Beach Camping in Thailand
December 19, 2014
Seaside camping away from it all is closer than you think. Not far from Phuket, Joe Cummings discovers an Andaman archipelago so untraveled there aren't even fishing boats on the horizon. Photographed by Adam Frost.
Published on Dec 19, 2014
Forget palm trees.
Yes, they're the ultimate iconography of the Robinson Crusoe getaway. And that's precisely the problem. Palms represent the exotic to the masses, but Asia's beaches are as diverse as its people. Most of southern Thailand's palm-free shores, lined instead with beautifully waving sea pines or mangroves, are blissfully deserted sea specks where you need to bring a packed lunch… or learn how to fish.
The Kam group of islands is part of Thailand's Laem Son National Park.
A case in point is the Kam Archipelago. Never heard of it? I've lived in Thailand for two decades and neither had I until year 2014, just after a boutique start-up opened an exclusive tented camp on small, uninhabited Koh Kam Nui. North of the Surins and a bit east of Burma's maritime border, this cluster of 20 islands features white coral beaches and mangrove thickets enclosing interiors of densely forested hillocks, all part of Laem Son National Park, based in Ranong province on the mainland. It's an enormous, empty playground basically in Bangkok's backyard that I visited with Indochine Safari Company, for some high-end camping cheek by jowl with wildlife, from parrots to rare deer. With 100 kilometers of Andaman Sea coastline, the littoral topography here represents Thailand's longest protected shoreline.
And not a palm tree in sight.
AS MY BRIGHTLY PAINTED LONG-TAIL BOAT LEAVES
a rickety fishing pier for the 45-minute trip to Koh Kam Nui, I feel something I haven't felt in a very long time: Expectation. It's a surge that mounts as we bounce from wave to wave. I'd almost completely forgotten about the buzz that comes with the anticipation of experiencing someplace new. There's a quickening of the pulse, and an inexplicable sensation that my retinas are sharper, more receptive than usual. The last time I felt this must have been when I explored Burma's then-untrammelled, un-guidebooked outer reaches back in the 80's.
A painted long-tail boat
In drawing that comparison I have something in common with Indochine Safari's founders, Australian Jeff LaValette, who hardhat pearl hunted all over Burma's Mergui Archipelago, and London-born Adam Frost, who ran a tented safari camp on Wa Ale Kyun islet there. "We were the first foreigners to live in the islands in fifty years," Adam says, "and had license to explore." So although shifting politics made them give up their businesses in Burma, they couldn't give up their taste for the freedom of the unknown.
It's a feeling I didn't realize I'd missed until I find myself straining against the bow of the boat to get a better look at terra incognita, taking in as many clues as I can—the sizes and shapes of the islands, the forest cover, the visible beaches. As we close in on Koh Kam Nui, I'm spellbound by the deep-green treetops waving in the breeze high atop a ridge that ripples lengthwise across the island.
We're making for a wide sand beach directly in front of us, framed by rocky mangrove headlands at each end. The sky is the intense, lapis lazuli you only see over the Andaman during March and April, the sole lengthy gap between southern Thailand's two annual monsoon seasons. At landfall, it's a short wade through the rocky shallows to the pillowy shore, where Adam and Jeff greet us with cold drinks. In addition to having rainforest, rock cliffs and sandy beaches, impossibly idyllic Koh Kam Nui is blessed with a large, flat grassy area alongside a leeward beach: a safe, attractive site for the spacious camp.
Alone as far as the eye can see on forested and hillocked Koh Kam Nui
My tent home for the next three nights occupies its own clearing, shielded on three sides by prime rainforest but with plenty of holes in the forest canopy to let in sporadic shafts of sunlight. The capacious green canvas, held securely in place by sturdy guy-wires and bowed shafts, is shaped like a half cylinder lying on its side. Walking into the vestibule—I hesitate to use the term "glamping," but there's a vestibule—I'm surprised at how easily my 1.9-meter frame is accommodated at full height. Towards the back of the tent sit two beds made of giant bamboo fitted with thick mattresses, sheets, pillows and tropical quilts. Ample light fixtures dangle from various points on ceiling, and there are long rods for hanging clothes. Two rugged, diminutive fans—powered, like the lights, by solar cells—keep the inside pleasantly ventilated during my stay, even with the hot season well underway. Outside, a cured-bamboo table and two chairs are perfect for lounging and reading and, in a corner of my campsite, a cluster of trees shields a gravity-fed outdoor shower from passers-by—of which the possibilities are, by design, few to begin with. There are only four campgrounds, for a maximum of eight castaways.
A cavernous ten at Indochine Safari's camp
Still, there are purpose-built public areas, and they are inviting: a huge rock fire-pit, a long wooden table for dining and a rustic kitchen set up beneath a large ficus tree. No point in the camp is more than 20 meters or so from the beach, which means whenever the urge strikes, you can dunk yourself into the sea in seconds.
My favorite spot? Down the beach from the dining area, a venerable old mangrove leans out over a soft bed of sand. Hung from its branches is a long, wide hammock that the ever-handy Adam—who runs every trip—has fashioned from rope and smooth chunks of sea-polished driftwood. When the tide reaches its zenith, hammock-swayers are partially immersed in the cradling waters.
When the tide reaches its zenith, hammock swayers are cradled by the sea
It's an effort to extract myself from full hammock trance, but I can always roll back in (sorry, fellow travelers, I've staked my claim). Besides, it's time for a hike through the forest and across the island to a cove on the opposite side. While the lee side beach of the camp is lapped by tranquil waters, here you get the feeling of the open ocean, with rousing surf bouncing steadily off the high granite cliffs at either end of the steeply curving bay.
We climb the rock promontory at the south end of the cove and are greeted by inspiring views of the watery horizon on one side and, on the other, a beach backed by high rainforest canopies pierced here and there by majestic dipterocarp, the kings of jungle flora. Photos taken and appropriate exclamations of awe exchanged, I slip back down the rocks and dive into the surf for a pre-sunset swim. Aside from our party of four, there is no other evidence of human presence in any direction—not even a fishing boat on the horizon.
As the yellow ball of sun drops behind a blue wall of water, we re-group and trek back to camp, for icy cocktails and fresh seafood hors d'oeuvres. Over a few refills—they’ve stocked a bottle of Jack Daniels in camp, noting my pre-departure preference for bourbon—our group of five gets to know each other. One fellow camper, Craig Henderson, grew up on a tea plantation in the Seychelles, and worked as a pearl farm manager in Australia and Indonesia. His company, Archipelagopearls, raises oysters in Burma and produces exquisite jewelry showcased in five-star resort galleries. Before my three nights on the island are over, I will be brimming with knowledge about pearling in Southeast Asia, regaled by tales of farm mutinies, pearl heists and the peculiar lives people such as Craig and Jeff—who walked the Mergui seafloors in copper-and-brass, glass-windowed helmets—have led in the service of the milky-white sea goddess.
The lapis lazuli of the Andaman
In the cooling evening, Craig places a board topped with a huge grilled jack crevalle on the main dining table. I can't help but marvel at the size of the fish and, after sampling meaty chunks, its overwhelming freshness as well. Known by a host of other names, including bluefin trevally and bluefin kingfish, the flat, football-shaped fish can measure a meter or more in length and is as highly valued among sport fishermen as it is with gourmets. You don't see them in Bangkok, or at least I never have.
ANOTHER THING YOU NEVER SEE: THE POODLE-SIZED
mouse deer, one of the several species of deer found throughout this small archipelago—that is, on the rare occasions the shy creatures come out of hiding. Throughout my stay in these secret isles, kayaking, trekking and simply casting my eyes skyward yields frequent and exhilarating fauna sightings. It's not unusual to spot flocks of wild parrots—lime green and coral little squawkers—and occasional hornbills. A tribe of langurs cavorts high in the treetops each sunset. On the nearby Piak Nam Yai and Thao, long-tailed macaques use crude stone tools for cracking the shells of their prey.
After the languid days, I retreat to my tent, glowing with solar bulbs, and fall asleep to the harmonizing sounds of sea and forest. Night after night, I find the natural soundscape unimpeded by air-conditioner hum, distant dance beats and other aural artifacts of mass beach tourism we take for granted. For me, it's hugely enjoyable, not to mention detoxifying. It's the original soundtrack for old-school beach tripping. It’s a feeling I'd stored away in a mental drawer for posterity. Here on the shores of Koh Kam Nui, I restock my reserve.
Another languid day ends.
Fly to Phuket and take a taxi to the Ban Kampuan jetty in Ranong province; from there you’ll take a long-tail boat to Koh Kam Nui. Or, Indochine Safari Company can arrange your transfers for an additional fee.
Indochine Safari Company A10 The Royal Place, 96/68 Praphuketkhew Rd., Kathu, Phuket; +66 87 000 1501; indochine-safari.com.