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Ever since a fresh-faced Leonardo DiCaprio discovered "The Beach", we've all been searching for – or at least daydreaming about – stumbling across our own (seemingly) idyllic south-east Asian paradise.
Let's face it, though. Most of us don't have the time, energy or intrepidness. But that doesn't mean we always have to stick to the tried, tested and crowded. My partner, Celine, and I are going Thai island-hopping for a fortnight.
We're over hardcore backpacking – and those fan-cooled $5-a-night bamboo shacks with cold showers – but we still yearn for adventure (as long as it comes with airconditioned rooms, heated water and Wi-Fi). We'll skip old flames and the usual suspects – Ko Samui, Pha-Ngan, Phuket and Phi-Phi – and hit places we've never been before. Chillaxation is a priority, so, after scouring maps, guidebooks and the web, we target a cluster of relatively untrampled islands off the awe-inspiring Andaman coast.
L-shaped Lipe is past its best. Too busy. Too commercialised. Spoilt. Or so say some travellers, who've loved and left Lipe, their mind's eye on pastures purer. Yet it's hard not to feel a wave of contentment as we take a languid, post-lunch stroll on Hat Chao Ley (or Sunrise Beach).
Reaching the wide, northern tip of this two-kilometre strip of powder white sand, we spot just six other people, all couples. One pair are dozing on an elephant-sized sarong in the shadow of a lurching coconut tree. Another are wading into the calm, turquoise, bath-tub warm sea, and the other canoeing in the channel separating Lipe from the mountainous, densely jungled island of Adang (which, like Lipe, is part of Tarutao National Marine Park).
Adang, we're told, is great for hiking, if you can summon the energy, which, truth be told in this muggy tropical climate, we can't. Not today anyway, especially after the feast we've had: grilled squid with coconut sauce, white snapper with lime and chilli, sticky rice and green curry, and four papaya juices. The bill? About $35 – with free entertainment thrown in (courtesy of the owner's toddler son, whose bare-bottomed paddling antics in the sea sends his mama and her customers into fits of laughter).
This joint – Coco Beach Bungalows – is among a string of family-run establishments and PADI-certified diving resorts on Sunrise's slimmer, built-up southern end. Alfresco bars and resorts also hug Hat Pattaya (where most inter-island boats and long-tails anchor). The biggest sprawl of development is between the two beaches. You'll find everything you need – and plenty you don't – on Walking Street, including 7-Eleven, pharmacies, massage haunts, souvenir shops, Wi-Fi hotspots, cafes, open-air bars, and ATMs (none of the other islands on our itinerary have any, incidentally).
You'll probably hear Madame Yoohoo! before you see her. As she conjures her finger-lickingly good crepes, this wizened Walking Street stalwart sings: "Pancake! Pancake! Yoohoo! Yoohoo!", luring and amusing onlookers (who often record her on their smartphones and upload clips to YouTube).
So rustic and blissfully serene is Muk – a jewel in the sleepy Trang archipelago, 70 kilometres north of Lipe – that it makes laid-back Lipe feel a bit like, well, Phuket. A typical day on Muk (or Mook) goes something like this: you awake, possibly to birds tweeting and roosters crowing, just after sunrise. If you're staying in the island's east, like we are, breakfast at Sugar's, where smiley staff serve good espresso and mango, watermelon and yoghurt by Hat Sivalai, a beach wedged between mangroves and a down-to-earth fishing village.
Then grab a bicycle – if your accommodation doesn't have any, they'll arrange something (Muslim-majority Muk is a close-knit place, everyone knows everyone). It'll take about 15 minutes to pedal across the island (there's one moderately steep hill, and beware children on bicycles and scooters, zipping to school). Park up beneath the giant palm trees at Charlie Beach Resort and kayak – or snorkel – through the serene jade waters that surround an island characterised by its soaring forested peaks (such is their Jurassic Park-like quality, you half-imagine pterodactyls flying out of them).
Paddle over to Tham Morakot (Emerald Cave). Apparently pirates used to hoard their treasure in this once-secret tunnel, which leads to a gorgeous, swimmable lagoon. You won't have it to yourself (especially in high season – November to April – it's a popular stop for boat tours from the larger islands). Return to Muk, cycle some more or lounge on scenic Charlie Beach (Hat Farang). When the sky pinkens, scale up to the beach's rickety Ko Yao Viewpoint bar for ice-cool Chang beers (or fruit juices) and a (normally) sublime sunset.
Muk isn't short of charming little eateries. We have huge, phenomenal portions of Pha Nang chicken curry (a thick, salty and sweet red curry with a nutty peanut flavour) at Hilltop Restaurant, and spicy squid salads at Team restaurant. It's a coconut's throw from Farmville, a bar, eatery and shop with a surprisingly cool selection of T-shirts and caps (don't expect "Same Same But Different" singlets).
Touring Thailand's Andaman coast, you lose count of the number of vegetation-cloaked karst (limestone) outcrops jutting from the water, looking like potential Bond villain lairs.
One – Khao Phing Kan near Phuket – was famously Scaramanga's hideout in The Man With The Golden Gun (and now revels in its moniker, ''James Bond Island").
We're far from there (well, 80 kilometres), but I have 007 on the brain, as I'm leafing through the latest Bond novel, Trigger Mortis by Anthony Horowitz, and sporadically glancing at a sea streaked with blues and greens and punctuated with lair-like karsts. Ko Ngai – also called Ko Hai – is the perfect island to catch up on that book (or books) you've been meaning to read. Some say Ngai is boring, with little to do (bar snorkelling and diving). But this suits us just fine.
We've found a peaceful spot by the pool at Cliff Beach Resort. It's a bit of climb (or a gulf buggy ride up), but the views are sensational (there's Wi-Fi so you can share snaps on social media). All-day happy hour cocktails, too. There are no roads or vehicles on Ngai. You walk everywhere or take a boat taxi. After ambling along a beach crawling with hermit crabs and lined with eco-chic bungalows and upscale bamboo apartments, we take an undulating (25-minute long) jungle trail, ringing with cicada trills, to Paradise Beach, an azure bay, where Celine indulges in one of her favourite hobbies (fossicking for shells).
The beach is deserted, apart from a solitary vendor in a wooden shack, hacking coconuts with his machete. We sip one, and idle here, then head back and loll on a tree swing near Ko Ngai Seafood Restaurant, where, after dark, we enjoy a lovely candle-lit dinner: two large deshelled crabs – one swimming in a coconut milk and pineapple curry, the other in a sweet and sour Thai sauce. Yum yum.
There's no denying it. Getting here was a hassle: a speedboat from Ko Ngai to Ko Lanta, a two-hour minivan to Krabi Town, where we overnighted; a six-hour coach ride to Ranong, a taxi to the port, then another boat. We felt like backpackers again. But was it worth it?
Oh yes. Phayam is a delightful, kangaroo-shaped escape near the Thai-Myanmar border. It's the biggest island we've visited so far, so we hire a scooter – $7.70 a day – and bump around its rash of narrow, concrete (frequently) potholed lanes and dirt tracks, passing golden Buddha statues, spirit houses, rubber plantations and casuarina forests, and stopping at dreamy beaches.
The marbled, white-and-black-sand Hat Ao Yai is our favourite: all invigorating walks, jogs and hammock-dwelling. Sunsets are memorable, too (one night, we're transfixed by a man stand-up paddle-boarding far, far out at sea, as the sun melts behind him). Monkey Beach has its charms, though mind your valuables (the cheeky resident primates love to snatch). Wild pigs, snakes and hornbills also call Phayam home (we don't meet any). We do see plenty of ageing hippies, flashpackers and young families from Europe and Asia. Phayam's accommodation and dining options have mushroomed, and diversified, in recent years. Inland, one newcomer, Coffee and Resort, serves probably the best caffeine hits (and pad Thai) of our trip.
Nearby Cha Chai excels in vegan and veggie fare, delectable shakes and cakes (try the mango and vanilla cheesecake). They also have a well-stocked book exchange. It faces Kruq Khun Kao, where, for our final meal, we have stuffed squid, curried prawns and barracuda in tamarind sauce, and raise a toast, happy that our appetite for Thai island hopping has been rekindled.
We've done some serious chillaxing in seriously beautiful surrounds, ate and drank wonderfully well, haven't encountered any rowdy travellers with buckets of Sang Som whisky, and met heaps of genuinely friendly locals (no one ripped us off and most went the extra mile to help us). We will miss Lipe, Muk, Ngai and Phayam. We don't realise exactly how much until we've spent a few days in tout-and-traffic-clogged Bangkok.
Jetstar fly from Sydney and Melbourne to Phuket. Ko Lipe, Muk and Ngai are connected to Phuket via Ko Lanta with Bundhaya speedboats and ferry transfers. Services run daily in high season (November-April); www.bundhayaspeedboat.com
Alternatively, fly into Langkawi via Kuala Lumpur with Malaysia Airlines, then catch a Bundhaya speedboat to Lipe (it takes 90 minutes).
Speedboats and long-tail taxis leave Ranong pier for Ko Phayam several times a day in high season; www.kohphayam.org
The Andaman coast is affected by the monsoon (usually from the end of May to October). Ferry services are limited and many hotels close.
Deluxe seaview villas at Serendipity Resort, Ko Lipe, are priced from about $187; www.serendipityresort-kohlipe.com
On Muk, Sivilai Beach Resort has smart villas from $210 (high season rate); www.komooksivalai.com
Seaview bungalows at Coco Cottage on Ko Ngai from $114; www.coco-cottage.com
On Phayam, Blue Sky Resort has stylish villas nestled above mangroves, from $148; www.theblueskyresort.com
FIVE OTHER ISLANDS OFF THAILAND'S ANDAMAN COAST
A wanderlustful French guesthouse owner on Ko Lipe described Ko Rok to us as "the last untouched paradise in Thailand". A dream for campers and snorkellers, it's a two-hour speedboat ride south of Ko Lanta.
Drenched in pristine jungle, this rugged former penal colony is marooned between Lipe and the mainland. It was a shooting location for US reality TV show Survivor.
Kradan has a slightly more upmarket vibe than neighbouring Muk, not least because of Sevenseas, a luxurious retreat with lush gardens, a Thai-Western restaurant, infinity pool and spa offering traditional Thai massages and herbal healing scrubs (www.sevenseasresorts.com).
Not to be confused with its party-and-package holiday island namesake in the Gulf of Thailand, Ko Phayam's little-visited neighbour is the place to get away from it all. Excellent hiking.
Divers use this postcard-perfect archipelago as a springboard for Richelieu Rock – regarded as Thailand's top dive site. Manta rays, whale sharks and sea turtles are sighted in a spot "discovered" by Jacques-Yves Cousteau.
Steve McKenna travelled at his own expense.
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