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Hidden Islands, Secret Beaches Safari

Hidden Islands, Secret Beaches Safari

Story by Joe Cummings / CPA Media (14 January, 2022)

Despite having earned a living in the travel intelligence-gathering industry – an occupation prone to growing cynicism to say the least – for a long time, I still fantasise about visiting the unvisited, to go where no tourist has gone before. 

What I've discovered in my never-ending search for beaches and islands where I can nurture my inner Robinson Crusoe is that you stand a good chance of getting there if you follow two rules.

     Rule one: Stay as far away from airports as possible. The harder a place is to reach, the fewer people will find it. It doesn't have to be truly remote; even two hours' travel time, when it involves boats or buses, will discourage 99 percent of holiday-goers, I find.

     Rule two: Forget about palm trees. Palms fuel the European taste for the exotic, and lead inexorably to mass tourism. Most of southern Thailand's non-palmy beaches – the ones lined with beautifully waving sea pines or mangrove – are so laid back you may have to pack your own lunch.

Ko Kam Archipelago fulfils both criteria. I'd never heard of this island group – sometimes spelt Koh Kum – until Jeff LaValette, an Australian I'd met two years earlier in Myanmar, mentioned Indochine Safari Company, a new adventure tourism start-up he was involved in.

Jeff originally arrived in Myanmar in the 1990s to help manage a pearl farm in the Myeik (Mergui) Archipelago, one of the least inhabited, least visited and least developed island groups in the world. Well-versed in the rugged art of hardhat diving after years of pearl-hunting off the coast of western Australia, Jeff donned copper-and-brass, glass-windowed helmets to walk Myanmar's sea floor in search of wild oysters to seed the farm's hatchery. In his first six months at sea he surveyed all 800 islands of the Myeik Archipelago from north to south to pinpoint the best conditions for raising oyster pearls. He found them in a bay on Elphinstone Island, west of Myeik.

In the islands he ran into Adam Frost, a London-born adventurer who operated live-aboard dive boats out of Phuket and was exploring potential dive sites off Myanmar's Andaman coast. After three years of dogged persistence, Adam acquired the first foreign license ever granted for recreational diving and camping in the highly sought-after archipelago. 

     “Jeff and I were basically the only two foreigners living in the islands at that time,” recalls Adam.  

     “He helped me out with occasional supplies and repairs, whilst I provided bottles of wine or whisky in return.  Bartering was a way of life out in the islands then, and still is.”  

Adam established a tented safari camp on Wa Ale Kyun, a small, pristine island off the northwestern tip of Lanpe Kyun (Lampi Island).  

     “The whole thing grew organically and quickly,” says Adam. “We were the first foreigners to live in the islands for over fifty years, and had licence to explore.”  

After four successful seasons on the island, a Myanmar government official's son took a fancy to the camp and took it over. With Myanmar still under military rule, Adam and company had no legal recourse, so Adam re-focused on his live-aboard business in the archipelago, and also began guiding divers and surfers to the Andaman Islands further west in the Indian Ocean. One of his clients was singer-songwriter Jack Johnson, who shot parts of his acclaimed surf film Thicker Than Water (2000) while on a trip in the Andamans with Adam. 

Meanwhile Jeff started his own business building camera traps for wildlife researchers and filming nature tourism documentaries.  His company t-shirts carried the slogan “We shoot wildlife.”

Missing their island paradise in the Myeik Archipelago, Adam and Jeff joined forces a year ago to establish an exclusive safari camp on Ko Kam Nui, a small, uninhabited island in the Ko Kam Archipelago. 

North of Thailand's well-known Surin Islands and just east of Myanmar's maritime border, this cluster of 20 Andaman islands features white coral beaches and mangrove, enclosing interiors of densely forested hillocks. All are protected by Laem Son National Park, headquartered in Ranong province on the mainland. With 100 kilometres of Andaman Sea coastline, the littoral topography here represents Thailand's longest protected shoreline.

With the relative absence of human intervention, wildlife thrives in the islands. On Ko Kam Nui it's not unusual to spot flocks of wild parrots and occasional hornbills. The island claims a tribe of langurs who cavort among the high treetops around sunset each day. Native deer, including the poodle-sized mousedeer, also inhabit the islands, though the shy creatures aren't easily seen. On the nearby islands of Piak Nam Yai and Thao, long-tailed macaques use crude stone tools for cracking the shells of their prey.




As the brightly painted Thai longtail boat leaves a rickety fishing pier in Ban Khamphuan for the 45-minute trip to Ko Kam Nui, I feel something I haven't felt in a very long time.  It's a surge of expectation that mounts as we bounce from wave to wave towards Ko Kam Nui. I'd almost completely forgot about the buzz which comes with the anticipation of experiencing something I haven't experienced before. There's a quickening of the pulse, and an inexplicable sensation that my retinas are sharper, more receptive than usual. The last time I felt this must have been when I explored Myanmar's outer states and divisions, which had yet to be covered by any guidebook, magazine article or travel literature, by that point in the late 1980s.  

I find myself straining against the bow of the boat to get a better look at terra incognita, taking in as many clues as I can. As we close in, I'm spellbound by the thick, deep-green treetops waving in the breeze high atop a ridge that ripples lengthwise across the island. 

We're making for a wide sand beach directly in front of us, framed by rocky mangrove headlands at each end. The sky is the kind of blue you see over the Andaman during the months of March and April, the only lengthy gap between southern Thailand's two annual monsoons. 

We're riding over with Craig Henderson, who grew up on a tea plantation in the Seychelles, and worked as a pearl farm manager for 15 years in Australia, Indonesia and Myanmar. His small company, Archipelagopearls, raises oysters in Myanmar and produces exquisite pearl jewellery showcased in five-star resort galleries. 

Before my three nights on the island are over, I will have learnt a great deal about pearling in Southeast Asia, regaled by tales of farm mutinies, pearl heists and the peculiar lives people such as Craig and Jeff have led in the service of the milky-white sea goddess.

Craig, the boatman and I unload camp supplies and wade through the rocky shallows to the soft beach, where Adam and Jeff greet us with cold drinks.

In addition to rainforest, rock cliffs and sandy beaches, the topography of impossibly idyllic Ko Kam Nui is blessed with a large, flat grassy area alongside a leeward beach, a safe, attractive site for the spacious camp. 

My tent home for the next three nights occupies its own separate clearing, shielded on three sides by prime rainforest but with plenty of holes in the forest canopy to let in a few sporadic shafts of sunlight.

The capacious green canvas, held securely in place by sturdy guy-wires and bowed shafts, is shaped like a half cylinder lying on its side. Walking into the vestibule, I'm surprised how easily my 188-cm height is accommodated, even standing fully erect. Towards the back of the tent sit two beds made of giant bamboo fitted with thick mattresses, sheets, pillows and tropical quilts.  

Ample light fixtures dangle from various points in the tent ceiling, and there are long rods on either side of the interior for hanging clothes. Two rugged, diminutive fans – like the lights, powered by solar cells – keep the tent pleasantly ventilated during my stay, even with the March hot season well underway. 

In a corner of my campsite a cluster of trees shields a gravity-fed outdoor shower from passers-by. Adjacent to the tent a cured-bamboo table and two chairs are perfect for lounging and reading.

As we discuss activities and outings to be enjoyed during my stay here, Jeff leads me on a tour of the campsite's public areas, which consist of a huge rock fire-pit, a long wooden table for dining and a rustic kitchen set up beneath a large ficus tree. 

No point in the camp is more than 20 meters or so from the beach, which means whenever the feeling strikes, you can drop yourself into the sea within seconds.

Later, on my own, I discover what is to become my favourite spot in the camp. Down the beach from the dining area, a venerable old mangrove leans out over the sand – and at high tide, over the sea itself. Hung from its branches is a long, wide hammock which the ever-handy Adam has fashioned from rope and smooth chunks of sea-polished driftwood. When the tide reaches its zenith, hammock occupants are partially immersed, and when it recedes, a soft bed of sand lies beneath. 

After a short rest, I extract myself from full hammock trance to follow Adam and Jeff on a hike through the forest and across the island to a cove on the opposite side. While the leeward beach on the camp side of the island is lapped by tranquil waters, here one gets a feeling of the open sea, with rousing surf bouncing steadily off the high granite cliffs at either end of the steeply curving bay. 

We climb the rock promontory at the south end of the cove and enjoy inspiring views of the sea horizon and beach, backed by high rainforest canopies pierced here and there by majestic dipterocarp, the kings of jungle flora. Photos taken and appropriate gestures of awe exchanged, I slip back down the rocks and dive into the surf for a pre-sunset swim. Aside from our party of four, there is no other evidence of human presence – not even a fishing boat on the horizon – to be seen in any direction. 

As the yellow ball of sun drops behind the blue wall of water, we re-group and trek back to camp, where Craig greets our crew with icy cocktails and fresh seafood hors d'oeuvres. After a few more refills – they've even stocked a bottle of Jack Daniels in camp, noting my pre-departure preference for bourbon—and more tales from the arcane world of South Seas pearling, 

As the evening cools, Craig places a board topped with a huge grilled jack crevalle on the main dining table. I can't help but marvel at the size of the fish, and after sampling meaty chunks, its overwhelming freshness as well. Known by a host of other names, including bluefin trevally and bluefin kingfish, the flat, football-shaped fish can measure a meter or more in length and is as highly valued among sport fishermen as it is with gourmets. You don't see them in Bangkok, or at least I never have. 

After the inspiring feast, I retreat to my tent, now glowing with solar bulbs, and fall asleep to the harmonising sounds of sea and forest. Night after night I find the natural soundscape, unimpeded by air-conditioner hum, distant dance beats and other aural artefacts of mass beach tourism we take for granted. For me, it's a hugely enjoyable and detoxifying aspect of the program. 

It's the original soundtrack for old-school beach tripping. It's a feeling I'd stored away in a mental drawer for posterity. Turns out it's still a useful state of mind here on Ko Kam Nui.

Story by Joe Cummings / CPAMedia; Photo by Joe Cummings