Secret Islands of Southeast Asia
Odysseus had his quest, Naomi Lindt had hers: to scout and explore the next great islands of Southeast Asia, from an untouched Cambodian hideaway to a foodie's paradise off the coast of Vietnam.
Ko Kut, Thailand
The eco adventure
It only took a few hours of exploring Ko Kut's west coast on a motorbike—driving along unmarked, sandy tracks to crescent-shaped beaches—to pinpoint what made this island so special. Wherever I went, I was utterly alone. Where were all the sunburned tourists, souvenir shops, and bars selling cheap beer?
It's no accident that Ko Kut—Thailand's fourth-largest island, with a population of 2,000—has dodged the country's notorious trend toward overdevelopment. "People are afraid of the environmental destruction they've seen in the region, and they're actively working to prevent it here," said my guide, Jeremy Morin, when I met him for lunch my first day (011-66/87-083-1404, full-day tours from $25 per person). He told me about the island's solar-power plant and noted a few other, smaller, ecological triumphs. When one of the resorts brought in Jet Skis, residents were up in arms and successfully blocked their use. The Koh Kood Beach Resort, where I spent the night, has launched its own initiatives: The owners are installing recycling bins in their eight thatched-roof Balinese-style bungalows and eight Thai-style wooden houses, and their dive shop's instructors teach guests how to collect plastic waste underwater (kohkoodbeachbungalows.com, doubles from $65).
The next morning, Jeremy took me around on his scooter so I could see firsthand what's at stake. We drove along a thrilling, narrow path that hugged the southern coastline and then turned up a rocky road to Ao Yai village, a former pirates' haven. Ten miles away, Jeremy showed me a path into the jungle, and we hiked half a mile to the three-tiered Klong Chao waterfall, which is framed by hanging vines and cascades into a large freshwater pool that's perfect for swimming. The unchecked nature was breathtaking—as worthy a site for preservation as I'd ever seen.
Ko Mak, Thailand
Ko Samui 20 years ago
As he stood on an untouched plot of golden sand looking out over the Gulf of Thailand two years ago, Paul Inman knew he'd found his new home. For two decades, the 45-year-old had fantasized about leaving his job as an investment banker in London and opening a beach resort in Thailand—somewhere secluded, spectacular, and affordable. After a friend suggested he check out Ko Mak, the wait was over. "You just don't find places like this nowadays," Inman recalls thinking. In October 2008, Inman and his Thai girlfriend, Noodeng, opened the Big Easy restaurant and hotel on that very spot, Ko Mak's Ao Katueng Beach (bigeasykohmak.com, doubles from $36). The hotel's six sea-facing bungalows have redwood decks, 13-foot-high bamboo ceilings, and bathrooms tiled with local black slate; the place fits in nicely with Ko Mak's 21 other hotels, most of which are still owned by the island's original families, not big Bangkok investors.
Services on the 10-square-mile island (population 450) are minimal but hit all the key needs: food, entertainment, massage. At Monkey Island Resort's Orang Utan Bar on the main drag, Ko Mak's star musician, the dreadlocked and often bare-chested Mr. T, performs his original ballads about island life nearly every night—an essential Ko Mak experience (monkeyislandkohmak.com). Another local favorite is the family-run Peaw Restaurant, whose decorative centerpiece is a large portrait of the Thai king (on the road to Ao Nid Pier, entrées from $1). When I stopped for lunch, the owner sent her eager 12-year-old son over to offer recommendations. On his advice, I ordered a pork curry with piles of fresh, crushed pineapple in a spicy and sweet coconut sauce. It ranked as one of the best curries I've ever had; I even took photos of it, much to the amusement of the people sitting around me.
Ko Yao Noi, Thailand
The final frontier
Jaded island-hoppers often lament the disappearance of the anything-goes, barefoot-friendly islands that made Thailand so famous, but that's just because they haven't been to Ko Yao Noi. At the edge of 155-square-mile Ao Phang-nga National Park, known for its looming limestone karst formations, Ko Yao Noi is the kind of place where pineapple farmers welcome casual strolls through their fields and water buffalo graze peacefully in impossibly green rice paddies. The island owes its tranquility to its rocky shores, caused by the same geological shifts that 10,000 years ago created Ao Phang-nga's dramatic, tree-topped stone towers. As one local told me, "If we had perfect beaches, this place wouldn't be the way it is."