The perfect trip: Thailand’s islands
Traditionally the Moken are huntergatherers, spending much of the year fishing from covered boats known as kabangs, only returning to land to collect fresh water or seek refuge from seasonal monsoons. Like many aboriginal people, they share an intimate connection with the environment. They are expert swimmers, and can hold their breath for several minutes at a time: watching the Moken children glide among the islands’ submarine canyons and coral gardens, they seem just as at home underwater as they are above the surface.
The Moken possess many fables and folk tales which help them make use of the natural world. Walking along the jungle trails on the island of Ko Surin Tai, they recount uses for practically every plant they pass – food, medicines, tools and building materials. One of the guides chops down a huge leaf from a pandanus tree with a machete and demonstrates some of its uses. Cut into strips, it can be plaited into cord, bound into rope or woven for huts and cabins. As he works, the calls of hornbills echo through the forest and colonies of fruit bats flap among the banyans and teak trees.
Sometimes the Moken’s legends can warn them of unexpected dangers. An ancient tale told of a big wave, ‘the laboon’, that would recede before ‘eating people’ – signs that were heeded prior to the 2004 tsunami, when the Moken immediately recognised the need to escape to higher ground. Today, the Moken’s traditions often place them at odds with the modern world. Most have no fixed nationality and find it difficult to access education and healthcare, while their fishing practices can conflict with environmental conservation laws. Yet there are positives – new initiatives are helping them take advantage of the Surin Islands’ growing popularity by selling handicrafts, running cultural tours and leading coral reef snorkelling expeditions. Salaman is reassuringly sanguine about the future. ‘The Moken are a very old people,’ he says. ‘We have faced many challenges. We have to learn how to be part of the modern world, but we must remember who we are, too.’
Boats to the Surin Islands depart from Khuraburi, 115 miles north of Phuket by bus. The journey to the islands takes about 90 minutes by speedboat.
Where to eat
Practically the only place to eat is at the main national park campsite on Ko Surin Nuea, where a café serves set Thai menus – but no alcohol, since it’s banned in the park (mains from £5; 00 66 76 421 365).
Where to stay
The community-based Andaman Discoveries has been instrumental in developing ecotourism initiatives with the Moken people. Its tour to the Surin Islands includes boat transfers, village visits and snorkelling tours with Moken guides, as well as camping and bungalow stays on a nearby island (two-day tours from £100).
Ko Phi-Phi: Best for beaches
If there’s one thing that Thailand’s islands are famous for, it’s the beaches – and they don’t get any more famous than the ones on Ko Phi-Phi. The archipelago is home to some of the country’s most impressive coastal scenery, not to mention some of its whitest stretches of sand.
From the west, the main island of Ko Phi-Phi Don juts from the horizon like a wolf’s tooth, its craggy peaks and inky cliffs rising sheer from the ocean waves. Yet the island’s east coast presents a much gentler picture – a string of white bays where resorts hide among groves of palm and pandanus, and unbroken views stretch out across the Andaman Sea.
‘Phi-Phi is an island of surprises,’ says Sangsit ‘Top’ Sriwarin, who was born on the mainland near the city of Pattaya but now works here as a diving instructor. ‘The landscape is so varied – we have mountains, beaches, caves, cliffs and coral reefs. Sometimes I can’t believe it’s actually a real place,’ he laughs.