The thing about paradise, especially in Thailand, is that it needs caretakers who are adamant about keeping it as such. And impressively, Koh Kood’s has come largely as the Thai government, which seemingly prefers to contain the beach crowds to existing hot spots like Phuket, Koh Samui, and Koh Chang. The latter, also in Trat, was hit with a wave of terrible mudslides in 2010, which were attributed to soil erosion caused by resort construction. As at Soneva Kiri, strict restrictions have been placed on Koh Kood regarding deforestation, building with concrete, recycling, and infrastructure.
The first and only time I put my shoes on all trip was when I went out to explore the rest of the island. Although it’s the fourth largest island in the country—an hour’s drive from north to south—most of Koh Kood is quite empty. Its 2,500 residents mostly reside in a few small fishing villages, there are some 30 lodgings for tourists that primarily come as low-key bungalows, and little else. There are no banks or ATMs on the island, and its first power line from the mainland is set to come online later this year; for years, solar and generator power have sustained the entire island.
My guide, Kae, grew up on Koh Kood before going to study and live in Bangkok, only coming back when his parents were older and needed caretaking. He first took me to the temple in Ao Salat, the island’s main fishing village about a 30-minute drive from the resort. “I was so unhappy when I had to leave Bangkok,” he told me as we stood at the top of the temple’s bell tower, looking out over the top of an enormous golden Buddha toward the ocean, where five blue fishing boats were making their way back to shore like ducklings in a row. “There’s nothing really to do here—no nightlife, no attractions, you know everyone. But now I’m so happy, I’ll never leave. It’s such a natural way of life.”
Down at the dock, an old ferry boat had just come in with a cargo of goods from the mainland—Coca-Cola–branded refrigerators, beach furniture, packaged foods. We made our way past the assembly line of men doing the unloading, passing long stretches of metal mesh with millions of teensy pink shrimp laid out to dry, others with spiky black sea urchins. Fishing is still a substantial source of income for the island, and the villagers in Ao Salat refuse to secede to the growing tourism economy, or “sell out” as Kae put it. Small fishing boats painted in bright turquoise, pink, blue, and red bobbed in the water with ribbons and garlands laced around their prows for blessings. Some were piled with traps for crabs and squid, others with nets and long lines to drag underwater and hook grouper, barracuda, and mackerel. Kids hopped from stern to stern in a game of tag.
It was lunchtime, and everyone was sitting out by the boardwalk, sipping coffee and smoking. Kae was often called over by someone for a word about the intra-island soccer league game happening that night, in which he was apparently a key player. “The most beautiful soccer field in the world!” he said proudly, pointing at a patchy green plot on our way back to the car. I kept my mouth shut about the Englishmen’s pitch.
Like the resort, the island has one main, paved road sided with dense foliage that only occasionally breaks for a field of palm or rubber trees, Koh Kood’s other primary sources of income. Kae says islanders didn’t even begin using motorized vehicles until 30 years ago; his grandparents transported their farmed coconuts to the port at the bottom of the island by foot or with the help of oxen. Driving up to what Kae called the Eco House, he admitted he misses the days when there were no cars or motorcycles. He used to have to hike three hours through the forest to visit the House; now, curious tourists can pull right up.
Nevertheless, when we arrived, we were the only ones there aside from the owner, a shirtless old man with oily skin and deep smile lines who was presently working in the kitchen of his open-air, stilted wooden house. He turned off the stove and came to greet us, introducing himself to me as Khun Wien. He set up camp here 40 years ago, and now his land is a hodge-podge of rubber trees, pineapples, fish pools, greenhouses, coconut and banana trees, and pot after pot of herbs. We sat and chatted with Wien for a while, occasionally one of his roaming cats or dogs coming up for a pet. Despite Kae’s grievances, I couldn’t help but be charmed with the thought that hanging out with an old farmer is a main attraction on the island.
To get to our last stop, we bounced up a rocky dirt road deeper into the forest to see two ancient macca trees—one 300 years old named Sai Yai and the other, 500, named Makayuk—both believed to have magical powers.Islanders come and pray to them, and offerings of candles, incense, snacks, and clothing were nestled among their sprawling mazes of old roots. Another banyan that for a couple hundred years tried to take over Makayuk was in the last decade cut back; its hacked roots now hang like a curtain around the back of Makayuk’s base. Craning my neck, I could see why the tree is so revered, standing strong in the grasp of its consumer, which it had nevertheless supported for so long. Save for the sound of our footsteps, the forest was absolutely silent as we left under a darkening sky.