After an incredible time on Koh Wai, I was already wondering if I’d be able to top it.
I was spending two weeks hopping my way through Koh Chang National Park, and my next destination — Koh Mak — sounded promising.
Back in 2010, the Sunday Times included Koh Mak in its list of the 10 most beautiful undiscovered islands, but that was eight years ago and a lot can change over that time in a place like Thailand.
Yes, I’m looking at you, Chiang Mai.
Still, recent reports made it sound as though the island was still reasonably untouched. There are still no ATMs or 7-Elevens on Koh Mak, for example, and there are just a few dozen guesthouses to stay in.
When I began researching possible places to stay in Koh Mak, I stumbled across Bamboo Hideaway and immediately made it my mission to spend several nights there. I sent a link to Dave with approximately 24 praying hands emojis.
After some expensive travel experiences in 2017 (shout out to the $2000 I blew on visiting Virunga National Park! Followed by travels in Denmark, the U.S,. and Japan), we were both relishing being back in inexpensive Southeast Asia and spending $30 a day on accommodation, transportation, and food. What was I doing suggesting a place that’s $40 a night?
I had been sold by its gorgeous swimming pool in the countryside, descriptions of legitimate and incredible Mexican food at the restaurant, reviews that claimed it served the best cocktails on the island, and the higher-end bungalows offering hot-water showers and air conditioning. After getting back to basics on Koh Wai, it sounded like the perfect way to introduce some more comforts into my life.
It also had some of the best reviews of any guesthouse on the island, so after a detailed presentation, where I convinced Dave we should stay there and that yes, I know that Thai food is incredible but don’t you miss tacos so much and if you regret staying there I’ll totally reimburse you for because trust me it’s going to be amazing.
I was overjoyed when he decided he wanted to book for three nights.
Koh Mak is roughly 40 minutes from Koh Wai, and our ride on the Bang Bao boat was uneventful.
We anchored off the coast of Koh Mak, pulled on our backpacks, and then swung down into the longtail boat that had motored out to meet us.
From the beach, we jumped into a songthaew and raced our way over to Bamboo Hideaway, the smell of salt and latex whirling through the air. Koh Mak is blanketed in palm and rubber plantations, along with dense forest and a handful of small fishing villages.
I could already tell I was going to like this island.
Entering Bamboo Hideaway felt like coming home.
We wandered down the stone pathway, then kicked off our flip-flops and entered reception.
“Hi!” chorused a group of travellers from the guesthouse bar.
We introduced ourselves and set about getting to know everyone before Jake, the manager, made his way over to us. He warmly welcomed us to his guesthouse and showed us to our bungalow.
Our next destination was the swimming pool.
It was very nearly our only destination, too.
I feel no shame in confessing we spent the next two days indulging. We read books beside the pool, cooled off in its waters, and ate surprisingly excellent tacos by candlelight. The evenings were all about cocktails, relaxation, and chatting with the other guests, and it created such a relaxing atmosphere that I struggled to find the motivation to leave.
In fact, if our Thai visas weren’t about to run out and we hadn’t just booked a flight out of Thailand to Brunei, I’m fairly certain we’d have visa-runned to the Cambodia border and made our way straight back to Koh Mak.
While I confess I can sometimes be a terrible traveller and indulge in laziness and comfort, I also tend to get bored if I spend more than a few days reading by the pool. We grabbed a map of Koh Mak from reception, hired ourselves a scooter for the day, and set off to see as much of the island as possible.
Fortunately, Koh Mak isn’t a particularly large island — it’s just six square miles in size with a local population of under 1,000 — so I was confident we could explore most of it on a single day.
Within three minutes of leaving Bamboo Hideaway, we were lost.
It was totally my fault.
In one hand, I held a paper map that showed the most important roads and turn-offs, along with points of interest. In my other hand, I had my phone open on Google Maps, which showed a seemingly completely different set of roads and paths.
On the back of the scooter, I was mostly trying to figure out where exactly the turn-off to the beautiful beach was.
I knew we needed to take a right turn at some point, so spontaneously pointed down a trail that seemed to correspond with the hand-drawn map. Two minutes later, said track had disappeared and we were racing through overgrown grass with nothing but rubber trees in sight.
In a previous life, I would have been like, oh! Clearly we went the wrong way! and turned back around, but years of travel have taught me that experiences like this aren’t out of the ordinary. I’ve learned that getting off the beaten track to find paradise usually involves literally getting off the beaten track. I was certain we were heading in the right direction.
We approached a sharp drop and I urged Dave to ease the scooter down it.
“It’ll be fine,” I told him. “I bet the beach is at the bottom of the hill.”
It turned out our previous travels had sabotaged us.
It turned that picking a path at random had not served us well.
We reached the water as we had hoped, but the beach that was accompanying it was less than beautiful. It was rocky, ugly, and reminded me of a quarry.
Dave pushed the bike back up the hill while I trudged behind him, wondering if Koh Mak wasn’t going to be as great as I thought.
After ten minutes of riding, we were approaching another turn-off — one that was signposted and directing us towards a beach. So, um, I guess that maybe that might have been the place we had been searching for.
Pro tip: if you ever get the chance to travel with me, do not allow me to navigate.
We bounced our way down the sandy trail, through hundreds of towering palm trees, until we reached the water. To my surprise, there was a small food truck, some chicken skewers being grilled over a fire, and a well-stocked bar. In front of us, stretched a pristine beach with not a single person on it.
We grabbed a couple of fresh coconuts and sat down at a nearby table to rest. After all, we had been riding for a full 20 minutes by this point.
The life of a travel blogger is one of hardship, guys.
There’s something about this part of Thailand that lends itself to calm waters, because I was in awe of how flat the surface of the sea was, and how there wasn’t so much as a ripple to be seen.
Despite our plans for the day being focused around exploration over relaxation, we still spent an hour drinking beside the shore. It was a lovely spot. By no means was it the most spectacular beach I’d ever been to, but there was a wonderful bar, islands in the distance to gaze at, and no other tourists around. I liked it a lot.
We jumped back on the scooter and this time, I had a single destination in mind.
It was a place I’d been talking about incessantly since first discovering its existence.
The Kingdom of Somchai’s Affection.
What am I talking about?
Well, Koh Mak is home to a whole collection of erotic sculptures, placed in an outdoor museum that you can go and explore for free. They were created by a local artist called Khun Somchai, who placed them here decades ago, before tourists were even visiting the island. He’s since passed away, but his sculptures live on in this forested area of Koh Mak that’s kind of in the middle of nowhere.
Given that when I live-tweeted my walk around the sculptures, I lost many followers, I’ll keep things a little more toned down for the blog post. If you’re interested, you can check out more explicit photos of the peens and vageens on the Swabhava travel blog.
As you guys already know, I adore hunting down unusual, quirky attractions when I travel, and this sculpture park more than fulfilled my quote for Koh Mak. Most bizarrely of all, there appeared to be a family living beside the museum, so as we wandered around taking photos of stone boobs, we were met with stares from people putting out their washing a few metres away.
Shockingly, I am not an expert in erotic art, so I had no idea whether to be impressed or tickled as we wandered around, so I settled for an even mix of both.
Next stop: lunch!
There was only one place I wanted to go on the island, and that was Vista Cafe. Known for having the best views of anywhere in Koh Mak, we pulled up outside for a smoothie, coffee, and some snacks.
The views were just as exceptional as promised.
That island in the distance with the perfect white beach is Koh Kham, a private island that you can access as a tourist for a few hundred baht, either by renting a kayak or hiring a boat to take you out there. The pristine sand, by the way, is imported.
As wonderful as the beach looked and as tempted as I was to finish up at Vista Cafe and get myself on to kayak, I had a different destination in mind.
Turtle Beach (Ao Tao Kai), at the northernmost point of Koh Mak, was recommended by our guesthouse owner as the best on the entire island, although we were also warned it would be a treacherous ride through rubber plantations to get out there. With visions of Koh Yao Noi in my mind, I convinced Dave he was skilled enough to tackle it, and we began the nerve-wracking 15-minute ride north.
I’d advise against making the journey if you’re not a confident scooter rider. Dave has a motorbike license and has spent years travelling around Southeast Asia on two wheels, yet he still struggled to keep the bike upright at times. If you do decide to take on the challenge, prepare for uneven ground, muddy ditches, narrow pathways, and a whole lot of tree roots to bounce over.
The effort Dave put in was worth the reward, because after battling with bad roads for what felt like hours, we finally reached Turtle Beach.
A theme was starting to emerge from this island-hopping adventure, and that was finding myself on a beautiful beach with nobody else in sight. Turtle Beach was one of the best I’d seen in Thailand, offering up white sand, clear waters, and no other humans around. What more do you need from an island holiday?
Dave fell off a palm tree.
To be fair, it was my fault for telling him to lie on it because it would look amazing for Instagram.
Not that either of us even use Instagram.
“If we had longer on Koh Mak,” I said to Dave. “I think I’d come here every day.”
It was one of the prettiest beaches I’d stepped foot on in this country, and a big part of what made it so special was having it all to ourselves. As I said in my post about Koh Wai, the islands that make up the Koh Chang island chain are far from undiscovered — there are around 40 guesthouses and hotels on Koh Mak, for example — but they’re far less visited than the big hitters in Thai tourism. The fact that you can have a beautiful beach like this all to yourself on Koh Mak is something that makes it one of my favourite islands in the country.
We hung around taking photos for a couple of hours, then leapt back on the scooter in search of a mid-afternoon snack.
The most popular beach on Koh Mak is Ao Kao Beach, in the south-west. This area is where the vast majority of the resorts are, and when we arrived, it was clear that this is also where most of the tourists hang out. It was far from crowded, of course — there were maybe a dozen people on a 100 metre stretch of sand — but after spending time on Turtle Beach, it almost felt chaotic.
We parked the scooter, snapped some photos of yet another beautiful beach, and then wandered into a beach shack for a Penang curry and a beer.
Later that evening, the staff and guests at Bamboo Hideaway crammed into the back of a couple of songthaews and set off for Koh Mak Seafood, somewhat of an institution on the island that’s known for its highly fresh seafood. There, we grabbed a table for 20-odd people on the deck overlooking the ocean, and ordered several dozen dishes from the menu.
Koh Mak Seafood has a reputation for being one of the best restaurants on the island, offering up fish from the surrounding waters, often caught just a couple of hours before being served. As we drank beers and chatted about expat life on Koh Mak, I couldn’t stop eating the food. Fried soft-shell crab with garlic and black pepper, steamed spicy scallops, and the raw shrimp in fish sauce: unbelievably, at the end of the meal, the guesthouse owner offered to pay for everyone’s meal! Yet another reason to stay at Bamboo Hideaway.
Dave and I had fallen deeply in love with Koh Mak — so much so that we very nearly cancelled our onward travel to Koh Kood. We wanted to spend the next week hanging out with new friends, lazing beside the pool, scootering out to beautiful beaches, and making ourselves a temporary home on a beautiful island paradise.
We came so close to staying.
I’m glad we didn’t, though.
Because Koh Kood was about to blow my mind.