Just a few kilometres south of Ko Chang but a world away from its heavy development lies Ko Maak, undoubtedly an overlooked gem in Thailand's crown. Ideal for those who prefer the quiet life, this decidedly rural island has so far escaped the grasp of major developers. Though a sprinkle of tasteful new resorts have appeared in recent years, it appears that Maak will remain a sleepy, family-friendly destination for the foreseeable future.
Ko Maak is blessed with long stretches of palm-fringed white sand that were once listed among the top 10 beaches in the world by the British newspaper, The Sunday Times. At certain times of year, the island's notoriously aggressive sandflies are keen to debunk this award. Should this be the case during your visit, head for the sandfly-free red sand beaches found along the east coast. All around Ko Maak, the calm and shallow water is an obvious draw for families with young children.
As the island's longest beach, north-facing Ao Kao is great for lounging, while the more sheltered Ao Suan Yai offers a romantic sunset setting. The most magnificent cerulean blue water is found at the small and hidden beaches of Ao Phra to the northwest and Laem Son on the remote northeast coast. Incredibly, neither of these sublime spots has been developed with anything more than an old fisherman's house and beach shack serving home-cooked seafood.
Almost the entire island is owned by relatively few descendants of Chao Sua Seng, a Chinese-Thai coconut baron who purchased the island a century ago. Coconuts are still widely grown along with pineapple and cashew nut, but rubber trees now cover most of the interior. According to an expat islander, tourism is little more than a hobby for landowners who reap considerable wealth from vast groves that are passed down through generations.
With such a deep-rooted agricultural tradition, it's no surprise that Ko Maak's landscape is distinct from its larger and more rugged neighbours, Ko Chang and Ko Kut. Red dirt roads ramble over rolling hills and through tiny villages settled by workers who maintain the rubber trees. Though arid in places and generally lacking the exotic feel that comes with thick jungle, Ko Maak is imbued with a relaxing air.
Lazing on the beach is by far the most popular way to pass the time; you won't find elephant camps, snake farms or muay Thai fights on Ko Maak. Some very good snorkelling sites are found off the island's more secluded bays, like Ao Phra, Laem Son and Laem Tookkata, and around the tiny islands that sit like little green moons just off the coast. Scuba divers are also well served by BB Divers, Paradise Divers and Koh Mak Divers. Other activities include cooking classes at Koh Mak Seafood in Ao Nid, windsurfing at Koh Mak Resort and exploring the island by bicycle, motorbike or kayak.
An excellent mix of accommodation is another of Ko Maak's selling points. The island hosts around 30 mostly small resorts that lean towards the intimate and artistic, with several budget to midrange spots offering good value and memorable locations. Many of these places fill up during high season; advanced reservations are a good idea from December to February.
Ko Maak is a seasonal destination; some resorts close while others offer greatly reduced rates from May to October.
Ko Maak is shaped vaguely like a four-pointed star, with the longest beaches and majority of resorts located to the west. The island's three piers are found at Ao Nid, Koh Mak Resort on Ao Suan Yai and Makathanee Resort at the centre of Ao Kao, with nearly all visitors arriving at one of the latter two. If your chosen resort is not on the beach where you land, pick-up truck taxis can take you across the island for 50 baht per person.
Narrow sealed roads connect Ao Suan Yai, Ao Kao and Ao Nid, all of which are home to small villages, restaurants and resorts. Ao Kao is the most developed area, with the largest number of places to stay and eat, but it's still decidedly quiet. Another sealed road cuts some way into the sparsely developed east side, where a somewhat confusing network of dirt roads and sandy tracks diverge to remote resorts and beaches. Ko Maak's gradual inclines and few large vehicles make it a good place to learn how to motorbike.
Dotted around Ko Maak are a handful of tiny satellite islands, close enough to be reached by kayak or even swimming/wading if you're in good shape. The most popular of these is Ko Rayang Nok, a blip of green with some breathtaking beaches and snorkelling to the south of Ao Kao. It hosts one midrange place to stay, Rayang Phurin Resort, if you feel like sticking around.
A longtail boat from Ao Kao pier can take you to Ko Rayang Nok for 100 baht one-way -- just make sure to arrange a time for the driver to pick you up if not spending the night. Upon reaching the island, all visitors must also pay a 100 baht entry fee. Between Ko Rayang Nok and Ko Maak lies Ko Rayang Nai, a rugged and completely undeveloped island with no beaches.
Just north of Ao Suan Yai, tiny Ko Kham once hosted a cheap bungalow joint, but a developer purchased the entire island in 2008 and sent the hippies packing. Some construction has begun on what will reportedly be an exclusive luxury resort, but nothing had been opened by early 2014. Day visitors are charged 100 baht for entry to Ko Kham, which can be reached by longtail boat from Koh Mak Resort pier for 100 baht one-way.
It's a similar situation with Ko Kradad, a slightly larger island off Ko Maak's northeast coast that has only a few private villas on an idyllic beach. Despite the private status of these islands, travellers seem to have few problems kayaking and snorkelling around them. Just don't be surprised if some wealthy-looking Thais appear to shew you away.
At time of writing, there were still no ATMs on Ko Maak. Major foreign currencies can be exchanged at an office near the info centre, just inland from the pier at Ao Suan Yai. This is also where you'll find the post office. The local health centre is located next to the school in Ao Nid, but anything marginally serious would require a trip to Trat.
The police station is located smack in the centre of the island on the road heading northeast from Ao Nid and Ao Kao. Most resorts and restaurants offer free WiFi, and Koh Mak Cottage has a small internet cafe that charges by the minute or hour. Cell service from Thai providers works fine.
By David Luekens.