Pristine ... Koh Hong is a rare piece of south-east Asian paradise because it escapes high tourist traffic. Photo: Getty Images
In a country with endless ways to get wet Katrina Lobley packs her swimmers to road-test five of them.
Before heading to Thailand’s ridiculously picturesque Phang NgaBay — the stretch of water between Phuket and Krabi that’s home to more improbable limestone isles than a pirate’s tale — I’d never heard of Koh Hong.
And why would I? The craggy limestone isle hasn’t attracted Hollywood’s cameras in the way that Koh Tapu (Nail Island, better known as James Bond Island after starring in The Man with the Golden Gun) has or Phi Phi further to the south (where Leo DiCaprio filmed The Beach).
Nor is Koh Hong of any great size — it’s a speck in comparison to Phuket or Koh Samui on the other side of the Malay Peninsula. Yet Koh Hong’s relative anonymity is a great reason to point yourself in its direction: there is no battling for a patch of sand on Pelay, its only beach, no one trying to sell you this, that or the other – just a lone lifeguard stationed at a desk. It’s that rare thing in southeast Asia: a little piece of paradise that’s genuinely relaxing. Koh Hong is also just a day trip rather than an overnight destination.
Koh Hong, which translates to Room Island, is within sight of the Thai mainland. Travellers usually arrive via a traditional long-tail boat from Ao Nang. Sofitel’s Krabi Phokeethra Golf &Spa Resort is 15 minutes’ drive west of Ao Nang in the tiny ocean-front village of Klong Muang. Guests at the resort can travel to Koh Hong via speedboat, stepping onto its pristine sands a mere 10 minutes after departure.
The resort’s island day trip comes complete with a ‘‘beach butler’’.
Leng helps us spread mats under shady trees, from which we look out over a calm stretch of beach almost enclosed by sheer rock formations.
While it’s tempting to laze around all day, we have a mission: to kayak around to the back of the island and find our way into the ‘‘room’’ – a secret lagoon. We hop into twin kayaks and paddle past the island’s unclimbable cliffs. Ducking through a low-hanging arch, we nose our way into the lagoon via a passageway that would be easy to miss if you weren’t looking for it.
We continue around the island, exchanging nods and waves with caretakers living in a cliff-side cave — Leng tells me they’re protecting precious bird nests formed from the hardened saliva of swift lets. It hardly sounds delicious but the rare delicacy can fetch more than $US1000 ($975) a kilogram.
Speaking of food, we’re ravenous so we paddle faster to reach Pelay Beach’s picnic shelter. The day trip includes lunch options: I dive into a spicy beef noodle salad that’s as thrillingly hot as the sun’s rays.
As lunch settles, I browse information boards to learn which fish call these balmy waters home and also a little more about the 2004 tsunami that devastated this region, including Koh Hong. Today, a tsunami warning speaker pokes discreetly through the rainforest canopy.
The all-villa Vijitt Resort is at Phuket’s quiet southern end. There’s a serene spa with thatched treatment rooms overlooking a lush ravine, and a 40-metre beachfront infinity pool — but its 250 metres of Friendship Beach frontage is not so great for swimming. Guests keen for a better beach outing can catch one of the daily shuttles to Nai Harn Beach further south or head over to nearby Coral Island. Facilities on Coral Island include a restaurant and bar with deckchair service.
Back on Phuket, a cross-island drive takes us north-west to the Andaman White Beach Resort, with its own secluded ocean cove and a sculpture-fringed 40-metre pool.
Extraordinary swimming experiences are harder to come by in Bangkok but we find ourselves in one of the city’s most divine pools with a view. The Sofitel So’s pool is set 10 storeys above the crazy, bumper to- bumper city streets, directly across from the oasis that is Lumpini Park, Bangkok’s equivalent of New York’s Central Park. The open-air infinity pool has deckchairs sitting directly in the shallows, a length that allows fitness fanatics to stretch out and do laps, and an outlook that allows lazier types to drape themselves over the edge, soak up the sights of the metropolis and contemplate just how lucky they are.
The writer was a guest of Sofitel Luxury Hotels, World Resorts of Distinction and the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
Thai Airways flies from Sydney to Bangkok, connecting to Phuket and Krabi. Two-hour shuttle van transfer from Phuket to Sofitel Krabi Phokeethra Golf& Spa Resort costs from 4200 baht ($140) a person each way; one-hour speedboat transfers from Phuket to Sofitel Krabi cost from 950 baht a person each way (minimum passenger numbers apply). thaiairways.com.au.
Roomsat Sofitel Krabi start from 4900 baht a night, the Vijitt Resort from $220 a night,AndamanWhite Beach Resort from $290 a night and Sofitel So Bangkok from4800 baht a night. sofitel.com, vijittresort.com, and amanwhitebeach.com.
Sofitel Krabi’s Koh Hongday trips range from the lunch-only package (850 baht a person) to the luxury package (1250 baht a person) that includes lunch, snorkel equipment and an hour’s kayaking.