4 mins

A sailor's guide to Thailand's remote Ko Rok islands

Liz Cleere discovers that even when you're in a hurry there's still time for serendipitous discoveries when you're sailing

Sunset over Ko Rok (Jamie Furlong. See main credit below)

After all the snags we had overcome since leaving the boatyard, it was tempting to stay in the Butangs. The water is clear, the people laid-back, the fish tasty and there are plenty of uninhabited areas and islands to play around in. But, since we’d left Malaysia almost a week ago, it was imperative that we get to Phuket to check in to Thailand.

“The authorities will give you a week to get from Langkawi to Phuket, or you’ll be fined…”

“Nah, it’s two weeks…”

“You can check in at Lipe…”

“You can’t check in at Lipe…”

“You can check in at Satun…”

“No you can’t…”

With this bar-fly advice buzzing in our heads, we decided to enjoy the scenery and get some sailing in. If we were about to be fined we may as well have some fun first.

We had a few ideas about the route, and would let the wind dictate our final direction. As we upped anchor, another spectacular sunrise unravelled across the islands. We managed some sailing, but resorted to motoring when the wind inevitably died. This was the transitional period – neither NE or SW monsoon – so conditions would continue to be erratic with unpredictable winds and storms, or calm and sunny days.

In the end, we headed for the Ko Rok group, two tiny islands with a channel running between them. The archipelago of Ko Rok Nai and Ko Rok Nok is the mother of all those deserted-white-sand-palm-fringed beaches you see in travel brochures and on postcards. The place is a cliché, except that it isn’t. It’s real and golden and joyous and quiet and infused with peace. It quickly became one of our all time favourite anchorages.

Deserted beach, Ko Rok, Thailand (Jamie Furlong)
The beach at Ko Rok, Thailand (Jamie Furlong)

For the next couple of days we explored the water – on top and underneath. We walked along the perfect beaches, and wandered inland through a closed campsite. As the tourist season was over we shared the uninhabited islands with only a couple of national park workers. Esper remained firmly attached to the mooring buoy, which remained firmly attached to the sea floor.

Across the channel from us, close to where we nearly hit the bottom, a sunken catamaran is marked on the charts. We headed over there in our dinghy to get a look. There’s something unsettling about viewing a wreck from the surface, it is a sickening sight for anyone who lives or works on a boat. In silence, we observed the white skeleton lying on its side through the distorted water. We left it undisturbed with the lapping waves guarding its secret story.

The other shadow which still hangs over this area is the tsunami of 2004. Most islands and towns have marked safety zones in the event of a repeat occurrence, and regularly test alarms and announcements to remind locals and tourists to be alert. Like everyone, we seldom keep our eyes off the water or beach for long in this part of the world.

In the early mornings, and at dusk, fat bream fell on our simple bread bait. Although fishing is prohibited in Thailand’s national parks in the off season, the rangers didn’t mind a bit of line fishing; they’re less tolerant of spear fishing, and don’t allow local fishing boats in the vicinity at all.

On the last morning we awoke to a black sky. The weather had been coming in from the west all night, flinging lightning against the horizon in every direction. But as the sun made a feeble attempt to penetrate the clouds, another storm met the one which was still coming our way, and together they hovered over the anchorage. 

We watched fishing boats speeding in from the horizon to raft up close to the islands. Anchors were thrown out and generators turned on. As the rain smashed the water, the little “boat islands” were obscured, apart from a few dim lights which they’d switched on, even though it was the middle of the morning.

With the rain too fierce and inescapable, we went below and waited. At least the decks were having a good wash.

Much as we liked the idea of strong winds blowing us onwards, the lightning and visibility kept us from leaving. So we sat it out, deciding to wait until the skies cleared before moving north towards our next destination, the infamous island of Phi Phi Don.

Writer Liz Cleere and photographer Jamie Furlong are travellers first, sailors second.Their blog, Followtheboat, is a travelogue about two people and their cat Millie sailing around the world in a non-specific zig-zag. They also publish video diary updates on Patreon and YouTube every week.

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Main image: Sunset over Ko Rok (Jamie Furlong)

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