Leaving the crowded beach resorts of Phuket, Richard Holmes discovers a quiet corner of Thailand. In Takua Pa, remarkable beauty and a tragic history come together beneath the palm trees.
On the one hand, there’s not much remarkable about Patrol Boat 813. Painted in dull grey, streaks of rust showing at the edge of the windows, it was once assigned to the Marine Police Bureau in Thailand’s Pak-Nam sub-district. The last time it had water beneath its keel, it was anchored nearly 2km offshore of Khao Lak, an idyllic beach district on the country’s Andaman coast.
But today, there’s one thing that immediately sets Boat 813 apart: it rests more than 1km inland. It lies exactly where the ocean left it, having been washed across beaches and roads, over hotels and homes, by the tsunami that devastated this corner of Thailand on
26 December 2004.
Now set at the heart of a small memorial amphitheatre, it’s a striking and poignant reminder of the watery chaos that was unleashed on this coastline. For while the large island of Phuket bagged most of the headlines in the waterlogged weeks that followed, this northern district of Takua Pa bore the brunt of the damage.
Across the road from Boat 813 the Tsunami Memorial Museum adds facts, figures and photographs to the unforgettable sight of a 25m navy boat washed this far inland. More than 5,000 people perished in the area that day. Another 2,800 went missing. Hotels, homes and shops were flattened by the waves. In another section of the museum, moving videos bear the voices of the international aid workers who rushed to the scene in the following days. But down at the beach later that evening it’s almost impossible to imagine the scene and I marvel at how few scars remain.
Instead of flotsam and jetsam I find sun loungers and sparkling pools. Soft music drifts across from the beach bar at the JW Marriott Hotel as palm trees rustle in a warm evening breeze. There’s a cooking class waiting for me on the terrace and young families frolic in the waves as they watch the sunset. When it comes to tropical holidays that balance a taste of the exotic with plenty of creature comforts, Thailand is hard to beat.
While many families seemed content to spend the days soaking up the sun at the poolside, I’m up early the next morning. There’s a boat to catch, and the sun isn’t far above the horizon when I find myself skimming across the water, twin engines pushing our tour boat out into the deep blue. An hour later, and some 70km from the mainland, the Similan Islands National Park peeks over the horizon. Nine separate granite islands make up the park, but tourists can only step ashore on two of them; the rest are set aside for turtle and bird conservation. That’s laudable, but it means that in season thousands of tourists visit these two tiny islands each day. My advice? Find an operator with the earliest departures and pay a little extra for a faster boat – Siam Adventure World is a great choice – to avoid the worst of the crowds.
By 10am the cheaper, slower charter boats arrive from the mainland and the beach is quickly overrun. It works. When I step ashore on Ko Similan there are only a dozen other travellers tackling the narrow trail up to the viewpoint. From on high, granite boulders look out over lush forests of Chinese banyan trees and fishtail palms to impossibly white sands. Flamboyant Nicobar pigeons dart through the undergrowth as I make my way down to the sea for a swim. Despite the growing number of visitors, the island is spotless thanks to the beady eyes of the conservation-minded park rangers.
Back on board, we spend the morning snorkelling off Ko Payu before a late lunch on Ko Miang. By now the crowds have caught up with us and I’m not sad to hop on board for the ride back to the mainland. I know I’ll soon be back. For it’s not only the Similan Islands that are worth a visit in the region.
The next morning I’m back on board for another dawn ride out to sea, this time to Ko Surin National Park. Like Similan, the Surin Islands consist of granite monoliths that tumble into soft sand and gin-clear water. While Similan is the more dramatic of the two, Surin draws a fraction of the daily visitors, making for a quieter, calmer experience both on land and beneath the waves. And it’s below the surface that Surin is truly remarkable, with pristine coral reefs alive with fish. As we snorkel we spy clownfish hiding amid the arms of anemones, turtles resting on the coral and kingfish gliding arrogantly through the deep.
Lunch is fragrant chicken curry served at shaded picnic tables alongside the national park headquarters, while pig-tailed macaques stare at us hungrily from the boughs above. After more snorkelling it’s another speedy ride back to the mainland, but instead of heading straight back to the hotel I take a detour down a tiny road winding past local homes.
On a small peninsula, a warm wind whistling through the casuarina trees, the Ban Nam Khem Tsunami Memorial Garden bears silent witness to the events of 26 December 2004. On one side of the small garden, a memorial walk is lined with the names of those who lost their lives. On the road home there are more echoes of the tsunami, like a memorial garden planted outside a lonely temple, and on a quiet corner I spot Hands Across the Water, a community centre that doubles as a tsunami refuge if disaster should ever strike again.
Though most travellers come to Takua Pa in search of white sands and idyllic beaches, the jungles and mangroves here are just as beguiling. If time allows, it’s well worth heading inland to discover Khao Sok National Park, where you’ll find jungle treks and glorious kayaking on the emerald water of Cheow Lan Lake. Sound like too much hard work? Elephant Hills offers safari-style tented accommodation and ethical elephant experiences at its world-class sanctuary.
But if, like me, you prefer to be in, on or near water, then spend your time discovering the mangroves in the north. Guided kayak trips – the guide will even paddle for you if you prefer – explore the shallow channels of the region the locals call ‘Little Amazon’. As we paddle, the aerial roots of towering banyan trees soar a dozen metres into the air, forming ominous tunnels. Tree orchids sprout from the clefts as long-tailed macaques screech at us from the treetops. Endangered great hornbills coast through the cloudy skies and we sneak up to juvenile pythons and mangrove snakes curled asleep on palm branches.
It’s a wild space, far removed from the chic beach resorts nearby, and that’s all part of the charm. Whether you’re in the mood for crystal seas or steamy jungles, you’ll find it all in abundance on the coastline of Khao Lak. The busy beach resorts of Phuket may have their fans, but for a more charming taste of coastal Thailand it’s time to head north to Takua Pa.
Good to know
Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies from Cape Town and Johannesburg to Phuket, via Singapore. From Phuket it’s an easy 30-minute transfer to Takua Pa.
Paperwork: South African passport holders do not require a visa to visit Thailand for leisure purposes. All visitors must show proof of vaccination or of a negative PCR test conducted within 72 hours of departure.
Weather: November to April is the best time to visit Takua Pa and Khao Lak, with sunny days and warm weather. It’s still warm through the monsoon months from May to October, but expect heavy rains. Although hotel prices are cheaper, some attractions and activities may be closed.
Currency: Thai Baht. R1 = THB2.10
Costs: Thailand is a wonderfully affordable destination, especially for eating out. In local restaurants main courses can start from as little as THB80 (R38).
More info: www.tourismthailand.org