by aengelson | January 28th, 2013
Sometimes it pays to procrastinate.
Not long after Christmas, the Engelbert-Roberdink clan needed a warm getaway from Hanoi. Many folks don’t know that Hanoi gets downright chilly and drizzly in the winter–basically a slightly less cold version of Seattle. So we needed a weeklong escape, and we wanted to head back to Thailand.
Unfortunately, being my usual lazy self, I put off booking the trip and making reservations. By the time I got around to it, I couldn’t reserve any accommodation on Ko Lanta or Ko Tao. I wanted to skip crowded Samui and Phuket. So I had to look farther afield.
I found a great article on the Best Islands of Southeast Asia at Travelfish, and it mentioned an intriguing, relatively unknown island: Ko Bulon Lae. It’s a tiny island that can be reached in a day long bus and boat trip from Krabi. The article said it was very family friendly. Perfect. I called a few places on the island and booked two bungalows from a very cheery Thai woman.
(Visit this link to see a slideshow of our photos from Ko Bulon Lae, or click on any photo in this post.)
We flew to Krabi, where we would spend the night before embarking on our bus-and-boat journey the next day, I knew things were looking up when I chatted with a taxi driver. He asked where we were headed , and when and I told him Ko Bulon Lae, he said, “huh?” He’d never heard of it. We were heading off the tourist radar.
The next day, we rode in a packed minivan, and though it was a bit tight, it wasn’t too bad. It was a long ride, a good four hours, but we inadvertently made the ride even longer by forgetting to tell our driver to stop at Pakbara. We ended up an hour too far south, in Satun city near the Malay-Thai border. Whoops! So we hired a songthaew (truck taxi) to take us back to Pakbara port, where we’d catch a boat to our little paradise.
Too late for the boat, we stayed a night in Pakbara, which wasn’t much, but had a pretty beach. We discovered a beachside restaurant run by a friendly Muslim Thai family, and chatted for a long time with the owner. (The downside of the more strict muslim restaurants is you sometimes have to forgo a beer with your dinner, but on this night we didn’t mind.)
The next day, the speedboat took us on a bouncy 30-minute ride to Ko Bulon. Offshore of the island, we met the long-tailed boats run by locals that take you to whichever beach your bungalow is closest to. But no matter where you end up on Ko Bulon, you don’t have far to go–the entire island is only 2.5 kilometers across.
We waded ashore at Panka Yai beach and were greeted by the cheerful proprietor of Chao Lae Homestay. We rented two little bungalows, one for us and one for the kids. The cabins were extremely cute, and very clean. Just a bed and mosquito net and a little cold water shower & bathroom and a pleasant little deck. Most of the accommodation on the island is similar. There are two “resorts” where things are a little more upscale, but the whole island is fairly basic. Across the island, the generators only come on after 5 pm.
We quickly set out to explore the island on foot. There are really only two paved roads on Ko Bulon Lae. You’ll find almost no motor vehicles, just few cargo-modified motorbikes owned by the locals. Other than that, you get around by walking. The beaches near our guesthouse were good for snorkeling (at high tide) but a little rocky. So we spent most of our beach time on the eastern side, where the sands are finer and the swimming better (again, especially at high tide…the beaches are shallow, so low tide often exposes some rocky bits).
For eight days and seven nights, our routine was pretty much the same. A yummy breakfast at Chao Lae, a walk to the east side, where we swam and read and played all day. Lunch was at one of the “resorts.” Then more relaxing in the afternoon, and a walk back over the hill to Chao Lae to wash up and then find a restaurant for dinner. In addition to the Thai-Western-and-seafood restaurants at the various bungalows and resorts, there’s a little reggae bar in the center of the island, a very good pizza place on Ao Panka bay, and a little bakery too. The food was generally quite good, especially the pizza place (arrive early before they run out!) and the seafood and Thai curries at Chao Lae.
Ko Bulon Lae isn’t actually a secret of course. We were there during the height of the tourist season, and for whatever reason there seemed to be mostly Italian and Swedish families. But the pace here is sleepy, nothing at all like Phuket or Ko Samui. It really is an ideal place to hang out with kids.
It’s just so cool that you can explore the whole island on foot. One day we took a walk to the south end of the island, on a pathway that takes you through a rubber plantation. Did you know they collect rubber sap in a cup made from half a coconut? We also discovered drying racks where large pancakes of pressed latex where set out to dry. They smelled like dish gloves.
We did attempt one hike into the jungle. On a path marked “nature trail” we entered a forest of vines and squawking tropical birds. The trail quickly faded to a faint track and we were soon attacked by ten thousand mosquitoes. Clad in only shorts and flip-flops we were ill prepared for a journey into the Heart of Darkness. So, bathed in sweat and all of us clawing at our itchy bites, we beat a quick retreat to the beach. Like the Hobbit, we learned: don’t leave the main path!
There’s plenty of fauna other than mosquitoes on Ko Bulon. Birds can be heard everywhere. In the rubber plantation I caught a fleeting glimpse of a hornbill. The snorkeling wasn’t world-class, but we did see a good assortment of colorful fish, especially past the rocks on the west side of Au Panka Yai. But the most fascinating critters on the island (besides the Italians) are the monitor lizards.
Often more than a meter long, these impressive reptiles look like a smaller version of the more famous Komodo dragon. They’re downright dinosaur-like with their waddling gait and flicking tongues. Sorry I didn’t get a picture. I was so awestruck by them I didn’t think to actually pull out my camera or phone.
On New Year’s Eve, we followed my youngest daughter’s request to hang out at the funky reggae bar. Run by some friendly hipster Thais, it was a mellow place to chill out. But just as things got lively, we realized we were exhausted and called it a night, going to bed before midnight. This ain’t Ko Pha Ngan, and anyway we aren’t 20-something backpackers anymore.
After a stay in our little paradise, we made the trip back to Krabi. We spent a day and a night in Bangkok, taking a boat ride on the Chao Praya River, doing a little shopping, and paying a quick visit to the National Museum for some culture. We had lunch at Som Tam Nua, one of my favorite places in Siam Square: nummy green papaya salads, crispy fried chicken, sticky rice, and a flipping incredible grilled fish in a salty-sweet-spicy sauce.
Ko Bulon Lae isn’t for everyone. But if you’re happy to go without hot water, aircon, and throbbing nightclubs, you should definitely give it a thought. You could do a lot worse than bliss out on a beach with a book, splash in the surf, eat some tasty Thai food and do a whole lot of nothing under the palm trees.