Wake up to the stifling heat under my mosquito net. Flip flops on, eat some fruit and yogurt and watch the small sand crabs sketch temporary patterns in the surf. Towel down, read on the beach. Quick swim, unsuccessfully try to get a shot of the silvery needle-nosed fish with the underwater camera. Walk to the only road for a Thai lunch. Back to the beach. Shower, walk in the surf at sunset. Settle in with a pina colada as the sky above the tilting palms morphs from yellow, to orange, to pink, to purple, and finally a starry sapphire.
This tourist-brochure cliche description is a fairly accurate summary of four days spent on the island Koh Mak in December. After spending 2 years in Southeast Asia, but no time at one of the region’s most popular tourist destinations, the southern Thai islands, I figured it was time to see what all this fuss about sand and sunsets was about.
I spent a very commercial Christmas in Bangkok, where holiday spirit is injected into a country that mostly doesn’t celebrate the holiday, in the form of giant over the top glittering decorations in malls, for cosmopolitan Thai shoppers to take Instagram photos (Bangkok is the most Instagrammed place, really). After we had our fill of the city life, my friend Ilse and I hopped on a bus south, to the seaside city of Trat. We had opted to check out one of the eastern islands on the Cambodian side of Thailand, rather than the most popular and hard-partying islands of the southern peninsula.
Trat was just a stopover on the way to our island of choice, but turned out to be a surprisingly charming little city itself. Many middle-sized Thai cities seem to be the same, and I expected another Udon Thani or Phitsanulok, but Trat had a quaintness to it. In the small area of friendly guesthouses, there were a network of petite thoroughfares, almost remniscent of Europe, with low buildings and roads friendly only for pedestrians and motorbike traffic. As we whiled away the night wandering these routes and reading guidebooks over pineapple fruit shakes in an agreeable restaurant, I almost wished we had more time to hang out in Trat.
But the island was calling, and one choppy and hair-tangling boat ride later, we were lugging our bags onto the dock on Koh Mak. This tiny little plus-sign-shaped island is over-shadowed by its bigger and more famous brother, Koh Chang, which was precisely one reason why we chose it…a small population (only about 400), a small number of tourists, a small island, a massive amount of time for relaxing.
We stayed in a minimalist cabin consisting only of a bed with a mosquito net just a few meters walking from the beach, so most of our time was aptly spent outdoors. The beaches were not crowded at all, and it was easy to stake out a place in the shade of a palm tree for the day. We ate all our meals in and by the beach, got massages on the beach, the sound of the calm surf was the soundtrack to the visit (minus the hours between 9-2 every night when the resort reggae bar’s music went into full swing).
We left the water’s edge for only one afternoon, when we rented a motorbike to drive around the interior of the island for a few hours. Passing through small rubber plantations, and the island’s few villages was interesting, but with a total area of only 16 square kilometers (only about 6 square miles), all roads eventually led back the beach. This biking excursion brought us to the one truly bizarre experience on the island, stumbling upon a strange, surrealist, pornographic statue garden in a local artist’s public backyard. While gingerly walking along the concrete path, gawking at the statues I got a sudden, unpleasant surprise when one began “urinating” on me. Out of nowhere, hot, foul-smelling water (from stagnating in the heat…I assume) began spraying out of the crotch of the nearest statue directly on me. I was lucky enough to have just turned my camera away, but we made a quick exit nonetheless, a bit spooked by the whole concrete garden experience.
Although the naughty sculptures and days spent on the sand were certainly enjoyable, the true highlight of Koh Mak was my first scuba diving trip. One of the original reasons we chose the island was because of its good reputation for snorkeling, but after hearing the dive instructors scoff as we reserved a snorkeling trip, we quickly were convinced to go for the “Discover SCUBA” trip instead. And there was absolutely no comparison. Once I got the hang of breathing underwater (which I feel is less a technical skill than the ability to calm your brain’s natural instinct to panic when underwater too long, unnaturally breathing thin air), we were off to another surreal environment, where we got up close and personal with clownfish, and anemones, and spindly coral. Shifting schools of silvery fish drifted like clouds, and 15 meters down it was hard to tell how far we had actually come from the surface.
(All dive photos are courtesy of dive photographer, Wes Pryor).