Koh Mak: How (Not) To Get to a Paradise Island in Thailand
Koh Mak is a tiny island in Thailand’s Gulf of Siam, right next to the Cambodian border. It’s not exactly remote but it’s not easy to get to either. Sandwiched between mass-tourism Koh Chang and soon-to-be-Pattaya Koh Kood, it’s a small island surrounded by crystalline shallow waters. If you miss the twice-daily ferry boats, you can charter your own private speedboat for the price of gold (which is what we did). Depending on where you stay on the island, internet varies from good to flimsy. Restaurants close early and there’s no wild moonlight party scene on the beach. The island doesn’t have 5-star hotels and because a dish features on a restaurant menu doesn’t mean that it’s available today. Mind you, there’s no ATM either so don’t forget your cash. The truth is, there isn’t much to do at all on Koh Mak apart from snorkeling, chilling and eating. All in all, heaven for anyone looking to enjoy the simple joys of a tropical island.
After lengthy online research, I had picked Koh Mak for a 4-day family trip with my girls and my friend Ashley and her two boys. Clearly on the slow side of island life, Koh Mak has a quirky kind of charm that’s becoming hard to find on Thai islands and it promised a glance of old-style Siam as well. Sabai, sabai, as they say in Thai, just relax. We were really looking forward to enjoying a slice of paradise. Little did we suspect that getting to Koh Mak would be an adventure in and of itself, a crazy blend of James Bond glam with surrealism à la Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I could have made it up but everything you’re going to read is the honest truth. Enjoy!
As I mentioned, we chartered a private boat to get to Koh Mak. The boat picked us up on Koh Chang after a day of jungle trek (which was cool, by the way) and we were all sweaty, dirty, sticky, muddy, bruised and scraped, and generally, eager to clean up. Right before reaching Koh Mak, the speedboat drove by the beautiful teeny island of Koh Kham where a derelict unfinished luxury resort looked upon a beach of fine white sand (imported from Dubai) and picturesque black rocks (imported too) jutting out of the water (local). In the golden light of the late afternoon, it looked like a James Bond scene in the making and in slo-mo, it would have been the bomb (cue the heavy metal guitar rift). Koh Mak was only slightly beyond Koh Kham so basically, we were almost there. Hurray, showers and cocktails for us!
Around 5pm, the boat dropped us off at the pier of Cococape Resort, our home for the next four days. I’d read amazing things about the bar at the end of the pier and couldn’t wait to try its list of cocktails. As one TripAdvisor reviewer wrote, one of the highlights of Koh Mak was “visiting the Blue Pearl bar at the end of the resorts pier. It was an excellent location for a sunset cocktail.” Not to mention, most likely an excellent location to snorkel from. Once our luggage unloaded on the steps of the elevated pier (extreme low tide), the boat crew waved us goodbye and drove away into the sunset. We had officially reached paradise. Welcome to Koh Mak and its funky signpost!
Nails sticking out of the pier. Dislodged boards unsteady under foot. All chairs and tables a royal mess where the bar should be. The pier was a wreck and looked like a construction zone (which, in hindsight, we realized it was.) Good grief, TripAdvisor reviewers, what have you been drinking! Have you been playing World of Warcraft with the pier?
With a heavy backpack and a bag on my shoulders, I treaded carefully on the pier, making sure before every step that the board wasn’t going to slide and send me flying into the water and onto the rocky bottom. I’m only slightly exaggerating, navigating the pier was at best a risky proposition. My girls were leading the way and being light-footed, crossed without difficulty a rather significant gap in the pier (as in, only metal beams on the sides and no boards in between). I, on the other hand, was as agile as a left-footed cow with all my luggage and afraid to fall through the hole.
Down below, I could see lots of sharp rocks and colorful fishes. I yelled “Careful, there’s a gap!” to Ashley and her boys and had to breathe twice before taking a leap of faith over the crystal clear waters. Geez, was pier maintenance on the moon? We kept going for a little while and I was too busy watching my step to notice that something fishy was afoot. That’s when my 12-year-old turned around and looked at me in utter disbelief. “Maman, what do we do now?”
Wait. What was the issue?
The pier was gone.
I thought of Adele’s opening line in the song Skyfall.
The pier disappeared in the water a good 20 meters from shore with no visible way to get from one to the other. So close yet so far! No steps, no ladder, only a metal cable and I hadn’t paid for the Survivor experience. We were speechless and couldn’t make any sense of it. Here we were with all our luggage on our shoulders, stranded on a pier cut from land, too high to jump safely in the water and without a phone connection to call the hotel. Oh, and nighttime would be upon us within the hour. Who said that the Land of Smiles was a piece of cake?
Luckily, a guy walked past on the shore and I seized the moment. “Help!” I yelled, waving my hands frantically. He stopped (we must have been a sight) and I asked him to alert the reception staff at Cococape Resort. I only hoped that he could hear me because I could barely hear him. Hopefully, our situation was self-explanatory. I warned Ashley to turn around with her boys and we did the same, retracing our steps to the messy bar area. At least, we could sit and wait there. What to do?
My 10-year-old, already in her swim suit, offered to swim from the steps and go look for help on land. I wasn’t so hot about the idea but hell, someone had to go. Only, I should be the one going, not the kiddo. “Cold beer?” Ashley offered as a diversion. Surprisingly, the bar fridge was plugged in and badly padlocked, which guaranteed a cold beer for Ashley who got behind the bar as official bartender. Things were looking up, we had a fridge full of drinks! We were even considering the soda selection for the kids when we heard an engine sputtering in the distance. The search and rescue party?
Within minutes, a white boat docked at the foot of the pier by a construction ladder we hadn’t taken seriously (too steep, not enough steps). “Welcome to Cococape Resort!” a lovely woman said from the boat. Clearly, it was an invitation to go down the ladder with our luggage. Why not the perfectly fine steps at the end? I’ll never know. Never mind. On the boat, the woman casually explained that the pier had been destroyed in a storm two weeks ago (obviously) and that they had been expecting us as we were the last guests of the day. No kidding.
Once on land, Koh Mak was as expected and even better. The Thai suites at Cococape Resort were amazingly beautiful and featured a four-poster bed with mosquito net, air-conditioning and fridge in the bedroom. A wooden balcony offered great views with hammock facing the ocean and the bathroom had a gigantic bathtub with all the bells and whistles you can expect from a fancy resort. Sweet! Too bad the hot water didn’t work properly for the bathtub but even so, it was way too hot to consider a steaming bath in an open air bathroom, so perhaps the lack of hot water was for the best. At least, the air conditioning was working fine and we quickly cooled off. Bliss.
At once, the kids changed into their swim suits to hit the swimming pool and its fantastic water slide. But wait. “The pool closes at 6pm,” the reception desk told us. We looked at our watch. 5.40 pm. Say what? It was for the peace and quiet of guests staying above the pool. Man, closing a gorgeous swimming pool just when the most beautiful sunset sets the sky on fire is cruel! Since we had extenuating circumstances (funky pier arrival and all), the reception staff said that the kids could still go in the swimming pool but they couldn’t stay for long. (They clearly under-estimated our junior crew.)
Us grownups made ourselves at home in our respective sweet Thai suites and once settled, hit the reception area for drinks. If the pier bar was now a distant dream, the main bar was open for business. I had been dreaming about a fresh young coconut all day. Thai islands are notorious for their delicious fresh young coconuts and there’s nothing like one of these green guys to switch on my happy button. Fortunately, it was on the menu. “A fresh young coconut, please?” “Sorry, no coconut.” No fresh young coconuts? OK, so the kitchen was out today but I looked around the Cuban-style reception building. Its gardens were dotted with coconut trees all bearing coconuts at the top and “Beware of coconuts falling from the tree” warning signs at the bottom. No fresh coconuts? I pointed to a tree with a Gallic shrug. Surely, one of these would do? “Coconuts no good,” the woman across the drinks counter said. She looked at a calendar on the wall. “Coconuts come by boat from Trat in 4 days. You wait until Friday?” Friday, sweetheart, we would all be gone. Forget the fresh young coconut. We ordered a fruit shake instead (watermelon for me), which was delicious but not quite as satisfying as a young coconut as I was getting hungry and love eating the inside of fresh coconuts.
Later that night, we sat down for dinner at the restaurant with all four kids. They had loved the swimming pool and totally overstayed their 6pm curfew, having a ball shrieking down the water slide and diving in the infinity pool. Good for them, they had deserved it. We were all clean and happy, ready for a good night’s sleep. The bedroom was gorgeous and the next day promised freedom to snorkel for all. Our rustic log table was occasionally cooled off by a fan, the open walls led to a sandy terrace and a waxing gibbous moon (I looked it up on Google) sent floating silver reflections on the open sea by the eerily destroyed pier. In hindsight, we were having a good laugh over our adventurous arrival to Koh Mak. I texted some details to my mom who replied, in essence “I’m in awe but that’s not at all for me. Good luck!” The sound of chirping geckos and happy frogs filled the night.
Life was good. It was heaven, after all. Sabai sabai. We were ready for the unexpected. Welcome to Koh Mak:)