Kicking a football in the sea breeze, school kids laugh on their beachside field. Local sea gypsies smile at backpackers and families who lounge outside their simple bungalows. Flowers and butterflies abound. Away from the over-development and other problems found on more popular Thai islands, Ko Bulon Lae quietly preserves its rural tranquility.
If that sounds wonderful, well, it truly is. But it takes a special sort of person to appreciate this one-of-a-kind island in the Andaman Sea. Only one resort has 24-hour power, with the rest running generators only in the evenings and often for just a few hours. Most accommodation is very basic, WiFi is limited and nightlife consists of a few beers around the smoke of a mosquito coil.
Most travellers are unaware of tiny Bulon's existence, bypassing it for the far busier beaches of nearby Ko Lipe. Those who do discover it often return year after year, settling in longer each time while feeling at home in their own "secret" paradise. This is an increasingly rare island where you can get away with spending only around 500 baht a day, making it a favourite of budget travellers.
While Bulon is the perfect place for some alone time, it's also a great option for families looking to skip the party crowds without spending loads of cash. For couples who enjoy wandering from bay to bay by day and listening to the sound of cicadas and toads while tucked under a mosquito net at night, this is about as romantic of an island as you'll find.
Surf is not up.
Many other rural, less-travelled islands with villages have lacklustre beaches, but Bulon boasts one lovely stretch of off-white sand along with a few smaller bays that will soothe you to the bone. The aquamarine water is clear and you'll even find some decent snorkelling sites. Sunrises over Ko Tarutao
and the many karst islets look as breathtaking from here as from any five-star resort on Lipe.
Drip, drip, drip.
The fact that speedboats now provide easy access to Bulon from the mainland and several other islands during high season hasn't seemed to change the place at all. No new resorts had appeared during our most recent visit, and development has been modest at those that have been around. Rates at many of the bungalow joints, especially on the north coast, seem to be frozen in time.
Several signs, boards and maps that are now posted around the island provide detailed info on Bulon's cultural and natural background, making it feel like a living museum. This is also one of the cleanest islands with villages that you'll find anywhere in Southeast Asia. The truly charming Chao Lae (literally: Sea People) take pride in their home, and they're happy to share it.
Even the flotsam is cool.
While tourism provides a welcome influx of cash each year from November to April, many of the islanders still subsist on fishing and rubber cultivation. They practice a mix of Islam and an ancient form of spirit worship. It's important to respect them by dressing appropriately -- no skinny-dipping and women should not lounge topless -- and not drinking until you're fall-down drunk. This is definitely not a party island.
Boys and a boat. As busy as it gets.
Keep an eye out for the monitor lizards, which can grow well over a metre long and slink around at the top of the island's food chain. They're not poisonous, but you wouldn't want to step on one either! Do pack a decent torch along with mosquito repellent -- the mozzies can be vicious after a rain.
With all the colour of a working island.
More so than most Thai islands, Bulon is a highly seasonal destination. The few resorts fill up from mid December through February, when it's wise to at least call ahead to reserve a bungalow. On the other hand, nearly all resorts close for the May to October rainy season
. The islanders happily welcome travellers for half of the year, but they appreciate their own downtime during the other half.
Ko Bulon Lae is a tiny island; it takes only around 15 minutes to walk from one side to the other. There are no ATMs or banks of any kind
. WiFi is limited to the pricier resorts, though the 3G signal on our Thai-carrier cell phone was strong. A tiny police bungalow is located near the school, but any serious medical issues will require a boat trip to the mainland. A small minimart is located at Bulone Resort.
Whether coming from Pakbara on the mainland or one of the Andaman Sea islands, all of the public speedboats arrive just off Bulon's main beach, which faces south and then east after bending around a grove of tall casuarina trees and pink beach flowers beside the island's only school.
The view from the main beach looks out over the mainland and the sister island of Ko Bulon Don, home to a small Chao Lae community. Ko Tarutao and Ko Adang
are both visible to the south and southwest. The swimming here is great at high tide but rocks and shallows make it difficult in front of Bulone Resort at low tide, when you're better off heading around the corner to the deeper sea that fronts the schoolyard.
Another day with the hordes beachside.
Walking inland past the main beach and through the Pansand or Bulone resorts, or through the school, a sealed brick-and-cement lane lumbers uphill past Marina Resort to Panka Noi Bay, which can be accessed by walking downhill (east) through Viewpoint Resort. Though rocky and with some mangroves, Panka Noi is a pretty spot with views to the trio of limestone formations that make up Ko Sam to the south.
Back on the sealed lane, continue straight north and you'll cut through Chao Le Homestay to Panka Yai Bay, a secluded beach with grainy sand, clear water and piles of "sea treasures" at the far end. Before reaching Panka Yai, you can follow a sign left (west) to Mango Bay (Ao Mamuang) and walk along a dirt path past Jungle Huts and a small rubber grove before reaching a fishing village at the small and isolated bay itself.
Apart from a couple of coastal caves, the entire western half of the island is blanketed in jungle that locals believe to be inhabited by spirits. The same info board that warns of snakes also claims that "Sometimes strange voices can be heard and no one really knows whose those voices are". Rather than try to blaze a trail through there, you might spend a few hours circling the island in a kayak.
Possibly related discussions on the forum about Ko Bulon Lae