Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Hanneke Rauch

Even while opening the scooter’s throttle to its maximum potential, I am sure its two tiny wheels will lose against what feels like a ninety degree uphill.  It is at roughly this point that I wonder if the laid back, easy going nature of the Thais, who nonchalantly rented out the bike without helmets, will get us into trouble.  But the view from the crow’s nest bar at the top of the monster hill, delivers on its promise.  On the horizon small lumps of lush islands lay scattered around the crystal clear blue Indian Ocean.  Palm trees and long tail boats are dotted all along the shore immediately below.   We are on Koh Phangan, a huge tropical bulge of land between Koh Samui and Koh Tao in the Gulf of Thailand.  From up here, I feel like shouting it to the world! 

Koh Phangan is renowned for its legendary full moon parties, a once a month international magnet, attracting scores of travelers from all over the world to come stomp around in the sand under the stars.  Although this sounds like a ton of fun, we are pleased to arrive in Phangan post the monthly extravaganza.  Instead we experience a tender atmosphere on the relieved island.

On route to the island from the equally beautiful Koh Tao, I befriend Om, a lovely local Thai lady.  Among interesting stories, she shares (what seems like) classified information about a lesser known resort.  Encounters like these are frequent in Thailand and has a charming way of making you abandon your travel itinerary.  If you don’t, you might miss gems like Om.  Her enthusiastic Thai telephone conversations from the deck of the ferry, salty waves whipping in her face, ensures that we are met in Phangan by locals who take us to the other side of the bumpy island.  We arrive at Haad Gruad, a resort tucked behind dirt roads and tropical jungle.  Words truly fall short here, and easily translate into cheesy cliché’s.  My only attempt is to describe us in the landscape.  We are moving images inside a perfect postcard.  The scenery is ridiculously gorgeous, as if it is showing off.  At the same time it is too cool to care, complete with hammocks and palm trees.  Bum glued to sand, Chang beer in hand, there is nothing to do but laugh in admiration.

Although we are told we are visiting the country at the beginning of tourist season, Koh Phangan proves that the masses are easily avoidable.  Contrary to popular belief, most of Thailand’s tropical islands offer the best of both worlds.  If the sanctuary of a secluded, rustic resort is what you prefer but still need a party fix, a walk, scooter or taxi ride into more popular stretches sprinkled with bright lights, bars and restaurants is painless.  And visa versa.  Haad Gruad, specifically has a very varied personality.  There is enough coconut, sand and sea to drift in until it feels like time has stopped.  And when that’s all done, the sunset is celebrated around a table at the most inexpensive price.  Fresh fish steamed with chilies, green curries, pad thai and ever flowing fresh fruit shakes.

As I circle the island on the scooter, with my best friend on the backseat, holding on for dear life, the experience starts to make sense.  Thailand has been described as heaven on earth.  It is often said that it is a pity this paradise is no longer a secret and that the presence of too many visitors has robbed it of its magic.  I would like to make a case for the contrary and add that like all secrets, one has to separate fact from fiction and make up your own version of the tale in the end.  A lot of the Thailand story is well known, and rightfully famous, but much of it retains a sense of unaffected natural charm.  If you crave it, you could find true rest and reflection in the company of a few smiling Thais on their home ground.