Koh Larn ~ Exploring Thailand’s Coral Island

We had been in Thailand for less than a week and already lost track of time, including what day it was.  I suppose that is the goal of any successful vacation, and this one had exceeded my expectations in nearly every way.  It was our third or fourth day, and the topic of visiting the island had been planned prior to leaving home.  Under the shelter of another open air, tin-roofed building our little group made an impromptu decision to visit the island of Koh Larn.  It was still early in our trip, but the pattern of hazy, spontaneous decisions was quickly taking hold.  Even on vacation, necessity is indeed the mother of invention.

We were sitting on what was basically a very large peer with a tin roof, shielding ourselves against another monsoon downpour that had begun with the loudest and most frightening thunder I had ever experienced.  Prior to the onset of the downpour we were enjoying a rather good lunch and Chinese beer while listening to a surprisingly excellent sound system, blasting out a selection of American rock-and-roll that would make many clubs back home envious.  It was already mid-day, and though we had planned a much earlier departure to the island only to cancel it due to the heavy rain, the island seemed to continue luring us away from the mainland.

As the rains crept slowly south along the coast we ventured out hoping to locate a boat.  Apparently the rains had scared most island visitors away, as several speed boats were backed into the sand along the beach with their captains standing nearby, anxious to provide anyone a ride.

Spotting something familiar, I quickly walked to a nearby Starbucks.  I’m not a fan, but the novelty of seeing one of these American icons a hundred yards from the beech made it irresistible. Inside, a beautiful young Thai girl behind the counter asked me in perfectly broken but very pleasant English, “You wont’ Ko-fee?”.  I almost ordered a second drink just to hear her ask the question again.  My cute companion, Ming, ordered green tea.  I’m not a green tea guy, but must admit before this trip was over I’d begun acquiring a taste for it.  Thais are big believers that green tea is a cure for many of the maladies that plague us.  It’s so popular that I found it in several Pharmacies.  Say what you will, but I swear the tension relieving variety really works.  The citrusy flavor even seemed to correlate nicely with the relaxed, pleasant tone of the trip.

As Ming and I walked back across the beach, my friends Mike and Tony had already procured a boat and were waiting for us.  I think we were all feeling a little like Captain Cook that day, ready to seek out the legendary Sandwich Islands.  For 1,200 Baht, or approximately $40 U.S., our captain and his power boat would jet us out of the bay and into the gulf, where approximately 30 minutes later we would arrive on Koh Larn.  This fee would also get us a return ride back to the mainland at the end of the day.  For that bargain price, split three ways, I climbed into the boat without saying a word more.  It would be an entertaining ride without any apparent etiquette regarding right-of-way, but I challenge anyone to provide a more efficient method of transporting us across the water to Koh Larn.

Approaching Koh Larn

There were seven of us aboard as we bounced across the bay under a dark and heavy sky.  The rain had returned, but was nothing comparable to the downpour we had experienced earlier.  I walked to the front of the boat and into the bow, where I could feel the rain and wind rolling across my skin.  “Awesome” I thought.  The heavy clouds were periodically broken up by an occasional sun streak reaching all the way to the water below.   Finding my balance in the bow, I looked out across the gulf and tried to take it all in.  This was one of those “Thailand moments” as my friend Mike refers to them.  It was absolutely gorgeous in all directions, and one of my first experiences at feeling like we were heading straight for the ends of the earth.

Curried crab, when eaten with your toes buried in warm sand the consistency of talcum powder, tastes like the food of Gods.  We had been on the island just a few hours when we realized it was a again time to eat.  After arriving we had discovered a somewhat secluded section of the beach, near the water’s edge and under a long row of colorful sun umbrellas. Mike had quickly established day camp, relaxing in his beach chair while he set up an MP3 player, entertaining the locals with traditional and contemporary Thai music.  I was walking knee deep through the emerald water looking for stones and sea shells, sipping a Chiang beer while Ming tossed water across my back.  Tony sat on the edge of his beach chair, staring across the gulf with a million-mile stare.  I concurred.

The food arrived and we had a pretty basic assortment of Thai preferences.  Tony ordered giant shrimp and steamed rice.  Mike ordered fried rice and french fries (it’s a long and peculiar story).  I ordered curried crab and rice with vegetables.  The girls all ordered salad, which in Thailand can be a combination of many things.  It’s usually a blend of vegetables and occasionally fruit, with perhaps chicken, pork or duck mixed in for flavor.  The six of us circled around a small, short table and enjoyed our lunch, some sitting on the edge of their beach chairs and others with knees and toes in the sand.  The rain had stopped entirely, but the warm, humid breeze remained with us the remainder of the day. We were living the life of what some Thai based expatriates call a “Two week millionaire.”  Life was good……

After lunch we slid back into our chairs and relaxed.  Mike was still playing his selection of Thai music as we watched and listened to the waves rolling onto the beach.  The girls began singing along, attempting to explain the lyrics to us with each song.  The songs were mostly about love of country and one another, which together bring happiness and prosperity.  It was a very appropriate theme for the occasion, and I don’t believe anyone in our group wished at that moment to be anywhere else or in different company.

While we relaxed Ming had wandered away from the beach to negotiate renting three moto-bikes.  Within a few minutes we are all aboard moto-bikes, rolling single file along the beach over a narrow brick road.  Very quickly the road turned inland away from the beach and climbed a relatively steep incline covered by a full canopy of jungle.  After reaching the top of the incline the road began to circle the island, providing an excellent vantage point to view the beach below and ocean on the horizon.  As we circled the island we occasionally passed through small communities, with some being small enough to consider villages.  Some appeared populated and busy while others seemed almost abandoned, with only a few children out playing alongside houses, in vacant parking lots or under trees.

In the more populated communites business takes place beneath tin roofs, over-head canopies or under open skies along the roadside.  I noticed what appeared to be an absence of tourists away from the beaches, which for me made this an even more interesing experience.  Curious, Ming and I turned down a side road into one of the busier communites.  And just like that I was lost.  Just as curious seemed to be the locals who watch on as this big farang (foreigner) attempts to maintain his dignity.  As I worked my way back to the main road, I suddenly realized I’d lost Mike and Tony, who had followed us off the beach.  I was feeling incredibly absent-minded, stupid and very much a lousy friend.  We back-tracked a few kilometers but found no sign of Mike and Tony, deciding to return to exploring the island away from the beach, hoping to find them at the boat that evening, if not before.

Leaving another village I again noticed the narrow road of red bricks under our wheels.  The road follows the contours of the land beneath it as though no expense or effort was made to ‘improve’ the driving experience by altering the landscape.  And I asked myself why would anyone want to?  It’s a beautiful island, and building a roadway across an unaltered landscape only accentuates the wonderful scenery surrounding us as we rolled through the countryside.  The brick road perfectly follows every rise and fall of the topography, and flows along in a meandering path through open spaces and canopied jungle.  I found myself slowing down to take notice without ever performing a concious thought to do so.   Like so many experiences in Thailand, I was reassessing my perspective and slowing my pace.  So much of what I’d been programmed to think simply wasn’t working here.

Several kilometers down the road from the village we crested a small rise in the road, and suddenly I was able to look upon a spectacular view of the Gulf of Thailand, far into the distance.  To our left was a small Buddhist temple and tiny parking lot, but otherwise this part of the island seemed uninhabited.  We rode perhaps another kilometer down the road and pull over in an area where I could the coastline beneath us in the distance.  There was no traffic, and the only noise I heard was the sound of a warm, humid breeze moving through the tall grass and trees near the road.  This was one of those moments when I wished to make time stand still, lingering indefinitely while taking it all in.

We continued moving south and eventually came to a clearing where the road nears the ocean, and I noticed a large area covered in sand not far from the road.  By now it’s getting late with the sun dropping quickly, and I knew that soon we would be forced to turn around in an attempt to get back to the beach before sunset.  I decided to make this my final stop, so we stepped off the moto-bike and walked to an area far away from the road.  We sat in the sand with a clear view of the ocean before us, where we could look out across the gulf.  There was not an indication of modern life around us and, adding to the surreal feeling of the moment, we had not seen another person in quite a long time.  Perfect.

Ming was sitting next to me when she asked, “What you thinking, Tilot?”  The truth about what I was feeling at that moment is that I had somehow arrived in another world and at another time.  It seemed that everything I had learned up to that point in my life was useless here.  And this wasn’t a bad thing, because I was also thinking that everything I needed to know I’d yet to learn.  Living here would provide another adventure at a time in my life when I was starting to feel bored.  I attempted to explain to Ming what I was feeling, which I can best describe as being completely relaxed, content and at ease with life.  I doubt she really understood me, but I appreciated her asking and it certainly made the moment a little sweeter.  I knew the reality of living here would be quite different than an extended holiday, but there was certainly enough attraction to make me consider giving it a try.

Descending the hills of the island as we head back towards the beach, I happened to look down at the fuel gauge and noticed it reading near empty.  “Nice. Good thing we’re going downhill,” I thought to myself, knowing there was not a damn thing I could do but walk if the tank went dry.  As we continued rolling towards the beach after sunset and with twilight quickly taking over, all the communities we rolled through earlier were now looking positively deserted.  Apparently the island people operate by their own inclinations and clock, unaffected by the few tourists that venture inland away from the beaches.  If so then I certainly respect these people for avoiding the often destructive influences of the tourist industry.

We descended to the beach and rolled into where we picked up the moto-bikes. Mike and Tony had already arrived and were negotiating the bill for the moto-bike rentals.  We paid and then began walking the 100 yards across the beach to our waiting power boat, and for the first time in a week I witnessed an unhappy Thai.  It was our boat captain.  He was apparently running very late in returning his boat to “The Boss”, thinking we would have returned long before sunset. We performed another negotiation, and I presume we came to a settlement that compensated him for our late arrival and having to deal with The Boss.

Crossing the miles between Koh Larn and the mainland was an interesting crossing in that it was almost entirely dark.  It reminded me of stories I’d read about bootleggers carrying their contraband alchohol across harbors under the cover of darkness.  We exchanged a few looks of concern between us, and I suppose not being able to see what was hidden by the darkness is a good thing.  We ultimately arrived at the mainland safely, walking a short distance across the sand to Beach Road and a beer bar outfitted with a deck overlooking the gulf.

I sipped on a bottle of water and looked out across the bay.  The rains had stopped hours earlier and for the first time that day the skies were clear.  We were mostly quiet, which was probably from fatigue.  I think any reflection that was to take place would come much later.  But sitting there on the deck I could make out the silhouette of a few islands, miles in the distance.  I did reflect enough to know we had experienced a great day.

A few days before leaving Thailand we ventured up what locals call “Buddha Hill“, just north of Jomtien.  This area is a high and narrow hilltop with a Buddhist temple straddling the entire width.  There is a nearly 360* view from a lookout point not far from the temple. To the east was a sea of deep green jungle dotted with triangular shaped hilltops the color of coal, pointing skyward.  To the west was the Gulf of Thailand, with randomly scattered islands of irregular shapes scattered across its emerald waters.  We watched the sun slowly drop behind the islands.  Ming then says  something that catches me entirely off guard.  “Thank you, Tilot.  You make your holiday mine, too.”

It was a poignant moment, and reminded me of the generosity and kindness of Thai people in general.  Ming wasn’t being romantic I don’t believe, but was instead demonstrating a characteristic of Thai culture.  And I could not decide which made the country more beautiful, the people or the sometimes unbelievable beauty of the countryside.  Unable to decide I simply concluded that the two are so intertwined they are inseperable.

The three of us still talk about that day on Koh Larn.  As much as I enjoyed every day of my first trip to Thailand, it is the day on Koh Larn that best summarizes and brings together the feelings we experienced throughout our stay.  It was different, unpredictable, a little crazy and unlike anything we had experienced before.

~ Castaway




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