A double-decker ferry docked at a pier on the bank of the Don Sak River in Surat Thani's Don Sak district, about a 90-minute drive from Surat Thani Airport. The destination was not world-renowned Koh Samui or Koh Phangan but a smaller more low-profile island named Koh Phaluai.
About a dozen passengers including me were on board. We sat on two rows of wooden benches arranged for passengers on the second floor like how songthaew pick-up trucks do.
"You don't have to book a ticket in advance. Just arrive at our pier before departure time at 1pm. Call me again when you are in Don Sak so that I can give you directions," an employee of Samui Island Tour which operates the ferry service between the mainland and Koh Phaluai told me over the phone when I called a week before my trip.
Koh Phaluai is about 18km from the mainland. The journey by ferry takes about 90 minutes. About half of the land is part of Mu Koh Angthong National Marine Park which oversees about 40 islands and islets in Surat Thani. Koh Phaluai is the third-largest island in the park and the protected area can't be reached by car but is open to visitors by boat.
You can spot oriental pied hornbills everywhere while travelling on the island, especially during dawn and before dusk. At Number One restaurant on Ao Nueng, they prepare ripe banana to feed the birds around noon.
The pier for the ferry is located on Ao Song. As the island is named "the Green Island" since renewable energy is used by locals, I expected to see farms of tall wind turbines when the ferry was about to reach the island's pier, but I saw none. Instead, what I did see were green helix wind turbines, although the blades were hardly moving.
"The wind turbines were installed a decade ago. Every family has them but most of the wind turbines do not function anymore," said Perapon Sarakong, 65, a retired school director who has lived on the island for more than 30 years. "We still keep them as the symbol of the Green Island."
KOH PHALUAI IN THE PAST
About 70 years ago, locals from Koh Samui and Koh Tan sailed their boats to Koh Phaluai to farm coconuts. At that time, the island was known as a source of fine bird's nest and it was managed by the Ratanamala Company. When the company learned about outsiders settling there, it asked them to leave.
Three years later when the concession ended, the same group of settlers pinned their hope on a new concession. They sent their representatives to negotiate with Laem Thong Bird's Nest. As luck would have it, the company allowed the people to return to the island on one condition -- they must not enter the cave that had birds' nests.
A fisherman offers a boat tour to visitors. The highlight of the trip is a fishing village around Ao Si and the white sandy beach at Ao Song Phi Nong.
Somkiat Chanchaem, the president of a Blue Crab Bank on Ao Nueng, shows a sponge crab. The female crab can produce an average of 2 million eggs. After hatching, the blue crab larvae will be fed in the nursery before being released back into the sea.
In 1958, the first group of people set out to build their houses on Koh Phaluai. Year after year, the community grew and soon there was a need for a school, a monastery and a medical centre. In 1972, Koh Phaluai School opened its door to children until the primary school level. At present, Phaluai is home to about 180 families. Most of them are fishermen and farmers.
Despite progress over the decades, the island did not have a stable electricity supply. People used oil lamps or diesel-powered generators. In 2011, the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva had an ambitious plan to turn Koh Phaluai into an environmentally friendly community. The aim was to have zero fossil fuel use.
The Energy Ministry worked with the local administration to implement wind turbines and solar panels for each household, however, electricity output was limited. People used these devices only for a few lights, an electric fan, or a cooker.
"We are happy to use renewable energy but the power is not enough," said Perapon who operates Phaluai Eco Resort with seven bungalows. Today, he has to use diesel-powered generators. With a limited supply of electricity, light is available from 6pm to 1am or sometimes until dawn depending on the number of guests.
On the island, households and convenience stores do not have refrigerators. Ice cubes and ice blocks are in high demand to keep food fresh and to serve cold drinks to customers. The ice is supplied from the mainland. Hence, the ferry service plays an important role in logistics as it brings food and goods to locals as well as delivering fresh seafood from the island to merchants on the mainland.
THE ARRIVAL OF TOURISTS
Westerners from Koh Samui were among the first group of visitors to Koh Phaluai.
"They set up tents along the beach because there were no bungalows on the island at that time. Thanks to them spreading the word, we began to receive more visitors on the island," said Perapon. "Those who visit Koh Phaluai are nature-lovers. The island is the perfect place for people looking for an eco-friendly vacation."
Thale Waek or the sandbar can be seen at low tide and is one of the attractions of Koh Phaluai.
A villager sells handmade bracelets, necklaces and face mask lace holders next to the Number One seafood restaurant.
Dried squid is one of the popular products of the island along with fresh seafood.
Fishermen on Ao Si prepare to sell blue crabs to customers on the mainland. The sizes vary from two to four crabs per kilogramme. Prices are negotiable. The villagers catch the crab daily thanks to the Blue Crab Bank. It helps them to have a sustainable way of life.
When I arrived on the island, it was already late afternoon. I walked around on the two-lane concrete road to check out the surroundings. I saw oriental pied hornbills fly over my head followed by three hornbills flying from one tree to another across the street. I listened to their calls with excitement.
Oriental pied hornbills can be seen everywhere on the island, said Max, Perapon's assistant, who was also my tour guide. He told me that I could try kayaking before dinner.
"Our boat trip tomorrow will start at 7.30am so that it is not too hot. I will show you around the island so you can see the highlights," he said.
I woke up before the break of dawn the next day due to roosters crowing. I saw the Moon from my window as the Sun gradually shone its rosy hue across the sky. When I went out to the terrace of my bungalow, I saw an oriental pied hornbill on a branch of a tree. It was quite close and it did not fly away as if it was not afraid of people.
As the sky was clear, I told myself it would be a good day.
Seafood is fresh and cheap on Koh Phaluai. The recommended dishes from Phaluai Eco Resort are steamed blue crab, muek tom wan (squid in sweet soup), steamed shrimps and grilled fish. However, the resort and nearby convenient stores had run out of charcoal so the grilled menu was turned into deep fried fish instead.
Max drove me to the pier to board a boat. It was a fishing boat without benches for passengers. He told me to sit at the front. Our first stop was a fishing village at Ao Si. I saw fishing boats docked along the shore as groups of fishermen unloaded the nets they had used to set as a trap for blue crabs overnight. They showed me the blue crabs, big mantis shrimps and fish. They had bagged good catches.
"We catch a lot of blue crabs daily," said one fisherman. It was because they had a nursery called the Blue Crab Bank, added another.
There were three crab banks on the island. The members of the crab bank said that when they capture sponge crabs, they release them in the nursery. After the eggs hatch, those little crabs will be released back to the sea to help increase the survival rate. Their effort has paid off quite well.
From Ao Si, Max led me to see thale waek which is a sandbar that emerges at low tide. It looks like the sea is divided into two, which is the meaning of thale waek.
My next stop was Ao Song Phi Nong where the ranger's office of Mu Koh Angthong National Marine Park is located. "It is the most beautiful beach on the island," said Max.
While our boat was about to reach the beach, he pointed to an islet named Koh Lak and said it looked like Koh Tapu or James Bond Island in Ao Phangnga. When we set foot on the beach and looked back at the islet, Koh Lak looked more like a sailboat instead.
I liked Ao Song Phi Nong because of its cosy ambience and its white sandy beach. The water was calm and shallow. On the beach, there were swings, wooden benches and toilets. I think I could even spend a day on this beach just to swim and rest.
The picture of HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej the Great and HM Queen Sirikit the Queen Mother when they visited the island in 1972.
After the boat tour, I asked Max to drive me around the island. Since the roads are not connected to every beach, we visited the highlights. We started from Ao Nueng for lunch and visited another crab bank before driving to a small monastery on a hillside. Koh Phaluai School was our next stop where I visited the clean energy learning centre, which seemed to be abandoned and needed maintenance. Our last stop was at the only barbershop on the island of Ao Sam.
The barbershop had only one seat and offered haircuts for male and boys only. Women have to go to a salon in Don Sak, said my guide.
I asked Max to drive me to a viewpoint where I could have a bird's-eye view of the island. Unfortunately, the road was under construction and I was told it would take about a week for construction to be completed. In the future, there will be a new road built for bicycles as well, he added.
By this year or next, Koh Phaluai will have a larger pier to serve more visitors from Koh Samui. The project is backed by SET-listed Raja Ferry Port which offers a service between Don Sak on the mainland to Koh Samui and Koh Phangan.
The company plans to invest about 70 million baht to build a new pier on Ao Song on Koh Phaluai. The project has just passed public hearing and construction will begin soon.
"We hope more tourists come to the island. However, we are also concerned about carrying capacity," said Perapon. He plans to expand his facility by adding more bungalows on the beach. At present, there are eight bungalow operators on the island and a couple of seafood restaurants that accept tour groups on Ao Nueng and Ao Sam.
The clean energy learning centre is located in Koh Phaluai School. It exhibits solar energy systems as well as old and historical pictures of the island. There are also pictures of the late Somdet Phra Srinagarindra Boromrajajonani, or Somdet Ya (the Royal Grandmother), who visited the island four times and contributed 10,000 baht for building the school in 1972. Outside the centre are samples of wind turbines.
A fisherwoman shows a large mantis shrimp that she caught.
There is also concern about garbage left behind by the increasing number of tourists. Locals have said there will be a campaign asking tourists to bring back their litter as well as to conserve water.
The island has two reservoirs for supplying tap water to households. In the future, two more reservoirs will be built.
The Provincial Electricity Authority plans to invest 172 million baht for constructing a microgrid project powered by solar cells and electricity will be distributed to households so the island has enough supply to operate appliances day and night. The project is scheduled to start this year.
In the future, Koh Phaluai can be a role model for other islands that want to promote themselves as an eco-tourism destination. For now, it is the best time to visit the island when visitors are still few and far between.
- The ferry to Koh Phaluai is available daily at 1pm from Samui Island Tour Pier located in Don Sak Market. The return trip from Koh Phaluai to Don Sak is available at 4pm on odd days and 7am on even days. A one-way ticket is 150 baht. For more information, contact 089-288-2413 and 081-979-6184 for ferry service on odd days and 061-250-1610 and 091-705-5598 for even days.
- If you drive, there is a car park available. Just drive to the ticket booth and get your ticket first. There will be a motorcycle taxi to lead you to a parking lot. The fee is 50 baht per day. From here, you can ride the motorcycle to the pier.
- If you want to explore the island by boat, rent a motorcycle, or ask for a land tour with a pick-up truck, contact your bungalow operator. The fee for a boat trip is 1,700 baht. A motorcycle is 200 baht a day. For a pick-up truck service, the price is negotiable.
- For accommodation, I stayed at Koh Phaluai Eco Resort. The rate is 900 baht including breakfast. Call 066-160-3332. Other options are Phaluai Homestay (097-135-1722), Punyawee Homestay (091-718 -3465), Rueangsri Homestay (098-671-5519), Angthong Beach Resort (099-184-6448), Koh Phaluai Beach (098-680-2857) and Koh Phaluai Cottage (098-680-2857).