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On the tranquil island of Koh Jum, the most stressful moment of the day is choosing whether to have a pineapple or a watermelon shake for breakfast. It is a place of calm, where the only excitement is being woken up by monkeys clambering over the roof.
For the first few days, we didn’t even know there was a road out of our secluded curve of sand at Ting Rai Bay.
We then found out that, not only was there a road hidden in the jungle high up the hill beyond our bungalow, but that our guesthouse rented Honda Dreams to use on said road, we were naturally very eager to explore.
I wasn’t worried. There was no reason to be—after all, Simon has five months of riding experience from our time in Chiang Mai, including a mammoth road trip to Burma.
Sure, the bike was a manual and all of the time had been spent on automatics, but how bad could it be? He’s like the Charlie Boorman of mopeds.
So we set off.
The first thing we noticed was that ‘road’ was an optimistic label, like describing politicians as ‘public servants’. The smooth, tarmac ribbon that the word usually conjures up was nowhere to be seen and in its place was this thin, rutted, rocky strip of orange dirt, lying there in mild embarrassment under the hot island sun.
Had an earthquake come along looking to wreak havoc, it would have taken one look at this poor excuse for a trail, concluded that there was no work left to do and headed to the beach for a little snorkelling.
The going was slow. Weaving in and out of the pot holes and around the loose stones wasn’t that much of a problem—it was the gaping canyons with their own delicate ecosystems that were tricky to avoid.
We were grateful that there was no one else around—driving on the right side of the road up here meant driving on whichever side of the road didn’t currently have a huge crater across it.
Just as Simon was getting the hang of moving through these impressive geological artefacts, we turned a corner and were faced with a precariously steep hill with a descent at a gradient that was well in to double and possibly even triple digits.
I wisely hopped off and walked down.
Simon foolishly insisted on continuing, struggling with gear changes as gravity became more and more insistent that he come and meet the valley floor.
When I met him at the bottom, he was unscathed and glowing with the overconfidence of someone who had gambled his life on the fact he was more skilled than the Laws of Physics and, as I got back on, I thought I heard him mutter the words ‘God’, ‘King’ and ‘immortal’.
We carried on through the dense jungle. The huge crevices remained but at least on the flatter sections we could enjoy the scenery somewhat.
After 20 minutes of precipitous drops and inclines Simon turned to me and said that I shouldn’t panic or worry or anything but that the brakes on our beat up old bike didn’t work so well.
It was therefore a relief when we reached a flat section that was without canyons, craters or holes of any kind. In any other country, this massive improvement would have moved this track designation up from ‘What Road?’ to ‘Really Bad Road’.
To us at that point, it was the M6.
We took a brief but welcome detour down a side track to Coconut Beach and walked along the deserted stretch of sand in the far north of the island, where Mount Pu loomed over decaying fishing boats.
Back on the “main road” things got busier as we rounded the northern Koh Pu end of the island towards Baan Koh Pu – one of the three villages on Koh Jum. There aren’t any cars on the island but we passed mopeds and tuk tuks – the local version of a taxi consisting of a motorbike with a sidecar for passengers.
Four young boys crammed on the back of a moped shouted and waved at us. It seems Simon wasn’t the only one giving physics the finger.
The outskirts of the village were quiet and pretty with wooden stilted huts spaced out between banana plants and flowering trees—the Suburbia of undeveloped Thai islands.
Finally, like a small stretch of shiny black gold glistening in the sunlight, we reached tarmac. Finally, we could get out of second gear!
It was the road leading to Baan Koh Pu, a fishing village that is the most interesting of the three villages on the island. It is a predominantly Muslim area and we passed a small modern green mosque just outside the village.
A crowded tumble of ramshackle wooden stilted houses with roofs of palm leaves or rusting corrugated iron lined the seafront. Front porches piled high with fishing nets, and at least one, often many, hanging caged birds. The locals swung lazily in hammocks—hiding from work, the heat or both.
The one road between the houses was narrow and congested with parked motorbikes. Longtail fishing boats bobbed in the sea and litter had washed up on the sand. It was a genuine working fishing village, rough around the edges, and all the more appealing because of it.
Standing incongruously in the middle of this strip of skewed huts was one large, well built building with tinted windows and air conditioning units. It was the local mini mart. Outside on the path in the blistering sun, we quickly came up with a list of household items that we urgently ‘needed’ and stepped inside to enjoy the blissfully cool air.
The rest of the trip down the eastern side of the island was much easier. We passed Baan Ting Rai a small collection of shops and local restaurants and finally the Chinese village of Baan Koh Jum at the southern tip. This is the most tourist-orientated part of the island with a few tour agencies and the long stretch of sand at Andaman Beach attracting most of the visitors, although being near the end of the season we didn’t actually see any.
We followed a sandy track down to Andaman Beach in search of lunch but the resorts and restaurants were deserted and we had the 4km long beach to ourselves. Flagging in the midday sun we finally found a restaurant open at the fancy Koh Jum Villa Resort. Suitably refreshed we waded out into the bathwater warm sea and enjoyed our private beach.
We returned to our resort by a different road from the south, but as soon as we passed Ting Rai village the road quickly deteriorated and we were back bumping and sliding along, rocks clanging loudly against the bike.
On the downhill sections I bounced up and down, sliding further and further into Simon, who was sliding further and further into the handlebars.
Then, after a particularly hairy patch that brought us down to sea level, we turned to face a steep ascent—the brother of the descent we had faced earlier that day.
Gravity, it seems, does not like losing.
Simon started the climb, realised that he was in the wrong gear a moment too late and struggled to change down while maintaining forward momentum.
I listened with an increasing sense of despair as the engine coughed, spluttered…and died.
The bike began to roll backwards.
I hopped off and we tried to wrestle control, which was like trying to control a bull by yanking on its horns (if that bull was inert; a quarter of the size of an actual bull but with the same mass; and was on wheels).
The importance of good brakes became painfully apparent. I stood behind the bike, pushing with everything I had to stop it rolling any further, while Simon tried to kick start the bike on the deeply rutted track.
At a 45º angle.
There was shouting. There was swearing. Then the bike began to slide downhill again.
I was losing my grip. Just when I thought I was about to lose hold, I heard the engine fire and the weight ease, although that could have just been my relief. Simon drove it to the top of the hill and waited as I walked up.
I tentatively got back on—he had that glow again.
We arrived back at the resort exhausted, drenched in sweat and desperately thirsty.
“So,” Simon said. “Pineapple or Watermelon?”
On Koh Jum we stayed at the Ting Rai Bay Resort – for more details see our full review.