Travel Story Coral gardeners & Batman: On the sunny side of the Gulf of Thailand

Little-known Koh Talu is the sort of place where you hear yourself asking: “Do I really have to leave?”

Breakfast happens languidly to the sound of waves lapping under the restaurant’s wooden deck. Beyond it the beach takes on shape and colours as the early morning mist is lifting. A kitten, hoping for some post-breakfast bonus hops on to the bench beside me and is soon competing with my laptop for lap space. Good morning, Koh Talu.

This little-known island in the Gulf of Thailand has one resort, plenty of palms, good bungalows, no bling and a few cats. People-wise, a score of wintering Scandinavians, plus a few others and myself seem to have the 1500ha, whale-shaped island to ourselves.

“I’m a coral gardener,” says Khun Aorn, a Thai marine ecologist I’m having coffee with. She’s at the resort to instruct local schoolkids in the art of coral regeneration. Along with the island dive master, Khun Oh, we head to a pontoon a short distance off the resort where Aorn demonstrates how to attach sprigs of blue-tipped, live coral on to a PVC frame. When we’ve filled the frame they lower it to the seabed where over time the corals will take root and grow.

Koh Talu is on what is called “the sunrise side” of the Gulf — the coast that sees the sun rise, as opposed to set, over the water. It sits off Bang Saphan town in the province of Prachuap Khiri Khan — Prachuap, for short. By road or rail, Bang Saphan is about 370km from Bangkok and 160km from Hua Hin.

A list of might-dos (as opposed to must-dos) on the island includes snorkel, bushwalk, read, lunch, kayak, snooze, email. Repeat cycle. For variety I check out the hawksbill turtle hatchery down the beach, amble around to the next cove, Ao Muk (Pearl Bay) where life is even more somnolent, and try squid fishing at sunset.

Long before Koh Talu Island Resort was established (about 2001), the island was home to a Dutch-Russian engineer, Cyril Laipovis. During the early 1940s he managed the regional telegraph system for the Thai state railways but when the Japanese invaded in World War II, he and his Thai wife had to escape. Reaching Koh Talu they survived undetected on the island until the end of the war and then happily stayed on for many years until Cyril died aged 75.

The hilly, jungle-clad island is still privately owned and part of it is slated eventually to become national park. The resort is very comfortable, with Thai-style bungalows (with aircon, ensuite bathroom and wi-fi) overlooking the long white sand arc of Big Bay and the smaller, absurdly pretty Pearl Bay. It’s the sort of place where you hear yourself asking: “Do I really have to leave?”

I opt for a farewell massage at dusk. The masseuse interrupts her pummelling of my calves to say: “Look. Batman over the beach.” We are 10km off a quiet coast on a celebrity-free island.

“Batman?” I ask. 

“Yes, Batmans, many small ones,” she insists.

I look up to see a dark, shadowy wave rising above the island. It is the nightly exodus from Koh Talu’s caves of hundreds of thousands of bats — batmans — going out, I guess, to party and fight crime.

Prachuap Khiri Khan province is, like its name, long and lyrical, and slender, too. Stretching down the western seaboard of the Gulf, its beaches loop from headland to misty headland, more populated by pines and fishing boats than hawkers and high-rise.

Tearing myself away from the island, I take the speedboat back to Bang Saphan. After visiting its spectacular hilltop temple Wat Thang Sai, it’s time to catch the train up to Baan Grood, one hour north. This snoozy seaside town — more like a big village — is also known as Ban Krood, Ban Good, Ban-Kood and Bangrut. My preferred option is Ban Krut — which also means “bankrupt” in Bahasa Indonesia.

Endless sandy beaches stretch in both directions from the town, with low-rise resorts lining the beachfront road. Cycling the grand corridor of palms and sea pines that shade the beach for kilometres south of town is my morning heart-starter. Stop anywhere and swim in the windless sea, ride on, and then cruise back for breakfast.

My resort, the very well-appointed Baan Grood Arcadia Resort & Spa, faces the beach and from its poolside coffee shop I can spot more of those thawing Scandinavians as they pass the day pedalling or sunbathing. 

We might be on a Marriott, Holiday Inn and Accor-free shore but this pristine Prachuap coast has been a longtime favourite of Thai families. Thus the numerous bungalow resorts I’ve seen. This “sunny side of the Gulf”, other than at Hua Hin, remains relatively little visited by foreigners and mercifully unravaged by developers. The absence of a convenient local airport is a contributing plus.

What is there to do in Baan Grood? Visit a temple, swim, sunbake, cycle, dine at the little thatched restaurants along the sand. Like visiting Casablanca for the waters, if you’re here for the stars and bars, you’ve been misinformed.

Not far from here you can do something different — walk across Thailand in a day. A few years ago while travelling down this coast I noticed a sign at a stop called Wang Duan. It said, “The Narrowest (Point) of Thailand. 10.96km.” I determined to one day walk it, from the Gulf waters up to the Burmese border ridge.

I returned the next year and did just that with the help of a local guide. The meandering route along country roads and dogleg tracks blows out the distance a little to 13.4 km. Even so, start early and in fact you can walk across Prachuap, and Thailand, in half a day.

Fact File

Disclaimer

John Borthwick was a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

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