Delightful Thai Beach Resorts 4b – Trang Province Islands
The long tail boat from Had Yao on the mainland (see previous article) to Ko Libong takes about 20 minutes. In Had Yao village, you wait until 15 passengers pile up and then pay 80 baht for the transport. But on this early Saturday morning no-one else wants to travel. Finally I have to get a boat for me alone, which is charged at a set 370 baht.
Over at Ko Libong, I have to hire a motorcycle taxi to get to the west coast with its resorts. The ten kilometers over bouncing dirt roads are charged at a set 80 baht.
The motorcycle guy does a first stop at a tiny garage to get more air into his rear tyre. It's not so easy to hold the bag in my arms. Zooming across the hilly isle, I notice that the houses here look decidedly more prosperous than family homes back on the mainland. We see lots of rubber plantations and rubber sheets hang out to dry. They are obviously responsible for the wealth of the 3000 Libongsters.
And something else springs to mind: My motosai driver smiles and greets all the time, and I get smiles and greetings too. Even though Farangs are not new to Libong, the Muslim islanders are a friendly and welcoming bunch. I feel much better here than on Trang's mainland coast between Had Yao and Pak Meng.
Nature Beach Resort
At the Nature Beach Resort, I get my prepaid beachfront bungalow. For 1000 baht per night without breakfast, it's brick-built with cold water only, but hey, it sports a decent functioning flushing toilet. The glass windows have separate mosquito screens giving me a breeze and ocean sound at night. Another nice detail: You can hang the window curtains half high – so views get blocked, but you still enjoy a breeze and daylight in the room. Several hours have no electricity.
For the first two nights I am the only customer and Dr. Laurence is away on the mainland. So it's Thai only with the staff, but we get along. As several items from the Thai-English dinner menu are not available, a bit of Thai helps to get me at least the best of what's actually in store. Actually I suspect one kitchen lady has some English on hand, but after she discovers my micro Thai she folds down her English.
The Nature Resorts in Had Yao and on Ko Libong want to be environment friendly, non-profit and educate local chao ley ("sea gypsy") people for tourist business and anything sustainable. The prices for food and laundry are decidedly high, but then your chicken curry's based on free range animals. One time by accident I order "fried toast" and, guessing from the aroma, the toast gets done in a fish frying pan. Only when Dr. Laurence returns from the mainland, the restaurant TV does not show screaming horror movies at dinner time.
My eco friendly bathroom is semi open-air so one afternoon I am welcomed by a palm sized black monster spider which would make a healthy dinner over in Cambodia. I ask Nature Resort's kitchen ladies to take over. They grin somewhat, then one grabs a floor brush and walks into my bathroom. There I hear her talking for a while, after which the brush is heard put to use ten times.
One time when it is turned *off*, the bedside lamp gives me a serious electrical stroke. Staff are not surprised to hear that from me, actually I suspect that the metal frames of all bedside lamps in the twelve or so bungalows are permanently charged with 220 volts during electricity hours. They take out exactly my lamp and I see it standing in the reception for some days.
On top of the lethal bedside lamp my sink's drain is broken (visible on pic above) so that toothbrush water spills over my feet. When I report to staff, they take immediate action – and move me into the neighboring bungalow. This, of course, comes pre-populated with a brand new palm sized black monster spider which would make a healthy dinner over in Cambodia. I haven't tried the bedside lamp in the new bung.
Meet the People
Next to Nature Resort is a lovely little sand beach. Continue east on that beach, you come to Langkao village, lined up along the water. On the sand, you step over many long tails' tows. In Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia I had staid next to fishing villages, but Langkao here in Thailand immediately shows one striking difference: the beach is *clean*! I don't remember one plastic bag flying around.
From their houses twenty meters inland Muslim villagers smile at me and say "khin khao", eat rice. I am not sure if they want to sell or invite privately. I just nod and smile back. On the sand I am approached by a six year old girl and her younger sister. With the concerned voice of a hospital receptionist, the older girl asks if it would be possible at all to take their picture. Now this is doable indeed and checking the result on LCD the girls make "Khop khun khaaa" like well-trained call center clerks.
A little further on the village beach, they're working on a massive concrete thing. A hotel, I muse, Magic Amari Libong Tropical Dream Resort, Libong's getting Samui'ed. A friendly fisherman tells me it's a tsunami breaker.
Continue on the sand around the corner, and there are two more resorts with bungalows from 700 to 2500 baht. They have actually more customers than Nature, but you don't get mosquito-screened windows there.
While I slurp a lemon juice at Libong Beach Resort, a solo middle-aged backpackeress parks her beer at my table. She's seen I'm alone and need company. She tells me all of her route down Andaman, into Malaysia – Langkawi, Penang, KL – until Singapore, back up the Malaysian east coast, into Thailand where she'll do Samui despite long-harbored reservations, then back to Bangkok, a great town she thinks, good vibes there, but then for a change! Sri Lanka!
Ko Libong is disappointing, she continues: "The beaches look lovely, but only at high tide. At low tide, it's all rocks, awkward to swim anytime." Actually, she and a few fellow backpackers have chartered a long tail to take them over to Ko Sukorn the next day, where better sand strips await. I am invited to join.
"Ah, thanks", I say. "But I'll stay five or ten more days on Libong".
She looks miffed: "I sensed you travel alone and you need company, I just wanted to be friendly."
"Oh, thanks, but travelling alone is quite ok."
She grabs her beer and walks away.
Around Libong Beach Resort I also meet nice Thai couples from Bangkok. It's always like that: As a tourist in Bangkok itself, I rarely encounter nice like-minded Bangkokians, not even in the Thai-oriented music pubs (only marriage-minded hairdresseresses there). But on second-rate tourist destinations like Doi Angkhang in the north or Ko Libong in the south, it's easy to befriend interesting Thai people who are a pleasure to hang out with.
For one, there's the couple I'd already seen in the horrible Sinchai Chaomai resort on the mainland. Now they moved here to Ko Libong, like me, and we exchange hello again smiles. They do what they did on the mainland – take their pictures in front of picturesque backdrops, they even brought a tripod.
"Here it's beautiful", we agree.
I say that at Sinchai Chaomai's I wasn't so happy but they won't comment further on that place. All in all they have three days around Trang. They came from Bangkok by train and will go back by train.
The other Bangkok couple – both late twenties – arrived on Air Asia via Had Yai airport. She works for a large real estate firm and has a total of two holiday weeks per year. He is a PC engineer and his company gives him one week leave per year.
"But", says the lady, "We can never take a whole week of holidays at one time." So they will only stay three days around Trang and during that time have to do a family visit on the mainland. I sense they'd prefer to skip the family visit, but they won't comment further on that.
They ask about my plans and I say I might stay another five or ten days on Libong.
"Hopefully next year we can also complete our tour of Trang’s islands", smiles the Thai lady.
They had had very short trips to France and China too. About France they talk in polite neutrality, while China is openly dismissed.
About Ko Libong the Thai lady says: "Did you notice that too? When we came here to the Libong west coast by road transport, our driver smiled and greeted all the time, and we got smiles and greets too. The islanders here are so friendly and welcoming!"
The Thai guy fishes in his seafood noodle soup, looks over the gently slapping Andaman Sea and lights another smoke.
"Thailand is best", he grins.
Back I walk straight through the Muslim fishing village on a sand crusted dirt trail that's occasionally patched by concrete. I receive a lot of friendly, open looks. I settle at a stall for a coconut juice and get served by head-scarfed Muslim schoolgirls who are not at all shy. Again, the houses look decidedly prosperous, and there is at least one large 7-11-style concrete shop built into the sand.
Back on the village trail towards Nature Resort, a Muslim lady on a motorcycle approaches from the other end. She looks tall and attractive, but wears this tchador headscarf that firmly locks under her chin. About anywhere in provincial Thailand, at the moment we pass each other I would have nodded and smiled and said "sabai-dee mai". But now she here is a Muslim in a remote Muslim fishing village. No offences! So as she just passes me on her Honda on the narrow trail, I'd love to see her face up close – but I stare at a coconut tree instead.
"HELLO-ho", she goes.
The sunset hour approaches, and here on Libong's west coast you'd expect a nice show. But only in season: The sky turns Technicolor, but there's one dull rock out there in the sea, and just around my stay in early December, this rocky islet blocks the sun. To see the sun dip, you'd have to swim around the rock.
Here in Trang, as well as further down south on Lipeh (see next articles), the Lonely Planet guidebooks fail badly (it's the same text in the "Thailand" and "Thailand's islands and beaches" guides). Since good ole' Joe Cummings withdrew, a great writer and Thailand communicator, the LP Thailand slides downhill. Now the Andaman section is done by a lady who calls herself, yes, you read that right, "Becca Blond".
According to the guide book, "Becca Blond" and her co-researching fiancé had "a spectacular time" and "never a dull moment" in southern Thailand. Great I say.
Some of "Becca Blond's" wisdom ("published August 2007"):
– In Had Yao on the Trang mainland, Nature Resort and Sinchai Chaomai are described as equivalent options. But while the first appears very decent, the latter is extremely run-down and unreliable (see previous article).
– On Ko Libong, only the Nature Resort is mentioned. But there are two more mainstream resorts needing coverage, both without the potentially stressful eco overhead and one offering an air-con alternative. (Never good to mention only one business per destination, and Libong has more visitors than Had Yao.)
– On Ko Lipeh's main Pattaya beach, sporting at least a dozen bungalow places, the run-down Pattaya Song resort with its choleric owner is described as a decent option with only two more resorts getting airtime (see next article).
– According to "Becca Blond", Ko Kradan in Trang has only one bungalow resort and "plans (…) for a huge Amari resort". But in December 2007 there were at least three resorts plus the huge Amari visibly spreading over several hills.
Never dull, Becca Bloed. And check page 17, LP Thailand now has another new writer "Virginia Jealous".
Around the Isle
At Nature Resort, the kitchen lady agrees to lend me her motosai for a very steep 300 baht per day, but then islands tend to be more expensive all-round and the bumpy dirt roads won't do her Honda any good. The tank is empty, so in Langkao village I stop at the first rack of gasoline-filled coke bottles. "Which color of gasoline", asks the lady? I have no idea, so she opens the tank and decides I need red.
On the first muddy five kilometers, from the resort over a hill to Nabarn (or Batu) village, I see a large solar power station. Later Dr. Laurence of Nature Resort says that this plant was built with Japanese help; he said it was run so inefficiently that it produces only 20 percent of the electricity needed on the isle. So the rest of the electricity comes from a thundering diesel generator in Nabarn village. There I also spot a looooong pier, a mosque and an impressive school compound.
On a muddy side road in Nabarn village, a few dirty kids would be all too happy if I snap their picture. And who am I to turn their humble wish down.
It's another ten kilometer on dirt road over to Ban Praow on the east coast, where the long tails from the mainland arrive. I sit down at the pier. A few Libongsters wait there until 15 people have piled up so that the long tail can take them to the mainland. Over a Coke from the snack shop, I watch them patiently waiting for over an hour, and nothing much happens. Obviously they will also wait three hours, and nobody considers a charter for just a few people at a higher price per person. I could never be so patient.
I see no trash bin for my Coke can and give it back to the snack shop lady. She throws the can into the sea.
At Nature Resort, they offer six different tours by boat or sandal, all described meticulously on laminated sheets. But these tours are decidedly expensive, especially if you are alone – and there is not one other customer to share the cost.
But I manage to join a long tail daytrip starting from Libong Beach Resort. Our group consists of two French ladies, a Muslim Thai couple, another Muslim Thai man and me plus boatman and his son. Initially there is no talk at all between us.
First we stop near rocky islets to snorkel for the ubiquitous yellow-black kissing fish. Next port of call is Ko Mook island. From the Tigerline boat, I had already seen the beach and the resort there. But now we moor next to a huge, black towering cliff – together with five other tourist boats which have come from as far as Ko Lanta.
We don live vests, jump into the water and swim – right into the cliff. The boatman's son swimming ahead leads us into a pitch black water tunnel. Welcome to Tham Morakot, the famous Emerald Cave. Swimming in front into the deepest hardest heart of darkness, the boat boy holds up a simple yellow torchlight from 7-11, just the model I use for hotel rooms and lightless motosais from Sinchai Chaomai (see previous article). Here in the water tunnel this torch lamp is too weak and obviously it would not be water proof.
Swimming in the pitch black tunnel is slightly scary. If it's not all black, it's all white because occasionally the boat boy holds his 7-11 torch right into my face. I have no idea how deep the water is, I only know that a tsunami right now would be inconvenient. The French ladies look even more scared because they didn't care to don live vests and now don't know how far they have to swim. Finally they cling to the swimming belt the boat boy brought. They look like they haven't read the guide book and have no idea what's ahead: It is actually only eighty meters through the darkness, but also I feel like we spend much more time floating in absolute nowhere land.
Finally – light at the end of the tunnel! The tube opens up and there we are: on an idyllic micro sand beach enclosed from all sides by huge towering cliffs. Just a slice of sky at the far end of the limestone walls. Now this is very special indeed. Narrow as the place is, I still would have liked to bring my camera along. But only later I see that our boatman actually carries a waterproof kayaker’s bag. It would have been ok for a camera transport into the cave – but he never offered to use that bag. (He never spoke one word on the trip.)
Bravely we take to the waters again, the cliff swallows us and we paddle back through pitch black darkness towards the open sea. The water tunnel is only about four meters wide. In the middle of nowhere, an inbound Thai tour groups swims along. They have much better live vests than we, and their guide carries a powerful waterproof torchlight. In Polonaise style, each of the 15 Thais clings to the next live vest in front and they move on like an enormous marine snake, each dorsal vertebra formed by one enchanted Thai holidaymaker. The Thais have a whole lot of fun (sounds like singing in the dark) and we even trade a few jokes across the tour groups. Finally there's light again, the end of the tunnel!
Now that was adventure! Back in the relative safety of our boat, the hard lines between the different group members are broken up. The previously cold French ladies offer their drinking water around and we all feel like survivors of an emergency evacuation.
The lunch break is on Ko Kradan island with its striking soft white sands. In spite of what the Lonely Planet says, this island has a whole string of cheapish bungalow resorts plus of course another huge concrete Amari resort.
The mute boat man points to a grassy patch under the trees – here we'll take in the lunch packs. The grass actually doesn't invite to sit down, but the Thai tourists didn't bring picnic mats. I smile and invite them to my picnic mat, and they happily sit down with me. I learn that the Muslim couple is from Yala, she works as nurse in Yala town's hospital. The single Thai man says he is from "Narathiwat – BOOOM!", referring to the bombings in that south-eastern pocket. The Thais don't finish their lunch pack and feed the rest to the waiting dogs.
We walk back to the boat and look southeast: Black clouds over Ko Libong! Our long tail rides straight into choppy waters and driving rain. Fortunately, the French ladies sit in front and catch most of the cold drops. My picnic mat is put to use again, they happily use it as a rain shield.
The Muslim nurse from Yala sits next to me in the second row, behind the humane French shelter, and shivers badly. This is way too cold for her.
"Nao mai", she asks me? (Cold?)
"Mai nao", I beam: "Yen sabai!" (Not cold, just nicely fresh.)
She shakes her head in disbelief.
For some days at the Nature Resort, it is only me and the Thai-speaking staff. But Dr. Laurence's presence can be felt, because all walls in restaurant and bungalow are plastered with lengthy English /Thai information and warnings.
When Dr. Laurence, the "Resident Manager", finally arrives with some more tourist couples he says to me: "Good you are still here. I worried you might leave because there is no English speaking staff." Now what can be expected from bungalows in the 600 to 1000 baht range? He says: "A whole Swedish group left in a huff, because they missed English speaking staff."
Dr. Laurence says he's a retired medicine teacher from Bangkok's Mahidol University. And he still likes to lecture: At dinner time, he stands in front of the dining tourists and entertains us with anything from herbal medicine to jokes about Khmer men, like it or not. Only when the conversation turns to other aspects, say the prospects of the British lower class, he turns away. Staff call him "ajarn" from down below, and I am sure he wouldn't mind to hear just that from us Farang visitors.
Anyway, he has perfect English so I squeeze him for all I'd like to know about the island, Thai and Thailand. With his staff, Dr. Laurencs speaks Thai so slow and articulated (after long years abroad, he says) that you can easily learn Thai from him and will speak a lot of "rrr" where before was only "l" or nothing at all. I commit a faux-pas and ask him to translate slang Thai from rock songs; Dr. Laurence is not amused. (Sorry, I didn't even know it was slang, that's one of the risks when toying with foreign lingo.) When Dr. Laurence learns that bad son Hans will stray from his care & custody and travel on to Ko Lipeh (next article), he drops malicious comments about that "backpacker party island Ko Lipeh" to other guests.
Whatever you do on Ko Libong, or in Thailand, better ask the Doc first. To learn: All tours should be booked from him, because other operators have no insurance / knowledge / English etc. He strongly advises against renting motorcycles, because in case of accident non-islanders would always be in trouble. He had not been there when I got the motosai from his kitchen lady, but unfortunately I have to hand her back the keys in Dr. Laurence's presence. He fires very unpleased looks.
I hand in a pile of laundry two nights before my well-known departure time. Just minutes before having to leave the island, I get the laundry back – damp and wet. "Yes, the laundry's still wet", says Dr. Laurence, "I've already lectured my chao ley staff about getting their priorities straight." But I have to pay the very high laundry price anyway. (Only 6 hours later on Lipeh, where the then smelly shirts have to be washed again, I discover that my favorite T-shirt got permanent brown stains from this laundry job.)
As I look unamused at my pile of wet and damp laundry, with a day of traveling in the hot sun ahead, there comes solace from the doc: "I told my chao ley staff already: Make sure the laundry is ready for a customer's departure, arrange your priorities. For them, this was a good lesson in tourism business."
I really enjoyed this travelogue. It does however re-enforce to me that the quaint charms that backpackers claim to discover on far flung beaches is a dream I am no longer interested in chasing. Give me a more comfortable room on the mainland any day – and ironically at a cheaper price!