Women in handmade batik skirts crack open roasted cashews. An old man teaches his grandson how to carve a boat. Fresh fish are laid out to dry under a heavy sun, goats and water buffalo grazing in the fields. Across the river from Krabi town but a world away from mass tourism, Ko Klang has preserved the old ways of Southern Thai Muslim culture.
Ko Klang is a flat, 26 square-kilometre-island surrounded by rivers, canals, mangrove forest and the Andaman Sea to the south. Part of the larger Khlong Prasong district, the name means “Middle Island” thanks to two wide estuaries on either side. To the east flows the Krabi River, which can be crossed by a five-minute ferry hop from Krabi town.
Most visitors arrive in the northwest, at Tha-Lay pier, in the largest of Ko Klang’s three villages. A stripe of white concrete shoots inland and then cuts south along the coastline, ending at Laem Kham in the far southeast. No cars are allowed on the island but there are quite a few motorbikes, with or without sidecars.
Ko Klang is home to nearly 5,000 residents, with a rural landscape that makes this figure hard to believe. Much of the interior is blanketed in rice fields, many sewn with khao sang yod, a prized organic purple grain grown in a mix of fresh and salt waters. We were told that Ko Klang and Phattalung are the only places where it’s cultivated.
Side lanes diverge to small clusters of houses, tiny schools and several mosques. Nearly all of the locals are devout Muslims, and Islam’s traditional moral guidelines have not been relaxed here — including for travellers. Signs posted throughout the island make this perfectly clear. Calm, quiet, traditional, Ko Klang is the antithesis of nearby touristic party spots like Ao Nang and Ko Phi Phi.
The island is a prime birdwatching destination, with graceful herons and sea eagles continually swooping over the fields, mudflats and mangroves. If you’re lucky, you might also spot a rare Chinese egret. Far less effort is required to glimpse one of the red-headed bulbuls that, as in much of Southern Thailand, are prized for their melodic songs and entered into hugely popular bird-singing competitions.
Ko Klang’s early residents are said to have invented the hua tong, a hardwood banana-shaped type of boat now better known as rua hang yao, or “longtail boat.” These sturdy vessels have long been an integral part of the Thai Andaman Sea’s character — and many a traveller’s photo. An island workshop crafts model-size versions that can be purchased as souvenirs. Other local products include colourful batik fabrics that can also be bought direct from the craftspeople.
Going hand-in-hand with the boats, of course, is a deeply ingrained fishing lifestyle. All along the sea coast, nets are tied to protruding wooden posts lined up in V-shapes, with traps at the inner ends to catch shallow-water fish. At low tide, the locals sludge through the silt to snatch any of 30 different types of shellfish.
Along the main lane, women sit under thatch-roof huts to sell sun-dried fish along with a range of other snacks. We stumbled on some delicious khanom jak, a mix of rice flour and coconut placed in long coconut husks and grilled to a crispy brown. You also might come across sarim (mung bean “noodles” in icy coconut milk) and khao tom mut (rice flour and banana or other fillings steamed in banana leaf).
For a proper meal, a string of restaurants along the northern canal raise their own fish right next to the floating dining rooms. At Baan Ma-Ying, we enjoyed a very satisfying and reasonably priced meal of plump raw oysters with chilli sauce and squid sauteed with garlic and peppercorns. The dining atmosphere is serene, with a view to mangroves and local fishermen docking at their stilted homes.
Nearly the entire southern coast is rimmed by a broad and coarse tan-sand beach that’s always empty save the shellfish hunters. Bamboo walls have been built along much of the seafront, presumably to protect the flat land against another tsunami. While the beach is worth visiting for the solitude, the squishy offshore silt and shallow water make it not so inviting for a swim.
On the opposite side of the island and stretching inland for many kilometres, the mangrove forests offer their own haunting allure. Kayaks can be rented near the fish-farm restaurants and longtail boats arranged at the pier or in Krabi town, for a cruise alongside the arm-like roots and bushy lime-green leaves.
Most visit Ko Klang as a day trip from Krabi town, but a few accommodation options are available. The only proper resort is Islanda Eco Village, an unexpectedly luxurious spot overlooking the beach in the island’s far southeastern corner. Along with cushy air-con villas that start at 2,500 baht a night in high season, the resort offers an attractive swimming pool, restaurant and the only bar on Ko Klang.
Further up the coast is Khlong Lu Homestay and its small collection of bungalows that appear basic (the owner was out and we weren’t able to look inside). The stilted rooms are set on a sandy patch with direct sea views, kayaks are available and a local housekeeper fixes meals in an open-air pavilion. Other basic homestays are found closer to the pier — call the local tourism folks at T: (075) 621 596 for more info, or ask the sidecar motorbike taxi drivers.
Visitors can bring a motorbike or bicycle across on the ferry, or pay 300 baht for a readily available sidecar motorbike to tour you around. We saw no bicycle rental on the island. You can also hire a longtail boat at either of the nearest piers in Krabi town to cruise you through the mangroves and stop at one of the floating restaurants for around 500 baht. This can be combined with a trip to see the impressive cave at Khao Kanab Nam.
To reach Ko Klang from Krabi town, head south along the riverside promenade for a few hundred metres from Chao Fah pier and look for a small floating pier just past the marina in Thara Park. Boats run continually throughout the day and cost 20 baht per person, plus an extra 10 baht for a motorbike. From here or Chao Fah pier, you can also pay 50 baht for a private crossing.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.