Ko Kradan: A modest name for a dazzling island

Island Daze #16

The longtail boat nosed up to Ko Kradan with the soft shhhhh of wood sliding into watery sand. My feet plunked into the warm turquoise water. I trudged up to the dry part of the beach, waving goodbye to the driver as he spun his propeller round and backed onto deeper water. Before seeking out a room, I tossed my pack down in the shade of a casuarina tree and took a seat. The scene was breathtaking.

On that morning in 2011, the stretch of sand that I sat on was by far the most attractive beach I’d ever seen. Fast forward through five more visits up to 2019, and Ko Kradan hadn’t changed much. Wally passed on, leaving Paradise Lost in Marco’s hands. A couple of new resorts materialized near the north end of the 1.5-km beach on the east coast. But overall, the island looked as phenomenal as ever.

Here in the first of two articles on Ko Kradan, I introduce you to this dazzling island by sharing some of the background, layout and environmental status. In a second post on Tuesday, we’ll return for the beach walk of a lifetime.

A treasure of Trang

Ko Kradan is often cited as the prettiest of Trang province’s islands, and quite a few writers have featured it in ‘best beaches of Thailand’ articles. Readers of The Guardian voted Ko Kradan’s primary beach — known as Hat Long Yang or simply Hat Ko Kradan — as one of the 50 best beaches on earth in 2016. Despite these accolades, Ko Kradan has never been heavily developed.

One of the first shots I took after arriving for a 2015 visit. Ko Mook is on the right, with the cliffs of Pakmeng on the mainland further back to its left. All the way on the left are the islets of Ko Waen, Ko Chueak and Ko Ma.

Nearby Ko Ngai and Ko Rok compete with Ko Kradan in visual splendor, but they’re part of Krabi province despite being situated due west of mainland Trang. They both join Ko Kradan, along with Ko Mook and Ko Libong, in an area that’s tough to beat for island hopping. The close proximity of these islands mean that private longtail boats are relatively cheap, and so much fun, for cruising from one to the next.

Kradan (กระดาน) means board, as in a flat object like a blackboard, in the Thai language. The name might refer to the hundreds of square meters of offshore sand flats revealed only at low tide, or to inland terrain which lies relatively low compared to neighboring islands. It’s an understated name, in any case.

The slender island resembles an upside-down chicken leg on a map, with a length of four km and a width of only 600 meters at the ‘meatiest’ point in the south. It has no villages, roads, ATMs or restaurants outside of resorts. Food and most rooms are pricey compared to nearby Ko Mook and Ko Sukorn, for example. Some resorts have bars attached, but most of them close by 9:00 P.M. Quiet is the rule.

A February 2017 evening at Kalume, a small resort with one of the livelier bars on Ko Kradan. By “lively” I mean maybe a dozen patrons on a busy night.

Resort construction has only been allowed on parts of Ko Kradan where crops — mostly coconut trees — were planted prior to the 1980s. Forest blankets nearly all of the interior, where Paradise Lost covers the only developed bit.

The first privately owned lodgings, Kradan Beach Resort and Ao Nieang Resort, didn’t open until the late 1990s. You’ll now find eight resorts to go with a beach club set up for the predominantly foreign tourists who are boated over on day trips from an Anantara-branded resort in Pakmeng on the mainland. Ko Kradan also collects its share of Thai day trippers on weekends and holidays.

While new construction is allowed at properties where resorts have already been established, no plots of land that are both unprotected and undeveloped are left on Ko Kradan. Most of the resort owners and managers are not from the area, with a few hailing from Italy and several others from Bangkok. I believe that Ao Nieang Resort is the only one managed by descendants of a native farming family.

The limited number of rooms means that even spartan fan-cooled bungalows fetch 2,000 baht or more at some resorts, prompting some backpackers to stay on Ko Mook and visit Ko Kradan on a day trip. Prior to the pandemic, it was tough to find a vacant room if booking last minute during high season. (Travelfish has a good accommodation wrap as part of its Ko Kradan guide, last updated in early 2020.)

As you’ll see in my next article, Hat Ko Kradan can look almost Maldivian on days when the sea is calm and the sky clear of haze in the dry months. In rainy season, rough currents and strong winds bring tidal garbage from the northeast, often turning paradise into a dump. Some resorts close for the wet months.

Above and below the water

When the sea is tame, half a day of leisurely paddling is all it takes to encircle Ko Kradan in a kayak or on a SUP board. Many resorts rent out both.

The west coast has a trio of undeveloped beaches where Ko Rok comes into view. Hat Sunset is accessible via a cross-island track in the south, while Hat I-wu lies in the middle of the west coast. A third beach, Ao Pai extends for 300 meters to the northwest. Secluded dashes of sand also dot the northeast coast, where it’s possible to walk for quite a ways beyond a carpet of sharp rocks at low tide. You’ll rarely see another soul up in these northern reaches of Ko Kradan.

This satellite imagery from Google Maps shows Ao Pai, the northernmost of Ko Kradan’s west-coast beaches. I’ve heard that sea turtles nest there on occasion.

Ko Kradan’s biggest claim to fame is an underwater wedding event that has taken place at a depth of 10 meters every year on Valentine’s Day — except for 2021 due to the pandemic — since the tradition began in 1997. Multiple couples sign up to have that first ‘kiss’ of wedlock with scuba masks on. Ko Kradan used to be in the Guinness Book of World Records for hosting the largest underwater wedding ceremony in history, though a dive site in Poland grabbed that title in 2011.

All of Ko Kradan apart from the privately owned resorts is folded into Hat Chao Mai National Park, which also covers Ko Mook’s Emerald Cave and the park’s namesake beach to go with a few other parts of the mainland coast. Park staff rents out tents and sizzles up simple Thai dishes at their station on the southeast coast, not far from a sizable reef. Snorkels are rented there as well.

A pair of snorkelers observe the reef off Ao Niang, a beach set in the southeast corner of the island. Visible to the south are the twin islands of Ko Lao Liang with Ko Phetra just right of them, and Ko Talabeng further back to the right.

Though tourists have done their share of damage, much of Ko Kradan’s coral recovered in the years after warm seawater caused serious bleaching in the late 2000s. In an area that’s roped off from harmful boats, snorkelers now find some healthy coral of the hump, brain, fire, fan, whip and staghorn varieties. Moon wrasse, many-spotted sweetlips and plenty of other fish species subsist off the reef.

Take a plunge beneath the waters around Ko Kradan. (Source: Lanta Diving)

In March 2021, a team of marine scientists reported that reefs at 13 marine sites in the Trang area were healthier than they had been for more than a decade. One spot they researched has a train car frame that was intentionally sunk in 2015 as a coral rehabilitation site at Ko Waen, six km north of Ko Kradan. The coral there looks fantastic in photos shot by diver Wachirun Chaisawatt in February 2020.

Diving is not big business in Trang like in parts of neighboring provinces, such as Ko Lipe and Ko Lanta. One small dive outfit is headquartered at Ko Kradan’s Seven Seas Resort. Some Ko Lanta-based dive boats venture this way as well.

Getting there

Small travel agencies near the train station in Trang town sell transfers to Ko Kradan that include a van to Khuan Thung Khu Pier followed by a longtail boat to the island, located around 15 km from the mainland. The cost was 450 baht per person last I checked in 2019, with vans picking up in Trang at 11:00 A.M.

Public vans also depart for Khuan Thung Khu from Trang’s main bus terminal roughly once every two hours during the daytime (last one at 4:00 P.M.). A private longtail boat from Khuan Thung Khu costs around 1,800 baht, and private boats are available at Pakmeng Pier as well. There is parking at both piers.

Additionally, Ko Kradan is a stop on high-season island-hopping ferry routes between Ko Lanta and Ko Lipe. These also stop at Ko Mook and Ko Ngai. 🌴