Koh Mook (Morakot Cave, Sivalai Beach resort),
Koh Kradan (The Reef Resort, snorkelling)
Koh Chuak (snorkelling)
Koh Ngai (Thanya Beach Resort)
With excellent weather, palm-fringed beaches and warm ocean, Thailand is an island-hopping destination all year round.
The Trang Islands can be described as the ideal exotic retreat that most people dream of when planning a tropical holiday.
Some of the islands off Trang province are almost unknown to foreign tourists; to name a few: Koh Libong, Koh Phetra, Koh Sukorn, Koh Bulon, Koh Lao Liang.
I guess you never heard of them, even if you are a repeating visitor of Thailand.
Others are a little more in the radar, yet still overshadowed by the like of Koh Lipe, Koh Lanta, Koh Samui, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao: this second group includes Koh Kradan, Koh Ngai and Koh Muk, boasting the most pristine and romantic beaches in the area and offering a large choice of beach front resorts and accommodation.
The sea encircling these islands is a palette of transparent turquoise and azure.
A day trip from Krabi
For a weekend day trip to the above mentioned islands off Trang coast, my friends and I started from Krabi, driving our car from Ao Nang to Pak Meng pier, at the border between Krabi and Trang provinces. It’s a pleasant 90 minute drive on good roads bordered by palm tree plantations and limestone mountains.
In Pak Meng harbour we boarded a private long tail boat for the day.
After about 30 minutes, we arrived in Ko Muk, the first island on our planned itinerary.
Koh Muk (sometimes spelled Mook) is best known for the Morakot Cave (or Emerald Cave), for its range of both affordable and upscale accommodation (Farang Beach vs Sivalai beach) and for the spectacular sunsets that visitors can admire from the West coast.
Koh Muk is especially convenient as a base for day-trips to the Morakot Cave, where a sea tunnel leads to a secret beach inside what looks like a volcanic crater cave, or to the nearby islands.
Plan to visit the cave at low tide and avoid the weekends, when many local tourists assemble at the entrance and the queue can be a little overwhelming inside the sea tunnel.
It happened to us on our Sunday trip but despite the long line of weak swimmers who had to be pulled inside by local guides through long ropes, creating some noise and traffic jams on one side of the tunnel, the wonderland that awaits at the other side still left us speechless and happy.
After spending some time at Morakot, we cruised along the west side of the island, past Farang Beach and the backpacker’s nest called Charlie Beach Resort, until we reached the Sivalai Resort.
The Koh Mook Sivalai Beach Resort lies on a quiet, white sand peninsula of pristine beaches bordered by shallow waters and fringed by palm trees. All the wooden and concrete bungalows and villas have a partial or full sea view and are shaded by exotic vegetation. We stopped at the Sivalai for a swim and a walk around the cape, then left for our next destination, a 15-minute ride away.
Koh Kradan is probably the most famous of the group thanks to the stark sugary white sand beaches and transparent waters very much alive with fish. You can snorkel right off the main beach (Kradan Beach) and at low tide you can even walk or paddle out to the reef.
We decided to stop at the main beach and have lunch at The Reef Resort, a corner of paradise consisting of simple but very well designed beach front and sea view rooms. And when I say "sea view" I mean it: the distance from each of the 18 rooms to the powdery beach of Kradan is probably 50 steps, and the sea view is the most amazing you will get on the island.
The resort’s owner is Italian but The Reef is very popular with North Europeans; many are repeating guests who have been returning to Koh Kradan for years.
If you visit the resort, spend some time at the lovely beach bar, reading the wooden plates that affectionate customers carved or painted for decoration and that are now part of the roof.
I recommend you to grab a bite at the hotel’s beach restaurant: the Thai and Italian cuisine is delicious, and the scenery one that you won’t forget.
Koh Chuak & Koh Ngai
After lunch and some snorkelling in Koh Kradan, we continued to the last island in our program, Koh Ngai, stopping on the way for more snorkelling in Koh Chuak, a little diamond-shaped limestone islet located between Koh Ngai and Koh Mook.
There are no beaches and accommodation in Koh Chuak, but the islet is not to be skipped if you like snorkelling: its aquamarine waters are bustling with fish and soft corals.
The last island we visited, Koh Ngai, boasts crystal waters, white sand beaches and some coral reefs (although not as beautiful as the reef in Koh Kradan & Chuak).
Among the Trang Islands, Koh Ngai has the most unspoiled jungle and it’s home to monitor lizards, snakes and a great variety of birds (including 2000 hornbills!)
The resorts on Koh Ngai are mostly upper/mid-range.
My favorite is Thanya Beach Resort with its Balinese style teak bungalows facing the beach and a nice, large swimming pool. All the buildings are immersed in a beautiful frangipani-filled tropical garden. The atmosphere is exotic and romantic, no wonders that the Thanya in Koh Ngai is a favorite destination for honeymooners.
In high season (November to April) Tigerline ferries stop just off Koh Ngai on their journeys between the islands of Phuket and Koh Lipe, while local long tail boats can be rent in Pak Meng for island hopping in the area. Join speed boats also run daily at fixed times.
After taking a photo tour in the marvellous garden of the Thanya Resort, admiring the tall frangipani trees and other lesser known but equally stunning trees and plants, we relaxed on the beach and enjoyed a last swim in the warm waters in front of the resort.
A large school of fish, like a storm cloud darkening the sea, kept following us while the islets-filled horizon started to turn from blue to gold. Sunset was coming, and it was time to start the journey back to Pak Meng pier to keep ahead of darkness.
We reached Krabi around 8 pm, happy, relaxed and charmed once again by the sensational scenery of Southern Thailand.
Good to know
When to go
Koh Muk, Koh Kradan and Koh Ngai are subject to the same monsoon as the rest of South-Western Thailand. The rainy season starts in May and keeps going until October; during this time many hotels are closed and transportation to and from the Trang Islands is not guaranteed
The dry season runs from November to April: the weather is generally amazing, you can expect blue sky, lot of sunshine and calm seas.
For this reason, dry season means high season: hotels can be fully booked and more expensive during the Christmas Holidays, New Year’s and Chinese New Year.
How to go to the Trang Islands
If you are staying in Bangkok or up north in the country, you should fly to Trang city, then hop on a shared or private minivan to Pak Meng Pier, a 40-minute drive away.
If you are already in the South, the best way to reach Trang is by driving your own car or taking a bus: a spiderweb of bus routes connect all the main Southern cities.
Join boats to Koh Mook and Koh Kradan departs from Pak Meng every day, however due to the current pandemic the ferry service is not as frequent as before.
Unless you are willing to rent a private long tail boat from the pier, I advice you to check the boat schedule in advance.
Prices for a private long tail boat start from 3000 THB per boat for a full day tour touching Koh Kradan, Koh Muk, Koh Ngai and Koh Chuak.
If you only need a transfer from Pak Meng pier to one of the island, the easiest way is to contact your hotel in advance, they will recommend and/or book a long tail transfer based on your needs.
How to island hop
In high season, island hopping is an easy ride. Hotel staff can book a join or private transfer for you to explore the whole area, including the nearby southern islands of Koh Libong, Koh Lao Liang and Koh Sukorn which we didn’t explore on this trip due to lack of time.
"The first I heard of the beach was in Bangkok, on the Khao San Road".
The beach & The Movie
Have you read "The Beach" by Alex Garland? If not, perhaps you have seen the movie, starring a young Leonardo Di Caprio. Well, Maya Bay is The Beach.
Alex Garland was thinking of Palawan, Philippines, when he wrote his novel about a secluded, heavenly location which somehow attracts the attention of the neurotic American traveller Richard; however the movie based on Garland's novel was filmed in Thailand, particularly in Phi Phi Leh, a cliff jugged little island in Krabi Province.
Before the shooting, in 1999, Ao Maya ("ao" meaning "bay" in Thai language) was a stunning sugary white beach in sleepy Phi Phi Leh, only visited by small groups of travellers that slept in Phi Phi Don, the bigger island nearby, and rented local boats from the locals for day trips to Maya Bay.
Despite being located between Phuket and Krabi provinces, the Phi Phi Islands were almost unknown to mass tourism until the movie became a sensation.
A local village of wooden shacks and unpaved roads, Ton Sai, was the only inhabited settlement of Phi Phi Don, while Phi Phi Leh was simply a natural sanctuary where monitor lizards, eagles and colourful marine species were the only residents.
I fell in love with the place in 1993, way before Hollywood chose it as movie set and people started to flock in. Year after year, every January or February, I used to spend some lazy days in Maya Bay with my family and a few other lucky travellers: it was so stunning and quiet, so dreamy like, so tremendously marvellous that I couldn't kick it out of my mind and kept going back.
I was in Phi Phi Leh even while Di Caprio was filming the movie, and I witnessed some of the changes that the film production made to the beach: the removing of wild vegetation to plant palms, the construction of temporary wooden structures which were to become the main set for the film. It was bad, but I think that at the time nobody realised the devastating impact that "The Beach" would have on Maya Bay.
When I moved from Shanghai to Krabi, in 2019, the beach had already been closed for a year and for good reasons: after almost 20 years of over tourism, it had nothing of the placid atmosphere I remembered from the Nineties.
Despite belonging to Krabi's Hat Noppharat Thara- Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park, it was a nightmare: countless speed boats and long tail boats would dash back and forth dropping off thousands of visitors every hour, every-day.
80 per cent of its coral reefs had been damaged by gasoline and sunscreen or by hordes of tourists stepping on them. The noise and the pollution were deadly to the local fauna.
In 2018, park officials finally stepped in and closed the bay, putting a halt to the flora and fauna carnage: a team of marine biologists and rangers began to work on restoring what was left of the reef and the fish and to plant more than 10,000 new corals.
Here's my latest video of the reopening of Maya:
New Rules for a sustainable re-opening
Almost four years later, on January 1st, 2022, with an unexpected decision, the National Park department officially opened Maya Bay again, reassuring all those concerned that a set of regulations would be put in place and police would make sure to protect the partially regenerated environment of the bay.
Regulations include keeping the number of visitors down to 300 people at any moment; banning boats and ferries from entering the bay and people from swimming from the beach.
On January 3, I was invited to join a day trip to Phi Phi Islands by one of the speed-boat companies that operate from Krabi. Group tours and crammed speed-boats are not my favorite way of travelling, I prefer slower, bigger boats or a private long tail, however I was eager to see how the tour would be run to include the visit to Maya Bay, and so I joined it.
The departure and first part of the itinerary was one I already knew pretty well: check in at Nopparat Thara pier next to Ao Nang at around 8 AM, a quick stop in Railay peninsula to embark more passengers, then straight to Bamboo Island, belonging to the Phi Phi archipelago, for a swim and beach time. Bamboo boasts an incredible scenery: a soft white sand beach runs all around the island, the crystal waters are ideal for snorkelling or soaking in mild currents, and often there is a delightful breeze to ease the heat.
In the past, Bamboo Island was another piece of cake very close to be devoured by greedy visitors, but the subsiding in the number of international tourists due to the pandemic bought it some time to rest and heal.
After spending about 90 minutes in Bamboo, our 35-seat speed boat headed straight to Phi Phi Leh, since the slot we were allocated to enter Maya Bay was between 11 AM and 12 PM (yes, now the entrance time is fixed, tour companies can't show up in Maya Bay outside the allocated time).
Since the re-opening, the only entrance point for the beach is at the back of the island: a new floating pier was built in Loh Sama Bay, previously a quiet corner of Phi Phi Leh with pretty good snorkelling. As soon as we approached Loh Sama Bay, I was dumbstruck: the boardwalk looked like madness, a trafficked parking lot where long-tail and speed boats were taking turns to drop off and collect tourists in a frantic, noisy scenario.
Groups were queuing on the narrow floating pier towards Maya Bay, bumping into others on their way to leave the island. I started to get sad and upset, and I wasn't the only one: the other passengers looked worried and unhappy too. My colleague Pluto said: "It looks like Tien An Men Square at rush hour". One of our friends, who had never visited Maya Bay before, was so shocked by the crowd that he considered not to get off the boat at all.
How was all this to be beneficial to the environment or to the visitors who had been dreaming of a tropical paradise? I thought: we all loose here, this is not the way to sustainable tourism.
Finally our boat approached the pier (a floating platform connected to a concrete walkway) and we disembarked. Walking in a line, we followed the path that cutting across Phi Phi Leh heads to the opposite side of the island, where Maya Bay is. It's a 5 minute walk past the rangers' houses, the toilets and a few smoking areas.
Maya Bay today
The first glimpse of the beach stole my breath. The incredible shades of blue and turquoise waters blend with the green of the surrounding karst peaks, the bluest blue of a sunny day sky and the sugary white of the beach in a picture that is too stereotypical to be real. Not for the first time, I witnessed the unparalleled breath-taking view of the bay wandering if it was true. There's nothing more beautiful than this, I thought.
But then, of course, reality came into the picture: I became aware again of the 200 people around me, taking photos, chirping with excitement, walking around in awe, sunbathing, drinking, plunging their feet in the water.
To protect the marine environment of Maya Bay, entering the water is now prohibited, and while the decision is one that makes sense if we want to give Maya Bay a chance to continue healing, the temptation to dive in for a minute is hard to resist.
Therefore, it was just a matter of seconds before the first person stepped a little too deep in the sea while a few others tried to have a quick swim, and the rangers on duty whistled repeatedly to call them out of the water. Far from my idea of a tropical retreat, it felt more like a kids' summer camp.
My thoughts on the reopening of the beach, then: I still get the goosebumps from seeing Maya Bay, and I'm still convinced it is one of the most spectacular beaches in the world, but the downsides of the reopening far outweigh the benefits.
Sure, visitors are not allowed to mess with the marine life, given the prohibition to swim, but they still produce and leave garbage behind, they still walk in the water wearing sunscreen, not to mention what is happening to Loh Sama Bay.
300 people per hour, for 6-7 hours a day, everyday, is more than Phi Phi Leh can take, and while the situation is still somehow manageable with the number of foreign travellers being limited due to the pandemic, I believe that it won't be easily managed once mass tourism come back.
I really hope to be wrong, and I'd like to hear the opinion of ecologists who worked so hard to restore the environment in the last 4 years, but for now my reaction to Maya Bay opening is a troubled and pained "No, thanks".
Have you ever been to Maya Bay yourself?
Do you think that the beach should stay open to travellers?