KOH NGAI — There is nothing to do on this sliver of an island in the Andaman Sea, off the southwest coast of Thailand. And that’s the beauty of it.
My daughter, Megan, and I spent a recent week on Koh (“island” in Thai) Ngai, where we did plenty of nothing. We read, swam in the warm water, walked the beach, and ate great food. We drank mango lassis in the morning and Mai Tais at happy hour.
And then there were the seaside massages. At $10 an hour, we had one every day. Once, we almost skipped them, since we were sun-soaked and lazy, and the massage deck was a quarter-mile down the beach. But we knew we’d regret it back in the land of the $80 massages, so we hoisted ourselves off our lounge chairs and made the trek.
That was pretty much our routine at CoCo Cottage, where the bungalows are made from palm trees, with roofs of bamboo cane and leaves. The shower, which delivers water via a bamboo pipe, is mostly enclosed, but then you look up at towering palms and azure skies and once, a pair of toucans in a tree.
Megan, who has lived in Thailand for the past two years, found CoCo on an Asian travel site. The simplicity of it, and the prices, appealed to her. I simply followed her lead — and paid the bill. Neither of us knew that Koh Ngai was a jungle-cloaked, uninhabited island, except for the handful of laid-back cottage-style resorts strung along the mile-long beach.
“That means we don’t have electricity or water from the government,” the manager told me once we got there. “Everything we have, we do on our own.”
For the guest, that means air conditioning isn’t turned on until 4 p.m. daily, and is turned off in the morning. Which makes sense: Who wants to be in the room on a gorgeous day? And they were all perfectly gorgeous.
But the do-it-on-our-own approach also means that guests cannot throw anything into the toilet. Including toilet paper. There is a trashcan, with a cover, provided. You get used to it.
CoCo isn’t for everyone. They’ve had complaints about no TVs, Wi-Fi, or pool. If that’s what you want, go to Bangkok. At CoCo, there’s only one computer, in the indoor-outdoor dining room overlooking the beach. The restaurant also serves as the registration area where the newly-arrived are presented with a glass of cold fruit juice and a wet, lemony face towel.
About that arrival: It’s a fun, 45-minute ride from the mainland on a longtail boat, which passes several limestone outcroppings, or islets, covered in green foliage. Because it was low tide when we arrived, our boat stopped 20 yards from shore, and three boys hurried out to get our bags. They hoisted them on their shoulders and heads, while we followed in calf-deep water to the shore.
We checked in and headed to our simple wooden cottage, which had a wonderful view of the beach — and what I came to consider our own little islet way out yonder. Our shaded porch had two lounge chairs perfect for reading during the heat of the day.
The first day, I looked around the bathroom for a hair dryer. “Oh my God, Mom, you can’t possibly need a hair dryer on this island,” Megan scolded.
She was right. The vibe here is casual: As is Thai custom, most guests take off their shoes before entering the dining room; some, including Megan and me, come in wearing bathing-suit coverups.
CoCo Cottage seems to attract young couples, many of them from Europe. The library shelves — in one corner of the dining room — were packed with paperbacks. I noticed several well-thumbed copies of “Shades of Grey” in German. The manager, Attapol Pattanapuapan, said that Europeans frequent CoCo, and we met British, French, and Swedish couples, and a German family.
Few Americans come because of the distance. From New York to Bangkok, it’s about 20 hours in the air, with connections, then an hour flight south to Trang, a 45-minute van ride to the pier in Pakmeng, and 45 more minutes by boat to Koh Ngai.
It’s hell getting here, but heavenly being here.
Because it’s uninhabited — the staff lives behind the cottages — the island has no roads, no villages, no cars. CoCo closes from mid-May until the end of June for rainy season.
It’s amazing that the resort exists at all. It opened in October 2004, two months before the horrific Indian Ocean tsunami that killed at least 230,000 people and devastated parts of Thailand, particularly its islands in the Andaman. Phuket was nearly destroyed, as was Koh Phi Phi, famous as the locale of “The Beach,” the 2000 drama starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Koh Ngai was fortunate. The tsunami came from the west and hit the mountainous jungle, which protected the eastern strip of beach. CoCo was untouched. “We just saw the tides come in and out, we didn’t know what was happening. We were very lucky,” said Pattanapuapan.
At CoCo, the Andaman was clear, calm, and bathtub-warm; we would take inner tubes out and float for an hour at a time. Because there are yards of dead, rock-hard coral near the shore — problematic at low tide — we decided one day to take a four-island snorkeling excursion.
The first two “islands” were actually the limestone outcroppings we could see from our beach. Up close, they are sheer cliffs covered with dense greenery. The longtail boat dropped anchor while we six passengers snorkeled.
We then went to Koh Kradan for lunch at a very casual beachfront restaurant. On Valentine’s Day each year, Kradan is the site of an underwater wedding ceremony for couples who are diving enthusiasts. Lots of wet kisses all around.
Our last stop was Koh Muk, known for its Emerald Cave, which opens onto a tiny beach surrounded by cliffs. But to get there, you have to swim through a narrow, dark passage, feeling your way along the rocky sides — and only at low tide.
It was an eerie 10 or so minutes, but the emerald water, white sand, and vine-covered cliffs that greeted us were worth the trip. Someone said the hideaway was once a pirate’s lair.
Another day, we decided to take a jungle trek, which started at a resort at the far end of the island. The dirt path quickly took us up, up, up. We reached a rustic altar to Buddha, where people had left flowers, tea, and trinkets. The view overlooking the sea was beautiful.
Meals are a big part of vacation, and the food here was fantastic and guilt-free: low on fat and calories. In Thailand, rice and chili peppers are staples, as are herbs such as ginger and lemongrass. The prawns we ate daily were fresh caught, plump and delicious. Som tam, or papaya salad, is the national favorite, and for good reason.
Breakfast, included in the room rate, is buffet-style: fresh fruits, yogurts, cereals, breads, and an omelet and egg station. Lunch and dinner at CoCo range from about $5 to $10. Because there is no ATM on the island, we took plenty of Thai baht, but paid for all of our resort charges by credit card. (That left massages, drinks, and T-shirts at a couple of other resorts, where we used baht.) At CoCo the service was impeccable and friendly.
Late one afternoon as we walked back from our massages, we saw a long strip of sandbar about 50 yards from shore. We swam out and then walked home on the sandbar, the sea on either side of us. It was almost like walking on water.
Another day, curious to see the west side of the island, we took a kayak out and paddled around. It all looked like wild jungle, and we could detect no tsunami damage.
Back at CoCo, there’s an anchored raft about 300 yards out, with two beach chairs on it, mostly used by divers. Megan and I overheard a couple ask the boatman to please deliver two beers and a bucket of ice there. He swiftly kayaked out, deposited the items, and was back before the couple had made it halfway, swimming.
Back at home, reading time is a precious commodity. Here, I actually got to read “The Count of Monte Cristo,” long on my list, and in length, at 1,100 pages. I imagined our Emerald Cave to be Monte Cristo, and I want to marry the count.
Way too soon, it was time to leave. The staff came down to the beach, waving at our boat until we were out of sight. We felt like weeping. But mostly, we felt lucky to have been on Koh Ngai, which I have renamed Paradise Found.