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Hard Going off the Beaten Track in Thailand

‘Help me! Don’t just stand there – do something. Grab this backpack!’ I shouted to my travelling companion as I slithered down the treacherous slope.

I could feel the sharp gravel biting into my knees as, front first, I sprawled across the track.

That morning had started gracefully enough as we awoke to another blisteringly hot day on the Island of Koh Samui, Southern Gulf of Thailand. We bundled ourselves and our backpacks into the back of a dodgy sounding truck and trundled off to meet the waiting boat for the island of Ko Tao.

Ko Tao or ‘Turtle Island’ as it translates to (although it doesn’t have any turtles any more) covers only 21 square metres and is about three hours away from Ko Samui by boat. We’d heard a lot about it; apparently it contained the sort of beautiful beaches every backpacker lusts after, and is one of the lesser commercialised islands in the Gulf of Thailand.

Soon we were jumping the waves in a tiny, rusting boat. Our thoughts were almost drained by the 100-decibel engine noise. Backpackers scrambled around the deck fighting for a space to sit amongst the hoards. Our dream of a deserted beach began to wane and fade into the distance.

Flicking through ‘the bible’ we pondered the possible places to stay on the island.  The longest and busiest beach on the island, Hat Sai Ri, seemed the obvious choice for us, but that niggling spirit of adventure made other less popular options seem more attractive.

 In recent years Ko Tao has become a magnet for divers due to the abundance of coral and marine life surrounding it, and it became clear this was why the boat was so busy.

‘Where are you staying?’ I looked up from the guidebook to se a weather-beaten surfer type kneeling in front of me.

‘We’re not sure yet,’ I began, but before I could finish my sentence he was bombarding me with a host of diving related questions. Had I got my PADI yet? Was I planning to do it? If so he knew a great place to start…

‘We’re not planning on doing any diving’, I ventured.

‘What?’, Surfie spluttered in his over preened Aussie accent. Unable to comprehend this piece of information, he moved swiftly on to his next victim.

By now it was obvious that if peace and tranquillity were what we desired, we should head for a beach with no dive school. ‘Ao Leuk’ supposedly had a beautiful beach and only a couple of bungalow ‘outfits’, but getting there was to be another matter.

As the port of Ban Mae Hat splashed into view, I imagined our deserted beach and little bungalow with the sea lapping invitingly at our door. Listening to the other 436 travellers discussing where to stay in Hat Sai Ri, I felt smug in the knowledge that we would be discovering a more ‘untouched’ part of Ko Tao.

‘Yes, I take, I take’, gushed the little taxi driver at the pier. As we bumped along the dirt roads through the trees, I asked him how far the beach was.

’10 minute’ he repeated several thousand times before descending into unintelligible English.Several questions later I had understood that in fact there was no road as such going to this beach, but we would be dropped off somewhere near it. Sometimes when you are travelling, there comes a point when you decide to trust someone, even though it goes against your instincts. This was one of those moments.

A few minutes later we stood at the top of a rough single track. A woman waved to us as she hung out her washing from a simple wooden shack at the top of the track. A never ending green carpet of forest stretched before us, with a flash of blue just tantalisingly visible above the tree line. It was hard to believe that the beach was only 10 minute walk away.

The track was almost a tunnel of green foliage, thick with the omnipresent hum of the crickets. The humid air didn’t give an inch and as the path became increasingly uneven we reassured ourselves that it would only be another few minutes walk.

Still feeling optimistic I was taken unawares when the path suddenly became steeper. My trusty sandals were doing their best to grip the loose sandy gravel, but it was becoming an increasingly precarious mission.

As I stumbled down the now seemingly vertical track, my brain busied itself with images of the paradise I still believed lay close. Calm translucent waters and a fine white sand beach, a lovable Thai family sitting around a table, cool drinks… It was then that the path finally got the better of me and in one swift, ungainly movement my legs were swept from under me. After much flailing my travel companion finally managed to tease my pack of my back and hoist me to my feet.

Blood seeped out of my gravel wounds and dripped down my legs. After a frantic patching up with our somewhat limited first aid kit, I gingerly attempted to negotiate the path again. My legs were shaking now, but the images were still there in my head. It would all be worth it once we arrived in paradise, I repeated to myself.

It seemed like days since we began this journey, and in reality a good 30 minutes had passed. The more we stumbled, the more  our earlier optimism was replaced with a desperation to arrive.

Then I saw it, a wooden roof and then the blue of the sea at last. Limping down the edge of the path I surveyed the beach and the realisation sunk in: where was the paradise we had been promised? The sand was a dirty dark colour and strewn with litter and seaweed. The sea was the murky green of Skegness, and the bungalows, deserted.

There was no one there, not a soul and it looked like nothing had been open for a long time. I sank onto a bench and pondered the thought that I had sweated and toiled, and even injured myself, in pursuit of a beach that was no more a paradise than Blackpool in winter.

My spirits lightened when I heard some voices from behind the main bungalow. Following the noise I found a group of Japanese backpackers sitting around on the deck. My heart sank lower as their broken English revealed that the bungalows were definitely closed.

What to do now? We quickly realised there was only one option : walk back up the treacherous path and hope to hail a lift at the top. A lift the where though? Having tried the off-the-beaten-track approach we conceded that being back amongst the divers at Hat Sai Ri was an attractive thought right now.

So we set off for The Great Ascent. By this time not only were my bruises beginning to ache, but fatigue had set into my limbs too.

Had turning back been an option I would have gladly taken it as we precariously trudged up the slippery slope. Adrenalin must have been what got us to the top; waiting to slip over and roll back down at any moment certainly keeps you on your toes! Every moment seemed like a cruel torture.

Had the taxi driver known the bungalows were closed I wondered? Or was it an honest mistake which had landed us nearly stranded. It was hard to believe the latter, given that so far in Thailand we had been overwhelmed by the Thais’ ability to rip us off at any opportunity!

Relief swept over me as I saw the road up ahead. The nightmare was finally over. Having both run out of water, we almost broke down when we noticed the house we had seen on the way down was a Café. Café in the sense that you could buy a drink there, other than that it was simply a Thai family house. Exhausted, we set our packs down and rested. The same Thai woman who had waved to us as we had set off asked us what we would like to drink. We asked her about the bungalows and pointed down the track.

‘Yes but now closed’, she said. ‘But we call Taxi for 100 baht’. Some may call me a cynic, but it all seemed it a bit too convenient for her and the taxi driver… had we been caught in the rip off net again?

An hour later the same taxi driver turned up to take us back where we had come from. We stepped onto the white sand at Hat Sai Ri beach and looked out as the sun was setting over the water.

‘Paradise’, we both said at the same time.

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