“Mine was the second restaurant to open in the village,” the elderly proprietor of Mama Cooking says as I dig into a steaming plate of wok-fried snapper with ginger and chilis. “I started about 25 years ago, a few years after my sister opened Koh Jum Seafood over by the pier. Back then, we mostly served Thai people who came over from the mainland on weekends. I adapted my menu for foreigners.”
My day begins with this conversation in Ban Ko Jum, a village at the Ko Jum (south) end of this arrowhead-shaped island in the Andaman Sea. When I tell “Mama” that I need some wheels to get around, she points me to her nephew’s travel shop a few doors up the lane. Shouts of children ring from the school as smoke from a street-side chicken grill rises into the warm December air.
On a mountain bike costing me 150 baht per day, I pedal west and look for one of the sandy lanes leading to the southern end of Hat Yao, or “Long Beach.” Marked by a red, yellow and green sign with only one word, “Freedom,” I follow a track through an overgrown coconut grove. The sand becomes too deep to keep my balance on two wheels, so I walk. Seeing me, a big macaque crawls into the brush.
A slow walk on Long Beach
I emerge at the back side of Freedom Resort, one of the largest of the island’s roughly 30 bungalow joints. A few travelers lounge in the restaurant pavilion while others swim or kayak to the beach on an islet, Ko Lao Lah, set a few hundred meters from shore. I stride north up this six-km beach, a length that ranks it among the longest contiguous expanses of sand in all of the Thai islands.
The soft tan sand buries my toes. Wispy, pine-like branches of casuarina trees move in the breeze. A child laughs as his father holds him up, letting his slight feet dangle above the water. This is one island that slows my mind down, making it easy to appreciate such ordinary aspects of my surroundings.
A cluster of cheap lodgings appears on my right. The largest is Joy Bungalows, the first ‘resort’ to open on Ko Jum / Pu back in the early 1990s. With long gray hair tied in a pony tail, owner Mr. Joy shares his time between the resort and his corner reggae bar that I always pop into when in Krabi town. After the 2004 Asian Tsunami toppled his original bungalows, he rebuilt sturdier wooden lodgings set two meters off the ground atop thick concrete stilts. While Ko Jum / Pu escaped the tsunami with far less damage than nearby Ko Phi Phi Don, the waves did not spare the island.
For a km I stroll past nothing but seafront woods and coconut groves. Even on Christmas eve, one of the busiest tourism days of the year on almost any Thai island, the only people I see look like tiny dots far up the beach. For a while it’s only me and the trees, sea, wind and sand blanketed in purple reacher flowers.
The hand-painted sign at Woodland Lodge’s Fighting Fish Restaurant is a welcome sight after a swim. “Open all year,” it proclaims. The place is Thai/British-owned and the terrific food represents both cuisines well. Sitting down with a sea view in the shade, I sip on a banana smoothie and smell chili, kaffir lime leaf, finger root and other spices infusing into coconut cream as my panang curry simmers in the open kitchen. “Smells nice,” says a Scottish guest, looking up from his book.
I continue north until a spirit shrine with yellow woven-bamboo walls distracts me towards the woods. Later on I learn that it marks a century-old cemetery where the bones of Urak Lawoi people lie in unmarked graves. These “Sea People” prefer to bury their dead close to shore so that any lingering spirits can enjoy the sounds of the sea, which the Urak Lawoi think of as their primordial home. Unlike on Phuket, for example, this cemetery has never been threatened by developers.
Near the Urak Lawoi cemetery stand the low-priced bungalows of Bo Daeng, a long-running joint that’s popular with middle-aged hipsters from Europe. Owner Ms. Bo joins a few tattooed guests to welcome me into the open-air common pavilion. I’m invited to peruse the book exchange, pick up a guitar or test my funambulist skills on one of the tightropes strung between the coconut trees outside.
I increase my pace while passing the swanky Koh Jum Beach Villas and French-owned Koh Jum Lodge. Ideal for a honeymoon, both resorts stand as impressive upscale options with eco-friendly credentials. Some islanders and long-stay visitors fretted that resorts like these would diminish the casual vibe of Ko Jum / Pu when they were built in the late 2000s. That does not seem to be the case.
North of this upscale enclave comes Hat Yao’s most developed section near the northern end, where Season Bungalow and Golden Pearl Resort stand as two of the longest-running lodgings on the island. The latter is named after a corner of the beach known for its ocher and amber shards of coral and shell.
After a sift through the “golden” treasures, I hop up to the road and catch a sidecar motorcycle back to my rental bike. As with most of the islanders, the driver has a kind and genuine disposition; I’ve no need to worry about being overcharged here. He smiles and shouts one liners at some of the locals as we pass. Giggling, a few little girls dash behind a bush when they see us. Clucking chickens strut.
A slow ride to Luboa Beach
I pedal north on the narrow road, passing stilted wooden houses in the centrally located village of Ban Ting Rai. Many householders maintain elaborate gardens of hibiscus and bird of paradise, among other flowers, letting their brilliant orange and pink buds drape over the lane. There seems to be some neighborly oneupmanship going on, with several households vying to grow the prettiest garden.
Hung from some homes are elaborately decorated cages containing red-whiskered bulbuls which compete in the birdsong contests that are popular throughout Southern Thailand, Peninsular Malaysia and some other parts of Asia. Judges score each bird on the harmony and steadiness of their songs, and the competition can be fierce. In fact, champion bulbuls can fetch up to 200,000 baht ($6,500 USD).
The land becomes greener and more sparsely settled when I reach the Ko Pu (northern) part of the island. A burst of cool air zings my face as I pedal through a farm of rubber trees, their white-flecked trunks standing in neat rows along a hillside. Beneath the reaching branches, a tapper naps in a thatch-roofed hut.
Near the turnoff for Ban Ko Pu I stop for a view of Khao Ko Pu, the 422-meter mountain that I like to call Mt. Puji. It shows up in seascape photos taken all around this stretch of the Andaman, from Railay to Ko Phi Phi and even Ko Yao Yai on a clear day. I’ve yet to hike to the summit but I hear it’s challenging, with some steep terrain and a trail that can be difficult to follow. A couple of local trail guides are available — you’ll find their contact info at any resort on the island.
One traveler who happened to be atop the mountain when the Tsunami hit on December 26th, 2004, captured incredible images of the waves powering ashore. Also on the Koh Jum Online website is a traveler’s account of treating an injured woman after fleeing to high ground on that day. As with so many others in the region, they spent a sleepless night on an inland hill before daring to descend.
With Mt. Puji behind me, I ride into the remote far northern terrain and pause for a vista of neighboring Ko Si Boya. On the north coast, I pop into the lone resort at Banyan Bay to find the dramatic cliffs of Railay coming into view for the first time. Further west, I pedal down to Ao Maphrao (“Coconut Bay”) and get my feet wet. The only sign of humans here are a few bungalows set amid the coconut trees.
From Ao Maphrao it’s only one km further west to the road’s end, marked by one of the more sedate beaches with accommodation that I’ve found in Thailand. Known as Hat Luboa and also called North Beach, it’s a km-long crescent of slightly reddish sand backed by a sprinkle of bungalows and dense jungle twisting up into Mt. Puji. I walk the length of it and climb a boulder to peruse the bay.
As with much of the west coast, offshore rocks and lengthy shallows make low-tide swimming next to impossible off this beach. Sandflies can also be a problem. Neither of these issues seem to bother the lounging travelers. To them, Hat Luboa is a mellow paradise, a place to soak up those “back to nature” beach vibes.
Perpetuating a style of travel that dominated Thai islands in the 1980s and ‘90s, backpackers simply show up on Hat Luboa and peep a few huts until they find one that suits them. One spot that does get booked up in advance is Luboa Hut, where bungalows were built around a sprawling banyan tree beyond the beach. Some of them feature two floors and private perches up near the branches. Also on Hat Luboa, the bungalows at Banhomie, Sunset and Relax also bring some character.
Of Hat Luboa’s beach bars, I’m partial to the aptly named Peace Paradise. There I chat with a soft-spoken bartender whose wiry build, long black hair and torn attire make him look like a shipwreck survivor who washed up on a remote island. A plump Swede joins in, telling us about his encounter with a golden tree snake in his bungalow bathroom. “It’s harmless,” he says, “but I didn’t know that when I saw it!”
Back to Ao Si for sunset
On the western horizon, the sun droops low over the Ko Phi Phi twins. I pedal non-stop back to the center of the island and wave goodbye to the Swede, but I still have a few more beaches to check out before I can call it a day.
The first is Ao Ting Rai, a rocky one km beach with a secluded vibe persisting at the end of a bumpy dirt track. Families seem to like midrange lodgings like Koh Jum Resort and The Last Fisher, while the weed-heads flock to Stone Bar at hidden-away Magic Beach beyond the headland. Beside the nearby lane I find a family of macaques digging through a garbage pit; unfortunately, and as with many other places in the region, rubbish is not always disposed of properly on Ko Jum / Pu.
Just over the headland from Magic Beach but requiring a roundabout two-km bike ride through the belly of the island by road, I finally arrive at my last beach of the day: Ao Si. I prefer to stay here at one of the 800-baht bungalows built into a leafy hillside at long-running Jungle Hill, where monkeys roam and the staffers are adept at balancing attentive service with personable, positive attitudes.
I take the steep steps down to the beach. A fifty-something Norwegian couple who I chatted with at breakfast have barely moved an inch from their lounge chairs all day, rising from their feet only to swim and walk to the massage pavilion. Normally I’d go for a beach run now, but my legs are like Jello from my ride. I have enough energy to climb up to the restaurant and watch the sun sink into the Andaman. By 9:00, as a hush falls over the hill, I’m fast asleep beneath a mozzie net. 🌴
Wow, sounds like my kind of perfect day in Thailand. I will definitely have to put this place at the top of my list. We certainly missed our winter get away this year and it is difficult to read this as we are still watching the snow melt!