Koh Mak is promoting itself as a low carbon destination. (Photos by Jetjaras Na Ranong and and Pattarawadee Saengmanee)

Just a few days before I arrived in Koh Mak, Trat province, veteran marine ecologist Thon Thamrongnawasawat posted on Facebook about his collaboration with Bang Chak Corporation to rehabilitate a 10 rai field of seagrass around Koh Mak and Koh Kradat to build blue coastal carbon ecosystems. That would allow Koh Mak to get one step closer to joining the list of the Top 100 Green Destinations in the world.

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Videos by Jetjaras Na Ranong and Pattarawadee Saengmanee

According to the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources’ report, both islands are surrounded by a 1,400 rai seagrass beds with an extensive carpet of coral reefs, which increases carbon absorption by 25-50%.

“As a result of global warming, the bulk of the seagrass has been damaged by a northerly wind. I will team up with locals to restore it using transplanting techniques. This method can expand seagrass at a ratio of 1:50 to 1:100,” Thon said.

“Koh Mak is recognised as a low-carbon destination where we can help mitigate global warming and promote sustainable tourism to generate revenue for the local community at the same time. Koh Mak may expand to a net-zero carbon plan in the future because it supports local fishing to decrease transportation, encourages tourists to use bicycles and also has an electric boat sponsored by the World Bank.”

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In the wake of climate change, people have realised that human development has been a major protagonist in environmental destruction. Koh Mak became aware of this environmental problem seven years ago after the inaugural Visit Thailand Year campaign — launched in 1987 — drew a large number of vacationers from Germany, England and Israel, resulting in a high carbon footprint as the island’s popularity grew.

Focusing on sustainability rather than mass tourism, Koh Mak has billed itself as a low-carbon destination with support of the Designated Areas for Sustainable Tourism Administration (Dasta) and the Institute for Small and Medium Enterprises Development.

Local folk and entrepreneurs have learned to utilise solar cells to generate electricity, reduce the use of plastic, cultivate their own vegetables, and sort rubbish as part of the Koh Mak Charter to save the environment.

This was my first visit to Koh Mak and a breathtaking view of pristine beach against the blue sky and azure waves at Suan Yai Bay wowed me right away. Tourists can arrange for bicycles, but pickups and motorcycles are popular among locals for navigating dirt roads and ramps.

With a population of 400 people, the 9,000 rai island is lush with rubber plantations, coconut palms, local plants and organic farms. However, some homes have been turned into food shops and modest cottages to accommodate tourists.

Ao Khao and Ao Suan Yai are popular spots to watch the sunset. Jetjaras Na Ranong

Koh Mak has managed to maintain the local way of life and maintain its unique culture. Looking around, I could understand why some Thai and foreign tourists choose to give up city life and settle on this isle.

One of them is Warisara Ariyawongpreecha, who graduated in agriculture from Kasetsart University and left her family’s Chinese catering business in Yaowarat to avoid the hustle and bustle of the metropolis. In 2007, she spent one week exploring Koh Mak and fell in love with the peaceful way of life and lovely atmosphere, so she chose to make it her home.

She began her own business by converting one room in a bungalow into a cooking school, where visitors from Sweden, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Denmark and Germany learned how to prepare popular Thai dishes.

In 2020, she used her horticultural expertise to set up the Koh Mak Farm Organic in partnership with a landlord and her friend Prajittra Prachumpat. This 10 rai site was previously a mixed orchard of durian, longan, rambutan, mangosteen and coconut before being replaced with organic vegetables and local herbs.

“We invested 900,000 baht to improve the land and install smart farm systems. This area is covered with sandy clay, suitable for climbing plants like pumpkin, angled loofah, cowpea, cucumber, while loam is ideal for spring onion, sweet basil, basil and peppermint,” Warisara said.

The Koh Mak Coral Conservation Group has crafted a programme of snorkelling tours in which visitors can learn how to plant corals. Photo courtesy of the Koh Mak Coral Conservation Group

“We utilised surface water instead of groundwater, so we built a water bank to prevent water shortages in the future. To make organic fertiliser, we used cow and poultry dung and raised earthworms.”

At the farm, there are two nurseries and vegetable gardens where visitors can enjoy a two-hour tour and learn how to make earthworm fertiliser and plant vegetables that they can take home as a souvenir. Alternatively, you can pick vegetables to prepare your own lunch as part of a farm to table programme, or book a chef’s table course using ingredients from the backyard and local markets for a healthy dinner. The activities start from 300 baht.

“In the future, we plan to create a refill station in our farm that will offer washing solutions, soap, body lotion, hair conditioning made from aloe vera and tamarind,” Warisara added.

For dinner, I made a reservation at Koh Mak Seafood Restaurant, which is a popular dining spot for tourists looking to sample local delicacies using ingredients from a fishing village.

Besides cultivation, villagers manage pla yam sawat (coral grouper) farms to export to China and restaurants in Bangkok, but their businesses have been affected by border closures due to Covid-19. With the price dropping from over 2,000 baht to 800 baht, it has become a golden time for visitors in terms of affordability.

With a sweet and juicy texture, coral grouper is served as sashimi with wasabi and spicy seafood sauce, while its head is cooked as spicy tom yum in a Thai-Japanese twist. Other recommended dishes are aon rabert (spicy stir-fried squid, fish, and scallop with curry paste and herbs), fried mackerel, steamed blue swimming crab and murex shell sashimi. There’s also home-made Koh Mak coconut ice cream topped with roasted peanuts to wash your mouth.

The prime sailing season runs from January to May. Jetjaras Na Ranong

Behind the kitchen, this restaurant demonstrates food waste management ability by sorting plastic bottles, paper and cans for sale. The chickens are fed vegetables and fruits, while shells and crab shells, as well as eggshells, are pulverised to make fertiliser for the garden. Meanwhile, ducks get the leftover meat and some eggshells.

“Koh Mak produces 2 tonnes of waste per day, with 50% of wet waste from residences and restaurants. So we have educated our staff to separate trash for recycling, installed wastewater treatment facilities, and built a fish pond to get rid of discarded food,” owner Thammawadee Suttitanakull said.

“This is only one seafood restaurant on Koh Mak. Based on the Koh Mak Charter, we’ve supported local fishing to reduce the carbon footprint of transportation.”

I spent two nights at the recently opened Naivacha Tent Koh Mak, which is run by Nipon Suddhidhanakool, who worked in the airline industry for 37 years before returning to his birthplace. Now, he serves as a president of Koh Mak Tourism Community Enterprise and his resort evokes a safari and camping scene in Kenya’s Lake Naivasha to give vacationers an exotic holiday experience.

“According to the Koh Mak Charter, we keep the island calm, so we don’t welcome ferries that carry a large number of cars and tourists. Dasta provided us with an electric golf cart and 100 bicycles in hopes to reduce the carbon footprint,” Nipon said.

Surrounded by a tranquil ambience and lush landscapes, the design is simple, yet my tent had everything I needed. A private balcony was my favourite spot, in which I could rest and enjoy beautiful views of a private beach and the Gulf of Thailand’s turquoise waters and the Milky Way.

Visitors can enjoy various watersports activities. Jetjaras Na Ranong

Just a five-minute drive from my resort to Ao Nid Pier, the Koh Mak Coral Conservation Group offers snorkelling tours to explore the underwater world around Koh Mak, Koh Kham and Koh Rayang Nok.

“Koh Mak once had the third most beautiful coral reefs in Thailand. However, coral reefs were destroyed by bombs in order to catch fish and chemicals were circulated in the water. We set up the club to conserve and educate tourists and local residents about marine ecosystems and aquatic animals. At the same time, we organise snorkelling trips to raise funds for our conservation project,” said diving master Noppadon Sutthithanakul, who founded the Koh Mak Coral Conservation Group.

“We’re working with marine ecologist Thon to rehabilitate the seagrass field around Koh Mak, which has a diversity of coral reefs. Today, Thai tourists have changed their behaviours to alleviate global warming.”

Late in the morning, our half-day excursion began with a marine ecology briefing, where we learned about marine life and how to propagate plate and staghorn corals with PVC pipes. After that, we boarded a small boat for a cruise to explore Koh Phee, which has become a popular new snorkelling spot after the closure of Koh Rang Marine Park. It boasts coral reefs such as barrel sponges and gorgonian sea fans, which is home to some lovely fish.

In the afternoon, our boat anchored at Koh Kradat and a large group of deer served as a receptionist to greet visitors, while a field of pink rain lilies stretched over a white sand beach. At a nearby pavilion, villagers demonstrated how they collected 3,000 coconuts and sorted them by size before selling them to produce coconut milk in a market.

Koh Kai Hua Ror is a stone’s throw from Koh Kradat. Jetjaras Na Ranong

Once a private holiday retreat for the royal family during the reign of King Rama V, this tranquil island with thousands of towering coconut palms has been designated as an Unseen Thailand destination.

We rode a tricycle to explore the island and when the tide was low we walked across a separated sea to Koh Kai Hua Ror, in which a taboon tree stood alone in the sea. It’s a well-known scene from the cover of Thailand’s much-loved comic Kai Hua Ror.

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My trip wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t take advantage of the Koh Mak Sailing Club’s boat rental service to watch the beautiful sunset at Ao Suan Yai. Standing between Koh Chang and Koh Kood, Koh Mak has a wonderful location that allows visitors to enjoy sailing all year. Between January and May, the wind blows from the north to the south, making it prime sailing season.

Speedboats to Koh Mak are available from 10.30am to 4pm at Prince of Chumphon Pier and Laem Sok Pier in Trat. A one-way ticket costs 450 baht for adults and 250 baht for children.

A one-day snorkelling trip at the Koh Mak Coral Conservation Group costs 1,200 baht per person, inclusive of lunch. To get more details, visit the Koh Mak Coral Conservation Group page on Facebook.

Book a farm tour at Koh Mak Farm Organic by calling 097-946-2641 or visit the Koh Mak Farm page on Facebook.

Visitors to Koh Kradat are greeted by a herd of tame deer. Jetjaras Na Ranong

Coconuts are sorted by size before being transported to the mainland. Jetjaras Na Ranong

Koh Mak Seafood Restaurant offers a wide range of Thai delicacies using local ingredients. Jetjaras Na Ranong

Koh Mak Farm Organic offers many leisure activities where guests can learn to grow vegetables and cook for themselves. Jetjaras Na Ranong

Koh Mak Seafood Restaurant offers a wide range of Thai delicacies using local ingredients. Pattarawadee Saengmanee

The beach on Koh Kradat is covered with a carpet of pink rain lilies. Pattarawadee Saengmanee

When the tide is low, a rocky trail leads visitors to Koh Kai Hua Ror. Pattarawadee Saengmanee

The Naivacha Tent Koh Mak offers beach camping. Pattarawadee Saengmanee

Koh Mak Farm Organic offers many leisure activities in which guests can learn to grow vegetables and cook for themselves.

Ao Khao and Ao Suan Yai are popular spots to watch the sunset. Pattarawadee Saengmanee

The beach on Koh Kradat is covered with a carpet of pink rain lilies. Pattarawadee Saengmanee

Koh Mak is promoting itself as a low carbon destination. Jetjaras Na Ranong

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