What happens when, thanks to miscommunication, you find yourself stranded on the wrong island in Thailand… several times in a row?
Here, my friend Isabelle Khaicy — a teacher, travel junkie and baking extraordinaire — shares the story of how she got to explore a series of increasingly picturesque Thai islands entirely by accident, and stay overnight on one usually only open to tourists by day. A travel (mis)adventure, indeed.
In 2015, I chose to complete the final teaching internship of my degree in Thailand. The six other interns and I arrived in Phuket during Thai school holidays, three weeks before term was due to start, and we were split up into different groups to teach in English summer camps. I stayed in Sirinat National Park with two of my peers while the others went inland.
For those first three weeks, about 50 students from three local primary schools (or elementary schools) came to the national park in the mornings to learn English, and we team-taught them in one big conference room.
This worked well most days — although one day it turned out that the conference room was booked out. So we did what any good teacher would: improvise.
We grabbed a portable whiteboard and some markers and marched the students five minutes down the road onto the beach, taught them the English words for ‘beach’, ‘waves’ etc, and used these words to play spelling games. We also taught them the game of duck, duck, goose, which was a major hit.
During those first few weeks, our main contact was the director of Sirinat National Park. His name was Moo. Well, that was his nickname but everyone called him that and so we did too. He organised transport, liaised with the schools, took us to social events, and entertained us with his characteristic Thai bluntness. About halfway through our internship, he was made director of another national park — in Krabi — and left with promises to meet up again later.
Once term started, my peers and I split up and taught in the schools. Since the primary teaching was only in the mornings, we also taught English classes in the evenings.
Our students? Police officers.
Police academy: Teaching local cops
It was one of the most random teaching experiences of my life, and not just because we were filmed by a news crew for one of our lessons. Or because our students would give us a lift home in their police van on occasion.
The students had a range of English literacy levels, and what they managed to express to us was that they wanted to be able to communicate better with English-speaking tourists.
What did this mean in terms of the content we created for them? We came up with scripts based on their interactions with tourists — giving directions, taking witness statements, and making arrests.
Yes, as a legitimate part of my final teaching internship, I found myself role-playing arrest with a Thai policeman while he read his part of the script from the board (luckily they didn’t use their guns as props; that would have put the pressure on a bit too much).
It was a very interesting dynamic — I had never taught adults before, and cultural differences amplified the hilarity of two 20-something year old girls teaching a group of Thai policemen in their 30s–50s. We definitely didn’t have the same sense of authority that we were accustomed to.
On the last day of classes before our policemen students took their final exam, my peer and I laughed off the possibility of them cheating so didn’t ask them to sit in test formation.
Fifteen minutes into the test I found myself — a relatively small 20-something-year-old woman — chastising and waving my finger at two police officers for talking during the test. I fixed them with a stern glare and indicated that I would be keeping an eye on them, all the while laughing internally at how bizarre the situation was.
Island #1: Bond, James Bond
It was our policemen students who decided to invite us out one weekend to see ‘James Bond Island’, after which the plan was to meet Moo on an island in Krabi before staying there the night.
The boat trip through the islands was serene. Vast blue water engulfed each side of the boat, broken up only by the occasional island — often consisting of sheer rock cliffs that reared so suddenly from the water that you found yourself wondering how they were formed.
Khao Phing Kan — also known as James Bond Island because of its appearance in the 1974 Man with the Golden Gun — was beautiful indeed, but way too packed with tourists and gift shops. After taking a few snaps, we got back on the boat and had lunch before kayaking through the nearby islands.
While we were eating, one of the crew members informed us that they would be dropping us off post-kayaking on an island in the distance. It seemed a bit small but we thought nothing of it, as the policemen and Moo had arranged our transport. After the guided kayak tour, we hopped on a small boat and were dropped off on the aforementioned island.
Island #2: The wrong Koh Hong
Sheer cliffs dominated the island. Three huts and an outhouse were the only buildings around. As we approached the hut nearest to the water, we were greeted by two young Thai men who spoke very little English. They indicated for us to come in and sit down, and offered us a drink. No sign of Moo at this point.
We sat there awkwardly for a while, taking in the rather dilapidated surroundings — not exactly what we’d expected, but we were not about to complain about a free night on an island in Thailand.
We decided to make the most of our time there and asked if we could swim. Our hosts politely, if a bit confusedly, indicated we could change in their rooms. We did so and hopped into the water, enjoying the view around us (despite something — some kind of fish, we could only hope — constantly nipping at our feet).
Noticing the time, we decided that it had been too long, and quickly called Moo. This conversation ensued:
Moo: Hi, where are you?
Me: What are you talking about? We are on the island!
Moo: No, you’re not.
Me: Yeah — Koh Hong Island, right?
Moo: Is there anyone there I can talk to?
*I wave over a local and hand them the mobile, noticing that the phone battery is now at 11%. He speaks in Thai, and hands the phone back to me, chuckling*
Moo: You’re on the wrong island.
Moo went on to explain that there was a miscommunication because there is a Koh Hong both near James Bond Island in Phang Nga, where we were, and also a Koh Hong in Krabi — where we were supposed to go. Moo assured me all would be fine, and to get ready for someone to pick us up.
Throughout this exchange, my friends were still swimming nonchalantly, with no clue of the conversation I’d just had. I couldn’t help but laugh as I told them what was happening — it had occurred to me that we’d just randomly rocked up to what was essentially someone’s house, gotten changed in their bedroom and swum in their front yard. And they had been hospitable enough to let us!
Once we’d packed up, about 20 minutes after the phone call, a speedboat sprayed into the little bay at the front of the island and a 40-something-year-old Thai man who spoke no English waved us over. We looked at each other, as if to ask, “Is this for us?” and then just shrugged and got on.
Throughout the ride, I delighted at the sun glistening off the ocean and the spray of cool water on my face as I hung on for dear life while our driver showed off his skills by doing sharp turns and tricks.
Islands #3 and #4: Mangroves and milk tea
Half an hour later, we arrived at another island, and he indicated for us to get off. It was a small island with about eight huts and some chickens wandering around. We walked around the whole island in about 10 minutes — still no Moo.
At that point we gave up worrying and just took in the beautiful surroundings. One end of the island consisted of a long narrow stretch of pebble-covered sand and mangrove-like trees.
About 25 minutes later, another boat arrived — this time a long wooden fishing boat. Two young men (again, no English) waved us on and we enjoyed a much smoother ride to another wharf, thinking surely this would be our final destination, right?
Wrong. Our escorts left us in the boat wondering what was going on and came back 10 minutes later with some traditional Thai milk tea for us, drunk directly out of plastic bags pierced with straws. As the boat set off again, we all gave each other a look that said we’d better be going to Koh Hong next.
Twenty minutes passed. Eventually we arrived at the end of a long inflatable wharf and delighted as never before at the sight of Moo standing at the end of it. We had finally arrived and it was definitely worth the wait.
Island #5: Sunset kayaking and super-fresh sashimi
The ‘real’ Koh Hong was the biggest out of the multiple islands we had unintentionally visited that day, and had crystal clear water and two beaches that were hugged by sheer rock formations. It was simply breathtaking.
With barely a minute to take it all in, we were rushed across the beach, through an area spotted with signs and benches for tourists, to the station where the national park rangers and their families resided. Apparently, we were late — they had planned for us to kayak around the whole island during sunset.
But we were still able to kayak around three-quarters of the island to witness the meeting of the sun and the open horizon before we had to head back.
Upon our return, we were greeted with the sight of a feast of fresh seafood, prepared specially in honour of our visit. One of our hosts told us that no tourists are allowed to sleep on the island but as we were friends and special guests of the director of the Krabi National Park, an exception was made for us.
It was the freshest seafood I have ever eaten. My absolute favourite had to be the salmon sashimi — they cut the freshly caught salmon right in front of us!
The final surprise of Koh Hong Island, Thailand
Two of my peers who had joined us for that weekend were a couple celebrating an anniversary, so they slipped out from the festivities to enjoy a quiet walk on the beach. Not long after, they came back and excitedly told us to follow them and not ask any questions: they had a surprise to show us.
We followed them onto the sand. With barely any light filtering through the trees from the dining area, the beach was practically pitch black.
The couple started to stamp their feet and hands on the edges of the waves coming in. I was about to make a joke about straitjackets when I saw it: a glow of blue dots shining along the water’s edge. Bioluminescent plankton.
I’m not going to lie and say that it looked exactly like the pictures of waves you see on Google dotted with millions of blue lights bright enough to light up a beach. Because it didn’t; there simply weren’t that many of them — but that made it all the more satisfying when we saw one wave light up, filled with a surge of plankton. Or when we stomped onto the sand just after a wave had hit the shore and saw an outline of our hands or feet in blue (for some reason, stamping activated the glow).
Later that evening, we slept in tents just metres from the water’s edge. I admit to being a bit wary of the noises we heard throughout the night — I mean, we had seen rather large monitor lizards, among other wildlife, earlier in the afternoon. But eventually I drifted off to sleep, only to be awoken a short time later by our phone alarms which signalled sunrise.
The experience of unzipping my tent to see the sun peeking out between the two rock faces that bordered the beach was unforgettable — and completely uncaptureable by my iPhone.
We wandered onto the beach and took photo after photo, trying to capture the view, before deciding to put the phones away, sit down on the sand and just enjoy it.
It was then we were able to take in more of the scene before us: the dolphins swimming off the horizon, the fishing boat a few hundred metres from shore, and the myriad shades of orange and yellow sparkling on the water.
As the morning went on, we noticed that tourists began to trickle in via the wharf. I admittedly felt a small sense of satisfaction knowing that we got to see the island as no other tourist can.
Over the course of my internship in Thailand I had many random adventures, but accidental island-hopping was one of the most memorable. I have a special fondness for Thailand now — its ever-hospitable people, crazy nightlife, delicious street food and stunning natural beauty. Next time I re-visit, I plan to go island-hopping again — this time on purpose!