“Safer” is a relative term and in Thailand the baseline for measurement is much lower than back at home. In the parking lot at the start of the pier we would be introduced to the song-a-thew. A converted pick-up truck, with a roof, open-to-the-air sides, and an open back doorway, these would become our regular means of transport in Thailand. (And sometimes they are just pick-ups with two wooden benches, “secured” in-place with a bit of weathered twine. But more about that in Koh Tao).
After figuring out where we were going, with few words, a Thai man directed us into the back of one of the many song-a-thews lining the parking lot. Two other passengers scooted down a bit and, pushing up our luggage before us, we climbed into the back for an undefined wait.
Our fellow travellers looked even less sure than us and asked if we thought this would actually get us to our hotels. Knowing there were no other options – no other sane options – we feigned confidence, and assured them that it would all work out. At this point we were all ordered out of the truck, split-up, mixed-up, and put into different pick-up trucks. Our luggage was quickly thrown up on the roof, as there were 4 fairly large Brits already in the back with an even larger baby carriage. No baby though. I assumed it was on the roof with our unsecured luggage.
A shutter, a kick and we were off. Two turns left and we were already out of the small, dusty town, driving through tropical island jungle, following a cement road up into the hills of Koh Pha Gnan. Air streamed through the sides of our songathew, as we caught glimpses of beach and ocean, washed out roads, hidden resorts, and ubiquitous road side stands selling gasoline in repurposed liquor bottles at 40 baht a liter.
15 minutes later we were on the side of the road with our bags in hand … well, on backs, looking down a shaded, rutted, sandy road with signs assuring us that Blue Ocean Garden Resort – our home for the next few days – laid not far beyond.
Two stray dogs and a small, burning pile of trash later, we came on to our resort. And this was the Thai beach we had been looking for. A long, shallow, crescent of fine, almost white sand stretched north from our resort for almost 500 meters, dotted with overhung palm trees and few people. Protected by a reef not far off shore, the water was calm, turquoise, and beckoning us to take a dip.
On the West facing side of the island, Blue Ocean Garden sits at the southern end of Chao Phao beach, snug up against a steep forested hill, the front of which marked the end of the beach with a stone cliff that ran into the water (and sheltered a hidden bar). Reception and the bungalows formed an enclosing horseshoe, with the beach and the Gulf of Thailand at the opening and in the center a well-kept, gently sloping lawn. We were staying in a small room, part of a row of 5 at the top of resort. The cheapest option, it came with bed, air con, bath and not much else. But who could care, did I tell you about the beach?
Amy, a young Thai woman, self-consciously walked us through check-in, explaining it was her first time checking-in guests. We waited patiently as she ticked off the points, happy to watch her transition to management and thinking only of changing into swimsuits.
Food and drink on room, check.
Wi-fi password, check.
Beach towels at reception, check.
Toilet paper goes in bin next to toilet, check.
Wait, what? Whatever, let’s just get through this so we can go swimming.
Which we did shortly thereafter, in time to catch a beautiful sunset which we followed with an equally tasty dinner at the Italian restaurant that was part of the resort. Gnochi, vodka tonics, tiramisu, lemoncello – an expensive meal, an indulgence we would avoid for the rest of the stay, often opting for the cheaper but just as delicious Thai food from the Belgian Beer Bar next door.
The next morning we extended our stay by 5 days.