Photo: Learning nothing at School Beach.


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Palms sway as school kids laugh and play on a beachside field. Travellers swing in hammocks and stroll on flower-draped paths to the next languid bay. Away from the problems that blight more popular Thai islands, the serene environment on Ko Bulon Lae is likely here to stay.

Breaking from Thailand’s tendency to exploit beautiful islands for maximum profits, Bulon is a model for sustainable tourism. Solar panels provide clean power. Notably well-done info boards explain the cultural and natural background. Local families run nearly every resort and you won’t find the jaded, greedy attitudes that are so common on more popular islands. Focusing on fishing and rubber tapping, the charming Chao Lae (“Sea People”) keep the beaches tidy, offering a smile or “hello” to passing travellers.

Languid School Beach. Photo taken in or around Ko Bulon Lae, Thailand by David Luekens.

Languid School Beach. Photo: David Luekens

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 and air-con, with the rest switching on electricity only in the evenings. Most accommodation is very basic, WiFi is limited, restaurants close early and nightlife consists of a few beers around the smoke of a mosquito coil.

Most travellers are unaware of tiny Bulon’s existence, but those who have discovered it often return for long stays. These include Western families, older couples and introverted backpackers looking to soak up the tranquility while spending as little as 600 baht per day. For couples who enjoy wandering from bay to bay before tucking under a mosquito net to the sound of cicadas after dark, this is about as romantic of an island as you’ll find.

Back to basics at Chao Lae Homestay. Photo taken in or around Ko Bulon Lae, Thailand by David Luekens.

Back to basics at Chao Lae Homestay. Photo: David Luekens

Backed by Bulon’s only school, one terrific stretch of fine khaki sand joins a few rockier bays rimmed by forest. The aquamarine and lapis-blue water stays mostly clear from November to March. Most visitors spend their days lounging beneath the coconut trees, but you could also take a snorkelling trip or browse the sea glass and polished shells that collect along the less-travelled shores.

More so than most Thai islands, Bulon is a highly seasonal destination. Many resorts fill up from mid December through February before closing for the May to October rainy season. The islanders welcome travellers for half of the year, when speedboats connect Bulon to the mainland and a bunch of other islands, but they appreciate their own downtime during the other half.

That's probably a return visitor. Photo taken in or around Ko Bulon Lae, Thailand by David Luekens.

That's probably a return visitor. Photo: David Luekens

If you like the low-key village vibe of Bulon but would prefer a larger island to explore, consider Ko Libong, Ko Sukorn, Ko Muk and Ko Jum.

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Ko Bulon Lae (also spelt Leh, and usually referred to simply as Ko Bulon) is 22 kilometres from Pakbara Pier off the coast of mainland Satun province in far southwestern Thailand. Ko Tarutao is only 10 kilometres further south, while it’s a roughly 40-kilometre ride southwest to busy Ko Lipe.

Putting the sun to good use, in every way. Photo taken in or around Ko Bulon Lae, Thailand by David Luekens.

Putting the sun to good use, in every way. Photo: David Luekens

It takes about 20 minutes to walk from one side of Bulon to the other and you’ll find only a handful of motorbikes joining the goats and chickens. There are no ATMs and WiFi is limited to the pricier resorts, though the 4G signal on our Thai-carrier cell phone was strong. A few shops run out of islanders’ homes sell fresh fruit, drinks and snacks. A serious medical issue will require a boat trip to the mainland, where the nearest hospital is located in the town of La-Ngu. There’s a police bungalow near the school, but you’re unlikely to see an actual police officer here or elsewhere on the island.

Keep an eye out for the monitor lizards, which can grow up to two metres 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 torch along with mosquito repellent—the mozzies can be vicious after a rain.

Not a heavy police presence. Photo taken in or around Ko Bulon Lae, Thailand by David Luekens.

Not a heavy police presence. Photo: David Luekens

All public speedboats arrive just off Bulon’s main beach, which we call School Beach since the only school sits behind the best stretch of sand. It faces south and then bends east at a cluster of casuarina trees next to Bulone Resort. The view from here looks out over the mainland and the sister island of Ko Bulon Don, while mountainous Ko Tarutao and Ko Adang are both visible to the south. The swimming here is great at high tide but rocks make it difficult in front of Bulone Resort at low tide, when you’ll want to swim closer to the school.

Walking inland past the main beach, a sporadically sealed lane lumbers uphill past Marina Resort and then down to Panka Noi Bay. Though rocky and with some mangroves, this is a pretty spot with views to the limestone formations that make up Ko Sam to the east.

Sunset over Panka Yai Bay. Photo taken in or around Ko Bulon Lae, Thailand by David Luekens.

Sunset over Panka Yai Bay. Photo: David Luekens

Continue straight north behind Panka Noi and walk through Chao Lae Homestay to reach west-facing Panka Yai Bay, a secluded beach with grainy sand, sheets of offshore rock and piles of coral, sea glass and shells. Behind Panka Yai, a sign points west to Mango Bay (Ao Mamuang), home to a small squid-fishing community.

Apart from a couple of coastal caves and Sabai Jai Bay, which is reachable only by boat on the south coast, jungle blankets the island’s entire western half. Regarding Bulon’s forest, an info boards says: "Sometimes strange voices can be heard and no one really knows whose those voices are". Rather than try to blaze a trail, you might spend a few hours circling the island in a kayak.

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What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Ko Bulon Lae.
 Read up on where to eat on Ko Bulon Lae.
 Check out our listings of things to do in and around Ko Bulon Lae.
 Read up on how to get to Ko Bulon Lae, or book your transport online with 12Go Asia.
 Do you have travel insurance yet? If not, find out why you need it.
 Planning on riding a scooter in Ko Bulon Lae? Please read this.
 Buy a SIM card for Thailand—pick it up at the airport when you arrive.
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