The long, thin peninsula that stretches from Thailand down to Malaysia is blessed with beautiful beaches on both sides. The last time we visited Thailand, it was January, and the islands on the east side were having bad weather, so we concentrated on the west. (See the photo galleries for Koh Lipe and Koh Ngai.) This time of year, the weather is reversed: The western islands are getting rained on, so we’re spending our beach time on the east side, in the Gulf of Thailand.
A long day of travel—by overnight train, then bus, then ferry, then van—brought us to Thong Nai Pan Yai beach on the island of Koh Phangan. The island is famous for its full-moon parties, big drug- and booze-fueled raves on the sand every month. But our beach is on the quiet side of the island, and during this low season, it’s very quiet indeed. We’re staying at Longtail Resort, named for the type of narrow wooden fishing boat, driven by a propellor at the end of a long pole, that is common around Thai islands. Despite the “resort” label (which every property here sports), Longtail is a low-key place, a collection of cabins and a nice beachside restaurant tucked into the rocky corner of a small bay.
The oval bay is surrounded almost three-quarters of the way around with low tree-covered hills and has two long beaches of tan sand. It’s very sheltered, so the sea is calm. These days, low tide is extra low: The beach becomes twice as wide, and the longtail boats anchored close to shore sit exposed like pieces of driftwood until the water rises again. The beach is entirely sandy—no rocks or sea grass or urchins to watch out for. So even at low tide, it’s easy to walk out to chest-high water for a swim.
Our days here are quiet and unstructured: enjoying meals and fruity drinks at our resort or at the Indian restaurant next door (incongruously named Havana), walking on the beach, doing lots of reading, talking with the staff members (mainly Burmese) and the other guests (mainly German), and lolling in the hammock on the porch of our bungalow watching the swaying leaves of the tropical garden. When there’s a breeze, it’s heavenly. When the breeze dies, it’s hellishly hot and humid, and we retreat inside for a siesta under the blessed air conditioner. The bungalow is cozy and comfortable; its only downsides are a bed that’s even more rock-hard than usual for Southeast Asia and a big, fast-running spider that Melissa bravely vanquished for me.
Each evening, as the sun sinks behind the hills, the swifts and then the bats emerge and flutter over the bay, taking their toll on the local insect population. The young men who work at our end of the beach play a spirited soccer game on the sand. (The goals are small, and no one ever seems to score.) The geckos who live in the garden make their distinctive throaty calls (which really do sound like they’re saying “gecko, gecko”). And we go for a long and peaceful swim in the smooth water and contemplate what a pretty place this is.
Dog lovers would adore Thong Nai Pan Yai beach. Each property seems to have two or three resident dogs, whose days have their own rhythm. During the hottest hours, the dogs sleep on the beach, half burrowed into the sand under tables or chairs. In the cooler hours, they chase each other up and down the beach or wade in the shallows snapping at skittering crabs. Once when we were swimming, we saw a Thai man crossing the bay on a stand-up paddle board, with his two dogs swimming skillfully behind him. Not long after, we saw the paddle board coming the other way, this time with the dogs riding on top. As the man tried to balance with the weight of two passengers, he smiled sheepishly at the fact that he was providing a canine ferry service. “They’re lazy,” he called. “And smart!” we called back. He laughed, while the dogs just looked smug.