We Really Needed Koh Kradan

Our last few months in Bangkok had been intense. I resigned and started informing clients, some of whom I’ve known almost 20 years. Nori sold our beloved “Black Bull” van, most of our furniture and a good share of our books, toys and art. We moved out of “Baan Brixen”, our Gatsby-esque triplex apartment in the sky. We cancelled our broadband service and extended our international driver’s licenses. There were leaving drinks and leaving dinners, occasionally with the same people multiple times. By the end, the organizing, pre-packing, packing, unpacking and repacking had drained us completely.

Now I’m sitting on the bow of a longtail boat, my arms around Logan and Drake. Tai and Kiva are lying on the wooden benches under the canopy. And Nori is just relaxing. It’s a beautiful day on the Andaman Sea and the karst ridges and islands are slipping past as we motor to Koh Kradan. The sun feels wonderful on my face and forearms. But I haven’t put on any sunscreen. I really should be more careful now.

A few weeks earlier, I’d gone to the hospital to have my wound checked it out. I had sliced a chunk of skin off my cheek while shaving months ago and it never healed. A scab would form, but when it dropped or was scraped off, there was still raw flesh underneath. The doctor recommended we cut it out, so that’s what we did. The biopsy confirmed her suspicion: basal skin cell cancer. “When I was doing the surgery, the flesh had a strange consistency – like tofu.” As cancers go, this one is a kitty-cat. But it still shook me.

Age sneaks up on you. Things really fall apart after 40. I’ve had perfect vision for decades, despite a career spent staring at screens. A few weeks ago I had to buy reading glasses. I hyperextended my left knee last year, which has somehow led to excruciating hip pain. Suddenly, I can’t fully bend my right knee. I’ll be bald in a couple of years. Inexplicably, the hair is disappearing on my arms and legs too. My eyebrows and nose hair, however, are flourishing. And regardless how many hours of sleep I get or which French-sounding cream I pilfer from my wife’s cosmetics kit, the eyebags remain.

 

None of that matters as our boat approaches Koh Kradan. I hadn’t expected it to be this beautiful. A few days earlier, I had expressed concern to Nori about us “overdoing” beach and island destinations. In the last six months we’d been to the Maldives, the Yaeyamas and the Mergui Archipelago. But now that thought seems ridiculous. I’m unemployed and “The Big Twip” has begun. My mindset is totally different. Suddenly the decision to spend a week on Kradan sounds brilliant.

Making the decision to move back to the USA wasn’t easy. We’d been delaying it for years. But there are windows of time when things just make sense. We’d spent 20 years in Asia and were in our 40s. The boys were old enough to be independent and interested in what we would be seeing. But not so old that they’d hate us for separating them from their friends. Even at this age (8,8,6,6), it was difficult. Meanwhile, my parents were in their 70s and desperate to spend time with the boys. A number of windows had all lined up; it was time to jump through.

With my sandals in hand, I leapt from the boat into the shallow water.

***

“I wish we had come to Koh Kradan earlier,” Nori remarked after our third day on the island.

I concurred. And we’ve visited a lot of Thai islands. There’s something very special about this place: a combination of size, natural beauty and underdevelopment. It’s small enough to walk everywhere, but large enough to have quiet corners. There are no roads on Koh Kradan, no multi-story buildings, no 7-11s and no nightclubs. The island is dead quiet by 10 p.m. For meals, you eat at your hotel or you wander down the beach to another resort’s restaurant, ideally Kalume or Italiano. You will eat a lot of Italian food on Koh Kradan, and that’s ok.

I can think of no island in Thailand with better views. From the main beach on the east coast, one can see Koh Muk, Koh Libong and a cluster of rocky, uninhabited islets. And because the rugged karst ridges dominate both the islands and the mainland, they seem to merge. Add in the mesmerizing blues of the reef and the lush green of the jungle behind the beach and you’ve got a breathtaking panorama. Often, as I walked down the beach, I had to stop to drink it all in.

 

There is excellent snorkeling within 50 meters of the beach. As the tide ebbs, the shallow water above the sandy shelf becomes a searing blue-white, incandescent as a welding torch. That’s when everyone wades out to take photos or explore the reef. Sometimes it would just be me and Kiva snorkeling along the drop-off. Other times the whole family would find a natural break in the reef and glide over a minefield of sea urchins before reaching deeper water.

The coral was in fairly good shape, despite the big boats that disgorged dozens of careless snorkeling newbies daily. On the one hand, I noticed a limited variety of reef fish. (I suspect that widespread hand-feeding of the bold sergeant major fish has led to their predominance.) On the other hand, we espied frogfish, scorpionfish and even a stingray around coral heads inside the reef. Visibility was good, but not great.

There are two hikes to secluded beaches – Sunset and Ao Nieng. Neither took longer than 30 minutes. Near the southern end of the main beach, a dirt track cuts west. Five minutes later, we arrived at Paradise Lost, a circle of cabins around a clearing punctuated with skyscraping coconut palms. The trail to Ao Nieng goes through the resort and up into the jungle. It was hot and wet (and there was some inevitable complaining about fatigue and bugs) but we reached the top of the ridge in just ten minutes. Then it was another ten minutes downhill to Ao Nieng.

Danke to the German woman I met on the beach who recommended Ao Nieng. It wasn’t the prettiest beach we’ve seen in Thailand, but it was clean and had loads of character: overhanging trees and palms, rope swings, excellent snorkelling 100 meters offshore, a delightful arc of budget chalets and a very simple restaurant run by smiling old ladies. We thought we’d spend an hour there. It extended to three. We couldn’t stop laughing, watching the boys wipeout (it’s now called an epic fail) off the rope swing. Kiva won the prize: he tumbled off backwards, landed on his belly and then got smacked in the back of his head by the swing on its return.

Each day, we experimented with “Education Time” for the boys. We had a backpack full of books and activity sheets and iPads stocked with age-appropriate apps. While we both knew that it would be better to get the boys on a fixed schedule, the reality of travel precluded that. Of course the best time to study is right after breakfast, when the body has rested and the mind is clear. But that’s also the best time to explore, or when the bus or boat leaves. One clear lesson we learned was that we have to separate them. Tai and Logan are at different levels and Drake and Kiva just can’t keep their hands off each other.

I forgot how much I loved meeting other travelers. You might only spend a few hours talking with them, but they are more vivid in your memory than some people you’ve known for years. And that is because they are ‘attached’ to a journey that was massively important to you. We met a Norwegian-Swedish couple with two young kids who were taking a few months off. They had enrolled their daughter in a Swedish school on Kon Lanta. Such places exist! We also met a gregarious Kiwi couple in their 50s who said hi to everyone and couldn’t stop praising the boys.

“I tell you, your boys are amazing,” he remarked as I walked past their table one morning, “they all came to breakfast quietly, found a table, and helped themselves. You guys are doing an excellent job.”

Well, thank you. It felt so good to hear that coming from someone whose culture is similar to mine. It isn’t easy raising four boys. They’re loud, active and they want to test boundaries. Compared to most Singaporean and Thai kids, they must appear totally out of control. What I see is different: boys who are physically confident, who aren’t shy around new people and who are inventive in their play.

I’m looking forward to traveling with them over the next six months. But most of all, I’m excited about just being with them, teaching them random things and hopefully instilling positive values. Six months is a short time in a life, but I’m determined to make the most of these 180 “Daddy Days”.

LESSONS LEARNED

Nori and I had our first real argument of the trip, two days into the trip. It was specifically about oral hygiene but was actually a more general complaint from Nori regarding the alleged unfair allocation of kid-related chores. Nori asked me if the boys had flossed their teeth. I lied and said yes.

“No we didn’t!” Drake said. That bloody kid.

Nori erupted with anger. “You’ve got to take this seriously or the boys are going to lose all their teeth!”

“Right, because your method is working so well.” Tai and Logan have had a surprising number of cavities for their age. Nori blames it on weak teeth from her side of the family. I think they brush their teeth badly, which is why I tend to do it myself when it’s my turn to supervise. The only boy I don’t have to worry about is Kiva, who is already displaying OCD tendencies reminiscent of Grandma Grace.

Nori stormed off, leaving the boys with me for the morning. I reminded myself never to criticize Nori’s child-rearing. And also to be more proactive about chores. Right now I’m folding a bunch of clothes, probably incorrectly.

GETTING THERE

If you’re traveling from Bangkok, there are three morning flights daily to Trang operated by Thai AirAsia, Nok Airlines and Thai Lion Air. All three flights depart from Don Muang Airport. From Trang it’s a 45-minute ride to the coast. Our hotel (the Sevenseas) arranged a 50-minute boat transfer from Khuan Tung Ku Pier, but you can also get to Koh Kradan from the Pak Meng and Hat Yao Piers. If you’re already in the Andaman Sea islands (Koh Lanta, Koh Phi Phi etc.), just look for a travel agent. There are regularly scheduled ferries between most of the islands.

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