“I think we should cross to the mainland instead of Kang Khao Island,” I said to my paddling partner halfway across Ratchakrut Channel. “The wind is steadily increasing and when the tide turns, this channel is known for strong currents.”
“Agreed,” he responded and we changed course accordingly. An hour and a half later, we were on the mainland coast of Thailand’s remote Ranong Province.
With more than 3,000 km of coastline and over 1,000 islands, it is surprising that Thailand is largely unknown to sea kayakers. The Andaman Sea, on the west coast, offers endless paddling possibilities and regardless of where you paddle, the people are friendly and accommodating.
The northernmost portion of the Andaman coast is Ranong Province. It is the most desolate coastal region in all of Thailand. To the south, Pha Nga Province stretches to Phuket Island. With the exception of the hyper-touristic Khao Lak area, this entire section of the Thai coast is noteworthy for miles of empty beach, punctuated by isolated fishing villages.
Remote Ranong is typified by the extensive mangrove estuaries of Ranong Biosphere Reserve and Khlong Kapoe. Offshore, a couple dozen islands are scattered along the coast and a large portion is designated national park. Access is difficult from land. From the sea, everything is possible and this is where you encounter virgin stretches of barren beach.
This coast is exposed and paddlers should have experience with surf launches and landings. There is often no margin for error. Additionally, tides can swing up to 12 feet and it is critical to make crossings at slack tide. Fighting a 1.5-knot current is just not fun. And there is nothing as disheartening as lugging your gear several hundred meters across a tidal flat or watching your kayak float away for failing to observe tide charts.
A good base is Phayam Island, roughly 25 km from the town of Ranong. Rent a beachfront bungalow and get acquainted with the Andaman Sea. There are exposed beaches to practice launch and landing skills, as well as sheltered bays and mangrove forests to explore. The north point is perfect to discover what happens when swell, wind and tide meet to create a frothing sea.
Phayam Island is also a fine base for short trips. Neighboring Chang Island has plenty of bungalow options. Nearby Sai Dam Island is a nice overnight camping trip and exploring the mangroves of Ngao and Tha Ton Son is idyllic. South, across Ratchakrut Channel, is Kum Islands National Park. The Park offices were completely destroyed in the tsunami of 2004, but in late 2013, National Park staff returned. Spend a day or two paddling about these islands and enjoy pure nature. They are deserted and the only signs of life are footprints of crab-eating macaques in the sand.
On the mainland, Bang Ben Beach or Laem Manao are also good spots to camp and the sole coastal village for miles, Baan Talae Nok, a tiny community of fishermen, has one homestay. North and south of this village lie miles of untouched beach. Pick a spot to camp and revel in the complete absence of humanity.
Crossing into Pha Nga Province, there are three large islands near the mainland town of Kuraburi. Ra Island has a National Park office on the northern tip with a good place to camp, fresh water and a friendly park staff on site. Or rent a room at Koh Ra Eco Lodge. This island is rugged and the west coast is dotted with stunning beaches. If the sea is calm, a west coast beach camp is yours. If it is rough, take care.
A narrow channel separates hilly Ra Island from a very flat Phra Thong Island, the most bio-diverse island on the west coast. There are bungalows just off the beach as development is prohibited on the beachfront. These are the two remaining gems on this coast. Camp anywhere you like. My personal favorite is the north point on Phra Thong Island.
At the south end of Phra Thong, paddle out the channel to the west side of Kho Khao Island and camp on yet another desolate stretch of beach. The northern half of this island has one lonely resort, a far cry from the southern half where resorts abound. Beyond, lies Khao Lak, land of package tourism.
Tim Morch is a paddler and adventure writer and photographer based in Thailand. See more of his work at www.timmorch.com