Small blessings

A short boat trip from Phuket, tiny Koh Naka boasts a luxury resort and beautiful beaches

Only a five-minute ride by speed boat from Phuket, Koh Naka is an utterly different world. It is quiet and does not have any nocturnal entertainment because the island is home to a Muslim community.

Crystal clear waters off Naka Island’s east coast.

Koh Naka occupies only 1,500 rai of land (240 hectares), including hills and you can paddle a canoe around the island within two hours or explore it by foot.

The northern tip of the island is home to Naka Island Resort & Spa, a luxurious private hideaway. It's a surprise to find that the low-profile island boasts rooms in Starwood's Luxury Collection. From the hotel, there is a small lane that is just wide enough for two motorcycles linking the property to the Muslim fishing village on the southwest of the island. A rubber plantation is found along the way including some households that raise goats.

Children at Ban Koh Naka School, the only school on the island.

Most of the villagers are fishermen, said Somposh Sawasdee, acting director of Ban Koh Naka School, the island's only school with 22 students aged from three-years old to primary school level.

Some villagers also grow coconuts or vegetables which do not need a lot of water because there is no tap water or reservoir on the island. The villagers dig underground wells and share the water. Each house generates its own electricity from gasoline or donated solar cells, which can power one or two fluorescent lights at night. Although close to Phuket, basic infrastructure has yet to reach the island.

"Water is always in short supply during the summer. Luckily our school has a water tank where all of us share drinking water," said Somposh.

The houses here are simple one-storey concrete structures, while some were built in the style of traditional Thai wooden houses raised on piles. There are a trio of shops in the village. One sells hot meals and the others offer soft drinks, drinking water and snacks. The villagers commute to Phuket on their longtail boats.

Somposh said that there are two tales regarding the origin of the island's name. The first is a belief that a naga or snake once lived here. According to the other story, a lot of Cogon grass (ya ka) grew on the island and when people started growing rice (na) decades ago, the weed was still found in the rice fields so people started calling the island Naka.

A beautiful sunset on Naka.

The pioneers who first set foot on the island were fishermen from Phuket who temporarily camped on Naka during monsoons, but later settled there permanently, said Somposh.

"Our community was founded about 70 years ago," he said, adding that it started with a couple of families, expanding to 60 families today. They founded a mosque and set up the primary school about 50 years ago. When the children grow up, they will be sent to schools in Phuket, he added.

"During past decades, Koh Naka was also famous for farming pearl oysters. People said that the best pearls in Phuket were from Koh Naka," Somposh said. However, nothing lasts forever and when the business declined, investors left. Today, there is a pearl oyster farm at Koh Naka Noi, a privately-owned island not far from Koh Naka, which is also called Koh Naka Yai.

Although Naka is not yet listed among the places to visit before you die, it has welcomed some high-profile guests such as the famous poet Naowarat Pongpaiboon, who visited the island 20 years ago and also wrote a poet for the school.

Two members of royalty also spent some time here 40 years ago.

"We once welcomed the late Princess Mother and the late HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana," recalled Somposh.

Kite-flying is one of the children’s favourite pastimes.

"I was still young at the time, but I remember a helicopter landed in our school yard. The late Princess Mother disembarked with the beautiful princess to visit their people. They were here with a team of volunteer doctors to offer medical check-ups for us. Although it was only a one-day trip, it has long remained in our hearts," he said with a broad smile.

Since Koh Naka is not far from Phuket, the villagers also see an opportunity in tourism. They used to offer a homestay service, but it was stopped a couple of years ago because they did not know how to market themselves. However, they have not given up yet.

"We have teamed up with the Erawan Group [the owner of the Naka Island Resort & Spa] to promote eco-tourism on the island. We offer hotel guests snorkelling tours, canoes, fishing and squid fishing with fishermen," said Somposh, adding that the hotel also offers a fishing village tour for guests.

Although most guests stop at the village, there is a small lane leading to the other side of the island. One destination is another resort with a fine beach and another down a forest hill leads to the east coast where you can find the best beach on the island. Called Aow Thub Poh, the beach here is white and powdery. Villagers set up a row of deck chairs and umbrellas for a day-trip visitors from Phuket or Phang Nga to enjoy the beach. Fruit juices, bottled water, quick meals and wooden swings are also provided.

"Our island is quite lucky because it sits between two big islands _ Koh Phuket on the west and Koh Yao Noi on the east, so we have a calm sea where people can commute all year round," he said.

Helmet crabs are widely found on the east coast of the island.

TRAVEL TIPS

From Phuket, take a speed boat from Ao Por Grand Marina pier which is a 20-minute drive from Phuket International Airport.

Accommodation: Naka Island (www.nakaislandphuket.com) and Tentanakara (www.tentanakara.com) hotels both have their own speed boat service.

Locals offer a longtail boat service to bring visitors to other islands such as Koh Yao Noi, Koh Phai and Aow Phangnga. They can also arrange a one-day snorkelling trip to six islands such as Khao Tapu, Koh Hong and Koh Talu. Contact 084-628-9759.

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