Isolated paradise in Thailand's Koh Jum

Koh Jum is an idyllic, underrated gem just off Krabi in Thailand

The thatched massage hut on the beach creaks as the elderly masseuse grasps the overhead wooden beam and steadies herself.

She is walking up the back of my legs. Now she rocks slightly, with one foot planted on each of my butt cheeks, before lightly stepping onto my lower back and deftly sliding off each side of my torso.

The scent of lemongrass oil mingles with Tiger Balm as she uses most of her body to work my knotted muscles. The sound of the ocean and the call of a sea eagle fill my ears.

It could be the most isolated part of the world, and yet the island of Koh Jum is just more than an hour from Krabi international airport.

It is blissfully peaceful. Children wave at tourists as they cycle home from school, two or three to a bike. A motorcycle-sidecar taxi occasionally carts someone along the dusty road. The quintessential Thai beach scene is here - the swaying palms and the golden crescent of sand that gives way to the requisite sparkling ocean.

This place seems like the perfect destination for families, couples on a romantic getaway and backpackers, and yet, puzzlingly, the beach is almost empty. Somehow, Koh Jum has escaped the madding crowd.

The locals have varying theories on this lack of development.

One German landscaper-turned- baker I meet, Mr Rashid Saalmann, has been on Koh Jum for 17 years and has seen little change. He believes it is due to a lack of promotion and input by the government bodies and implies that more lobbying would be necessary for development to occur: "I think the residents in Koh Jum are not interested in playing any corruption games."

The quintessential Thai beach scene is here - the swaying palms and the golden crescent of sand that gives way to the requisite sparkling ocean.

While tourism is welcome here, many of the 1,500 local inhabitants have other livelihoods as well, such as fishing and small-scale rubber plantations.

It is not only international tourists who are in the dark about Koh Jum.

Khun Prae, 18, works at Jum Island Travel in the village of Ban Koh Jum. A new graduate from boarding school in nearby Krabi town, she says that surprisingly, her friends there do not know of Koh Jum either.

The lack of infrastructure has certainly helped to shield the island from being better known.

Until 2009, there was no power on Koh Jum, only noisy generators that would cut out at night. Air- conditioning is rare on the island and development is slow.

Although the journey to Koh Jum is easy, the island does not have a deep-water pier that can receive large boats. As a result, travel agents have not promoted it.

Added to this is the valid point raised by Frenchman Jean Michel Limandas, owner of Koh Jum Lodge. He believes it has to do with the high-profile attractions nearby. "When you shine a spotlight on one thing, all the things beside it are cast in shadow.

"Koh Jum has not got the limestone cliffs of Railay Bay, the luxury of Koh Lanta or the aquarium snorkelling and partying of Phi Phi."

  • GETTING THERE

    Hotels can arrange transport and there are two main ways to reach the island. From Krabi airport, take a car to Laem Kraut pier (40 minutes), a boat to the eastern side of Koh Jum (35 minutes) and a utility taxi to your hotel. Rates vary, but expect to pay about 1,000 baht (S$40) an adult and 600 baht for a child for a hotel-arranged airport transfer.

    Jum Island Travel can organise the same transfer at a lower rate, with the price depending on the number of guests.

    Ferries between Krabi town and Koh Lanta stop for tourists visiting Koh Jum in the high season. Your accommodation can arrange a long-tail boat to meet the ferry at sea and transfer you to the island.

    Activities and Mount Pu hikes can be organised by Jum Island Travel. E-mail jumislandtravel@gmail.com

    ACCOMMODATION

    There are about 30 accommodation choices, with many closing in the low season (May to September). Some recommendations include:

    • Koh Jum Beach Villas: Luxurious villas, some with a private pool. From one to five bedrooms, well-managed and decorated in a tasteful Thai style. There is no air- conditioning, but there are fans and the sea breeze. There is Wi-Fi, a pool and a restaurant/ bar. From 7,500 baht a night for two people, including breakfast. Go to www.kohjumbeachvillas.com

    • Koh Jum Lodge: Gorgeous eco-lodge bungalows made from natural materials. There is Wi-Fi, a pool and a restaurant/ bar. From 4,500 baht a night for two people, including breakfast. Go to www.kohjumlodge.com

    • Luboa Hut: The northern section of the island, called Koh Pu, can be reached only by a bumpy road or boat and the accommodation is basic. Luboa Hut has 12 huts on a forested hillside by the beach with private bathrooms. Friendly service with a beachfront bar. From 500 baht for two people. Go to www.luboahut.com

But for some tourists, that is why they love it.

Those who do discover Koh Jum sit around beaches reading books, laze by pools sipping mango shakes or get countless massages.

Kayakers of varying abilities potter around the western coast with mask and snorkel on board, discovering new lunch venues.

Some tourists choose bicycles or motorbikes as their preferred transport and explore the sleepy villages and bays along the 12km coastline.

For the fit and adventurous, the 420m-high Mount Pu beckons. The steep and sometimes slippery track is almost impossible to follow.

For about 1,000 baht (S$40) a person, local guide Khun Nit expertly coaxes groups up the jungle-clad northern ridge, through banana orchids and luxurious palms and up to the home of majestic sea eagles. Puffing trekkers savour their picnic while taking in Krabi's glittering island gems and its verdant hinterland.

The hike can be booked through Jum Island Travel or any hotel.

For an underwater excursion, the best snorkelling and diving is farther offshore.

While snorkel tours that promise fast boats and four islands are available, those wishing to preserve their low-key holiday theme can charter their own long-tail boat, including lunch and snorkelling gear (Jum Island Travel, about 6,000 baht, depending on numbers).

At Bamboo Island, snorkellers show one another turquoise parrotfish and giant clams of every colour. Next door at Mosquito Island, thousands of fish charge at morsels of bread offered by boat drivers.

Be warned that mass tourism is not far away and day-tripping speedboats throng to these islands from nearby Phi Phi, Phuket and Ao Nang.

Arriving by 9am is the best way to enjoy the experience without having someone's flippers in your face.

After all the physical activity, food is bound to be a high priority. There are plenty of superb options on Koh Jum, featuring locally caught seafood and the curries for which southern Thailand is famous.

Most people stroll along the beach to their chosen restaurant, returning by the moonlight. A torch may be needed, but shoes, definitely not.

Do note that formal addresses are rarely used on the island and that these would not be displayed anywhere on the buildings. The villages are tiny and if you head to the right ones, you will not miss the restaurants as described below.

Right on the beach in the village of Ban Ting Rai, the rustic Golden Pearl Restaurant serves truly spicy Thai food the way locals like it. Its laab gai (minced chicken with mint and lime) is lip-stingingly delicious and affordable at 100 baht.

The eastern side of the island is home to the "city" (Ban Koh Jum). A sleepy street dotted with a couple of convenience stores and some children playing, the scene hardly fits the nickname.

On a pier right over mangroves, Koh Jum Seafood serves fresh local catch. The delicious stuffed squid, green curry prawn with pineapple and black pepper scallops, priced between 250 and 500 baht each, are a taste sensation.

Those looking for family food gravitate towards Ban Ban Cafe in Ban Ting Rai.

Khun Mali and her husband Somchai survived the 2004 tsunami on Phi Phi Island, although their restaurant jobs did not, so they returned home to Koh Jum to start their own business. While junior visitors dig into pizza and sticky banana roti, adults devour her traditional massaman curry and tangy seafood noodle salad, full of fresh chilli, coriander and lime. They cost between 100 and 180 baht.

Despite its sleepy vibe, this is not a place where people go thirsty. Just next door to Golden Pearl Restaurant is the kiosk-like Fu Bar, where the quirky and hip barman greets customers with: "Sawatdee krup, man", followed by an irrational, high-pitched giggle. With 150-baht cocktails in hand and toes in the sand, contented visitors sit mesmerised as the sun collapses behind Phi Phi islands.

And for those who think that sounds low-key, venture farther to the end of this beach to discover the best-hidden watering hole on the island. Rock Bar is constructed high over the rocky headland, seemingly entirely out of salvaged materials and driftwood, and held together by little more than its colourful prayer flags. Get in quick for a pre-dinner drink (80 to 120 baht) before the bar disintegrates into the ocean.

Hunger addressed and dehydration avoided, I amble along the kilometres of beach at the front of my villa. I have seen only three other people in the last hour. I have not been hassled into a tailor shop or observed anyone dangling from a parachute behind a speedboat. I have slept with my doors wide open and invited the sea breeze in without a single beat of party music finding my ears.

Koh Jum is wonderfully under the radar and, for those who make it here, that is the main attraction.

•Carolyn Beasley is a freelance travel writer, marine scientist and family adventure travel devotee.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 15, 2015, with the headline 'Isolated paradise'. Print Edition | Subscribe