We are impressed by the efficiency of the taxi rank at Don Muang Airport. There is a system of parallel queuing and after about five minutes we are given a ticket and ushered to a cab. The only slight problem is that our driver doesn’t know where our hotel is in spite of being given written directions in Thai. However, thanks to the miracle of the mobile phone, all becomes clear and we are soon ensconced in the Praya Palazzo Hotel, which is billed as a boutique converted 19th century palace. Nice place, if a little quirky.
After scaling the dizzy heights of Wat Arun – whatever you do, don’t look down – we take a long-tailed boat tour of the klongs. We pass through a lock at impressive speed, much to the terror of the French couple that we generously allow to sit in the front. No sooner have we all settled down than our driver yells out ‘crocodile!’ and sure enough there is one basking on the nearby bank. However, once we pick ourselves off the floor and peer over the side, we can see that it’s a kind of monitor lizard, albeit of a size you would not want to encounter when out for a swim.
Nice to sample the pleasures of big city life again!
We walk round the northern end of the island. There are no villages here, just rubber plantations, hills and the coastline from which a good concrete road has been carved out. And there are no cars on the island, so it is beautifully quiet.
Making latex sheets from the white sap of rubber trees is a cottage industry. We watch a couple work on deep trays full of jelly-like goo, kneading it with hands and feet until it is transformed into flat sheets about a centimetre thick. They lubricate them with a detergent-like liquid, stack them up, then feed each sheet through a mangle in a process that closely resembles pasta making. The finished sheets emerge from a second mangle that leaves a pattern of criss-cross lines on them and a number identifying their origin.
Tourism is not the be-all and end-all on Koh Sukorn. Rubber and fishing are just as important. The beach we come to at the furthest point of our walk is as lovely as any we have seen, but it is completely deserted and a few derelict cabins at the far end suggest a venture that the tsunami put paid to and has not been taken up again since.
Koh Sukorn is a quiet place, off the beaten track of Thai tourism. Sukorn Beach Bungalows is a slightly shabby, but comfortable and well run resort, attracting a disproportionate number of Germans in their mature years. Although not German, we fit in just fine.
But all is about to change! The old place may even be swept away – not by a tsunami, I hasten to add, but by ‘progress’.
The Dutch / Thai owners have sold up and it has been bought by a Trang-based company that has big plans to turn it into a much larger scale resort. There is talk that the bungalows will be knocked down. Already a substantial development of new green-roofed chalets has appeared next door.
It’s not that the old buildings are particularly beautiful. The restaurant could certainly do with some improvement. But the place has about it a civilised ethos and a friendly lived-in feel that the row of new jet skis just down the beach definitely jeopardise!
Yet another unspoilt corner is about to disappear for ever.
The prawns were landed before dawn in Hodeidah, piled into the back of a Toyota pickup, covered with ice and sacking and then driven hell for leather up to the market in Sana’a, where we would buy them straight off the back of the truck by the kilo. No sooner had we got them home than we cooked them just as they were, then deveined them, bagged them in small batches and froze them. This was our Friday picnic fare, along with prawn cocktail sauce and crisp khubz. With friends, we would set off for one of the many extraordinary places to visit within a day’s drive of town: Job’s Tomb, Kawkaban, Umm Layla. Or further away: Sheharah, Marib. The prawns went straight from the freezer into our cold box. We would usually eat them at the top of a mountain – because that is where many of Yemen’s most extraordinary sites are. Even after the hot climb, they had not fully thawed, so we had to leave them in the sun for a few minutes before we could start eating! You have to understand these were big Red Sea prawns! Also that this was a time of innocence more than a decade before 9/11.
The cold I caught on the flight to Dubai, courtesy of the coughs and splutters of the woman next to me, developed into something like flu. I sweated and took Panadol, which blessedly broke the fever and today I am ready to do something more than lounge.
The sea is still too rough for the four islands boat trip we want to do, so we decide to walk across the island to Paradise Beach. The map shows a path going straight up from the main beach, over the ridge running the length of the island from north to south and then curling down to the sea again to the north.
Koh Ngai is a classic desert island with no permanent inhabitants. The main beach faces east and is lined by a mid-range resorts, including ours, the delightful CoCo Cottage. The prevailing wind, which is doing its share of prevailing, comes from the east, so we hope that the north-facing Paradise Beach will be sheltered.
The interior of the island is pretty much impenetrable jungle with a preponderance of coconut palms. There is a whiff of adventure in the air!
The path leads straight through a resort and steeply up the hill towards the island’s mobile phone mast. As soon as we leave the beach, the jungle closes in on us and all is shade and quiet.
Actually, not completely quiet.
The path is narrow but we catch sight of birds in the treetops. They are quite large and call raucously to each other. They seem to have little fear of us and we realise that we are looking at a pair of toucans. Even if the beach is a disappointment, the day will have been worthwhile!
In fact, the beach lives up to its name: a perfect crescent of golden sand fringed by coconut palms leading down to turquoise blue water. It is not, however, undiscovered. Tourists arrive in a succession of long-tailed launches, ten of which are moored by the time we go into the water.
Paradise is not a place, but a state of mind. After our second swim, the wind gets up and whips the sand into our faces. We retreat into the tranquillity of the jungle.
Trang is our stepping off point for a couple of weeks of desert islands without discs (strictly mp3).
We pass through a lush, hilly landscape of rubber and palm oil plantations, arriving abruptly at the sea at Pak Meng. Boats for the Trang islands leave from Pak Meng Pier, which is pretty much just that apart from a small fishing village and a broad sweep of casuarina lined beach. The pier is shielded by a spectacular bay of limestone carsts overlooking turquoise clear water.
We wait under cover at the end of the pier while our boat and a selection of long-tailed launches are loaded with all the provisions that tourists need to survive on a desert island – namely, lots of beer and loo rolls. We set off about an hour after the scheduled time and power our way rapidly to Koh Ngai.
What we discover and what we have not been told is that there is no jetty anywhere near our hotel nor are there any roads on the island to connect it with the one concrete pier a mile or so down the coast. We suddenly find ourselves doing an exciting open water transfer to a long-tailed launch which takes us to within 150 metres of the shore. It dawns on us that we have to wade the rest of the way in. Hotel staff helpfully carry our bags and we gamely descend a step ladder into thigh-deep water. Thanking my lucky stars that I am not wearing long trousers, I wade crotch-deep for what seems like a long time. This is because the sandy bottom is not just sand, but is liberally strewn with rocks and crushed coral. Beach sandals are what is required and mine are well ahead of me in my bag!
I bring up the rear in our slow wade and take the opportunity to take a few snaps on my mobile in the hope that I look nonchalant rather than challenged. On arrival, all is pampering and cold face towels. We settle in to the sybaritic life!