Tiny Thai gem unlocks its charm
I EYED the ferry with trepidation.
"People die on these things," I muttered to my partner as we were jostled aboard - two of a handful of westerners among a hundred or so Thais heading for tiny Koh Larn island on the eastern side of the Gulf of Thailand.
We'd just travelled two hours by taxi from the plush Bangkok Novotel in Siam to be deposited on Pattaya City's crowded Bali Hai Pier by a driver who promised faithfully to come back and get us three days later.
As doubtful of that as I was of surviving the next hour, I joined the crush on to the double-decker ferry which seemed to groan and creak with every embarkation.
A sailor from way back, my fearless partner joined the diehards perched on the railings, while I squeezed myself into a tiny spot on the lower deck and tried not to remember every news report I'd seen of ferry sinkings.
The alternative to our 40-minute, 30 Thai Baht (90 Australian cents) voyage was a 15-minute 1500 THB ($46 AUD) speed boat run from the mainland but we decided - as we'd done throughout our whole Thailand adventure - to do it the local way.
So far, that had worked for us but, as we heaved away from the wharf and headed into the open bay, our fellow passengers chattering and laughing as though their very lives didn't depend on this ancient, over-crowded tub not going down with the first whiff of a wave. I wondered if now might be a good time to start acting like a tourist.
Clearly the only one surprised the 7km voyage ended without tragedy, I sent a silent thanks skyward as we disembarked on Koh Larn's Naban Pier to run the gauntlet of a swarm of taxi drivers frantic to get us on to their scooters - preferably both of us and our backpacks on the same bike.
We'd read it was a 15-minute walk from the pier to our motel so we accepted one of the many offers of a lift - one scooter each.
As it turned out, the motel was a mere three minutes from the pier but the ride, while embarrassingly short, was an experience not to be missed as we weaved our way at an alarming rate along two-metre-wide dirt tracks which we soon realised made up most of the tiny town's inner street network.
They're also the reason there are few, if any, cars on the island.
Our motel was the Suntosa, an almost new, two-storey 10-suite touch of Italian-style opulence on the Thai water front.
The marble and gilt decor and luxurious rooms were a big surprise, as was the attentiveness of our host Sunny, a born and bred Koh Larnian who took us under his wing, advising us on where to eat, what to see on the tiny island and how to get there.
Next morning we walked the whole three minutes back to the pier and hired a scooter of our own for the princely sum of 300 Baht ($9.30 AUD) for the day. Bearing in mind Koh Larn measures just 2km by 4km, we could have walked everywhere, but where's the fun in that? And, with no road rules and no helmet requirements, the ride was as breathtaking as the scenery.
Tropical Koh Larn is lush, green and mountainous, its six beaches boasting white sand and clear blue water. We found two almost deserted, the others deck-chair lined and bustling with a mix of tourists and Thais, many of whom live and work on the island.
Sand bars and street food stalls jostle for space above the beaches, offering everything from hot, spicy chicken to fresh local clams and lobster cooked while you watch, eaten with your fingers and washed down with an icy cold Singha beer or three.
By night, we ate our fill of more deliciously authentic Thai fare in some of the many excellent eateries on or just off the main street, which is one of the few paved thoroughfares on the island.
Before we knew it, we were back on the pier ready to board our return ferry to Pattaya. This time, I pushed and shoved my way to a spot on the railing where I perched with the best of them, sorry to be leaving beautiful Koh Larn but thrilled to have stumbled on this tiny Thai gem.
And whose was the first face we saw among the seething mass of humanity back on Bali Hai pier? Smiling and waving - and blissfully unaware of our lack of faith in him - our taxi driver, three days later as promised.