The View From London

10.14.134:45 AM ET

Emma Woolf: Bangkok Days, Island Nights

What to do on a trip to Thailand when everyone is in search of the country's elusive, untouched paradise?

"Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing," he went on dreamily, "messing-about-in-boats…" So says Ratty in Kenneth Grahame’s classic story, The Wind in the Willows, a staple of any English childhood.

Everything improved when we started messing about in boats—long-boats, to be precise. My arrival in Thailand had coincided with the rainy season, and after two interminable days watching the downpour from our veranda, we were fed up. But on the third day the clouds lifted and the sun came out, as did the Factor 30 and our snorkelling gear. I began to see why my boyfriend always talked about this island as a magical place.

Koh Tao is several hours by catamaran from Koh Samui, via Koh Phangan. This archipelago is the heart of The Beach territory—Alex Garland’s 1996 novel which put Thai-island-hopping on the map. It’s ironic that the story of a young backpacker's search for a mythical, isolated beach, untouched by tourism, should have inspired the film of The Beach (2000). Starring Leonardo Di Caprio, the blockbuster film led to 20th Century Fox bulldozing and re-landscaping of the natural beach on the island of nearby Koh Phi Phi. Fox controversially cleared coconut trees, widened the beach, even altered sand dunes to make it more ‘paradise-like’ (and a long environmental court case ensued).

This is a tricky one. There’s no doubt that the oxygen of publicity risks spoiling the unspoilt places of the world—remember how we flocked to the quiet Greek island of Kefalonia after the book and film of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin… But how else do we discover these gems?

Once the stormy spell passed over Koh Tao, we were out in long-boats every day: our driver, Sam-Sam, navigated the choppy waters from Mango Bay to Buddha Point to Shark Island, choosing the areas with the best underwater life. He moored out at sea and chatted to the other long-boatmen while we slid over the side and swam for the rocks. We spent hours exploring those coral reefs, marvelling at the colors and characters of the parrot-fish, barracuda, clown-fish, moray eels and trigger-fish. I’m no marine expert, so I can’t distinguish the blue-ringed angel fish from the blue-spotted stingray—but we definitely didn’t spot any sharks.

Back on dry land, we hired motorbikes to navigate Koh Tao’s mountainous interior. There are few actual roads, so the near-vertical ascents on rutted dirt tracks were pretty hair-raising—I don’t think the brakes on the motorbikes had been serviced for years. We drove up to the vast empty reservoirs, which held barely a few feet of muddy water, even after the epic downpours. I began to understand all those signs in our hotel about conserving water: it’s shocking to see the reality of Koh Tao’s water shortage, and the pressure that tourism exerts on these remote places. We also made a pilgrimage to the Burmese Buddhist Temple high in the mountains, and gazed out over the Gulf of Thailand, sparkling in sunshine.

All the Thai locals we met had this incredible serenity, from Juun who taught us kick-boxing, to Nat the pharmacist (who prescribed remedies for our mosquito bites, jetlag and snorkelling injuries). Everywhere was peaceful: when we wandered through the local town of Sairee there was none of the aggressive selling one often encounters as a tourist. When I asked about the prices of incense and the sarongs, they seemed genuinely surprised that I wanted to buy anything. I came away with some beautiful silks—although sadly, back in London, I can’t go out for dinner in flip-flops and sarong as I did every night on Koh Tao.

After 10 days of island life, it was strange to be back in the noise and traffic of Bangkok. We spent our last night at the Atlanta which, like Queen Elizabeth II, recently celebrated 60 years in business. This Art Deco hotel, founded in 1952, is one of the jewels of Bangkok: walking into the shady foyer out of the muggy heat, being handed a fresh pineapple juice, I felt I’d stumbled onto the film set of The Quiet American. Forget the cheap hostels of the Khao San Road, the Atlanta Hotel hasn’t raised its prices for decades—which explains its popularity with writers and artists. Imagine my thrill at discovering that one of my favourite writers, Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame) has stayed here too, and left a signed copy of her book in reception.

The Atlanta has one of the first swimming pools ever built in Thailand—I snuck down to the lush gardens at 3am, still befuddled with jetlag, for a deeply restorative swim. Despite the insalubrious neighbourhood—all strip joints and drinking dens—this otherwordly hotel has extremely strict policies: no layabouts, no complaints, and most importantly, no sex tourists allowed.

It’s unlike anywhere I’ve ever stayed: the Atlanta sets the rules and you feel sort of honored to be there. The bedrooms have no mod-cons—our bathroom clearly hadn’t been updated since the 1950s—and you won’t find minibars, TVs or fancy toiletries. But really, who cares about the plumbing when you can wander around their historic library, write old-fashioned letters on creamy headed notepaper, or see turtles that are decades older than most of the hotel visitors.

When we tried to order dinner, we were told that everything was off the menu except chicken curry, and a (delicious) vegetarian curry for me. As we ate, I noticed a photograph in the corner of the dining room: The King of Thailand, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong playing music, with the young George Bush Senior looking on. Maybe the Atlanta Hotel isn’t such a secret after all.


Read previous installments in The View From London here.

Emma Woolf is the author of An Apple a Day and The Ministry of Thin. Follow her on Twitter @EJWoolf.