Bandit Camping to Paddleboard: Koh Tao, Surat Thailand.
By Naomi Allard
As the wind subsides, all is quiet except for the sound of the waves. Then, somewhere in the jungle above, a cicada sends out a high pitched note and moments later a symphony of critters erupts.
This is my only means of telling time on Koh Tao. Every evening at exactly the same hour, the air fills with this avian melody that lulls me into a meditative state.
Our plan was to circumnavigate Koh Tao, in Thailand’s Gulf of Siam by stand up paddleboard, snorkeling and bandit camping along the way. A few days into our journey we discovered a unique place that added a magical element to our paddling adventure.
I am atop what looks like an ancient castle. A rooftop with white pillared railing where once wealthy tourists sipped cocktails and danced the nights away under star-lit skies. I am surrounded by turquoise water capped in white. Shorelines of granite boulders extend north and south where they are met by dense tropical jungle that covers the hills above.
A Bamboo Bungalow
A cracked cement staircase to my right ascends to an overgrown garden path leading to a bamboo bungalow that has seen better days. The porch floor is broken and I’m not sure if it will support me.
Inside an old mattress looks like it has become the home of god knows what kind of creatures. The sun filters through faded curtains that drape above the broken windows, casting an eerie luminescence around the room.
There are about a dozen bungalows of this sort around the area, left to whether and fade into the landscape. Despite the derelict character, the area is captivatingly beautiful. Large, round granite boulders softened by the rough seas extend dramatically from the water to the forest edge.
A pathway made of bamboo and wooden planks links up to a bamboo pier where a boat may once have been moored. We work our way down the stairs and through a garden like path overgrown with bougainvillea and lush tropical plants then rummage through the boulders collecting pieces of bamboo to use in the construction of our camp.
Our mission to paddle around Koh Tao was altered when we woke up to gale force winds near Hin Wong bay on the Northeastern side of the Island. We had already been paddling through some heavy winds and swell but I was not up for this scale. To stick as closely as possible to our original plan, we decided we would not use any motorized means to get around the island.
Instead, we would go by foot through the steep jungle paths to access the next bay. We had heard that some of the best snorkeling was at Laem Thian. After four hours of walking through steep, mosquito infested trails, boards in hand, we reach an abandoned resort which turned out to be one of, if not, the best ‘bandit camping’ spots we would encounter on our Koh Tao adventure.
Other than a few hikers making their way back to Sairee Beach, the tourist hub of Koh Tao, we had the entire place to ourselves. The roof of the main building provided a perfect camping spot but we were hesitant to set up our gear until we were certain the place was uninhabited.
Near dusk, we decided it was safe to set up for the night. When slightly deflated, the paddleboard transforms into a rather comfortable bed. Position two deflated boards side by side with a bug net overtop and this was to become our home for the next few days.
It is the second day of our stay in Laem Thian and I am standing on the rooftop in wonderment, cicadas crying out in the background. There is a melancholic presence here. I wonder what happened to the resort. Why was all this handcrafted work abandoned?
There is no sign in the area or names written on the Koh Tao Guide maps that indicate the resort’s existence. I imagine the devastation in having to abandon a dream that one had built.
A boardwalk constructed of weathered bamboo and planks weaves through the granite boulders to the water’s edge, Laem Thian. These were not the first abandoned structures that we have come across. Our second night of camping on Koh Tao was in a derelict cabin that we later learned was an old tourist venture and we had been told by locals of some other abandoned huts in the area.
Unlike the rest of the island which appeared to flourish with tourism, this area did not fare so well with the industry likely due to the heavy winds that persist. Perhaps less prosperous, the eastern side of Koh Tao offers a majestic escape for the more adventurous or those seeking solitude.
The sun is now just a sliver behind the hills. The cicada’s song ended, though I don’t recall when. Out on the sea a row of shrimp boats lit up with green lights, appear like nocturnal creatures.
It is time to get our little camp ready for sleep. We deflate our paddleboards so that they are softer, tighten the bug net, stuff two bags with clothing for pillows, and spread out our single sleeping bag across the two boards. I lie down on my bed, book in hand, head lamp beside me, but I don’t feel like reading. I look up at the stars through the bug net.
I am at a luxurious resort, on the rooftop suite with an open-air ceiling. In the morning I will brew an espresso while taking in the view then go down to the private beach and lounge in the sun. Or maybe I will take on the turbulent waters and snorkel. I am secretly happy that this resort was left abandoned.
It is like the owners wanted to leave it behind as a gift to travelers of a different sort who appreciate the isolation and challenge of getting here and are not turned off by the winds that blow from afar. This is luxury bandit camping at its best. I fall asleep to the waves.
Koh Tao (Turtle Island) is located in the Gulf of Thailand (Gulf of Siam) within the Surat Thani Province of Thailand. The Island is accessible by ferry from the nearby islands’ of Koh Samui and Koh Pha Ngan, both which are accessed via the cities of Surat Thani or Chumphon.
Killer Chicken Burgers
In total, we spent 10 days paddling Koh Tao though the voyage could have been done in only a couple of days given the island only covers an area of 20 km square.
Six out of the ten nights we spent camping and the other four nights were spent staying in budget bungalow-style accommodations. One of our best and most economical stays was found in Tanote Bay at the Poseidon Resort that also had an excellent restaurant that grilled up the best chicken burger I have ever eaten.
We did not come across any other stand-up paddleboards on the island but there were a few outfitters that rented out Kayaks. As for camping, there are no actual campsites. Except for one occasion, we did not run into any aversion to our camping.
This being said, we were conscious of the locations we chose to camp and made sure we did not leave any trace of our stay behind. If you are going to brave camping I suggest making sure you are fully equipped with all of your own gear and be prepared to stay in the usual paid for types of accommodation should it become apparent that your camping is not welcome?
If bungalows or hotels are more your style, there are hundreds of options from budget to luxury to choose from.
Naomi Allard grew up on the Canadian prairies, where she spent much of her childhood outdoors swimming, sailing and biking in the summers and x-country skiing and tobogganing in the winter.
In 2006 she completed her degree in Geography and Sustainable Community Development at Simon Fraser University then went on to work for the Canadian Coast Guard. She lives in Squamish, British Columbia.
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