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Oh, (Tiny) Island In The Sun

Rajen Bali

“Oh, island in the sun

………………………………..

All my days I will sing in praise

Of your forest, waters, your shining sand.

It was quite a big hit – the movie made almost 60 years ago, in 1957. Harry Belafonte sang ‘Island in the Sun’ in this movie of the same name. The film may have been forgotten, but the song goes on. At least for me, it has become a kind of theme song in my continuing quest for islands-in-the-sun in many seas. I really love the sea-sides, especially islands, because somehow the islands and islanders appear – to me – to have a rather different attitude, atmosphere and lifestyle as compared to the main lands. I have been fortunate to go island hopping in the waters of quite a few oceans – the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, the South China Sea and others.

It would not be true if I said that I have not thoroughly enjoyed the charms of highly touristy and popular islands like Majorca, Bali and those in Seychelles, but I am always on the lookout for lesser-known or almost unknown islands. One such island is the tiny island of Koh Si Chang in the Gulf of Thailand.

It is so tiny that I wonder even if it is marked on the maps. Also, most people just pass by Sri Racha − the island is a 45 minute boat ride away from there – in their rush to sample the charms of the famous Pattaya, and Koh Samet. However, yours truly always makes it a point to spend some quality time in Sri Racha and Koh Si Chang. The last visit to Thailand – was no exception.

Bangkok may have many attractions but its dense, often bumper-to-bumper slow-moving road traffic is definitely not at all a welcome experience. Yet the taxi ride from Banglamphoo – where I usually make my home at the Sitdhi Guest House – to Ekamai bus terminal took almost as much time as the bus ride to Sri Racha, 60 km from Bangkok. Both trips were about an hour each, with the bus to Sri Racha costing less than half of the taxi fare of around 200 Thai baht!

However, all was forgiven and forgotten as I got down at the bus stop next to the Robinson Department Store in Sri Racha on a bright but drizzly morning. As luck would have it, it was one of the days when a street market is set up outside Robinson. This market has some of the very best – and, perhaps the cheapest – street food in Thailand. We shall talk about this in detail another time. For now, just share my lunch-of-that-day with me. From the grill-‘em-on-skewers stall I asked for one skewer each of: Two biggg meatballs, fishballs, pigs-in-blankets with some excellent bacon wrapping and a biggg crab roll. This was more than enough for the stomach, but the eyes wanted more. I added a plateful of seafood dumplings (steaming hot and substantial). How much did I pay? Please do not faint. This meal which took me more than a half-hour to eat, cost me around Rs 120!

A 5-minute motorcycle pillion ride reached me to my ‘regular home’ in Sri Racha - Hotel Sritwattana. It is a hotel with very basic amenities. Perhaps one of the oldest hotels in Thailand. But I love it because of its location and its character. It is built on piles in the sea. There is much wooden-plank flooring and you can see the sea below some cracks. There is a tiny garden and a terrace-in-the-sea with waters on three sides, as far as the eye can see. On the one side is a long tongue of land jutting in the sea with scores of fishing boats. On the other side – in the middle distance – is the causeway leading to a pagoda and the jetty which appear to be floating in the sea. Right in front is the vast expanse of water reaching the horizon with the seascape punctuated by tiny black dots, which are actually big ships. The view is enhanced by the antics of seagulls, terns, pigeons and other birds. I was quite content with just sitting and watching the ever changing seascapes and skyscapes. The ‘music’ was provided by the waves and the assorted spluttering of various kinds of boat-engines.

Got up in the morning. Bought some Fried Tofu, Grilled Honey-glazed Pork Strips, a Banana Custard-filled Bun and Robusta Coffee for breakfast. Had my breakfast on the fringes of the seaside park adjoining my hotel and the jetty, watching many kinds of boats toing-and-froing and waiting for the hourly departure of the ferry to Koh Si Chang. It was time to go and I found a good seat in the shade with a clear view. The sea was a bit rough and the wash on the sides and at the back of the boat was one huge mass of extremely turbulent and violent angry white foam. Fascinating to watch. But then the eyes were drawn to many ships anchored in the deeper waters with towering derricks, waiting to discharge/take-on cargo. There was Northern Light from Monrovia, Morning Glory from Hong Kong, (Something) Maru from Osaka, Sea Nymph from Galveston, Molly’s Delight from Glasgow and……Just gazing at the impressive ships, their names and their home-ports was like an ‘Around the World’ tour! But all this contemplation of ships and their voyages was interrupted by the small green dot in the distance turning bigger and bigger and finally turning into our destination island.

The first impact was made by a Yellow Buddha on a hilly perch, a small lighthouse and a great many colorful boats cluttering the pier. The jetty offers a very good view of the main Koh Si Chang island, other small islands scattered about and the seas merging with the skies in far horizon. It was worthwhile to sit in the view-point shelter at the jetty for a half-hour, to let the peaceful and characteristic atmosphere to sink in. There are tuk-tuk type vehicles and motorcycle pillion as transportation options. I decided on a motorcycle pillion. My friendly young driver was named Xe. He very carefully took me around to re-visit the sights (for the nth time?) – the Wats, viewpoints, the Summer Palace, the Bell Stone, the beaches and more. But my visiting the sights in Koh Si Chang is merely a habitual formality. What I really go there for is the ‘atmosphere’, and – seafood. Some of the very best prawns, crab and squid. As good as any elsewhere in the world. Also on (pleasantly) zap-you prices!

Koh Si Chang has a bit of a chequered history. Among other things, it was once a favored summer resort of the Thai kings, and was also occupied by the French for some time. But for me, it is a much-favored getaway-from-it-all. Even better than my always-favored Sri Racha. Every time I come away from Koh Si Chang, I make a silent promise to myself – “God willing and weather permitting, I shall return.”