Sunday, December 13, 2015

Koh Ngai - island paradise part 1

Low season in Koh Lanta provides few options to transfer to the nearby southern island. So we chose a ‘longtail’ trip, which was actually part of a ‘4 island tour’. Checked out of our lovely Lanta hotel after our super chilled, five nights, we were at reception a few minutes before our pick up arrived. It was basically what us Aussies call a ‘ute’ – cabin with two doors, and a flat bed rear. Turned out there was only one seat left in the vehicle, so poor J ended up sitting in the back on a makeshift bench seat. From Long beach down to the Old Town pier was almost an hour, with another pick up along the way (with that poor couple joining J in the back). Along the way, I enjoyed watching the scenery of the island’s hinterland passing by. Now I regretted not spending time seeing more of Lanta instead of doing a whole lot of nothing on the beach… ah well, now I have another excuse to return.
Arriving at the end of the long pier in the old town, we were joined by other carloads of travellers, most of which were there to do a day trip to the islands. 

While waiting, I had a wonder around to check out the area. The little town had a few guesthouses and stores, but mostly local businesses and residents. Uninspiring grey sand made up the shallow shoreline, and even then there wasn’t much of that. The land seemed to just drop into the sea, leaving a long, flat, exposed shore. Many of the town’s buildings overhung the naked beach on stilts. A long, long pier seemed to stretch out half way to the nearby island off shore. 

A couple of large, longtails finally pulled into the pier’s landing, way up near the end. We all wondered up, dodging motorbikes ferrying supplies and cargo to other boats also preparing to set out. One longtail was loaded with passengers who I think were on another 4-island tour. It was a precarious process. You descended from the pier’s deck via steep concrete steps to step onto the front deck of the longtail that was bobbing with the current, with only the hand of one of the boatmen to try to keep your balance. While waiting my turn, I witnessed one woman slip over as she was moving down the boat’s deck to the seating area, commenting to J that it looked slippery, to which he replied that I better be careful.
Loaded, we set off on our cramped boat. Unluckily, the sea wasn’t smooth so there was a lot of rocking and bumping all the way, complemented by the occasional big splash from the bow.

About forty-five minutes later, we were pulling into shore on Koh Ngai. It took a minute to find the right place to land the boat but we were soon wading to the sandy shore in front of CoCo Beach cottages. Just one look up and down the shore made me feel so happy we had chosen to come. It was gorgeous. Coconut trees overhanging white, sandy shores. What could be more ideal? I knew the only real issue would be having to leave.

Settling in, we were delighted with our cute bungalow, with its unique bathroom basin and outdoor, pipe-hole shower, truly our style of accommodation. Ready for some lunch, we ordered some fired noodles and cold drinks for lunch at the beach-side café, and watched the ocean go by for a while. Bellies satisfied, we relaxed around the resort, wading in the clean water, wandering along the shore, checking out the resort, and simply enjoying the day loungers and swing of the cottage to read and chill.

Out of no-where, from behind the mainland and islands to the south, a huge storm front raced across the sky. From our vantage point, it looked like an ocean of rain was going drop on us. Amused, we watched some of the day-trip boats hurriedly pack up and head back to Lanta or other safe port. The longtail that we arrived on was battling large waves, with the boat rocking dramatically as it made slow progress along the shore and onwards beyond. But alas, the squall slid along Koh Ngai, and not a drop of rain fell on us. The same could not be said to the islands close by. Heading back to the café/bar, we watched the last downpours out to sea with a cool beer in our hand. And this is when one of my biggest regrets of the trip happened… 

The sun came out, shining on the falling rain before us and making one of the most vivid, clear and spectacular rainbows you’ll ever see. It even had a double (or shadow), and arched the full 180 degrees of the sky. With the dark clouds providing the most magnificent contrast as a backdrop, I was memorised (along with all the other visitors and staff), and couldn’t take my eyes of the breath-taking sight. You guessed it, my camera was back in the bungalow, and I didn’t take the few minutes to fetch it. I kicked myself, and more each time I think of how amazing that rainbow was, that I didn’t get a shot of :(
As the late afternoon sun descended behind the small ridge of hills and forest of the island, we walked the 1.5 kilometres all the way to the southern end of the beach. I so loved the deserted island feel. When I had researched this island, I discovered how small and underdeveloped it was, with only a handful of resorts with restaurants as well as beach shacks were dotted along the beach (though I was surprised that there really was quite a few more than I expected). J and I meandered along, enjoying the cooler on-shore breeze as we waded in the shallows as the sun disappeared and the light began to fade.

Dinner was at the resort, and was almost as spectacular as the rainbow. OK. It was simply delicious. The red curry J had was the best he’s ever had, and my stir fry chili veggies was really good too. Encouraged by how delectable the food was, we indulged in some traditional Thai desserts of sago and bananas in sweet coconut milk, which were fantastic too.

One of the things we really enjoyed doing when we were in Vanuatu years ago, when the tide had gone so far out from the sandy shore, was to walk around at night with a torch to check out the night life around the dry rocky shore. So we headed out, hoping to see lots of sea life in the shallow pools left behind by the tide. However, there wasn’t too much to see out there except lots of large crabs (and small ones). The large crabs (I call them painted crabs), about the size of an open hand, came in a huge variety of colours; some green, some blue, a few sandy coloured ones, and even into reddish hues. They hung around little rocky outcrops and were everywhere, forcing us to step very carefully. After a bit of a long day, we were in bed pretty early.

Still not being able to sleep in, coupled with a reasonably early night and hard bed, we were awake around six in the morning again the next day. Breakfast was simple but adequate, with really good coffee (which isn’t common in Thailand, let alone in these far flung places). Having studied the island map, I figured a bit of a jungle walk would allow us to see more of this beautiful place. It didn’t look too far. I mean we regularly walk five kilometres to our local café to breakfast at home…

On with the hiking gear, well, not quite. On with the longer shorts, and sturdier footwear, with a bag-thingy for carrying water, and we were off. To find the path to the other side of the island, you must first walk down to the end of the beach and then find the path between the Fantasy and Thanya resorts that leads up into the hills and the jungle beyond. There was a bit of a steep climb up past the radio tower and onto a crest through thick scrub, but after that initial push, the track slowly came back to sea level. As the track flattens out, the jungle thins out at a coconut grove. Interestingly, the map showed that there was a resort, “Paradise Resort, on the other side. All I can say is don’t book it – yet. The huts were well under construction, but as we walked through, walls and roofs were being built, with no signs of a reception area, let alone bar and restaurant…

The beach was only another minute along, and was gorgeous. Apart from the workers transporting materials and equipment for construction, and the national park headquarters, the beach was completely deserted. Views unfolded to the southern islands, and we could only guess which one was Koh Kradan, our next destination. From our vantage point, they looked so close that you could pretty much swim.

Enjoying the view, and feeling of seclusion with the beach to ourselves, we wandered to the end. A small set of steps led up to the headland where the park headquarters were, along with a few buildings that I guessed housed the park rangers. From the national park sign, there was a great view over the entire southern part of the island and beyond to the mainland. Overhead, small tribes of birds flitted through the thick forest, chirping and chasing each other. Below, legions of hermit crabs explored every crevice around the rocks along the shore, searching for a meal.

After a little meandering around, we made our way back. We had seen another small cove beyond the rocks at the other end of the beach, which we wanted to try to get to. However, at the other end of the beach, there wasn’t any clear path. Not feeling like getting cut up with a bush bash to hack our way through, we decided to give up and head back to the resort.

On the way back, not far along the path back, we encountered a number of other people all heading to the beach we’d just vacated. Talk about great timing, they wouldn’t have the place to themselves the way we had.

Energies depleted, we had lunch as soon as we got back to CoCo Beach. Looking out, we could see the tide was coming in. Though not the sunniest of days, we decided to go for a swim and snorkel. In front of the resort, there was a pontoon way out, past the shallows. We had to go and have a look. Even in the shallows, there was an abundance of fish. It was strange to think that only a few hours ago, the place we were swimming with all these fish was dry land. The tide goes out (and in) well over fifty metres. At the edge was a steep drop off, the sea floor plunging ten metres. That was where the best snorkelling was, with lots of good corals and even more variety of fish. I couldn’t be a hundred percent sure, but I saw something pretty big with a very shark-looking outline quite a few metres down and past the end of the drop off.  Visibility wasn’t great, as the wind had picked up a bit, so there was some sand murky up the waters. Maybe it was a black tip, or grey tip… who knows?

With the visibility degenerating, we headed back to our cute bungalow, to refresh and relax. Towards late afternoon, we took a walk down the beach. Not far along, we found a family of horn-bill birds playing and chasing each other in a big tree and bushes nearby. There must have been more than ten of them, bickering and flying around. A couple sat on the highest branch of the tree, grooming, not participating in the frivolity. I figured they were mum and dad, watching over the rest of the family. After enjoying watching their fun for a while, we continued along in the lovely late afternoon sunshine.

Boats were coming and going all up and down the beach;  day trippers heading back, supplies being brought in from the main land, fishermen bringing their latest catch in to be cooked for dinner. We decided to stop for a beer at Fantasy resort to watch the sun set, as well as some delicious spinach and cheese spring rolls (which were really amazing). We thought about just staying for dinner, but we were feeling a little tired from our long walk plus snorkelling. If I sat any longer, particularly with another beer and food, I just didn’t think I would be able to move! Not only that, I was craving the red curry we had last night back at our resort, and it did not disappoint.

The following day, we had to leave. I hoped that Koh Kradan was as gorgeous as Koh Ngai. After breakfast, we checked out, and wandered back down the beach to the boat pick up point, next to Fantasy resort. Thankfully, the staff helped us with our bags, as it was a kilometre away. We had booked the ferry transfer when we were in Lanta… I just wish I knew about how bad Tigerline was before we had our horrible experience...

 - K 


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  2. Nice blog, KGB - you've been to many of the places that I have been, and I enjoyed reading your views of these places.