Recently I’ve been hopping around Thailand’s Andaman coast to see what has been spared by mass tourism. If all you’ve ever seen is Khao Lak, Phuket and Koh Phi Phi, you might be convinced that high-density resorts, high-rise beach condos and 7-Eleven clones were the norm for Thai beaches and islands.
Amazingly enough, I found there are a few places that are still untouched by this general trend. I first stopped over on Koh Jum in the early 1990s while updating the Lonely Planet Thailand guidebook. I arrived on one of the tourist boats that link Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lanta, with a quick stop at the southern pier on Koh Jum. I’d already been to Koh Lanta a few times by that point and could see where the latter was heading – and as fast as it could. Koh Phi Phi by this time was unrecognisable compared to my first visit there in 1981.
Back then amoeba-shaped Koh Jum was relaxed, friendly and undeveloped. A couple of rustic beach bungalow developments perched near the southern tip, where a quiet breed of backpackers congregated.
Meanwhile the wild, undulating west coast to the north offered a string of empty beaches, while tidy fishing villages clung to the placid, mainland-facing east coast. Travelling for a guidebook update is usually so fastpaced and deadline-driven that one rarely has a chance up country to actually enjoy the beautiful places one is writing about.
My 1990s trip to Koh Jum was no exception. No sooner had I completed a quick motorcycle survey of the island and spent a single night in a wood and bamboo-thatch bungalow, I was on another tourist boat heading to Koh Lanta, looking back over my shoulder and promising myself that someday I’d come back with more time to spare and less editorial pressure.
But then as I took on co-authors for LP Thailand, I found myself leaning more towards the north of the country, letting the newbies handle the labour-intensive islands slog. Hence, though it’s difficult even for me to believe, I didn’t make it back to Koh Jum until this year.
As my chartered longtail boat comes to rest on the island’s southwest coast, I’m expecting the worst. But instead of finding Koh Jum over-run by tour groups, multi-storey resorts and throbbing beach clubs, with relief I realise it doesn’t look much different. Coconut orchards and coastal mangrove backed by hillocks tufted
with rainforest is how I remember the topography, and that picture hasn’t changed one bit. The sound of waves crashing on the beach and birds in the trees – striking for the complete absence of humming air-con compressors, zooming jet skis and unnecessary beach music – completes the nostalgia trip.
I’m staying at Koh Jum Beach Villas, which makes a fine point of cultivating the laid-back approach coupled with high-quality, low-density development. Spread thinly amid 40 rai (about 16 acres) along 700 meters of beach, the privately owned villas are rented out to visitors by the night or the week. Around 80 percent of the land is covered in natural vegetation or landscaping, with an abundance of cashew and almond trees, pines and palms. The villas, which depending on the size will sleep from two to 10, are built with high-quality, licensed teak and other hardwoods, and feature thatched roofs, large wooden decks and well-designed windows that allow for generous cross-ventilation. For those of us who want to taste the salt air and fall asleep to the murmuring sea while enjoying comfortable, canopied beds and well-equipped kitchens, it doesn’t get any better than this.
Houses are designed with low-energy, green design elements and maximum air flow; which provide cool microclimates in the villas and avoid the use of energy draining air conditioners. Passive solar heating on the roof supplies hot water, while electrical appliances and lighting are chosen for low-energy efficiency.
After settling in at a striking one-room, two-person villa with floor-to-ceiling windows facing the beach and a private splash pool, I arrange to rent a motorcycle for a tour around the island.
One of the oddities about the island is that it has two names. If you’re in the hilly northern half of the island, it’s called Koh Pu, and if on the flatter southern half, you’re in Koh Jum. Each end has a village named accordingly, Ban Koh Pu and Ban Koh Jum.
As I motor away from the resort, my next big surprise is finding that most of the island roads are still unsealed. This is almost unheard of for a Thai island with a population of 2,000. There is one sealed road that links the main north-south dirt road with Ban Koh Jum on the southeast coast, and another that spiked of to Ban Ting Rai, but that’s it.
Heading north, I stop off at the pretty bays of Ao Liya, Ao Ting Rai, Ao Maphrao and at the very northern tip, Ao Luwo, on each of which there is minimal, rustic bungalow accommodation available, much in the style I remember from the 1990s.
I come around the northern end of the island to find a short road leading to Ban Koh Pu, a very tidy village with a long pier to accommodate local fishing boats. No one pays me any attention. Local men lie napping on their motorcycles. No tours to sell, no over-priced restaurants to hustle; what a pleasure. A painted sign at the entrance of the pier notes the times for ferryboats running between here and Laem Kruat on the mainland.
Zigzagging south along the island’s mangrove-lined eastern shore, I finally reach Ban Koh Jum, which is slightly larger and more tourist-oriented then its northern counterpart. As the sun drops low in the sky, I park the motorbike and stroll through the seaside village looking for cold beer and fresh seafood.
I find just what I need at Koh Jum Seafood, which appears to be the only real waterfront restaurant in Ban Koh Jum, perhaps on the entire island. Sitting at a wooden table on the restaurant’s pier, I enjoy an impressive meal of fresh steamed crab along with serene views of the shimmering water and islets to the east.
In the distance I can just make out the profile of Koh Lanta, and take a moment to congratulate myself for not being there.
Koh Jum Beach Villas
320 Moo 3, Koh Sriboya, Nua Klong, Krabi, Thailand 81130
kohjumbeachvillas.com | 08 6184 0505