Ko Jum / Pu: Why the two names?

Island Nerd #6

A bad case of writer’s block prevented me from finishing this article when I initially planned to publish it last week. Over the weekend, I realized what caused the mental blockage. A proper story should have some kind of action — a hike or an eclipse or a life-changing day. But when I think about Ko Jum / Pu, no action comes to mind. In fact, what comes to mind is doing nothing at all.

For most visitors, chilling out is the whole point of visiting this quiet island in Krabi province. Almost every traveler who ventures to this part of the Thai Andaman and wants to party or dive or go rock climbing — or do anything else — ends up on Ko Phi Phi or Ko Lanta or Railay or Phuket. A far smaller crowd, often more mature in their years, heads for Ko Jum / Pu instead.

You can arrange boat trips to the Ko Phi Phi group and go kayaking, hiking, cycling and jogging on Ko Jum / Pu, but tranquility is the draw for most of those who adore this island. Quite a few travelers like Ko Jum / Pu so much that they return as often as possible and stay as long as they can. Taking long walks and longer reads; dozing in a hammock and drifting in the sea; making friends and tucking under a mosquito net at night — this is all that most people come to Ko Jum / Pu to do.

Of course, there is still the question of where on this mid-size island to focus all of that relaxation. With that in mind, I explored both the Ko Jum and Ko Pu sides when updating the Travelfish guide in 2015 and again at the tail end of 2018. I’ve never been much into lazing on the beach, so most of a return trip for leisure in early 2019 was also spent exploring and learning about the island.

In this article, I introduce Ko Jum / Pu through its history and geography while explaining why different names are used for the northern and southern parts of the island. Then, in a second post coming soon, I’ll take you on a spin around the beaches, resorts, farms and more. As always, thank you for reading!

Part of a larger island group

Ko Jum / Pu lies in Ko Si Boya sub-district, which takes its name from a neighboring island of a similar size. The villages on both of these arrowhead-shaped islands are closely related to those on Ko Hang, another mid-size island set closer to the mouth of the Phela River, as well as Laem Kruad and Hat Yao on the mainland. Narrow straits and mangroves fill out this watery constellation of communities.

The Ko Si Boya group also contains 10 small islands and islets that are either uninhabited or have only a farmhouse or two. One of them is Ko Tulang, whose rubber groves stand only 100 meters from Ko Jum / Pu’s eastern mangroves.

Here’s a more comprehensive map of Ko Jum / Pu and the Ko Si Boya group.

When rumbling between villages, longtail boat drivers need to watch out for the dugongs that occasionally stray from their seagrass near Ko Si Boya. Home to a herd of around 40 of these critically endangered sea mammals, this is the second largest dugong habitat left in Thailand, after the better-known one at Ko Libong. Mariam, the dugong calf that won over millions of hearts in 2019, hailed from Ko Si Boya.

Two names of equal standing

Many Thai islands have more than one name, but Ko Jum / Pu is the only one that I always write with a dash between both names rather than choosing one and mentioning others in parentheses. Why the special treatment?

Unlike Ko Khai (aka Ko Chuku) and Ko Sukorn (aka Ko Mu), which name you use depends not on who you’re talking with but rather which part of the island you’re talking about. The north is Ko Pu, “Crab Island,” while the narrower southern terrain is Ko Jum. This old Urak Lawoi name is a shortened rendering of kra-jab, a tree that once flourished in the south of the island.

Most of the Urak Lawoi build their houses on stilts above land that fills in with shallow sea when the tide is up, as seen here at the Ban Ko Pu community.

The first known islanders were Urak Lawoi who migrated north from the east coast of Ko Lanta Yai centuries ago. At first they lived on the northeast coast near present-day Ban Ko Pu. At some point, however, a disease outbreak forced survivors 10 km south to the opposite end of the island. They chose the site of a sprawling banyan tree that still droops near the coast in present-day Ban Ko Jum.

Geography and the fact that Urak Lawoi people traveled almost exclusively by boat hint at why one island was viewed as two. Near the island’s center, only a rugged 200-meter strip of dry land extends between the sea to the west and a seven-square-km mangrove forest in the east. Dense jungle cloaked that western terrain in the old days, making it easy to see how settlers considered the southeast terrain to be a separate island, even though they knew it was technically a contiguous landmass.

Taken from the backside of the steep hill that stands beside Ao Si, this shot shows part of the mangrove forest on the east side of the island. While tourism centers on the west-coast beaches, much of local life still unfolds to the east.

Eventually the Urak Lawoi partially assimilated with Thai Muslims who arrived by the early 19th century to re-settle the north of the island, an area they named Ko Pu. Two other villages set closer to the center — Ban Mutu on the east coast and Ban Ting Rai to the west — now host a mix of Thai Muslim and Urak Lawoi people. Small mosques stand in Ban Ko Pu and Ban Ting Rai.

Most of the rest of the roughly 1,500 natives descend from the Chinese who began to arrive in the late 19th century, primarily settling at Ban Ko Jum. It’s now the island’s largest village with the most active pier and only Buddhist temple. Attracting travelers at dusk, some of Ban Ko Jum’s seafood eateries overlook the islets of Ko Lek and Ko Jum Noi. A few travel shops rent out motorbikes and bicycles to the travelers who arrive by local ferry rather than the Ko Lanta ferry off the west coast.

Native Chinese-Thai families now own most of the roughly 30 small resorts, the first of which opened in the early 1990s. Others are run by mainlanders, including a few Westerners, who brought their alternative lifestyles to Ko Jum / Pu more recently. Every resort is independently owned, with no big-name hotel brands or even an ATM or 7-eleven, last I checked. Even the largest resorts are diminutive compared to the concrete giants of Ko Phi Phi Don and elsewhere.

Despite being so close to some of Thailand’s most popular beach destinations, mass tourism has not yet touched Ko Jum / Pu. When a few travelers collect their bags on the ferry that links Krabi town to Ko Lanta Yai and hop into one of the waiting longtail boats heading to Ko Jum / Pu, many of the Ko Lanta-bound passengers are left mystified by the leafy island they’re passing. 🌴