3Sixty

3Sixty

Islands in the Sun

Located on the south-western corner of Thailand, the province of Trang is a gateway to some of the Andaman Sea’s most dazzling islands.

Words: Beverly Rodrigues Photography: Adam Lee

I love places with legends and stories, and Trang, like many places of great beauty, has inspired a wealth of these. A famous one tells of a young Chinese girl named Muk who eloped with a Muslim man named Libong. After many years, the couple returned with their child and Muk’s mother begged her daughter to stay. But Muk refused to be parted from Libong. Instead, she boarded a boat with her husband and sailed away, not sparing her distraught mother even a backward glance. Hurt by Muk’s rejection, the mother cursed her daughter.

     No sooner had Muk’s boat set off across the Andaman Sea, a storm began to wreak havoc on the vessel. Ferocious waves tossed the boat about and everyone on board perished. According to local folklore, Muk’s body floated north forming the island of Koh Muk while Libong’s body drifted south, becoming Koh Libong. Muk’s wedding ring, the wood and rope from the boat, as well as the pig and horse on board all transformed into islands, which are now known as Koh Waen (Ring Island), Koh Kradan (Plank Island), Koh Cheuk (Rope Island), Koh Sukorn (Pig Island) and Koh Mha (Horse Island).

     Today, this collection of islands in the Andaman Sea attracts thousands of sun seekers, divers and snorkelers looking for that pristine slice of heaven. Many of the islands come under the protection of the Hat Chao Mai National Park. Having heard tales of their beauty, I couldn’t wait to begin my exploration.

Another beautiful day on Koh Mook

Caving in Koh Muk

First up, my boat anchored off the western coast of Koh Muk to explore its most famous attraction – a sea cave only accessible at low tide. Jumping into the cool water, I didn’t quite know what to expect.

     Inside the cave, it was pitch black. The echoing booms of waves crashing somewhere in its depths made me tighten my grip on the life jacket of the person in front of me. There were some 20 of us in the water, and we formed a conga line, snaking cautiously from the gaping limestone mouth into the cold, inky darkness.

Ja koy is a popular breakfast treat eaten with condensed milk or a sweet concoction called sang gaya

A decommissioned train at the Kantang station transformed into a local library

Koh Cheuk or Rope Island is a great spot for snorkelling

Occasionally the glow of my guide’s torch illuminated the craggy passage, and I caught a glimpse of the magnificent chamber, battered by the passage of water and time. But where sunlight filtered through, magic happened. The water turned an intense shade of green, glowing with an almost otherworldly light. It is this very phenomenon that’s given this cave its name: Emerald Cave, or as the Thais call it, Tham Morakot.

     Eighty metres from the entrance, the cave unexpectedly opened onto a sparkling blue lagoon that seemed almost like a secret hideaway. It had a small powdery sun-baked beach surrounded by steep cliffs and green vegetation. With a sandy bottom sloping down from five to about 10 feet, and calm, clear waters, the lagoon was cosy and dreamlike. In other words, it was perfect.

Trang’s local coffeeshops or ran gafae serve delicious coffee combinations including go pii chaum – a blend of coffee, tea and condensed milk

Dim sum is a popular breakfast delicacy in Trang

A realistic statue of Trang’s famous former mayor, Phraya Ratsadanupradit, at his former residence, which is now a museum

Trang’s Train Station Night Market opens on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and is the best place to shop for scrumptious local snacks

Spying Seacows on Koh Libong

Next, I stopped by Koh Libong, Trang’s largest island and the best place to catch a glimpse of gentle sea cows known as dugongs. Closely related to the manatee, seacows can grow up to 13 feet in length and are thought to have inspired mermaid legends – although with their rotund bodies and downturned vacuum cleaner-like snouts, the resemblance seemed rather far-fetched.

     Having seen these creatures only in pictures, I was raring to spot my very first seacow in the flesh. Luckily, I didn’t have long to wait. From a cliff on Koh Libong’s southeast coast, I spied three seacows surfacing for oxygen in the space of an hour!

     Seeing these wild mammals in their element was simply spectacular. While sightings are not guaranteed, the chances of spotting seacows around Koh Libong are high as these marine creatures come here to graze on the large beds of sea grass that fringe the island.

      According to my guide, the story of Koh Libong’s seacows began 30 years ago with a baby seacow named Pin. The calf, found off the coast of Phuket, had lost its mother, presumably to poachers who hunt dugongs for their meat and blubber.

     Knowing that it was important for Pin to receive proper nourishment, the head of Phuket’s fisheries department wasted no time appealing to nursing mothers for extra milk to sustain little Pin. A European woman, moved by the plight of this orphaned mammal, stepped up. For two months, this selfless mother waded into Pin’s holding pool, and breastfed the little seacow. When Pin was old enough to return to the sea, the fisheries department found him a safe new home with large beds of seagrass – Koh Libong. Today, the waters here are home to over 100 seacows, and if divers are lucky, they may even get to meet these playful creatures while cruising the blue.

     Koh Libong is also a great spot for bird watching, as it is an important stopover for migratory shorebirds and terns that come to wade in its mudflats foraging for food in November and December. Some of the island’s avian visitors include globally endangered and vulnerable birds like the Nordmann’s Greenshank and Chinese Egret, while it is believed that near-threatened species like the Brown-winged Kingfisher and Malaysian Plover call this island home.

Scenic view from Pak Meng Pier

The lobby of the Seven Seas Resort on Koh Kradan.

Underwater Union on Koh Kradan

My third stop took me to the jewel in the crown of the Hat Chao Mai National Park: Koh Kradan. With its oblong beach of powdery white sand falling into clear, aquamarine waters, Koh Kradan is believed to be park’s most beautiful island. Since 1996, the island’s stunning setting and fabulous coral reefs have been attracting hundreds of couples who come here to begin their wedded life in the most unconventional way.

     Yes, Koh Kradan is known for underwater weddings. In 2001, 34 couples from 22 countries tied the knot 10 metres underwater in a ceremony that also involved traditional Thai wedding rituals. This event catapulted the island to the world stage when this marine-style matrimonial ceremony made set a Guinness World Record for the largest number of couples married underwater simultaneously.

     Since then, Trang’s underwater wedding ceremony has grown in popularity, and every year around Valentine’s Day, couples don wet suits and take that giant leap into the blue.

     For holidaymakers with no romantic agenda, Koh Kradan presents great opportunities to bond with nature, from kayaking around the island and sighting its resident sea eagles to snorkelling above its colourful coral reefs teeming with diverse marine life. There are also two sunken WWII ships here, which make for great wreck dives.

Coral Garden

To end my island-hopping tour, my guide took me to Koh Waen where I snorkelled in crystal clear water, hovering above stunning coral gardens. Over half of Thailand’s coral reefs are found in the Andaman Sea, and the ones here are said to offer some of the best snorkelling.

     I wasn’t disappointed; As soon as I hit the water, I found myself in a different world teeming with colourful reef fish. The visibility was amazing, and I spotted clownfish peeping out of pretty anemones and iridescent fish like Mandarin dragonets darting between staghorn corals.

     The icing on the cake was glimpsing a graceful green turtle gliding languidly through the water. The islands here are important nesting sites to many sea turtles including the leatherback, hawksbill and Olive Ridley, and the waters support a significant biodiversity.

     As I soared above this quiet marine world, I hoped that the beauty here would last for generations to come, that tourism would serve to protect it and not destroy it, and that someday I would return.

A lovely beachfront villa at Koh Mook Sivalai Beach Resort

GETTING THERE

AirAsia flies daily to Trang, Thailand from Bangkok. Visit www.airasia.com for more flight info.

STAY AT

  • Koh Mook Sivalai Beach Resort offers air-conditioned beachfront villas designed with thatched roofs and timber decks for a rustic look. www.komooksivalai.com
  • Seven Seas Resort on Koh Kradan is a stylish resort with a contemporary design. For a truly decadent escape, opt for the Beachfront villa, which includes an open-air bathroom and a private terrace with sundeck and sala. www.sevenseasresorts.com

The Rua Rasada Hotel is designed like a cruise ship

  • Koh Mook Charlie Beach Resort offers four categories of rooms: Air-conditioned Sea View bungalows, fan-cooled Deluxe bungalows and connecting bungalows, and small chalets with shared toilet and shower facilities. www.kohmookcharlieresort.com
  • The Rua Rasada Hotel in Trang is designed like a cruise ship with spacious and elegant guest rooms, great F&B outlets, fitness centre and spa.

ISLAND ACCESS

  • To get to the islands, board a minibus from the bus stand along Tha Klang Road in the Trang city. The air-conditioned busses depart every 30 minutes for the Pak Meng Pier and Had Yao Pier, which offers access to Koh Libong.
  • At Pak Meng, you can opt for a passenger ferry tour that takes you to four islands (usually, Koh Muk, Koh Kradan, Koh Mha and Koh Hai, depending on water levels), and includes buffet lunch and a snorkelling session with a guide for approximately THB750 per person. The first ferry departs at 9.30am.
  • Speedboats seating a maximum of 25 passengers may also be hired for approximately THB12,000 to THB15,000.
  • For a simple, very local experience, take a tour by longtail boat (rue hang yao) inclusive of lunchbox for approximately THB1,500 to THB2,000.