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There comes a stage in the evolution of every family where the children start to assert their independence, and their parents are forced to loosen the reins. Going on vacation is part of that tussle. Teenagers want their own adventure, preferably in the company of their friends. As parents, we’d like to keep them with us as long as possible – potentially by doing something memorable, even if that might mean venturing, occasionally, out of our own comfort zones.
So our challenge, with a daughter of 16 and a son of 18, was to devise a vacation which would satisfy their growing appetite for adventure and fill their Facebook pages. And something that we hoped would give them a feel for how the world might be, once they took off into it for themselves.
Which is why the four of us found ourselves in a primitive bungalow, on a lonely island, in the pitch dark, in the stifling heat, with no electricity, listening to rather alarming footsteps on the roof.
In the photos, Thailand’s Angthong Marine Park had looked fabulous. Palm trees, blue skies, virgin white sand, clear warm water. Sand between one’s toes, fishermen in longboats, and a glossy, limpid sea that could barely summon up the energy for a wave.
And so it turned out. With sea eagles, hornbills, and turtles it was perfect, pristine, inspirational – and it was virtually all just for us. And yet I’m almost ashamed to admit that this was the setting in which the family had a momentary crisis.
The Angthong Marine Park is a smattering of limestone knuckledusters, furry with forest, in the Gulf of Thailand, about 28km to the west of the popular vacation destination of Koh Samui. We’d started our vacation on the latter, with a few days of acclimatization in a five-star villa resort with a wonderfully lavish breakfast and massages on tap by the pool. And that may have been our mistake; the contrast with the island bungalow was nearly too much to bear.
Angthong is administered from Wua Talap, the only one of the 42 islands in the archipelago that is officially inhabited. It was here that we, along with our laughably inappropriate suitcases, were deposited by the boat that ferried us across from Koh Samui.
I could feel accusatory stares turning on me, as the person who’d organized all this. There was no airconditioning, the bungalow’s fan and lights only operated in the evening. The mood was very sombre as we struggled to erect a mosquito net.
Fast forward some 20 hours, however, and I was sitting on kayak watching my daughter swimming towards me along a peach of a beach, in superb evening light, against a backdrop of virgin islands, chanting ‘loverly, loverly, loverly’. What a difference a day makes.
Once the hurdle of that first night had been overcome, the pure beauty of the place had quickly worked its magic. The footsteps on the roof turned out to be Dusky Langurs, monkeys with the faces of old men; we followed them up a forest path to a lookout from where we could gaze north across the island chain, with its knuckles of forests and fingernails of white sand.
From that lookout, we could see the first wave of the approaching day-trippers from Koh Samui, so we rented kayaks and escaped in search of those secret fingernails of beach.
The beauty of kayaking is the instant peace and the creeping up on nature it affords. Setting off from the beach at Wua Talap, we headed first along the shore, uncertain of what we might find, and passing a big monitor lizard that looked worryingly like a crocodile. Hornbills crossed over our heads, strangely prehistoric in shape, and chastising each other like old ladies. About half a mile round we came on a sheltered spot where two open fishing boats were riding at anchor, their fishermen dozing on board, waiting for nighttime to come. Beyond that it started to get windy, so we turned and made a dash across the strait to the next island.
A sea eagle lead the way ahead of us, silhouetted against steep cliffs. We had no real idea where we were going or what we might find, but we were just enjoying the quiet paddle, and the stillness of the water – as was a basking turtle, which gave us a big shock by suddenly coming to life just ahead of us and diving with a tremendous splash.
Half an hour later and we’d rounded the corner of Mae Ko island and discovered one of those idyllic beaches we’d seen from the lookout: still, sheltered, with shallow warm water, soft sand and shade. It was the perfect place to draw up our kayaks and swim, and it felt as if we had the whole place to ourselves.
After that, the second night back on Wua Talap felt completely different to the first. It was equally velvety black, and equally buzzing with insect life. But this time we were ready for it, unlike our new neighbours in the form of an American couple; from their bungalow came a lot of shrieking, and torch flashing, as they tried to evict the (completely harmless) resident lizards.
Next day we hired a fisherman and his longtailed boat. Captain Yood was an enigmatic character who sat on a tin box on the stern, steering with his foot, and smiling. We shared very little language, but once we’d negotiated the price he took us to the best bits that we hadn’t been able to reach by kayak: to the very James Bondish lagoon inside the mountain, and to our own private swimming pool, a perfectly sheltered little rock-fringed bay where he ran the longtail’s bows up onto coral sand.
Then our time on Angthong was up, and we joined the day-tripper boats for the journey back to Koh Samui.
It was good to be back in civilization. And yet we all agreed that, in the end, we’d also loved the austerity, and the beauty, of Angthong. The contrast between the two would be a shared memory that would stay with us for a long time.
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