On Islands, Snobbery, and Koh Phayam

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Koh Phayam Restaurant

“I don’t think the bags will fit,” I tell the motorbike driver apologetically.

“No, it’s okay.”

“No, I mean, we tried before and it was too big–”

“No, okay now.”

I had called our lodging ahead of time and asked about transporting my large wheeled backpack, affectionately nicknamed The Turtle. I had read that there were no cars on this island, only motorbikes, and I wanted to make sure that I would be able to transport my bag.

“It’s no problem at all,” the resort owner had told me over the phone. I took that to mean that there would be simple tuk-tuks or wagons for the motorbikes; instead, he meant that these drivers were simply more determined than others.

The motorbike driver has actually fit my enormous,  wheeled suitcase in front of him on the motorbike. There’s just barely enough room for me to hop on the back, my day pack extending behind the seat.

And we’re off! The paved roads are smooth — but after two minutes, they turn into dirt paths covered with twisted tree trunks, potholes, occasionally planks running over chasms. My driver weaves from side to side, almost at a 45-degree angle. I am freaking out and sweating profusely, begging a higher power to get us to the resort in peace.

Five minutes later, it’s all over. When I get off the motorbike at my ecolodge, my face is white and I can’t stop trembling.

Why had I come here?

My first trip to Thailand took me to Ao Nang, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Lanta, Railay, and Koh Chang – all quite popular and very much discovered islands and beach towns. It would be good for me, both for my own benefit and for my career’s benefit, to see a less-developed sign of Thailand.

On this trip, I wanted to visit some developing islands, the kinds that had infrastructure but were much less visited than the perennial favorites. After poring over descriptions of islands, I eventually settled on Koh Phayam, an island off the coast of Ranong Province near the Myanmar border.

Checking into our bungalow at PP Land Ecolodge made me sigh with happiness. The sound of the waves, warm breezes, sunshine, a hammock of my own – this was the southern Thailand that I had fallen in love with years ago, and I had missed it so much.

My bungalow was simple and lovely, one of few places on the island with 24-hour electricity. The promised wifi didn’t work whatsoever, but I had phone signal and could tether.

PP Land Beach

The resort’s beach, though, wasn’t what I expected. It was filled with debris – not garbage, but enough branches and broken shells to know that it wasn’t being cared for. In the empty beaches next to the resort, though, the beaches were covered with trash, which inevitably made its way into the ocean. The waves were calm but unusually foamy, as if there were soap in the water.

PP Land’s beach seemed good in theory, but once I saw it in person, I didn’t feel comfortable venturing into the water.


READ MORE: How to Protect Your Belongings on the Beach


That said, there was far more to Phayam than the isolated corner where my resort stood, and I set off on a motorbike.

I began my exploration at Long Beach, the main beach of Koh Phayam. The maps I had seen made it look like the beach was covered with guesthouses, one after the other. The actual beach looked nothing like that. It was empty, the few guesthouses hidden in the forest just off shore, signs reading “Electricity 6-10 PM.”

Long Beach Koh Phayam

It was high season. Where were all the people?

And then we saw the jellyfish.

Long Beach was absolutely covered with beached jellyfish, a new one every few steps, most of them the size of small dinner plates, some of them the size of hubcaps. Here’s one with a flip-flop for scale.

Mack Daddy Jellyfish

Three girls ventured into the surf. I shrank back. No way was I getting close!

Back inland, I went exploring on the motorbike.  While the roads surrounding PP Land were rough and challenging, most of the main roads on the island were decently paved.

There were a few bars near the beach and the ferry drop-off, but other than that, this was an island for locals, not visitors. Here I found a very friendly atmosphere, with virtually every islander stopping what he or she were doing to turn and wave to me.

Late in the day, I took a few random turns when searching for another beach, rode to the bottom of a steep hill, and came upon this peaceful spot.

Hidden Cove Koh Phayam

Clear cerulean waters. Only two other people. No buildings. No trash. No jellyfish.

I walked into the water and submerged myself. After two beaches that were unswimmable, finally slipping into the cool water here was a moment of perfection on Phayam.

Why had I REALLY come here?

Hindsight is a gift. Writing most of my posts chronologically and being so far behind in time has given me the chance to look back and analyze my travels.

It took me a long time to realize it, but then it hit me – I was doing what I thought I had to do. There is a lot of snobbery in travel, period, but especially so in regions like Southeast Asia that were once considered the domain of serious travelers only and are now popular with new and inexperienced travelers.

That snobbery increases tenfold when it comes to Southeast Asian islands and beaches. When it comes to islands and beaches, especially in a region as popular as Thailand’s Andaman Coast, a hierarchy quickly emerges. Islands like Phuket and Koh Phi Phi are met with sneers; the “hidden” islands get all the praise.

Resources – and this ranges from guidebooks and online travel guides to travel blogs, travel literature, and the sixth level of hell (also known as Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum), whether they explicitly say so or strongly hint — perpetuate the idea that the quality of a Southeast Asia beach destination is inversely proportional to its number of visitors.

In other words, the more popular the beach destination, the worse it is; the more undiscovered the place, the better it is.

Kate in Koh Phayam

It’s not that simple. Most popular places are popular for a reason, whether it’s Venice or the Grand Canyon. Phranang Beach in Railay is clogged with beachgoers, especially in peak season, but the natural setting is second to none.

Some places, granted, have taken tourism too far. If you look at photos Koh Phi Phi now and 20 years ago, or if you just smell the constant stench of sewage in the air due to the overstressed plumbing, you’ll see that they developed the island too much. That said, Phi Phi is lots of people’s favorite place, and though it isn’t mine, I had a great time there a few years ago.

I ended up on Phayam because people described it with enthusiasm and nostalgia. This was how Thai islands used to be. This was an island that was holding on to its integrity instead of commercialism. Real travelers had to experience an island like this, or else they hadn’t experienced the real Thailand.

I actually let this get to me. I let the opinions of other people make me feel subconsciously bad about my travel choices.

The truth is that Koh Phayam is far too basic an island for me and one nice, out-of-the-way beach doesn’t make up for the fact that I’d never swim at the other beaches.

I don’t regret visiting Koh Phayam at all, because it taught me that I don’t really like this kind of destination. When I’m hanging out in a beach town, I want to be able to find a café or two where I can enjoy a latte and free wifi. I want to be able to get out of a ferry without having to scale a crumbling wall, Bear Grylls-style.

I completely understand why people like Koh Phayam and similarly basic islands. It can be nice to take a break from civilization, strumming your guitar or ukelele and getting to be part of a community of beach bums. As for me, I like electricity. I like wifi. I like being able to work all day and take breaks swimming in the ocean and relaxing on soft sand. I do enjoy visiting pristine, untouched islands – but I prefer to do that on a day trip.

Perhaps that’s why my favorite Southeast Asia beach destinations are Koh Lanta in Thailand and Boracay in the Philippines.

Koh Lanta isn’t nearly as popular as Phuket or Koh Samui, but nobody would call it undiscovered. It’s an island with well-developed tourism for all budgets, filled with tourists (many of them sunburned Swedes) and Western comforts. And I adore it there.

Boracay, on the other hand, is incredibly discovered and is teeming with hotels, shops and businesses. That said, the southern neighborhood of Angol is much quieter and has a great ambiance — but amenities are just steps away from the beach. I’m only two days into my time here, but I adore it here as well.

Both destinations charge fees for the cleaning of the islands, and it shows. The beaches on Lanta and Boracay are beautiful and incredibly clean.

That’s what I love in a beach destination. Nice beaches, connectivity, and decent amenities. And that doesn’t make my travels any less “authentic,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. A barely-discovered island is not the be-all and end-all of Southeast Asian travel. I’m glad that Phayam taught me that.

Do you think less-discovered islands are better? Share away!

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81 thoughts on “On Islands, Snobbery, and Koh Phayam”

  1. when you point your finger at others, there are three fingers pointed back at yourself. reality check homework: find all the snobbish attitudes that form the backbone of this article.

    just because you arent able to appreciate the beauty in a place doesnt mean you have to trashtalk others who do. this goes for anyplace, a remote beach or a megacity. live and let live, sister.

  2. “When I get off the motorbike at our ecolodge, my face is white and I can’t stop trembling”

    “The resort’s beach, though, wasn’t what we expected. It was filled with debris – not garbage, but enough branches and broken shells to know that it wasn’t being cared for…”

    “Mario wielded the crazy roads with aplomb as I squeezed my eyes shut.”

    “And then we saw the jellyfish … Three girls ventured into the surf. I shrank back. No way was I getting close!”

    useful information in this article: close to zero, some laughs though
    what the hell but everybody seems to serve his audience
    just the title of this blog is strongly misleading 🙂

    sometimes I wonder what personal development some people get out of experiencing this planet…
    there may be snobbery in traveling but there´s a lot of it paired with self-righteousness & ignorance in travel-blogging as well

    if u don’t understand travel, why u blog about it?
    how about enhancing ur views by reading a lil about it?

    tao of travel by theroux could be a start…

    peAce

  3. hi there,
    does anyone know if malaria is a problem on koh phayam? im heading there in April and just wanting to know if I should start taking the anti-malaria medicine… hopefully someone in the know can assist 🙂
    Thank you

  4. Hi Kate,

    Firstly, I want to say that I appreciate you writing about your travel experiences. I understand that it is not easy at times, especially when reading through the opinions of others on what ‘travel’ should be, rather than what travel is all about. For some people, it could be a holiday, a relaxation retreat, cultural immersion, tourist trips, backpacking etc but at the end of the day, what it really comes down to is your personal preference. I think what really frustrates me, at times is that you get people expressing how they feel about their preference and its importance, but doing it in a way that undermine your own experiences. This is something that bothers me because I believe that this is your personal journey and I understand and respect it. I am sorry to hear that you have experienced the snobbery and some of the comments above badly reflect what is typically prevalent in the travel scenes.

    I will say when it comes to travel especially if I am looking for a getaway, I do consider the isolated ones to appeal to my dream of a Robinson Crusoe experience. However, that might differ from person to person, on what their expectations of travel are so it is always important to keep that in mind. I have to admit, my recent experience at a private B&B beach resort at Redang island in Malaysia has given me that sense of fulfillment. Everything was just picturesque, from the amazing powdery white sands to the crystal clear blue waters that you could see from a close distance in the resort.

    I thought to myself, “this is paradise” but I realised something and I didn’t understand it completely until I left the island. After coming back, I understood what it was and I link it to my perception of the current culture of backpacking. I think this whole idea of snobbery comes from a place of fear. You might find that this fear is rooted in this notion of ‘preservation’ of a place where you hoped and wished for it to remain as beautiful and far away from the ‘hell’ of development. However, things change, expectations change, you change, life changes, people change, countries change and the environment changes. Of course, some things could be considered either positives or negatives but in the scheme of these changes, what really matters is the reflection of your inner thoughts on what your travel dreams should be. If you like to go to a busy or a quiet place, wherever it is, it is up to you to decide and no one should judge you for that.

    I wish you all the best with your travels Kate and I thank you for sharing your experience on this blog about Koh Phayam, such a beautiful place btw. Once again, thanks and have a lovely day!!!

    Adam

  5. just coming back from koh phayam and all the ideas about the place have been quite wrong, I like beaches and places with little or no people but motorbikes everywhere, guess walking is not popular nowdays,so why the massage,manicures,pedicures etc etc I stayed at buffalo bay..nice ..not bad off season for 300 baht, there are sea eagles(maybe kites) and plenty of hornbills ,watching the sea eagles was puzzling as they were not catching any fish, they circled above trees and looked like they caught cicadas. So I put on the snorkle and fins, away I went 800 metres out and guess what? no or very few fish, nothing you could eat, seems like the island has an extreme shortage of fish although I never checked every bay/beach. I would have thought it would be teaming with fish, looking out to sea each night while the sunset sunk into the horizon I could not see any fish schooling or feeding..oh what have they done? On the last day I decided to move to longbeach, waves were good, water clean but the beach resembled a rubbish tip,plastic enough to fill an olympic swimming pool, glass bottles of which quite a few are broken mixed in, maybe this is just in june!

  6. Hi Kate, I stumbled across your blog by accident and I have to say that this whole post is so spot on for me! Why can’t people just recognise that what works for some won’t always work for all? Nobody should be made to feel guilty or embarrassed about how they prefer to travel or where they prefer to travel to, whether it’s backpacking or a package holiday. Do what makes you feel happy, excited and inspired!

    By the way, have you ever considered the beautiful Khao Lak when travelling in Thailand? It’s not an island but a collection of small villages on the coast in Phang Nga province, about an hour north of Phuket. It’s my absolute favourite area in Southern Thailand because it has the best of both worlds – nice modern, comfortable (and clean!) hotels and guest houses, bars, restaurants and the like but it’s also gloriously relaxed and laid back, much quieter than Phuket. The beaches are gorgeous and natural looking because no structures taller than a coconut palm are allowed (so no high rises) and the hotels are set slightly back and are made to be sympathetic to the environment. Plus, you’re within easy driving distance to Phuket, Phang Nga bay, Krabi and the Khao Sok National Park and in the best position to daytrip to the beautiful Similan and Surin islands (which are fantastic for diving and snorkelling). Highly recommended if you’re ever in the part of the world again!

  7. Thanks for sharing your experiences! I’m on my third trip over to SEA with this being my longest yet of six months. One thing that I noticed in myself while reading your article is how the more I have explored over here the more “authentic” I would like the experiences to be. The first time traveling here I stuck to to more touristy things to do or areas because, this is all I knew and it came from talking with other friends or “tourists”. Regardless if it was touristy or not, it was something NEW and exciting. Now that I’m on my third trip over, what used to be fun and exciting is not the same. One thing that really keeps it exciting to me is visiting those secluded little areas such as Ko Phayam where the amenities are sparse. I really enjoy taking away the comforts that I know will still be there when I decide to return. It’s kind of like stepping outside your comfort zone while at the same time being in an amazing place. However, this feeling of wanting to be secluded or more authentic comes and goes and it’s something that I think is important in making a trip a great experience. Knowing that you need space and also knowing that it’s time to plug back in and be social is probably the key for my personal experience…oh and also knowing where and how to get this balance along the journey.

  8. Thank you so much. We nearly went there but will now look elsewhere. I do really want internet, a shake when I need it, nice swimming, great food and laundry nearby and easily etc
    Currently in Railay after an amazing time in Koh Tao (not Sairee beach 🙂 ) with friends so wondering where to go next. We’ve been to Thailand a few times and I’ll be working in Chiang Mai for a bit. So now I think Koh Lanta could be an option. Any advise?

  9. Oh how I love your blog…thank you! I have been online reading about which Thai Island to go to for so many days that my brain hurts. After reading your blog I am going to choose Koh Lanta 🙂
    Thank you!

  10. Hi Kate,

    l liked you article and the way you write with sincerity. But I have to disagree with everything sorry for that;) I have been in Ko Phayam this year for two weeks and I loved all, the beaches (of course are better the ones on the west coast), the animals (Toucans, monkeys, chipmunks …) and the bungalow we rented. We found wifi in a lot of bars and in our place. This island is a real gem in our opinion but of course not for everyone, it is less developed with rubbish close to the pier.. But that’s Thailand not exactly the cleanest country on the earth..

    I think is a matter of what kind of holiday you are looking for. I could die on an overcrowded place like Ko Phi Phi..

  11. Mats Österlund

    I visited Koh Phayam for a week in march 2016. Lovely island, but of course no luxury. Stayed in resort named Ziggy Stadust, about 15 bungalows, three with AC, also bar/restaurant. Very nice place and pleasant staff. A perfect island for love vacation! Will be back!

  12. Bradly Miller

    You Trip is awesome. I wish i may go to there. You are right “I don’t regret visiting Koh Phayam at all, because it taught me that I don’t really like this kind of destination”. Thanks for sharing the post.

  13. Travel snobbery! Don’t get me started!! I really enjoyed your balanced view on KP and other destinations. I travelled in Europe and the States when I was m u c h younger but discovered South East Asia a couple of years ago, travelling with my Asia-loving son. That was when I was 63 🙂 Now I’m preparing for three months solo, Vietnam, Bali, back to Cambodia and Thailand. This time – shock, horror – I’ve decided I’m more comfortable with a suitcase, the teensiest one you can imagine, instead of slogging with a backpack. Last time we met some lovely travellers but the question “are you backpacking or travelling with a suitcase?” just made me want to scream. A damn backpack doesn’t make you cool if you’re an idiot. Neither does finding that “lost” paradise you can boast about. Love your blogs. Thank you.

  14. Sound like you have a first world problem Kate

    Sometimes its not all about you, your inappropriate travel luggage and over reliance on electricity.

    It is unfortunate that you encountered real tropical beaches with “branches and broken shells” and washed up marine life (jellyfish) that prevented you entering the water.

    It is however fortunate that you are still hunting for exotic destinations (with latte & free WiFi) like the absolutely fabulous Boracay you mention.

    It is therefore most unlikely that we will ever cross paths, bon voyage tourist !

  15. I wouldn’t call myself a snob by any means–in fact I prefer the camping style. Having my own motorbike made the island fun to explore. For sure its not a large resort place, but they are starting to pick up with nicer hotels and Bangkok locals started vacationing there back in 2012. You can tell, because they avoid the sun. This place even had flushing toilets which was pretty awesome. I do agree with thoughts on Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi. If you are looking for off the beaten paths in SEA, be prepared to leave some comfort at the door–which I would do in a heartbeat!

  16. The problems with places like Ko Payam and many other “off the beaten track” places, is that the accommodation owners have you at their mercy. Their menus are usually very western orientated, and way overpriced. The Thai food that they do offer is usually a watered down western version that is nothing like real Thai food. They charge top dollar for accommodation that has no electricity and no wifi, and offer anything but an authentic Thai experience. It’s really a place for those who like to eat overpriced banana pancakes at a second rate beach…….isn’t it?

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