On a thunderously turbulent sea, the ferry boat lurched up and slapped down, again and again and again, its hull crashing and banging and bouncing through slate grey waves, up and down, horizon-sky-horizon, lurch-crash, lurch-crash. Hours passed. Meg looked at me and said with a soft, sweet voice, “Is this boat going to break?” “Probably,” was my reply — I don’t like lying. Plastic sheeting draped over poles on the boat’s sides flapped with a sound like gunfire. The floorboards shuddered and shook each time the boat fell from a crest. Rain seeped in. Everything on board, everyone on board, was soaked. When the boat arrived in the shallows of Koh Ngai, we jumped off into waist-deep water, hoisted our packs onto our backs and hiked a kilometer down the beach to our bungalow. We must have looked terrible, but it was nothing a hot shower and a cold beer couldn’t fix.
Koh Ngai is uninhabited apart from the few small resorts that dot its shore — it has no settled population of its own, no shops, no roads, no houses…not much of anything besides the odd bungalow here and there, hence not much to do when it’s raining. Come to think of it, there is one guy who seems to live in the jungle not far from where our bungalow was. He calls his patch of jungle Freedom Camp and spends all day making fires and selling alcohol from a bamboo hut. He scared me so I never really found out more. Instead, while it rained, new card games were invented, new meal times were invented, new books were downloaded, and, for some reason, an inordinate number of panoramic photos of the sea were taken.
By the second afternoon, even the faintest glimpse of a ray of sun was enough to elicit celebrations — it appeared we were going to have some sunshine on Koh Ngai after all.
On the third day, a brilliant bright blue sky had dried up every last puddle by the time we woke up, and we were just in time to book ourselves onto a ‘three island tour’, visiting a trio of spots in the group known as the Trang Islands.
At the first of these islands, Koh Mook, our boat anchored near a rocky outcrop with a dark hole in it. We jumped off the boat and swam for the hole; a guide switched on a dim waterproof headlamp for us, and we swam towards his light, whenever we could make it out. Through a snaking, pitch-dark tunnel we kicked our fins, feeling our way along the jagged walls of the sea cliff until, in the distance, on the other side of the tunnel, a faint glimmer of sunlight appeared. What lay before us was one of the most amazing sights I’ve ever seen. The natural sea tunnel opened onto a cove of emerald water lapping a white sand beach, which was bounded by a jungle that rose up sharply into the foothills of sheer cliffs. We were surrounded on all sides by soaring limestone cliffs! We swam and then waded to the small beach, astonished that such a place exists. A jungle and a beach on a sea water lagoon hidden inside a mountain in the middle of the sea! It’s so well hidden that in times gone by, pirates would stash their loot in this secret cove — the only way in or out is the cave and sea tunnel we swam through. We did have to share this unearthly paradise with a great many people, but once they had snaked their way out by way of an aquatic conga line / human centipede kind of effort, the emerald cove was more peaceful again.
On the way out, again we were plunged into total darkness and had to feel our way through the narrow tunnels; sadly and painfully Meg managed to feel her way into a jellyfish tail that stung her across the side of her neck and down her chest. Bravely, she took a few deep breaths and got right back in the water at our second island, where she snorkeled for about twenty-six seconds before coming face to face with a jellyfish the size of a bowling ball. It was the first time I’d ever seen someone swim in reverse and climb backwards onto a boat — and she did it faster than she got into the water!
Back on Koh Ngai, there was one more adventure that wasn’t really an adventure, when I dropped a memory card onto the banks of a stream and had to wait half an hour to retrieve it because I wasn’t quite sure who would ultimately back down first, me or the gigantic monitor lizard that was hanging out near where the memory card was. I did the
brave right thing and gave the lizard his space. Aside from that, and aside from the stray dog that gave Meg the fright of her life when it appeared out of nowhere on a deserted stretch of beach in the dark of night, Koh Ngai was Pleasantville: no noise, no pollution, no crowds, no tacky t-shirts or fake sunglasses for sale, no troubles — on long empty beaches that touch glassy teal seas. On a gentler ferry we left Koh Ngai, headed north, back to the mainland for two days, where a quick stopover on our way to the other side of the country would lead us to a beach far beyond anything we’d imagined it would be…