Little Trouble On Big Racha

by Neil Campbell, Dec 5, 2003 | Destinations: Thailand / Phuket

When Steve from Power Snorkel South East Asia decided to test out his new machines on the isolated island of Koh Racha Yai we immediately volunteered ourselves as guinea pigs. Power Snorkel a new innovation from Australia is basically an update of the old diving system involving two men on deck with a pump, a long hose and a guy in a space suit on the ocean floor. Although the space suits and on board weightlifters have been replaced by scuba masks and high power battery driven pumps, the hose remains pretty much the same. As a result divers can now reach depths of six meters without the need for bulky tanks and hours of training.

The deal was simple, accompany John, our ever-smiling diving instructor, to the Island and after a few free dives, rave about the experience to anyone who would listen. In return we would receive free passage and a few shots of the machines. Warned in advance that every bungalow on the island had been booked out we armed ourselves with tents hoping to find a safe awning somewhere on the island.

Two hours after our boat was due, we began to panic and when we discovered that the electric snorkels were on a plane heading for Pattaya city, five hundred kilometers in the wrong direction, we were debating whether or not god was trying to tell us something. We decided about an hour later that we were going to go to the damn island with or without our free ride after all we'd bought the tents specially.

Two tuk tuks, two long-tail boats, a motor cycle taxi and three hours later were we about to land on the most pristine beach I had ever seen. The visibility in the calm turquoise water was simply stunning and as our boat coasted into shore we were staring into the ocean like children into an aquarium.

There is something magical about Koh Racha Yai, also known as Raya Island or Big Racha, you can sense it from five miles out and for every inch closer you get the feeling just blooms. Upon arrival we piled the mountains of useless equipment we'd brought for our three-day stay on the beach and there it lay for pretty much the duration. The beach itself was perfect, the shelving just right for swimming, no crazy tides or currents, coral fringed on all sides and every morning a team of hard-working heroes would scour the sand for rubbish and drive out the evil waste. The sand itself has the consistency of corn flour and the color of pearl.

We soon established that contrary to our information the island was pretty much deserted and finding a bungalow would have been as easy as closing our eyes and pointing. We had come to camp however and after a little negotiation with a local restaurant owner we set up our tents in the shade of his terrace. There was no fee for our impromptu campsite but in respect for his hospitality we knew where we'd be eating for the next few days. Our new landlords generosity knew no limits and we were given foam mats from deck chairs to sleep on and little candles lamps to sit by in the evening when the generators ground to a halt. The island has electricity only from six in the evening to midnight, unless there's something good on TV, provided by privately owned generators as the island is too remote for a regular supply.

The unpredictability of 'big' Racha makes life here a real adventure as during the monsoon season it can become unreachable by sea and it's inhabitants may have to wait for nearly a month between supply boats. "Ice water in June is a real luxury," we were informed by Win, a retired Swedish lawyer who has stayed on the island for over twelve years. Win told us how he has watched the island change over the years how the tiny village became a slightly bigger tiny village and then an even bigger tiny village and now it's almost a small village, "they have a tractor now!" Win boasted. The tractor doubles as the local bus and ferries locals and tourists alike from one small village to the other. There are also a couple of archaic mopeds on the island both devoid of lights and brakes and other un-necessary functions.

Win is not the only unusual resident on the island and he remembers with a nervous grin the time the crocodile farmer from Phuket came to stay complete with his favorite ten feet long scaly pet. "I wasn't sad to see that one go, the damn thing kept escaping and then they'd catch it and it off he'd go again. It was living in the river for about six months until they finally killed it." Large reptiles are by no means new to Koh Racha, there have been large monitors here for years but recently they've been getting bigger. The locals have started feeding them trying to create a kind of monster lizard so they can start dragon safaris like in Indonesia. They can't be far off now as Win told us that he saw one about fifteen feet long. The best time for lizard watching is about midday when they descend in packs to take up the offerings from a little restaurant nestling on the rocky headland. Apart from huge lizards and deceased crocodiles there's plenty of fauna to see on Racha the first thing to greet us as we walked up the beach was a swarm of butterflies of many varieties, we were also joined by a herd of goats while snorkeling in a rocky cove and woken up by the biggest peacock I've ever seen who was perching on our table like he owned the whole island (his owner may well do though as peacocks are not cheap costing anything up-to two hundred US$). You won't find any dogs or pigs on the island however as it's a largely Muslim community.

During the day the island is invaded by groups of tourists from Phuket, which lies about fifteen miles to the North, but few spend the night so when the generators click out at night you truly feel you have the island to yourself. The lack of light makes it a paradise for stargazers and on clear nights you can clearly make out the new international space station with the naked eye.

Our journey was somewhat marred by tragedy as on our second day a local fisherman was drowned while spear fishing. His body was discovered by a local scuba diving tour in five feet of water the cause of his death basically unknown. Every one seemed to have a theory, the scuba diver reckoned he may have been bitten by a sea snake or trodden on a stonefish but he may have simply had a heart attack.

Getting off the island was an adventure in itself but we eventually managed to get passage on a supply boat returning to the mainland for the hefty price of twelve hundred baht (about twenty seven US$) although at one point we were facing the very real possibility of having to pay five thousand baht (about one hundred and ten US$)

Despite the false start and the tragedy on Racha Yai we were all grateful that we had taken the initiative and visited this very special little island and above all we were all glad that for the time being at least it seems to be escaping the heavy impact of tourism.

To get to Koh Racha Yai you can either take a day trip with one of the many travel agencies that operate speed boats to the island from Phuket or you can charter a long-tail boat from Rawai in the south of Phuket. If you choose the latter you have the option to stay over night and have the place to your self from 4pm until 10 am. Chartering a boat is cheaper in a large group, we had five in our party and paid one thousand baht for the passage out (about twenty two US$) be aware that you may have to stay longer than you planned for as the weather can seriously hinder the sea journey, you should also take note that the long-tail supply boats don't come in everyday and if you have to leave on a day when there isn't one you'll be forced to travel back on a speed boat. (Great fun if you can afford it and if there're not all full)

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