The day before we started teaching, Barbara, Mark and I had taken a tuk-tuk to the town of Khok Kloi, an hour south of Khao Lak. The towns could hardly be more different; while Khao Lak was essentially created for the tourism industry, Khok Kloi developed as a cross roads town and bus station, with Phuket to the south, Ao Phang Nga to the east, and Khao Lake to the north; Khao Lak was full of hotels and restaurants, and on first glance Khok Kloi seemed to have nothing at all for tourists. Until we found Natai Beach.
When I was working in Lake Louise as a hotel receptionist, the most irritating review of the Lake, which I heard repeatedly during the summer months, was “it’s very nice, if only there weren’t so many people”. My response was always a thin, apologetic smile and a “yes, it does get very busy at this time of year”, but what I really wanted to ask these people was; “how exactly did you find out about Lake Louise?” Did you read about it in a book or a magazine? Maybe a TV programme? Or maybe it’s one of those places in the world that you’ve always been aware of in a vague kind of way, like Timbuktu or Niagara Falls. This wouldn’t be surprising, considering Lake Louise is one of Canada’s top tourist destinations and one of the world’s most photographed places, and so, random hotel guest, what exactly made you think your decision to visit was so unique that you expected to come here in the height of summer and have the place to yourself? The idea that millions of people have heard about the same places as them, and that some of them even decide to go there on the very same day! The arrogance of it astounded me every time.
So I have no sympathy when people complain about there being lots of people at well-known, beautiful destinations, especially during the high season, but on the other hand it is undeniably satisfying when you come across a place that is beautiful, relaxing and almost completely empty. And this is exactly what we found at Natai Beach, a few kilometres from Khok Kloi, when we visited after our first morning at school. We asked our driver, who drove us to and from school each day, to take us to the beach, hoping to find a good spot to enjoy the beach. Barbara and Mark told me how they like to find a beach-front resort with a pool and walk in with confidence as if they’re staying there and enjoy the amenities, taking care to spend some money at the bar. They tend to blend in with the hotel guests, they said, and if anyone realises that they aren’t guests they don’t usually mind as long as they are spending some money. We strode into Ranyatavi, the first resort we came to, and I followed their lead as we asked nonchalantly where the pool was and were led through a maze of bungalows and small villas. Arriving at the beach-front pool with a bar next door, it became clear that we would struggle to blend in; the place was completely deserted. It was pretty obvious that we weren’t guests at the hotel, but the staff didn’t seem to mind, and we contented ourselves that they couldn’t refuse our business at the bar if this was what two o’clock on an afternoon in the high season looked like.
The beautiful soft white sand beach was just as empty as the hotel, and as I walked along I started to understand why. Stretching for about 10km either side of Natai pier, a spot for anglers and fishing boats, and the beach was edged with modern, pristine villas and a few expensive-looking boutique hotels. The villas were either private holiday homes or were rented out for exclusive beach getaways, and it looked like exactly the kind of place the super-famous would go to escape recognition. A bit more research showed that the beach was home to a restaurant with a Michelin star chef and right next door to what we came to think of as ‘our’ resort, an American-built glass and chrome mansion currently owned by a Russian oligarch.
I can only assume that Natai manages to maintain it’s exclusivity because, driving through Khok Kloi, you would have absolutely no reason to think there was anything luxurious or tourist-orientated in this part of the coast. The town itself as one restaurant (the excellent Bo’s Café), no taxi service, and one hotel; the comfortable but very basic Nest Villa, our base for the fortnight. It was a pragmatic town with pragmatic shops; mechanics and motorbike showrooms, homeware and electricals shops, and a Tesco Lotus and a few minimarts. There is no real demand for a taxi service, since the luxury villas for hire came with a minibus and driver included, as well as a maid and cook, and the resorts had their own overpriced and barely used taxis.
The three of us quickly got into the habit of finishing at school at 1:30, after four hours’ work and an hour for lunch, coming straight to the beach and relaxing and swimming in the pool, having dinner at Ranyatavi, then getting a ride home from our hotel owner’s mate who happened to own a car. As work routines go, it was pretty luxurious. On the final evening of our first week we strolled along the beach to Aleenta, a smart luxury resort with square glass villas and private pools, for cocktails and a fancy dinner. For the price of a Domino’s pizza I had gorgeously presented halibut ceviche and pork belly washed down with a mojito on a peaceful terrace looking onto the sea. During our meal we got talking to Billy, the impeccably mannered restaurant assistant manager, who invited us to the ‘Manager’s Cocktail Reception’ the following Tuesday. Happy to go to anything for a free drink we attended, and mingled with the guests, drinking cosmopolitans, eating canapés and avoiding questions about where we were staying. I felt like a student sneaking into a fancy party, but it was fun to pretend I belonged in such an opulent environment. It felt a little jarring though, spending the day teaching children who clearly came from poor backgrounds, and living a life of luxury in the evening.