PHUKET: It's almost a defining characteristic of an expat, not wanting to go where the tourists go. Hey, we know better. We know the best local restaurants, the shortcuts, the secret beaches. We refuse to be wedged among the throngs.
And yet, in some cases the throngs have got it right. Not with the cashew-factory perhaps (at least, not more than once) but with destinations like nearby Racha Island.
It’s beautiful, is why, with white sand and clear blue water that make you happy just to look at them. It has intimate bays, a vast jungly interior, hiking trails, buffalos and butterflies, and when the daytrippers aren’t there, a village feeling. And it’s just half an hour from Chalong.
So how to avoid the crowds? It’s pretty simple. Stay off the beach at Batok Bay, on the west side, between 10 and 4, and don’t go to the restaurants mid-island at lunchtime, when the daytrippers are eating their buffet lunches.
You’ll find the rest of Koh Racha mostly empty – the four other lovely bays less than a 15-minute walk away, the sandy paths crisscrossing the island, the hiking trails on the headlands.
The best approach is to stay overnight. Enjoy swimming and snorkeling at Batok in the early morning, and when the speedboats start pulling up to the pontoon jetty, either retire to the Raya Family local café to watch the troops advance, or decamp.
You’ve got lots of choices for what to do next. Want more watersports? Head for the other bays. Alun’s watersports has kayaks for rent at the east end of Siam Bay, local dive shops offer quick “Discover Scuba” courses, and freediving instruction is available too. Or go fishing from the rocks or a longtail.
One of my favorite things to do is walk. Paths tend to meander in a circular way, so it’s not easy to get lost, and the trails on the northern headlands offer lovely sea glimpses. Since most visitors focus on the beaches, you’ll have these routes mostly to yourself, shared only with the occasional skittish monitor lizard.
Koh Racha has been in the news lately for failure of some local businesses to properly dispose of wastewater and garbage. You may see dirty water in a stream inland, a garbage dump, or, here and there, a pile of construction material.
But for the most part, the island remains extremely lovely, and the development isn’t all bad – it brought espresso, after all – at Rachaya Coffee in the little city center mid-island, now up to 10 or 12 shops and restaurants and counting.
• Bungalow Raya Resort at Batok Bay, fan only, (900 baht); Raya Father, mid-island (2,500 baht up); Raya Village, mid-island (2,500 baht)
• With pool: Ban Raya Resort and Spa at Kon Kare Bay (4,230 baht up), Rayaburi Resort at Siam Bay (5,750 baht up) , Racha Resort at Batok Bay (9,800 baht up)
Boat transfer, breakfast, included in some, taxes may apply.
Restaurants and Bars
• Each hotel has a restaurant open to the public; others are located mid-island and at Batok Bay.
• Batok: Most popular on the island, snorkel on the sides; daytrippers here from 10am to 4pm. Surfing here in low season.
• Siam: Gorgeous wide bay with view of Phuket; snorkeling about 150m out – go at high tide; the shallow bay means it can be tricky to swim back at low tide.
• La: Small; snorkel straight out and on the left side; water can be choppy in high season; some corals damaged in November storm.
•Tur: snorkel straight and right or left; corals damaged here in storm; pontoon jetty is here in low season.
• Kon Kare: tiny rocky bay received most coral damage from storm but the fish haven’t gone anywhere.
• Northwest headland: take the dirt road by the Racha Resort tennis court and go straight. When you see the garbage dump, either veer left or go up the hill; the path is circular, 40 minutes.
• Northeast headland: on the east side of Siam Beach, take the steep steps by Siam Bar. At the top, turn left. You’ll emerge at La Bay. Keep going and you’ll reach Tur Bay, 40 minutes.
• Viewpoint at Batok Bay: get a guide for this hike. 40 minutes.
• Water sports: Alun’s sport rental, east side of Siam Bay; sea-toy rental, Batok Bay
• Diving: The following have staff who are marine scientists and have been diving at the island for 4-8 years:
Aqua Raya (near entrance to Ban Raya Resort and Spa)
Raya Dive Center (at Ban Raya Resort and Spa)
Raya Scuba (mid-island)
The longest-running dive shop on the island is:
Raya Divers (mid-island)
All offer Discover dives.
• Free diving: Andaman Apnea (at Ban Raya Resort and Spa)
• Each hotel offers speedboat transfer from Chalong; some offer daytrips.
• Tour companies offer daytrips to the island which include lunch and usually snorkeling by speedboat at different spots. Some allow return on the following day for a small fee.