Sitting on the veranda of my bamboo-thatched hut, in this quiet Thailand homestay, I can hear chickens clucking underneath the floorboards, the odd bleat from a family of goats I can see grazing their way across the lawn and the far-away sound of kids playing somewhere in the garden out of sight.
There’s the slight rustle of a breeze through the adjoining rubber tree plantation but otherwise it’s silent, and I’m feeling a little bit blissed out. I’ll be called to dinner with the family soon, but until then, it’s just me and the peaceful sounds of village life.
I’m staying in homestay accommodation on the island of Koh Yao, and while it feels remote it’s actually only a 30-minute ferry ride from Phuket. In fact, you’ll find quiet little rural enclaves just a short distance away from most of Thailand’s bustling tourist destinations.
Taking advantage of accommodation like this is a great way to experience what Thai village life is really like, far-removed (but not far away) from the bright lights of Patong Beach and Laguna Phuket.
It’s a far cry from the hotel I left behind in Laguna Phuket, a brand new urban chic resort that’s a little too cool for school, with Fuzball and darts in the foyer, abstract murals on the walls (and elevators) and brightly coloured donuts strung up on a board on the breakfast buffet.
From this sophisticated starting point, I make my way to Bang Rong Pier, a short taxi ride away and take a punt that the high-speed boat tied to the jetty is the right one. My instructions are to ask for ‘Mr Bao’ once I arrive at Manoh Pier on Koh Lao and beyond that I have no idea what to expect, or indeed where to go.
I stand on the jetty looking for someone who looks like an ‘Mr Bao’, a little concerned I have too much luggage. A concern that is confirmed when my transfer arrives: Mr Bao’s son, Lee, riding a scooter. He looks at my luggage and scratches his head. “We come back for it.”
I’m a little concerned about leaving my large Samsonite suitcase and even more concerned about leaving several thousand dollars’ worth of camera equipment sitting on the jetty but he reassures me they are safe so I jump on the back and we head into town.
‘Town’ is a few official-looking buildings (school, police station and mosque) and a row of shops surrounded by rice fields. Before long we turn into a grassy driveway and I’m led to my little bamboo hut, introduced to Mrs Bao and told to be ready at 12 o’clock for lunch. Mrs Bao smiles sweetly while her son enquires about food allergies and then he disappears to get my luggage.
I finally get to meet Mr Bao an hour or so later at lunch in the family kitchen, where he explains village life to me and suggests a few outings. Lunch for me is a delicious home-cooked meal, stir-fried local vegetables and a mild chicken curry, while Mr Bao has a large bowl of prawns which he dips in a spicy shrimp sauce. Mrs Bao sits by the window as we eat, with her own separate lunch.
This is a Muslim household and in fact, I learn over lunch that 98 per cent of villagers here are Muslim. It’s not clear what the other two per cent are, but it hardly matters. I make a mental note not to expect wine with dinner.
After lunch Lee comes to take me for a tour of the island on the back of his scooter. We head first to a small fishing village, then to a quiet sandy beach lined with cafes and a few souvenir shops and on to an over-water village, built around a long jetty that stretches through mangroves. I’m then shown around one of the rubber plantations that dot the island, competing for space only with rice fields. Rubber is still collected in a coconut husk tacked to the trunk of each tree, the same method used for over 100 years, with the diagonal tracks in each trunk refreshed every morning.
As we circumnavigate this small island I get glimpses of the tall limestone islands of Phang Na Bay which I’m heading out to explore tomorrow, but for now, there’s nothing to do but relax until dinnertime.
Over dinner I learn a bit more about Mr Bao’s village, and about Bao himself. Bao has been running this homestay for over 25 years, having struck upon the idea while trying to protect his previous livelihood: fishing. It was around then that the large commercial fishing trawlers came into the bay and took away the villagers’ livelihoods virtually overnight.
Bao tried petitioning local government to have the boats stopped, to no avail, and so took his fight to Bangkok. It was there he struck upon the idea of recruiting university students to help, and invited groups of students to his village, to see for themselves what was happening, and fight the fight for him in the nation’s capital.
This strategy proved successful in two ways; the commercial fishing boats were eventually prohibited from fishing these waters; and along the way, Bao had discovered a new income stream, homestay accommodation, which was fast becoming popular among the backpacker tourists. Homestays were established in villages all over the island, fishermen returned to work and the villagers were all so grateful they voted Mr Bao in as their local member of parliament.
Which brings us here, to this quiet little alcohol-free island, now a thriving tourism destination, far away from the madding crowds of Phuket and Krabi. Where I can spend my days lounging in the hammock on my veranda, maybe go to the beach, wander aimlessly through rice fields and rubber plantations, or take an island-hopping tour of Phang Na Bay.
I opt for an island hopping tour the next day, accompanied by Uncle Bao, on a long tail boat skippered by his brother-in-law. We explore a few limestone islands, some with caves and dripping stalactites, some with white sandy beaches and at least one populated with a large family of crab-eating macaques who scramble over the rocks to check us out.
After our second dinner together Mr Bao offers to walk into the village with me and treat me to pancakes for dessert. It’s a local specialty, closer to roti than pancakes (even better!) with a wide range of fillings and toppings. I opt for coconut and mango: fresh shavings of toasted coconut pulp and finely sliced mango in a crisp roti. It’s delicious.
We explore the night markets for a while and return home, where I sink into my bed, wrapped in a pink mosquito net, and try to think of a few excuses to extend my stay.
Stay: Mr Bao’s Homestay and Bungalows. 32 Moo 1 Koh Yao Noi, Phang Na. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Getting There: Thai Airways fly twice daily from Sydney to Bangkok and daily from Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. Connections to Phuket are pretty fast and efficient. Ferry transfer to Koh Lao is from Bang Rong Pier.