Thailand has over a thousand islands. This is because the gulf these floating paradises inhabit is a shockingly shallow 85 meters at its deepest point. You could say that it’s harder to choose which one to visit than it is for a new one to peek its white sandy beaches above the surf of the crystal clear waters. Lucky for me, I’ve lived here long enough to acquire a few type-A locals to make that decision much easier for me. My girlfriend Karn and I picked Koh Mak island, the smaller and quieter neighbor to the expat favorite Koh Chang.
After putting our fifth grade math to good use, Karn and I decided that driving ourselves wasn’t much more expensive than the 300-400 baht bus to the port city of Trat, and we packed her Suzuki Swift (it’s like a Mini Cooper but with less Mark Wahlberg movies devoted to it) for three days of adventuring in the ocean. The drive to the port was about five hours from Bangkok and we set out after work with plans to sleep at the port and make an early morning embarkation.
Passing the F.C.B.
Whether it’s relevant to an article focusing on the island or not, I feel it’s important to mention that there’s a bizarre oasis of restaurants along the otherwise barren highway. I’ve since begun referring to it as the F.C.B.: Franchise Cluster Bomb.
After getting out of the city limits, the view is a fairly predictable puzzle of rice fields cut into oddly shaped subplots that are either a lively green, dull brown or flooded, depending on the time of year. Suddenly and without warning, you’re forced to adjust to the reds of KFC, the yellows of McDonalds and the blacks of Pizza Hut. We slowed as if we were passing through the main street of a small town — only one where the citizens were grouped like gangs by the primary color polo shirts and nametags of their rivaled fast food franchises.
Like a violent sneeze in the middle of an orchestral performance, the F.C.B. was behind us in less than a minute and our peaceful panorama abruptly resumed until we reached our hotel in Trat late that night.
The first ferry of the day didn’t leave until late morning the next day, so we lazily drove to the pier and paid for long term parking. The one hour speedboat was a 24-seater with mostly commuters and locals of either the island or the port city. We arrived and disembarked, and were greeted by a stout, salt and pepper haired man with a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. While tossing boxes into the back of a pickup, he asked what resort we were heading to. He chuckled when we replied with the name of our destination, Holiday Beach Resort, and said, “Well, you’re lucky. That’s my resort. Hop in back.”
It was a bumpy and relatively scenic ride to our accommodation where we learned that P’Bom, the owner of Holiday Beach Resort, was one of four (count ‘em!) Thai competitive disc golf players. He was excited to learn I was from America, arguably where the sport became most famous, and that I had even played on official courses during my time in university. P’Bom had studied the sport on YouTube and even fabricated his own “holes” by welding chains and baskets together in a perfect imitation of regulation courses. He was a slightly older man, but his eyes had the excitement of a young boy showing his older brother a new toy as he explained that he’d placed a few holes around the resort and a full nine-hole course elsewhere on the island. We were intrigued.
Welcome to Paradise
Our online booking told us we had a private beachfront cottage with full amenities to ourselves—but that doesn’t mean we weren’t quietly nervous as we walked from the club house to our home for the next three days. It’s hard to imagine even the most fickle traveler being disappointed with what this location has to offer. The cottage doesn’t have the polished feel that some may come to expect from island resorts, but the worn wooden floors and hammock on the deck gave it a homey feel that’s worth far more than the $20 USD/night sticker price.
Next stop after checking in was lunch. All of the meals on Koh Mak can be summed up in one sentence: every dish was made with seafood caught within a few kilometers, and was cooked with the milk of coconuts grown on the island. That’s really all there is to it. Every restaurant was as good as the last and it has to be tasted to be believed.
P’Bom told us earlier that 5pm was the daily appointment for resort guests to play disc golf with him, and like clockwork, he emerged from the kitchen clothed in a sleeveless shirt with pockmarked holes on one shoulder where his heavy disc bag had worn the fabric thin. Sunset was just before 7pm, and the various coconut milk cocktails became increasingly scarce as guests walked barefoot back to their accommodations.
Karn and I took this trip during one of the slowest travel months of the year (August), but even during busier times, the island has a mere 300 permanent residents and can’t come close to housing as many visitors as the more well-known islands. P’Bom tells us that the nightlife never reaches the level of the beachfront echo of loud music and drunken hollering that seasoned beach-goers know so well. Because of its lack of celebrity, nobody that makes it to Koh Mak seems too bothered by this lack of debauchery.