In Thai "Koh Muk" means "Pearl Island" and this beauty definitely lives up to her name. We hopped down to Muk from Koh Lanta by ferry and what a sweet ride it was. After the obligatory 30 minute delay (lest we forget we are operating on Thai time) we pulled out of Lanta and dropped our feet over the side of the boat where they were rhythmically sprayed with water as we buzzed across the turquoise blue Andaman Sea. The full 90 minutes via 2 other small islands was passed in this pleasant manner and there were no complaints from us, I can assure you. If only all travel was so nice. I admit: I even let myself think, if only for a brief moment, that perhaps this journey would be completely painless, and even, dare I say, fun(?)!
Of course, as we pulled up to Koh Muk reality set in...we are traveling in Thailand so of course there is a hitch somewhere. The hitch was that our ferry doubled as a tour boat and a large portion of the passengers were not transferring to Koh Muk, but rather partaking in a 4 island full day tour. There was the customary lack of communication and mandatory barely contained chaos as 45 people donned life jackets and, with no explanation as to where they were going or what we should be doing, plunged into the Sea leaving me, G and several others looking on with a bit of concern, but mainly alot of "WTF". The life jacket brigade swam haphazardly towards the opening of the cave that Koh Muk boasts as it's most popular tourist attraction. The tide was up and the swell significant such that they had to time their swim to avoid being smashed into the rocks that guard the cave's entrance. A sketchy operation, indeed.
After watching this spectical we settled in to rot in the blazing Thai sun assuming we'd be dropped off at the mainland when they were done exploring the cave/ whenever they felt like it. Awesome.
30 sweaty minutes passed...then, the unexpected...a Longboat buzzed up and started to load passengers and backpacks. A bit more chaotic yelling assured us that this was the transport to Koh Muk's mainland and that yes we were ALL getting in that tiny ass boat. And so we did. Gina and I made passengers #12 and #13 and we barely fit on this thing. Then, just as we were settled in and moments from casting off, a dorky looking dude rolled up and casually asked if this was the boat to Muk and if so, he was with a party of 6 including his elderly parents and wanted a ride. "Excuse me? Did you say... 6!?" I said to myself, and from the alarmed murmur that permeated the boat I could tell I was not alone in my concern.
The captain, however had no such reservations regarding his vessel's capacity or sea worthiness and before we knew it 6 Spaniards, 6 large backpacks, and 1 oxygen rig for dude's presumably Emphysema stricken elderly father had been hoisted aboard, displacing Gina from her seat to the floor and bringing the passenger count to a whopping 19.
To say that the longboat labored and creaked under this load, would be an understatement. To say that the water level reached only a few precarious inches from the lip of the boat would be accurate. And, to say that I was nervous, well...let's just say my blood pressure was running high for those seemingly endless 20 minutes as I eyed the jagged and rocky coastline trying to determine which way to swim WHEN, not if, this ship went down.
At last the longboat rounded a point and entered a small bay where other boats were moored and a bit of relief entered my veins as we could certainly make the swim from here. Finally we skidded onto the beach and piled onto the sand, claimed our backpacks and found our way to a "taxi" that had been sent for us. The "taxi" was really a scooter with a jerry-rigged side car. We piled 3 people and 3 packs on and, before we knew it, we were racing across the island to be deposited at the Coco Lodge which would be our home for the next few days.
I have to start telling you about this spot with one sentence and I hope you'll excuse my French: the Coco Lodge is BADASS!! We got "luxury bamboo bungalow" #7, which came with a rock hard mattress, fan, mosquito net, private outdoor bath and a view of the Ocean; all for 600 Baht or US$20/ night. I have spent $20 bucks on much less, that is certain!
It didn't take us long to settle in and find our way to their kitchen for some lunch, and I felt that living through that longboat ride entitled me to a beer or two, thank you very much. We ate our som-tam lunch and chatted with the extremely gracious owners, Ched and his sister. We ended up spending quite a bit of time with them. My emphatic statement regarding the Coco Lodge extends to, and is in large part due to, these two fine people. Ched's theory is that all his guests are like family and should be treated as such. They were extremely helpful, knowledgable and very cool to hang with.
The rest of the afternoon was spent swimming and sun bathing at the beach by the Lodge and exploring the village and pier. This is by far the least tourist visited place we've been to yet, and you really got the feeling you were seeing how these people lived. The village was authentic right down to the pleasant greetings, big smiles, half naked children running around, chickens, goats, and, unfortunatly, large piles of trash that were everywhere. After a quick rinse we jumped on the Lodge's loaner (and pretty dilapidated) bikes and rode back across the island towards where we came in to watch the sunset at Charley beach. Stunning. On the ride back, we stopped in at a ramshackle looking joint called Hilltop Restaurant which had a sign promising "Cheap, Cheap and Different thai food". It was run by a very friendly Thai woman and her large family. We were greeted promptly by her 9 year old son, Niew, who made haste in bringing and opening our beers for us. "Are you old enough to be serving beers, dude?" we asked. He just gave a huge, white, toothy smile and laughed, the typical Thai response to any question they don't entirely understand. Now the Hilltop is no pearl to look at; the kitchen is in the dining room, the family lives behind the kitchen; but this place throws down maybe the meanest Thai grub yet encountered. I got some spicy squid stir fry and G got the sweet basil prawns and we finished the meal off with a plate of cucumber som tam. So unbelievably amazing. I will dream about that meal for a long time. After riding back to the Lodge and getting situated under the mosquito net and onto the rock hard mattress we slipped into a restful sleep.
At 5 am we discovered another charming piece of character about Koh Muk that we noticed briefly the previous day but took little notice of; it is primarily Muslim and thus the island is rigged with speakers where they broadcast Arabic chanting, very loudly, several times throughout the day so people know when it's time to pray. Coco Lodge bungalow # 7 is perched very close to one of the speakers and although bamboo aides in charm and character for construction purposes, it sucks at blocking out loud, ominous sounding chanting...it doesn't work much better for rooster's crowing either, for that matter.
The morning of Day 2 on Muk was spent lazily at the beach, although we did complete a longish swim and prison workout in the sand; you gotta get creative in order to stay fit in paradise. After lunch we jumped into the Lodge's longboat with Ched, his driver and 4 other German tourists who had been on the previous day's crowded longboat ride in and were also staying at the Lodge. Ched took us out to the cave we had seen the lemming- like passengers go into the previous afternoon; but this time the tide was low, Ched had a kayak, and the whole thing seemed a bit more legit. The cave, called Morokot technically, used to be a pirate hideout, and is accessed by swimming down a pitch black 80m long tunnel. Ched led the way with kayak and head lamp and soon we had made a right hand turn and were swimming towards the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Another few strokes and we found ourselves swimming out into a lagoon of sorts totally surrounded and protected by huge walls of jungle covered rock. What a place! Our photos didn't come out great, but you get the picture. We had the place to ourselves, so chilled for about 45 minutes before again donning our flippers and life vests and heading back into the tunnel. As you round the turn in total darkness the first light you see is a bright emerald green light that dances and reflects along the walls and roof of the tunnel. It's from the glow of the water which glimmers brightly at the cave's mouth where the sunlight hits it, and it gives the cave it's apt nickname: "The Emerald Cave". After we were back on the boat we buzzed back around to a snorkeling spot where we checked out some coral and fish. While we snorkeled the boat driver fished and pulled in a couple large squid which I, of course, later posed with and which Ched had the kitchen deep fry in chili and garlic for us when we got back. Bomb!! On the way back to the Lodge we stopped to look at some crazy star fish and as Ched explained how the heavy sea weed in the area made sea life abundant, as if on cue, a sea turtle glided past the boat. Unfortunately for G and zee Germans I was the only one in position to it. That night we ate our squid and some more tasty Thai morsels at the Coco Lodge kitchen and then retired to the comfort of bungalow #7.
The chanting blaring from the speakers woke us again at 5 am and the roosters kept us up so we headed out to see if we could catch the sunrise. The clouds were in which kept it from being too spectacular, but it's still nice to be up as the day comes to a sleepy tropical island. We hadn't realized that there were no ATMs on Koh Muk and, of course, nobody takes credit card. We had plenty to cover the Lodge and day to day expenses but we didn't expect the boat ride to our next destination to be so expensive so we found ourselves in the awkward position of running low on cash. No worries though, Ched said we could roll with him to the mainland that morning while he ran an errand to Trang town. So we did. We longboated to the mainland then hopped in the back of his converted pickup truck for the 35 minutes to Trang. We got cash and then met Ched and his buddies as they loaded up what the had come for: a rusty, filthy, oil leaking Range Rover engine. They were all quite proud of the engine, the apparent bargain they got it for and, of course, the fact that it was for a Range Rover... eventhough it was apparent that it hadn't actually been IN a Range Rover, at least not one that ran, in several decades- 30 years to be precise. On the way back Gina got to sit in the cab with Ched and I got to sit in the back with his non- English speaking friends and, you guessed it, a Range Rover engine. While Gina and Ched had a long and interesting conversation ranging from Thai politics to Ched's stint as a long haul truck driver based in New Orleans, I had the equivalent of a Dumb & Dumber soundbite: "Range Rover, eh!?!?" Blank stares and crickets. Sweet.
That afternoon we chilled at the beach back on Muk and after a rinse again grabbed the rickety old bikes and headed across the island for our last evening. G had a hankering for a Banana smoothie and we dipped into a spot just up from Charley beach and sat on the verandah to have our smoothies and a pre dinner appetizer. We ended up with one banana smoothie and one pineapple and sweet Thai basil combo smoothie which was great. Our appetizer was Som Tam (papaya salad; which we eat voraciously, almost like addicts these days), but this version was different. They had deep fried the papaya which was an interesting twist, but in the end we decided that like Twinkies, somethings are better left un- deep fried. For dinner we had to make another stop in to Hilltop Restaurant. I wanted to try something else (everything, really!!) off her menu, but in the end couldn't bring myself to go away from the spicy squid I had had the other day; it was just TOO good! G had a particularly nice Tom Yum. God bless that little restaurant and that little family. After a quick ride back across the island, we returned to the Lodge for our final sleep in Bungalow #7.
In the morning we made ourselves jog across the island and back in the stifling Thai heat and sweated a bucket load before having a final cold rinse in the outdoor bath and packing our things. We had breakfast in the Lodge's dining room before saying a final goodbye to Ched and his sister and snapping a quick photo to remember them by. Then we shouldered our packs and hopped onto the scooter side car headed to Charley beach. Ched had said that he tries to treat all his guests like family. I'd take it a step further to say that Koh Muk embraces the willing visitor as family. It certainly felt different to leave there then any place we've been yet...Koh Muk, what a gem!