For the last half of our Thailand tour, we sank into the sand and sun of an outlying island: Pha-Ngan, where coconuts swayed overhead and the waves lapped the back doorstep of our beach houses.
The tour had arranged a relaxed collection of activities for us: massages on the beach, free afternoons, lazy mornings. Alive to the possibilities of a tropical retreat dedicated almost solely to tourism, I decided to charge the itinerary with a few optional excursions.
First, our accommodation: Hammocks hung from every porch. Before the pool, a wooden patio with electric turquoise and pink cushions for seats would serve up bowls of tropical fruit (manga, passion, dragon) and coconut juice from the shell (just add a straw), plus Nutella banana pancakes, lava cakes, and every combination of Thai and Italian plates.
The night of our arrival, we chanced on a celebration of the venue’s tenth anniversary. They invited us to party on the beach and in the pool, with a team of fire spinners to crown the occasion. The kerosene and chains catapaulted me straight back to high school, when my friends would light up kevlar on our driveways and spin to Christian rock music. I can’t say we ever attached sparklers to the ends of our poi, though!
We dried off and piled into the van for a full moon party, a spectacle that put Kho Pha-Ngan on the map. Our van careened up a jaw-droppingly steep slope, shuttling us to an open air restaurant. I stayed for coconut chicken and glow-in-the-dark skin paint, but nabbed a taxi back to bed before they hit the bucket bar.
The busiest day roamed over a waterfall and two beaches, including a snorkeling zone akin to diving into an aquarium. One step from the rocky stairs, then I was floating in school of sherbert and silvery stripes, with giant clams and corral undulating below. Lunch featured a cousin to lychee fruit, with a shock of colorful hair that would rival a Muppet or Sesame Street character. The waterfall, alas, has run dry this summer.
For our final stop, we scaled the island heights to a mountaintop bar. Our bungalows winked from below as we stretched out with tropical drinks in hand.
We dined at the night market, a miniature but mighty bazaar bursting with meat skewers, local fruit, and several international cuisines – even sushi! I gloried in coconut cakes arrayed on a banana leaf, only to top that with an almond-coconut-mango crepe. The vendor sliced open the ingredients before my eyes, scooping out the cream and golden fruit and frying it all in a fat pat of butter.
The tour gave us a chance to burn off the sweet treats the next day with a crash course in Muay Thai: the national art of kickboxing. The intstructor worked us all into a sweat before sending us into the ring with gloves on. “You do Kung Fu?” one of the assistants asked in an undertone as we punched, shuffled, and blocked on command. I shook my head: “Tae Kwon Do!” Dusting off my round house kick has fired me up for more – I might hunt out a gym in Oxford.
A few of us invested our free afternoon in a visit to the island’s new elephant sanctuary. The visit confirmed reports that Asia’s elephants out-cuddle their giant African cousins — outside Johannesburg, when I visited a park over New Year’s, the guides warned us to watch our step and approach only when instructed. Here, the Thai keepers waved us forward: “Pet her, she’s friendly!”
The program guided us through mixing up a meal of island banana, white rice, chopped leaves, and protein pellets. The star of the show lifted the sticky snack balls straight from our fingers, expertly manipulating the offerings with her trunk before popping them into her mouth. Then we played a hose over her broad back while she shut her eyes in contentment and tossed up trunkfulls of dust and mud to complement the spa treatment.
The rest of the group proceeded to hike through the trees with our lovable friend, but I returned to the beach for a spontaneous adventure: kite surfing! After spotting the professionals out on the waves during our beach party, I had decided to sign up for a beginner class. One course led to another — now I was embarking on day three, ready to launch from the water.
My teacher, a British chap, had progressed from drill sergeant to ski instructor to contemplating his own surfing school on the tropical island. He coached me on wind safety, manipulating the kite, steering myself through the waves — even meeting me at 6am to accommodate our beach tour schedule. Steering the kite strikes me as something between ballroom dancing and bicycling … when the wind cooperates, that is.
For our last lesson, I achieved lift-off — but not much further. “You’re qualified for a water start now,” he assured me. Next stop for my training, an ocean lagoon ideal for beginners: France, Brazil … or maybe Egypt?
We toasted the tour’s finale with fine dining by the beach. On the way, a fellow traveler from German regaled me with tales of picnics and river cruises via stand-up paddling – “my favorite sport,” she smiled. At the restaurant, a coconut shake and magnificent poke bowl satisfied my taste buds as I quizzed our group’s bona fide pastry chef on his former life at a Michelin star restaurant in London. “Food can only get so good,” he confided, “but service – that’s what people remember.”
Today finds me wending my way north again, back to Bangkok for two nights before I depart for Cambodia!