Highlights Koh Mak:
- Kayaking to Koh Rayang Nok
- Ao Talong beach
Highlights Koh Kood:
- Klong Chao waterfall
- Lunch at Laem Ao Yai pier
- Sunset at Klong Chao beach
- Drinks (and maybe a free dinner) at Tawan Eco Bar
After living in Thailand for two and a half years, we still somehow have an ever-growing list of islands that we want to visit. Seriously, it seems as though new ones just keep popping up! So, for over our 6-day midterm break, we decided to cross two of them off our list.
If you picture Thailand as a big, upside-down U shape, with Bangkok at the top of the U (and half the country above the U), you’ll be able to picture how the islands work. To the west, lining the left side of the “U” are the most popular Thai islands. All the way west, in the Andaman Sea, you have Phuket, Koh Phi Phi, Krabi, and hundreds of other smaller islands. Just east of those in the Gulf of Thailand are Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, and Koh Tao. But then, there’s a third set of islands. These are less popular with foreign tourists, but equally (if not more) popular with local tourists and also just as beautiful and fun. While this set of islands is actually closer to Bangkok, I think it often gets overlooked because it’s not close to any of the other major islands. We’d already been to the biggest of these, Koh Chang, last year for Songkran, so now it was time to check out two of the smaller islands in the group, Koh Mak and Koh Kood.
Several of our friends here have been to Koh Mak and have raved about how beautiful it is and also how secluded and chill it is. We don’t know anyone else that’s been to Koh Kood (unless you count David Beckham, who supposedly owns a house there), as this is supposed to be a fancier, even more secluded island, which is mostly dominated by big resorts.
We booked our ferry tickets, bus tickets, and hotels and within hours of making all of these non-refundable plans, Dave was already starting to have doubt and regrets. You see, my husband is the king of FOMO (fear of missing out) and is always worried that we’re making the wrong choices when planning our vacations and deciding where to go. Luckily, our endless vacations make a mistake here and there not such a big deal, but the reality is that once all is said and done, we rarely have regrets (mostly thanks to Dave’s excellent research and planning). This trip was no exception.
For those of you who know us, you know we’re the opposite of beach bums. We sit on the beach for 10 minutes and we’re already bored and trying to think about what we can do next. Dave was worried that these islands wouldn’t have enough activity to keep us busy for 5 days. And, as he read more, he started to also read that Koh Mak was not only famous for its very pretty beaches, but also for sand flies. I had no idea what a sand fly was, but they sounded bad. So, we did have a few valid reasons to worry. But, our plans were non-refundable, so like it or not, we were going.
From Bangkok, we took a bus from the Eastern Bus Terminal (Ekkamai) to Laem Ngop (250 baht pp), the pier for boats to Koh Mak. The bus was supposed to take 5-6 hours but it took closer to 7. We left at 7:45 and our boat was at 2. Luckily, we were able to call the boat company and let them know we’d be late and they waited the extra 30 minutes or so to leave. There are only 2 boats a day (at 10am and 2pm in the high season), so we were very lucky not to miss the last one of the day.
The ferry ride (high speed, 450 baht pp) was supposed to take an hour but took closer to two because we had to switch boats in the middle of the ride for some unknown reason. Finally though, we made it to Koh Mak, and as soon as we saw the beautiful beach, our worries began to subside (just a little).
We stayed at the Riverside Bungalows, a very new resort about a 5 minute walk from the main beach in Koh Mak, Ao Kao. This place is owned by a German/Swiss (I think) guy who has lived on Koh Mak for 18 years (crazy!). He has five very cute bungalows built along a little lake. While we had some issues on the first day (overflowing toilet, bad wifi), by the second morning all the issues were resolved and it ended up being a great place to stay. Most amazingly, we’d noticed on our booking reservation that our room was supposed to come with a TV. When we arrived, there was no TV in our room, so we asked about it and the next morning, not only had the owner put a TV in there, he also lent us his movie drive, which had hundreds of movies for us to watch. We take a little card with about 30 movies on it everywhere we go for times we don’t have internet, but by now we’ve watched them all a dozen times. So, we were able to copy a bunch of his movies over to our card and now we’re fully restocked! This was very exciting for us.
As annoying as the delays in getting to Koh Mak had been at the time, they were actually a blessing in disguise, as we arrived at the perfect time to take a dip in the ocean (in some of the clearest water I’ve seen in Thailand), check out the main “walking street” in town, and have a nice dinner. We actually ended up eating at our place the first night because they were having a special live band and BBQ buffet. It was the only night they’d be doing it during our stay so we wanted to take advantage. For 250 baht pp (about $7) we got all the BBQ skewers, massaman curry, salad, and fried rice we could eat.
Our meal was delicious, but Dave woke up in the morning with a terrible stomach ache. We ended up taking it easy in the morning (luckily our internet was working by then), and then started our day a little later. Koh Mak is a tiny island only about 15km around. Everywhere rents bikes and motorbikes, but we decided to rent a bicycle, as we thought we’d see everything too quickly on a motorbike. The rental place told us we’d have no problem biking around and even gave us a bike tour map we could follow, but within a few minutes on the bike, we knew we’d never make it all day with all of the hills on the island. The bike tour only covered a small part of the island, so we did that on bike (it was hard!!) and then went back to trade our bicycles in for a motorbike. This was a great choice because although the island is only 15km around, once you start going down all the paths leading to the beaches, it becomes much more than that. With the motorbikes, we didn’t have to pick and choose which beaches to see, we were able to check them all out. So, we spent the day exploring and beach hopping. I typically don’t love to swim in the ocean because I always get nervous when I can’t see what’s swimming around under me, but in Koh Mak, not only was the water crystal clear, there was almost nothing sitting on the bottom of the ocean. I don’t think I’ve ever swam as much as I did on this trip. Our favorite beach was Ao Talong, where we ended up stopping for a very late lunch.
Since we still had the bike that night, we decided to go somewhere for dinner that we needed to drive to. Dave wasn’t sure his stomach was up for Thai food again, so instead we went to a pizza place that we’d seen earlier in the day. It was owned by a European couple who spends half their time in Koh Mak and the other half in Hawaii (they clearly love the beach!). All the pizzas were “Create Your Own” so we picked out our favorite ingredients and had a great meal and then an early night.
For our final day in Koh Mak, we were deciding between either renting a Kayak or doing a snorkeling tour for the day. We decided to rent a kayak because we were planning another trip a few weeks later to the Trang Islands (south of Phuket in the Andaman Sea), which are known for their great snorkeling. We figured we’d do a snorkeling tour there. Plus, the kayak option was about half the price. We picked up a Thai picnic to take with us and we headed out in our kayak (400 baht per day plus 100 baht each for snorkels) to Koh Rayang Nok, a tiny island about a 30 minute kayak ride from Koh Mak.
Getting over there wasn’t very hard and when we arrived, someone came up to collect our 100 baht pp fee. He gave us chairs and an umbrella and for the few hours we were there. We were literally the only people on the island (well, us and the fee collector). The whole time we were joking that we pretty much paid $6 to rent out a private island for the day. It was actually really cool! After doing a little snorkeling (which wasn’t great), eating our lunch, and reading on the beach for a little bit (yes, I couldn’t believe I was able to convince Dave to just relax on the beach for a little while either!), we started to make our way back, stopping at another tiny island about 2/3 of the way back (this one only had a little strip of sand).We did a little more snorkeling (lots of sea urchins here) and then Dave decided that he wanted to try to swim back. It was far, but he did it while I rode beside him on the Kayak (though at one point he did get mad at me for drifting too far away).
After a few hours of relaxing and watching a couple new movies (!!) we went local for dinner with a fish and some Thai food at a restaurant down the street from our place. We’d been so worried that we’d be bored on Koh Mak but we thought that there was plenty to do. There were lots of cute restaurants, a few bars (though sadly there wasn’t really too much going on directly on the beach – we always love a good seafood dinner on the beach with a fireshow), and plenty of daytime activities to keep us busy for a few days. We thought we’d had the perfect amount of time on this great island and throughout our whole 3 nights/2 days there, we never saw a single sand fly (literally I still have no idea what they are).
The next morning, we took a ferry (about 1 hour, 400 baht) to Koh Kood. Just the ferry ride itself was an interesting experience. First of all, the water the whole way was gorgeous. We always said that the Philippines had the prettiest water we’ve seen, but this was definitely right up there. Whenever we take these ferries to islands, the boat always stops at a main pier. Some islands have more than one main pier and you can decide which boat you want to take. On Koh Kood, however, each resort has its own pier and the ferry stops at each of them. All of the resorts seemed to be Peter Pan themed (Captain Hook’s, Wendy’s, Neverland, etc.) which was very cute.
We got off at the pier for the main beach Ao Klong Chao and the only pier not connected to a resort. After a short walk around the main street behind the beach, we found a cute bungalow to stay at for about $20/night, which was about a 5 minute walk to the beach. It was only about 1pm at the time, so after a quick peek at the beach, we decided to rent a motorbike to start our island exploring. This island is much bigger than Koh Mak, so we wanted to get our bearings a little and give ourselves enough time to make sure we saw everything. Our beach was close to the middle of the island so we decided we’d check out the northern half of the island that afternoon and save the southern half for the next day. This island also has two main waterfalls, both of which we saw the first afternoon.
We made it all the way up to Ao Salad pier on the first afternoon, which wasn’t really worth the trip. The Klong Yai Kee waterfall was ok, but the best part of the day was Klong Chao waterfall. Just a short walk from where you park your motorbike, this waterfall had a perfect swimming hole at the bottom AND a rope swing. Even I went in the water, which Dave usually has a hard time convincing me to do.
In the evening, we picked up some drinks and headed to the beach for a beautiful sunset before heading out to find our dinner spot for the night. Since this island is supposed to be pretty secluded, we’d figured that our dinner options would be slim. We were pleasantly surprised to find a pretty decent selection right in our area. Just north of our beach (about a 10 minute walk) there’s a little strip of small restaurants and bars. We weren’t quite hungry yet, so we decided we’d go to one of the bars for a cocktail before dinner. We went into Tawan Eco Bar and found ourselves in a place unlike anything we’d ever seen. First of all, the entire bar was self-service. The owner (who’s also the musician) labels all of his alcohol with prices and you can just make your own drinks and put money in a jar. This seemed crazy because 1) anyone could just steal the money very easily, and 2) usually at bars you get about a shot of alcohol in your drinks. Here though, you could make them as strong as you wanted. But the MYO drinks was not even the craziest part about this place. When we’d walked in, we saw that there were two huge barracudas on a grill at the front of the bar. We’d sat down with some other travelers and were playing cards when the owner walked over to us with the two huge fish and told us that “dinner was being served.” For free. We’d been planning on going to a restaurant and getting a very similar fish for dinner, so we really felt like we won big. We ended up staying at the bar all night listening to music (the owner is also the bar’s musician), eating, and drinking. But, I guess whoever said “there’s no such thing as a free dinner” had never been to Tawan Eco Bar on Koh Kood.
The next morning we set out to explore the southern half of the island on our bike. This turned out not to be such an easy feat because many of the beaches we wanted to see were kilometers off the main road, which meant driving the bike down gravel/sand/dirt roads. Dave is a great driver and got us to all the beaches safely, but it wasn’t easy. All of the beaches were gorgeous, perfect for swimming, and we pretty much had them to ourselves, but if you’re not an experienced motorbike rider, be careful!
The highlight of the day, however, came at lunchtime (surprise, surprise!). We ended up at Ao Yai pier for lunch, which was a very cute little fishing village and had tons of great seafood restaurants. We choose the biggest restaurant with the best view and had an awesome lunch there, while overlooking the village and the ocean.
We had a little extra time in the afternoon, so we headed north again to try to find the Big Tree. Once we found where it was supposed to be, there was a sign saying it was 10+km down a dirt road, and after a morning of dirt roads, we didn’t have it in us. Luckily, Dave found one of his favorite things ever: an outdoor gym, where he was able to work out for a while.
That night we decided to take advantage of our nice balcony for happy hour and then we headed to the most popular restaurant in town for dinner, The Fisherman Hut. We got another whole fish (a different kind this night) and had a great last meal of our trip.
We didn’t really have high expectations going in to this vacation because we thought we may be bored on these smaller, less popular islands, but both of them ended up being two of our favorite islands that we’ve visited in Thailand. They were a little quieter than we’re used to, but they had some of the nicest beaches and water we’ve seen (perfect for swimming – and that’s from someone who usually doesn’t like to swim), and plenty to do both during the day and at night to keep anyone busy for a couple days each. There wasn’t much action right on the beach (you know we love a good fire show and dinner on the beach), but they both had cute towns and good food options, both local and western. Definitely make sure you check out these islands during high season to ensure the boats are running and everything is open, and if you can combine these islands with a few days on Koh Chang, it would really be a perfect Thai island experience, and one that would definitely compare to what you would find in the Andaman Sea (Phuket/Krabi/Phi Phi) or the Gulf of Thailand (Samui, Phangan, Koh Tao).