The perfect trip: Thailand
One man who has had plenty of time to get used to the noise is Sak Chai Paelee, a park ranger at Cheow Lan lake, a man-made lake that was created by the construction of the Ratchaprapha Dam, in the south of Khao Sok National Park. He lives alone in a hut on one of the towering limestone islands within the lake. ‘I don’t even hear the noise,’ says Sak Chai, looking out over the glassy waters to where his longtail boat is moored. ‘This is silence to me.’ Sak Chai has lived on this island for 10 years, with only a one-channel radio for company. ‘I get lonely sometimes’, he says, ‘but I enjoy a peaceful life – when I do go into town, it feels like chaos! I want to work here until I die.’
Ko Hong: Best for beaches
Each morning, Tri Rasang Kaewnui wakes up and puts the final touches to what he believes is the most beautiful beach in the world. He has worked as a ranger on Ko Hong, a collection of twelve tiny islands off the coast of Krabi, for five years and he takes his work seriously, making sure all leaves are swept from the beach long before the first tourists arrive on longtail boats, so as not to spoil the illusion of perfection. ‘Every day I wake up here, and feel so proud that I am one of the protectors of this place,’ he says. ‘People travel for miles and spend so much money to visit here – they see it as a precious stone. I get to see it every day for free! So I want to do everything I can to keep it the way it should be.’
Ko Hong’s main beach is at Ao Bo Lae, a slimline sceptre of pristine white, soft sand gently massaged by waves that don’t crash so much as murmur. A thick border of verdant rainforest rustles in the breeze, manned by a scampering gibbon or two, all backed up by towering limestone cliffs for added drama. It feels like a remote paradise, but Ko Hong is no secret – as the sun rises to its midday height, the shore begins to fill with longtail and speed boats dropping off fellow pilgrims. Thankfully the beach’s size provides a natural limit to the crowd and it retains its tranquil splendour.
Ko Hong means ‘the room’ in Thai. The name comes from an ancient legend about a woman named Phranang who hoped that this island would act as a wedding suite for her and her new husband, but he was lost at sea and she died waiting for him, broken-hearted. On another beach on the island of Railay, a 40-minute speed boat ride away, a large, deep cave cut into the cliffside is said to be the home of Phranang’s despairing spirit. The cave is packed with tributes left by local fishermen – lit candles, flowers, bottles of water and, perhaps unexpectedly, huge wooden penises known as lingams. The cave is piled high with lingams of every shape, size and colour, all the way up to a seven-foot phallus, wrapped in ribbons.
Back at Ko Hong, just around the corner from Ao Bo Lae, the otherwise continuous circle of limestone cliffs that surround the island opens up slightly. Sailing through this inlet reveals a huge freshwater lagoon, shimmering aqua green in the sun. The walls of the lagoon tower formidably above, each covered top to bottom in rainforest, which is somehow growing at right angles to the rock face – a vertical ring of greenery, hugging the water below. It is here that the love story of Phranang should have ended happily, had fate not intervened. And for those who know the tale, this gravity-defying, wondrous landscape retains a sense of bittersweet beauty, a faultless paradise somehow infused with lost love.