Ko Muk doesn't have the best beaches or reefs in Thailand. Nor is it a centre for scuba diving, water sports, nightlife, spa treatments or jungle treks. The Emerald Cave is stunning, but it's only reachable by boat and can easily be accessed from other islands. So what makes Muk special? A pair of fascinating fishing villages survived the 2004 Asian Tsunami to perpetuate a lifestyle in rhythm with the sea.
Muk has supported Muslim fishing communities since long before the sun-bathers arrived. Today, some would say the locals are a bane on tourism due to the garbage sometimes strewn under their stilted houses. There's no doubt that the island is unkempt in places, but the gentle villagers and their boat graveyards are what give Muk its character.
Set on visiting them, we started out from Haad Farang and strolled the sporadically sealed lane that connects one side of the island to the other. Coastal coconut trees tapered into rubber groves that interspersed with patches of jungle over much of the interior. Flowers and butterflies abound.
Passing Coco Lodge and its bamboo huts, we scaled a hill before emerging at Muk's northern fishing village. Smaller, cleaner and prettier than the main village, a small collection of houses are perched on stilts over sand that submerges at high tide. Built from different types of wood, metal, cement, plastic, bamboo and seemingly anything else you can imagine, the interiors blend into porches coloured by potted plants, clothes hung out to dry, bird cages and kitchens with piles of fresh produce.
Most of the women stay in or around the village and keep busy sun-drying fish and chillies, preparing food, hand-washing clothes and collecting coconuts. The wiry men who aren't out fishing or leading boat tours can usually be found building longtail boats out of native hardwoods — or fixing up the old ones.
Heading east towards the pier on Ao Kham, Muk's longest beach, the waterside houses begin to share space with a few tiny islander-owned bungalow joints, like Nurse House, that have popped up in recent years. Traps, nets, buoys and engine parts lie tangled with bits of old boats that might still have some value to someone.
A few more steps and the modest houses are replaced by swanky villas at Sivalai Resort, Muk's largest and priciest place to stay. Though we prefer the small bungalows found elsewhere, Sivalai overlooks a stretch of sand known as The Wing that shoots out towards the mainland in a brilliant flash of white. As with all beaches in Thailand, this is public land that can be freely enjoyed by anyone.
Ao Kham then cuts sharply south towards Muk's larger east-coast village, marked by more old boats and the excellent Sugar's Coffee Shop. After enjoying a sizzling ginger stir-fry with rice and a strong coffee shake, we followed a side-lane that winds through coconut groves and alongside canals before entering the village itself.
When the 2004 Asian Tsunami swept inland at 2.5 metres in height, it devastated the island and its inhabitants. Most of the original coastal homes were washed away, eventually replaced by a varied mix of structures built in rows over a tidal swamp and tied together by raised concrete lanes. Much of the mangrove forest is gone. Ten years on, some of the more rudimentary houses look like they're ready to collapse.
Appearing dirty and impoverished, this “tsunami village” is more densely populated than one would expect on a rural island. Here it's easy to see how that tragic December 26 changed countless lives forever. No tidal wave hit after an 8.7 magnitude earthquake struck off Sumatra in 2012, but Muk's residents didn't take any chances. Sounding the island's warning horns, both villagers and tourists bolted to high ground and remained there for hours.
Visiting Muk's Muslim villages in a Speedo or bikini is very disrespectful, so do bring a sarong if you're not fully dressed. Also keep in mind that people are not tourist attractions; don't walk up to a villager, especially children, and take their picture without asking if it's okay. While the islanders tend to keep to themselves, we've found them to be friendly towards travellers who approach them respectfully and with a smile.
How to get there
It takes 20 to 30 minutes to walk from Haad Farang to Ao Kham without stopping and another 15 to reach the northern village. From here, you can follow a sandy path along the coast that eventually links to the secluded Ao Kuan Beach, just past Koh Muk Resort. If you prefer to pedal, bicycles can be rented in the north-coast village or at Charlie Resort. Motorbike taxis are also readily available on either side of the island.
By David Luekens.
Last updated on 16th March, 2017.
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