Koh Mook enchanted us with its ultra laid back island vibe, soft white sand, deep primary forests, and sparkling emerald water.
We landed on the pretty beach after a two hour speedboat ride from busy Koh Lipe to find a strip of sand with people milling about, waiting for their ride to the next island. It was a whole new kind of paradise. Where the other islands had been gorgeous, they were by and large developed for the tourist trade. Koh Mook was much less developed, and felt more like a secret jungle hideaway.
Our hotel was about 300m into the jungle, so while the others from our boat were boarding the little sidecars of motorbike taxis for their hotels on the other side of the island. we walked down a rutted wet clay road and up a steep walkway to our jungle bungalow on a hill.
It was a cute little bamboo hut tucked into a garden cut out of the jungle. Our room was neat with a soft bed on a raised teak platform, draped in a mosquito net. Having had a bad experience or two with mosquitos and a room only cooled by fans, we were dubious about the comfort this little room would give us, but for £8 per night, we were willing to give it a try.
Koh Mook was cooler than Koh Lipe had been. We had cloud cover, but that wasn’t it. Completely covered in forest that has never, in the history of time, been cleared, the entire island felt about 5 degrees cooler than we had been in weeks, and a daily afternoon breeze helped bring it down when things got a little steamy.
Truth be told
We weren’t initially charmed by Koh Mook, and a walk to the other side of the island – the part with the nice resorts and the single town – did more to make us want to leave immediately rather than enjoy what a less inhabited island had to offer.
Garbage was everywhere on this side of the island. Everywhere. In piles in the jungle, along the road, next to houses, and worst of all…it filled the water and the beaches. I’ve never seen so much rubbish in one place. It’s as though every inch of garbage that has ever been created on this island, is still on this island, and it just keeps piling up. This is supposed to be the “nice” side of the island, with sleek resorts and independent restaurants. Instead, it was filthy.
Koh Mook’s signature beach forms a wide V jutting out from the middle of the island. Along one side are squeaky white sand beaches lined with palm trees and luxury bungalows. Along the other side, where the V meets the land, is the filthiest beach I have ever seen, covered in large refuse – clothes, tires, plastic bottles, glass bottles, fishing nets, crab traps, and even a mattress. The tide washes straight in here, and it’s deep enough to carry the garbage straight in to land – where nobody has ever bothered to clean it up.
I was ready to book a ferry back out the next day, so we went to buy our tickets from, a charming, busy Thai man who worked from a kiosk attached to his mother’s grocery and souvenir store. It was obvious they both worked hard, and he convinced us to give it one more day. He rented us a motorbike, gave us some pointers, and sold us our ferry tickets. All we needed to do was send an email that night to let him know whether we were staying another day or leaving in the morning.
Thoroughly disgusted with the state of the island, I went back to our cool shady bungalow for a rest while Austin and Mark went to explore the beach where we had landed – the one nearest our bungalow. They had the time of their lives on that beach, and came back glowing from a day spent in the sun and sand.
The two sides of the island were about a 15 minute drive by motorbike from one another, but they were a world apart. On one side you had sleek resorts, good roads, shops, restaurants, and mountains of garbage.
On the other side, a muddy road leading to the beach was lined with funky little open air bamboo restaurants, bars, and hillside bungalows. It was, in short, just what you imagine a Thai island to be.
The beach was protected on either side by a green conical karst headland that contained a soft white (and clean) crescent of sand. The water was emerald green, shallow, with a sandy bottom, and the smallest of waves – perfect for kids, and importantly, trash free. Austin and Mark had played here for hours, made friends with other families, and chilled out at a little beach bar watching the sun set. And they couldn’t wait to tell me about it.
When they returned to our room, they switched on the light where I was sleeping next to a GIANT lizard on the wall. He was maybe only about 10 inches long, but he was so thick, I nicknamed him the lizard hulk.
Mark frantically tried to sweep him out of the room while I cowered under the mosquito net, and kept shouting at Austin to stay in the bathroom and keep the door shut! Lizard Hulk was so heavy that his feet thudded against the wall as he scuttled across it. He wasn’t about to go easily though. He ran behind the dresser, across the wall, behind the door, on to the floor…he was everywhere! Eventually, we got him shooed out onto the porch, and quickly stuffed towels in the crack under the door — as though that would actually keep him out when he wanted to eat us in our sleep! I was so freaked out, I was nearly in tears, and Mark and Austin were also in tears — laughing at me.
Whatever the case, we were certain to keep all of our bags tightly closed, and checked the room religiously – including shining a flashlight on the walls in the middle of the night for the rest of the time we were there! Especially after we went outside and found the whole family of lizard hulks clinging to the side of our bungalow, just waiting for us to leave so that they could pick a hiding place indoors and terrorise us again. It was obvious this was their turf, and they weren’t’ going to turn it over to a smelly backpacker family that easily!
It just so happened that it was Thanksgiving Day, and we three piled on our motorbike to an inviting looking restaurant at the top of the hill called….Hilltop Restaurant. There were festive lights hanging in the trees, and tables in the wide, pretty garden set under banana and coconut trees. Our waitress was a well-spoken schoolgirl, still in her uniform, with a wicked sense of humour. When Mark ordered Phad Thai AND fried rice, she snorted and asked him did he really want to do that to himself! She also commented on the amount of food we had ordered, and we should have taken this as a sign of what was to come.
The spring rolls that we had ordered for an appetiser were the size of a glasses case, and almost as big around. The filling was delicious, but they were practically burritos, and we were full from the appetiser alone!
Austin’s satay chicken was normal sized enough, but then came our mains…Mark’s enormous pile of Phad Thai, his platter full of fried rice, the sautéed morning glory that came on a family sized plate, and my Thai green curry with 8 enormous tiger prawns was enough to serve two or three adults! We looked down at the table and laughed, that it was a Thanksgiving meal indeed!
It was sensational. So much homemade flavour, fresh ingredients, cooked with love, and packed into those dishes, everything perfectly balanced and the right amount of spice for each of us.
We chatted a while with the outgoing proprietress and chef, and mother of the clever waitress. She loves cooking, people, her island, and her kids, and she insisted on getting us a box to take away what was left of our food. We left there feeling like part of a loving extended family, over-stuffed and ready to zonk out in our beds. Just like Thanksgiving.
Having decided to give the island a chance, we spent the whole next day bumming around on the beach. We had lunch at a restaurant situated on a rickety bamboo platform midway up the headland at one end of the beach. The homemade cement stairs leading up were steep, uneven and treacherous – and certainly made you think twice about the decision to have a beer with your lunch!
Mark had spoken to the kayak rental man below the restaurant about the Emerald Cave, one of the island’s claims to fame. He told him that if he goes at high tide, he’d have to go in a group on a long tail boat, and pay 200 baht per person (about £5 each). BUT, if we waited until the tide went out, we could rent his boat for 150 baht, paddle ourselves there, and go at our own pace. So of course we hung around and waited until the tide had sufficiently gone to load up – three of us in a two man kayak, out on the open sea — at least across the beach and around the headland!
We paddled around the rocky cliffs until we found an idyllic little stretch of white sand, nearly obscured by the looming karst cliffs that protected it. Thai island perfection. We paddled in to the beach, and as we got closer, we found that the grass / tree line was blanketed with rubbish piled deep, and collected there for years. It was such a pretty little cove, perfect white sand, crystal clear water, protected by talk black karst cliffs — but for all the protection they provided from wind and development, they couldn’t’ do anything about the tonnes of garbage that had washed onto that beach and into the small river behind with every incoming tide. I walked around with my heart in my chest, and tears in my eyes at the damage that had been done to that perfect little stretch of paradise. There was no life around – not even sand crabs. It was a wasteland.
We stuck around long enough to stretch our legs and check the map, only to find out that we had passed the cave on the way here. It was exactly where we had thought it would be, but dind’t recognise it. The jagged hole at the waterline in the bottom of the cliff was obscure enough that we could have missed it, but the large sign advertising Morakot cave should have been our clue. It turns out that morakot means Emerald in Thai.
All Mark had told me about the cave was that we could go in it. So we pointed the tip of our kayak into the cave, paddled about 10 feet in, and looked around. The mineral formations on the walls made it smooth and bright, but the sound of the waves crashing around unseen parts of the cave sounded and felt like semi trucks roaring over head, and echoing all around us. Despite having dived in caves and cenotes many times before, I freaked out, and paddled us backwards out of the cave.
Another group of people were waiting to go in, so we repositioned ourselves, took safety in numbers, and followed them through the dark and winding cave until we came out into filtered sunlight – into one of those special places on earth that are hard to adequately describe, and impossible to photograph.
We came out of the cave into a pool of blue water, surrounded on all sides by tall, straight cliffs, reaching hundreds of feet in the air, circling us in 360 degrees of impossible limestone walls. A small growth of jungle shrubbery and trees grew on the back side of the sandy beach. It’s like we were in a terrarium – enclosed, and fully contained, but green, steamy and living.
The whole enclosure was no more than 100m in diameter, but the height of the walls made it feel endless. It was almost like something that a zoo might create to show a jungle beach habitat. The water in the pool was clear and clean, and just deep enough for swimming. There was just one other family there, and Austin and the 5 yo girl, just as gregarious as he, became instant friends and played and splashed endlessly until it was time to go.
We attempted some photos, but they’ll never adequately demonstrate the beauty and wonder of the place…the feeling that you are truly somewhere special. One of the Earth’s perfect treasures, capable of mesmerising and enchanting all who brave the pitch black cave to reach the green heart of Thailand.
As it turns out, someone did photograph it — well they filmed it — you can see the clip here. It also featured in the movie The Beach, and it’s easy to see why it was chosen for such a visually stunning movie.
Fully enamoured of the place, we knew it was getting late, so we paddled back through the cave, and around the cliffs to our beach, where we sat on a bamboo bed watching the sun set slowly over the bay, fading into soft pastels, sipping on ice cold Chang Beers, and putting the finishing touches on a most perfect day.
Janis and Bob
We punctuated the day with dinner at a nearby little bamboo restaurant who was hosting a free outdoor concert next door. Backpackers, stoners, Thai rastafarians, and general travellers alike sat on mats on the ground, swaying to the the screeching of the eclectic singer who fancied herself the Thai reincarnation of Janis Joplin. It was so bad that it was just too good, and she inspired me…if she can hold an audience in thrall — with that voice — then there is nothing stopping me from being the rock star of my dreams — tone deafness be damned!
The reggae band that followed her was a bit better, and the rastafarian ensemble matched the vibe of the island. We could hear them jammin’ well into the night from our little bamboo hut just a short walk away. We fell asleep with Bob Marley in our ears, and tropical beaches in our dreams.
But that wasn’t the last we’d see of that band.
The next morning, it was time to move north and board a ferry to Koh Lanta, our next island hop. From the end of the pier, Austin and I watched as a storm made it’s way across the water, turning it from blue to silver as the rain pelted away at the surface. The wind picked up, and suddenly it hit – huge wet drops falling at a million miles an hour, blasting through us and everything in its path. Unfortunately for Mark, it got him just as he got to the midway point of the 15 minute motorbike ride between our hotel and the pier.
Having deposited Austin and I with our packs, he had to go back to get his backpack and our little rolling suitcase. We finally saw him coming down the pier just as the wind had died down a bit. But heavy rain had settled in, and he was forced to drive straight into the rain down the long pier with his big orange backpack sticking up above his head. We were wet, but he was drenched. Afraid of missing the ferry, he didn’t pull over to wait out the rain (he’d still be sitting there if he had), and had driven head first into it. Crazy Australian man.
About that time, the band from the night before showed up with all of the equipment and instruments that follow a band around. They were headed to the next island to repeat their concert there, shrieking Thai Janis included.
The seas were rough, and I was grateful for the fully enclosed ferry. We weren’t dry, but at least we weren’t getting any wetter! It never stopped raining through the two hour ferry ride, through disembarking at Koh Lanta, and loading into the back of a covered truck with our packs and six other drowned rats / travellers. And it kept on raining (and kept on raining some more) for the next six days and beyond.
What do you do at the beach when it rains? Everything minus the sunburn, of course!