In Thai, phra thong means golden Buddha, and a legend tells of how a valuable solid gold Buddha image was buried somewhere on the island hundreds of years ago. Any treasure hunters seem to have given up their searches long ago, which isn't surprising given Ko Phra Thong's unforgivingly hot and expansive savannah landscape.
Totally unique not only in Thailand but all of Southeast Asia, visitors to Ko Phra Thong often remark that the landscape looks strikingly similar to the savannahs of Africa, except that it's sand lizards and kingfishers that roam rather than lions and gazelles. Covered in brilliant white sandy dunes with fields of long grasses and peeling trees, the landscape of Ko Phra Thong is indeed fascinating, especially given how different it is from the lush, mountainous terrains of nearby Ko Ra and the mainland. It's also one of the best bird watching destinations in Thailand — Phra Thong is one of the last remaining places on earth to see an endangered lesser adjutant stork in the wild, and there's even a half-domesticated hornbill that likes to hang out with travellers at Seaview's and Mr. Chuoi's restaurants.
While a bicycle or motorbike ride through the savannah is worth an afternoon, the main draw to Ko Phra Thong is clearly its vast stretches of almost entirely undeveloped beach. Even near the handful of resorts towards the island's northern end, visitors can expect to have wide beaches of relatively fine light tan sand all to themselves. If heading north away from Mr. Chuoi's, or south past Golden Buddha Resort, one can walk for several kilometres and be met only by sand crabs. So untouched are the beaches that sea turtles still nest here, and the island has become a base for the Italian non-profit sea turtle conversation project, Naucrates.
The inland landscape and beaches of Ko Phra Thong make it worth the trip, but perhaps the stronger selling point for many is the island's particularly secluded and tranquil atmosphere. Though a handful of friendly locals subsist off fishing and harvesting cashews, there's very little development whatsoever on the island, and the longer one stays the more one feels a sense of separation from the real world. This is a place where time seems to stand still.
With that said, don't expect to be smothered in luxury. While Golden Buddha offers some unique and stylish (and expensive) digs, most of Ko Phra Thong's accommodation is little more than a rustic wood or bamboo hut with cold water and electricity only from about 18:00 to 23:00. If you seek solitude and a truly rustic thatched beach hut experience, you can't do much better than Phra Thong.
Ko Phra Thong is a relatively large island of some 130 square km, and apart from a small fishing village at the southern tip near Ko Kho Khao, all of its villages, resorts, roads and infrastructure are located on the island's northern half. Lions Village, which consists of rows of modern homes on stilts constructed after the December 2004 Tsunami, lies at the islands very northern tip, and there's a pier here, which is where visitors coming from Ko Ra or Saphan Pla pier in Khuraburi (just past the Ko Surin pier) will disembark.
It's possible to stay at a homestay program in Lions Village, but most choose one of the small resorts a few km south, which are connected to Lions Village by a narrow concrete road. There are no proper motorbike taxis and very few cars on Ko Phra Thong, but if arriving at Lions Village without knowing where to stay, visitors will likely find a friendly local to give them a lift by motorbike down the road. Otherwise, expect a long walk with no shade to Mr. Chuoi or Seaview resorts. The better option, perhaps, is to contact one of the resorts before hand, in which case they will pick you up at the pier.
Heading south on the concrete road past the resorts eventually brings you to the charming eastern fishing village of Ta Pae Yoe. Another pier is located here, which sees one local ferry per day (on most days anyway) make the run to a tiny boat launching point deep within Khuraburi's mangrove canals called Bang Det (or "southern pier" or "mangrove pier"). On bicycle expect it to take the better part of a day to explore all the roads between Lions Village and Ta Pae Yoe Village. The entire southern half of the island is navigable only by sandy paths that are largely unsuitable for bicycle or motorbike. When exploring the island by any means of transport don't forget to bring a hat and plenty of water as the sun gets very strong.
Most of the far east side of the island is covered in mangroves while the entire centre consists of savannah. It's possible to walk almost the whole western length of the island along the beaches. Ko Phra Thong is almost entirely flat, which explains the especially severe damage it experienced from the 2004 Tsunami. For a decent view of the island, Monkey Hill near Golden Buddha Resort isn't exactly a high peak, but it is the highest point on the island and makes for good photos of the expansive beaches in either direction.
As for activities, lounging on the beach or in a hammock is a favourite pastime here, but Blue Guru Diving (the island's only dive operation) offers full diving certification programs and day diving trips around Phra Thong and also to Ko Surin, Richileau Rock, and Ko Similan, as well as snorkelling, kayaking, birdwatching and hiking tours around Phra Thong.
Ko Phra Thong is a remote destination. There is a small medical clinic at Ta Pae Yoe Village, but anything serious would require being speed boated back to the mainland.
Golden Buddha is the only place that offers a proper Internet café, which explains why they can charge a whopping 250B per hour. This rate is however negotiable (or often free) if staying there, or if taking advantage of their excellent restaurant. Apart from Golden Buddha, there are a few air cards being kicked around at the cheaper resorts, but generally speaking it's not easy to find a fast connection. We've also been advised Phra Thong Bay Bungalows has internet available for guests. Cell signal does work fine.
There are no banks or ATMs on Ko Phra Thong so be sure to have enough cash for your stay.
While at least one resort claims to stay open year round, expect Ko Phra Thong to feel like an empty ghost island from May to October, and especially during the rainiest months from July to September.
By David Luekens.