Cheeseburger In Paradise
The Trat Islands
Koh Chang, Koh Mak, and Koh Kut. The Trat Archipelago is one of Thailand’s best regions to travel in or live as a digital nomad. These islands have stayed relatively protected from the hordes of post-recession tourism due to their location on the opposite side of the Gulf of Thailand from the famous and more mountainous islands in the southern Gulf and the Andaman Sea such as Koh Samui, Koh Tao, Koh Pha Ngan, Phuket, and Koh Phi Phi. Those diverting attractions which are too far from Trat to visit in the average vacation are probably all that saved the Trat Islands, as they are in fact located quite close to Bangkok; just a six hour bus ride away.
It was this proximity that brought me to the Trat Islands. After two weeks in Bangkok, I was ready for something a lot quieter and I had two weeks to kill before I was to meet Emma in Chiang Mai in the far north of Thailand.
Koh Chang is the third biggest island in Thailand after Koh Samui and Phuket. It is almost entirely protected by national park designation, so the interior is heavily forested by jungle. There is a single main road that traces the circumference, though terminates just short of making full circle on the steep southern extremity of the island.
As with almost all of the Thai islands, renting a motorbike is basically the only way to get around Koh Chang as the climate is just too hot and distances too far and hilly to walk or bicycle. This is ideal for me because I enjoy seeing the countryside of a place and being independently mobile.
Despite my concerns around the safety of riding a motorbike in a country that drives on the left side of the road with no insurance, riding the 125cc Honda Click scooters that dominate the rental market proved to be remarkably similar in balance and muscle memory to riding my loaded touring bicycle.
I chose to stay in a budgetary hostel in Lonely Beach, Koh Chang which turned out to be the nicest town and the most happening beach on the island. Westward facing to catch every sunset, Lonely Beach was an excellent balance of social opportunity with lots of bars and fruit shake stands on the sand while not being so full of people to make one feel claustrophobic.
After my first day of scootering around the south-western part of the island, I met a pair of German and French girls who were also interested in riding around to the south-eastern side. The German didn’t even know how to drive a car, so she was to ride with the French girl who’d rented a scooter before. However, when she got on my scooter to re-familiarize herself with the controls before renting her own, it became apparent to us all that she didn’t have the balance and control to carry a passenger. I didn’t like the idea of being liable for another person, but I felt reasonably confident and didn’t want to leave her out of the adventure.
We had a fantastic day riding around the island seeing wild banana trees, monkeys, a bay of sunken fishing trawlers, Chinese Buddhist temples, an abandoned beach reachable only by rough logging track, and hills so steep I couldn’t have ridden a bicycle up them.
After our day of riding, we agreed to wake up early and go watch the sunrise from a viewpoint I had found. When we left our hostel at 5:45 in the morning, the morning was crisp and dry. The interior of Koh Chang is rugged and densely jungled. I was riding in the lead setting a slow and cautious pace, worried about drunk drivers who think they’ve sobered up enough to scooter back to their bungalows.
At some point, I registered that the road surface was looking a bit damp. Having lived in Oregon all my life where the roads are wet for more than half the year, I didn’t think of this as any different. I was wrong. One of the last and steepest hills before the viewpoint winds upwards, then at its crest begins a leftward curve down the other side.
As we came up and over the top, I knew from the last time that I would need to start braking immediately for the curve and steep downhill. However, the moment I touched the rear brake, the wheel slipped and we started to go sideways. I caught it that time and regained some balance, but by then we were accelerating rapidly into the other lane with no way to slow down. I chose to ditch the bike rather than braking again and laying it over on the asphalt, but the road didn’t have any gravel shoulder. The front wheel pitched down and planted itself in the opposite side of the ditch, bucking us both off. The bike spun around, striking my helmet and nearly landing on top of me if not for the jagged edge of the asphalt which caught on the bike’s engine housing.
Once I realized I was still alive, I found my passenger laying in the ditch a dozen feet away. Thankfully, she was mostly uninjured with just a massive purple bruise on her ass where she’d bounced on the edge of the asphalt after being thrown from the seat. At this point we began to wonder why we hadn’t heard the other rider pass us and I hurried back up the hill to find her also climbing out of the ditch just at the start of the corner.
I also found the answer to why we had both crashed. The road was like black ice at 80 degrees Fahrenheit. I’m not sure if it was from the condensation from the jungle, oil residue on the road, or just a bad surface, but it was so slick that it was nearly impossible to walk up without slipping. I wish we had been behind a local, because we later saw a couple going up and down the hill at two miles per hour with their shoes skidding along the ground to stay upright. When I helped Matilde turn her bike around, it was all I could do not to go sliding back down as the drive tire just spun as soon as I gave it enough gas to engage the automatic transmission.
We trundled back to the hostel to lick our wounds, having spent the sunrise trying to explain via google translate to a very friendly but concerned pair of local women that no, we did NOT need an ambulance.
Besides this incident, my time on the Trat islands was idyllic, featuring crystal clear ocean, empty sand beaches, and getting sunburnt even in the shade. Koh Chang and Koh Kut are both large in size, mountainous, and almost completely protected by national park designation.
The third island, Koh Mak will not be on my list of favorite islands. The island is small, very flat, and entirely privatized. This means that there is almost no natural or even second growth jungle left on the island, but instead a near-complete monoculture of rubber tree plantations. Additionally, the small number of beaches on the island have all been snapped up by expensive resorts and most limit beach access to customers only.
After another few days in Bangkok to do some Christmas shopping, hang out with a couple of friends from my previous visit, and get some medical testing done, I took the bus north to the capital of one of three kingdoms which once made up what we now call Thailand: Sukhothai. The new town of Sukhothai is like a miniature version of Bangkok without the modern architecture; grungy food markets and sweaty shops surround a turgid, half dry river. Walking across the bridge, I saw a man wading around among the trash and feces and oil slicks with an old tire around his torso, setting out fishing nets.
On the skirts of this nest are cleaner and simpler agricultural villages. I spent a day with my rented Scoopy scooter tracing the dirt roads that follow streams and rivers; the arteries of rice farming. Newer houses here are made of modern insulating cinder block, rising up on concrete stilts to clear the water table in the monsoon season. Older houses are often little more than wood and thatch or tin roofed huts on wooden poles. The temperature here is permanently hot and sticky even in the rainy season, so shelter is more important than insulation.
15 kilometers from the new city, the Sukhothai Historical Park contains the ruins of the city that is considered to be the site of the first flowering of Thai culture. Sukhothai began as a Khmer city, but flourished in the 13th century under the Tai ethnicity which emigrated south from China, and now represents the ethnic majority in modern Thailand.
Through corruption, drought, and political instability, the kingdom of Sukhothai became a province of the kingdom of Ayuthaya in 1438 and gradually decayed as its population left for more prosperous locales. Unlike most ancient cities in Europe, the era of the great kingdoms of Siam lies closer to modernity, so most cites were never buried and later excavated but have remained sites of spiritual and cultural significance through the centuries.
Most of what remains today of Sukhothai are temples and foundations of administrative buildings in addition to some of the reservoirs which were part of a complex system of water management for both the city and surrounding farm land. surprisingly, the park was nearly deserted when I visited except for a few groups of schoolchildren on guided tours. It was one of the most peaceful and beautiful places I’ve visited on this trip.
A Slice of Pai
After a couple of nights in Chiang Mai for Emma to recover from her jet lag and to look around the capital of Northern Thailand, we took a minibus to Pai. The three hour ride up a hellishly winding road with a maniacal driver took us through the mountains to a small valley that has become a hugely popular destination for crunchy granola backpackers the world over.
We rented a motorbike and spent a few days exploring the rice farming communities and a large, mountainous national park. The original plan was to rent two scooters, but the rental agency we tried first wouldn’t take drivers who hadn’t ridden before. We decided we’d get one motorbike and then she could practice with that a bit before renting her own. While this sounded great in theory, Emma hasn’t hardly ridden a bicycle in years and doesn’t have a massive abundance of natural coordination. After five or six nerve wracking attempts, she decided that I was the designated driver, at least for this trip.
The town itself is pretty cute with a great street food market in the evenings. It also has the best tea bar I’ve ever seen with live Thai reggae, any kind of tea you could possibly want, and a crowd of seasoned travelers, stoners, and people just diggin’ the groove.
In 2000, Leonardo DiCaprio and whoever was directing him dropped a turd on the world of entertainment with one of the most pointless and plotless movies I’ve ever seen. However, the movie still managed to become moderately popular in large part due to the beautiful scenery featured in it.
Maya Bay, a small beach surrounded by magnificent cliffs and karsts became famous from the exposure of that movie and soon became so swamped by tourists that the government had to shut the site to tourism, but only after most of the aquatic wildlife had been destroyed and the water polluted. This site is just a short boat ride from the party island of Koh Phi Phi. Though we elected not to participate in this second rush, the government had just reopened Maya Bay when we were on Koh Phi Phi.
Equally polluted and over touristed, Koh Phi Phi has a reputation as one of the best places to have a night out in Thailand and it was a logical stop on our route from the Phuket airport to the island of Koh Lanta. We enjoyed one day there with its fire shows and party hostels but one night was enough and we moved along.
Another ferry brought Emma and I to Koh Lanta, one of the most paradisiacal places I’ve been in Thailand. Koh Lanta Yai is connected by bridge to it’s sister island Koh Lanta Noi, though the much more popular Koh Lanta Yai is generally refered to simply as Koh Lanta. The entire western length of Koh Lanta Yai is just one white sand beach after another. Some beaches are backed by a solid wall of beach bars and restaurants, each striving for a slice of the tourist business. However, other beaches are much quieter. The ocean is very flat and clear around Koh Lanta and most of the beaches have at least some area without submerged rocks or coral making them ideal for cycling from lounging to swimming and back again.
I mentioned the plethora of beach bars, but in fact they are part of a larger trend that I’ve seen at almost every stop I’ve made in Thailand outside of Bangkok. The unfortunate situation is that there are far, far more restaurants, bars, and accommodations than there are tourists to fill them even in the peak of the tourist season. It’s almost a daily occurrence for me to be the only person in a given restaurant and I’ve had entire dorm rooms all to myself on several occasions. In Pai, one of the most popular backpacking destinations, the tea bar that I mentioned was the only place we found that seemed like it had enough business to turn a profit. In fact, one Thai man told me that around 90% of Thai restaurants and bars last less than five years before closing or changing hands.
My personal, purely observational theory is that the economy in the touristic parts of Thailand transitioned to tourism services very quickly and so overshot the demand for the industry. The British owner of our hostel on Koh Lanta said that what he’s seen in the four years since he started his business was that when then local neighbors around saw how much business he was getting (as one of the few budget lodgings on the island) they then opened a bar/restaurant in anticipation of getting the same amount of business. Except this was playing out all across the island and the number of choices tourists now have is exponentially higher than it was just five years ago.
On Christmas Day we joined the tenants of our bungalow village hostel for a Christmas barbecue, beer pong, and a party at the aptly named Mushroom Bar on the beach later that night. That hostel group was one of the most fun and sociable that I’ve fallen into here in Thailand due in no small part to the vibe cultivated by our awesome hosts: the chillest British expat in the world and his Danish girlfriend who was visiting on holiday.
For one day’s activity, we decided to make a little road trip and explore Koh Lanta Noi. Our first stop across the bridge was the only stretch of beach on this island. Probably around a mile long, the sand sloped very shallowly into the ocean and was backed by a stand of pine trees. There was no infrastructure on this beach, only a couple of dirt access roads. We saw only two other groups of people along it’s length. The sand above the waterline was littered with trash and debris washed up on it’s journey from the rivers and coasts of the mainland and from the ships and trawlers of the fishing industry.
Perplexingly, many of the roads on Koh Lanta Noi are massively overbuilt. It seems that the government must be pouring money into development in the expectation of a growing population. Near that beach, we saw a huge waste water plant under construction despite the fact that the population of Koh Lanta Noi is a small fraction of the population of Koh Lanta Yai, where the infrastructure is clearly old and in decay. I can’t imagine that they would be planning to pipe the waste from the populous southern region of Koh Lanta Yai all the way across the island and the strait to be processed on Koh Lanta Noi.
We zoomed on down the brand new and empty highway for the North Eastern tip of the island, the sun bright and the air thick with humidity. At the ferry pier to the mainland, the road finally shrank to a size more fitting it’s surroundings and curved to make a loop around the Eastern coast. We passed thousands of acres of dense jungle, punctuated by the occasional crop field, rubber plantation, village, or Thai countryside abodes. There are no tourist services of any kind on this island, only Thai villages. I presume that many locals live here and commute to Koh Lanta Yai but even so, the vast majority of the interior is uninhabited.
This is one of my favorite ways to experience a country: to move through the land at my own pace and stop at every whim. On the far Eastern side of the island, we pulled up at a concrete pier that ran out into the ocean with a little village at its base. Walking over the blue-green sea, we watched schools of bait fish leaping in coordinated frenzy in flight from some unseen predator. At the end of the concrete a dozen locals tended fishing lines, their skin covered by layers of cloth the shield them from the midday heat. In a stunning panorama, small and rocky islands jutted from the sea in every direction. Pristine beaches backed by vertical walls of stone beckoned from across the water; perfect in their unreachable isolation.