secret, secluded place; a genuine escape from the material world with a unique landscape and intoxicating atmosphere.
Ko Phra Thong’s inland landscape is indeed flat and barren, but it’s distinctive in that it’s categorised as desert-like savannah. Many travellers remark that it looks and feels strikingly similar to the savannah plains of Africa, minus the lions, gazelles and giraffes. Given the fact that most of the rest of Phang Nga province (and southern Thailand for that matter) is lush, wet and mountainous, Phra Thong’s expansive grasslands and dry, sandy dunes come as a somewhat baffling surprise.
For me, it was a welcome surprise. I’ve had some memorable experiences trekking in the rugged, mountainous jungles of Ko Tarutao, Ko Adang, and Phra Thong’s neighbour, Ko Ra, but I’ve always been partial to rolling plains and dry, desert like landscapes. I find there’s something about the hot, raw, expansive feel of such places that make it easy to reflect on the world as a whole, and my place within it.
During a recent cycle around Phra Thong, I took a seat at midday on a deserted sand dune and did nothing but watch the sand lizards roam for a while. I forgot the “real” world in all its seriousness and clamour. My petty worries sunk below the surface of the horizon. Any sense of “self” quickly diminished. Only solitude — land, sky, body and mind — remained. When I hopped back on the bike some 20 minutes later, I felt cleansed and utterly alive.
Whether it’s to look deeper into one’s self or relish life with a friend or loved one, it’s that sense of solitude that brings many back to Ko Phra Thong every year. The other travellers I met on Phra Thong were thoughtful, creative and often spiritually inclined or non-conformist in their attitudes and beliefs. If you’re looking for expensive spa treatments and tidy waiters bringing you drinks by the pool, look elsewhere, but if you want to get away from exactly that type of materialistic tourism, Ko Phra Thong may very well be for you.
Far from being an after thought, Ko Phra Thong also happens to boast some 17 kilometres of wide, almost totally undeveloped beaches spanning the entire length of its west coast. Speaking of solitude, how does walking on a beach for hours and not seeing so much as a single human-made structure (let alone another actual human) sound? So untouched are Phra Thong’s beaches that they’re one of the few places in Thailand where sea turtles still regularly nest, and the endangered lesser adjutant stork may still be found here in all its glory.
It’s true that Phra Thong’s waters do lack that typical tropical emerald-turquoise colour, but the island’s beaches are pristine in their own right, and the water still makes for some good swimming. A lone dive operation on Ko Phra Thong — Blue Guru — is known for introducing divers to lesser-known dive sites in the area. Also, don’t miss the charming fishing village of Ta Pae Yoe on the island’s east coast facing the mainland for a glimpse of traditional Thai island life.
As for accommodation, Phra Thong’s handful of resorts run generators only between 17:00 and 23:00 and/or run on solar power, so don’t expect hot water showers and air-con here. Most of the huts on Phra Thong are cheap (500 to 750 baht in high season) and about as spartan as it gets.
While the newer Seaview and Phra Thong Bay resorts both offer rustic cottages that are slightly more comfortable, Mr Chuoi Hut & Bar is still the most popular spot for budget travellers. Bungalows here are fully thatched — walls and all — and Mr Chuoi is something of a character who enjoys chatting it up with his guests. Aside from serving some delicious authentic Thai food, his restaurant has become something of a meeting ground (and party spot) on the island.
If you have cash to spend and are looking for a more comfortable but still very unique experience, check out Golden Buddha Beach Resort. Spread over a large swath of land, the resort feels like a secret island community — and that’s because it is one. Each beach house is different from the next and all are owned by individuals and families from around the globe who enjoy their vacation homes for short stays and rent them out through the resort while they’re gone. They’re not cheap — expect to pay between 3,500 and 13,500 baht per night depending on the house you want — but the resort is environmentally conscious and offers not only comfort but also a great location and plenty of character and style.
Adding to its somewhat mysterious allure, there is no standard means of transport to get to Ko Phra Thong. You’ll first need to get to the town of Khuraburi, from where it’s best to contact your resort of choice (or have a travel company in Khuraburi contact them for you), and ask them for suggestions on how to get you there. While it is possible to charter a boat privately from Saphan Pla pier about seven kilometres north of Khuraburi or Bang Det boat launch (aka “southern pier” or “mangrove pier”) to the west, if you arrive unannounced you might be forced to walk several kilometres to any of the resorts, or try to bug one of the locals into taking you there by motorbike.
Also, be warned that while there are a couple of local boat options, which run between 300 and 400 baht for a one-way trip and typically leave from Bang Det in the early morning, the locals often tell tourists that there’s only one way to go: pay 1,000 baht for a one-way private longtail. This is generally not the case, but it’s best to tell them you want to take the local ferry or banana boat so they know that you are in the know.
Note too, that while Seaview and Mr Chuoi say they’ll be open for low season, Golden Buddha, Phra Thong Bay, and Blue Guru Diving shut down from May 1 to November 1.
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