Community ownership has helped the residents of the eastern Thai island of Koh Mak curtail development and create a low-carbon haven for slow exploration.
Published October 5, 2023
• 9 min read
This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).
Menacing clouds skulk over Ao Pra Beach like a pack of starving wolves at dusk. We don’t have much time. Racing against the impending storm, we chuck plastic bottles, food containers and beer-can rings into a washed-up rusty refrigerator, like we’re on a dystopian episode of Supermarket Sweep.
“These things are a real nuisance to sea life,” says Nipon Suddhidhanakool, his laid-back demeanour temporarily dissolving into frustration as he points at the old fishing nets and straws in our plastic molehill. “The fridge is, too, but at least it’s not microplastic.” I hadn’t expected this island’s crystal-clear waters to spew a kitchen appliance onto its powder-soft sands, but I’m told the rough seas at this time of year throw up all kinds of junk.
It’s Koh Mak’s low season and I’m on a beach-clean mission with Nipon. Along with five relatives and four other families, he co-owns this island in Trat province, 190 miles south east of Bangkok, near the Cambodian border. His work to preserve the island’s natural beauty and water quality led to him becoming the chairman of the Koh Mak Tourism Community Enterprise. He also oversees the local branch of the worldwide, community-led Trash Hero initiative, which he brought to Koh Mak in 2017 to clean up the island and better manage waste.
“Koh Mak has a very different background to other Thai islands,” says Nipon, stroking his grey chevron moustache as gigantic rain droplets plop from the 60ft-tall coconut trees around us. Whereas most of the country’s islands are owned by government bodies or by various business groups, Koh Mak is the largest Thai island that’s all in the hands of locals, and this unique community-ownership model puts residents in charge of setting the pace of change. “We have no higher powers involved, so the decisions we make collectively are final,” he explains.
Many of Thailand’s paths are famously well-trodden, but Koh Mak retains its authenticity through a comprehensive ecotourism approach designed, implemented and enforced by locals. The island stretches across 4.8sq miles and remains mostly undeveloped, free of large hotel brands, fast-food chains and nightclubs. It even lacks Thailand’s omnipresent 7-Eleven convenience stores. Instead, locally owned hotel resorts, quirky art bars and family-run businesses thrive here. There are also just 500 hotel rooms on the island, which helps to control tourist numbers.
In 2022, Koh Mak was listed among the Top 100 Good Practice Stories by Green Destinations, a global organisation of leading travel professionals that works to promote sustainable destinations and their communities. Then, in 2023, the island took second place in the Governance, Reset and Recovery category at the Green Destinations Story Awards, securing its image as Thailand’s trailblazing low-carbon destination. Projects such as promoting solar-powered boats, encouraging businesses to lease electric vehicles and discouraging the use of foam and plastic packaging helped Koh Mak secure the silver medal.
The Koh Mak Coral Conservation Group, led by Nipon’s brother Noppadon Suddhidhanakool, also allows tourists — when weather permits — to join snorkelling trips that go out to plant seagrass as part of a rehabilitation programme, using old PVC tubing. Koh Mak is also only accessible by boat, which naturally prevents cars being brought over from the mainland. The only cars available here for tourists are songthaews: two-bench converted pick-up trucks with room for 10 people, which are used like a shared taxi.
For my own travels around the island, I’m using a trusty push bike borrowed from my hotel, the Mira Montra, which opens onto the shimmering sands of Ao Pra beach. Koh Mak is largely flat, so getting around is a joy: the breeze on two wheels offers temporary respite from the heavy humidity and the slower pace allows me to better absorb my surroundings.
As I cycle, I find salty sea air, humid petrichor and the scent of latex interchangeably wafting around me on each bend of the road. Agriculture is Koh Mak’s major industry and I smell the rubber plantations before I see them. Small black pots are tied by lace to most of the trees, holding deposits of milky white sap smelling of charred vanilla. It’s strangely intoxicating. As this is an island with limited access to the mainland, all natural resources are considered precious on Koh Mak, and its community is passionate about reusing materials in order to reduce waste. When I join a tie-dye workshop at Roja Studio of Art, exuberant owner Rodjamarn Siriut, barefoot and sporting a deep-indigo tie-dye T-shirt of her own design, explains how she uses discarded leaves and shells of natively grown mangosteens and coconuts to make natural dyes. “As part of our commitment to be as sustainable as possible, we only use materials for our natural dyes that are available to us at the time,” she says.
Keen to see more of the island’s creative community, I spend the evening drinking Chang beer and playing board games with residents at Koh Mak Art House, a makeshift bar, gallery and musicians’ hangout a 10-minute cycle from my hotel. At the recycled wooden bar, I take a seat between a nomadic Australian businessman, who moved to Koh Mak several months ago, and the owner of local Japanese restaurant 12Bar. Koh Mak Art House owner Ales, originally from the Czech Republic, takes great pleasure in pointing out paintings and sculptures by local artists dotted around the place, alongside the guitars propped up against the wall for impromptu jamming sessions.
On a cycle back to the hotel after dark, I see other sides to Koh Mak. To avoid what would be a mighty uphill cycle, I follow an off-road shortcut through a dimly lit trailer park, swerving dirt-track potholes, narrowly avoiding chunky tree roots jutting out of the soil and dodging dozens of bats that make a beeline for my face at breakneck speed. Back on the main road, I enjoy a calmer experience among synchronous fireflies, chirping crickets and the light patter of rain.
The next morning, paddling out on the bay in a kayak gives me the chance to blow away the cobwebs. I especially enjoy these slow mornings on Koh Mak, where breakfast consists of fresh watermelon, pineapple and coconut water and slack waves wash onto the deserted beach like paint spilling from a tin. I begin to wonder whether keeping tourist numbers so low can be sustainable for businesses here, but then I remember something Nipon had said on the beach clean-up: “It has never been about money,” he’d explained, throwing a half-full jerry can into the washed-up fridge. “We just want to ensure our home is sustainable for future generations.” With this model, there’s every chance it will be.
How to do it: Southeast Asia specialist All Points East runs small-group tours to Koh Mak. A four-day tour of the island, excluding international flights but including return domestic flights from Bangkok and accommodation, costs from 18,800 TH (£416) per person. tourismthailand.org
How to do it
Southeast Asia specialist All Points East runs small-group tours to Koh Mak. A four-day tour of the island, excluding international flights but including return domestic flights from Bangkok and accommodation, costs from 18,800 TH (£416) per person.
This story was created with the support of Tourism Authority of Thailand and southeast Asia specialists All Points East.
Published in the October 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).
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