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Cast Away: Living on an Island

Travel is a wonderful thing. But sometimes, just staying still can broaden the mind just as much

Published: Sep 13, 2014 06:03:40 AM IST
Updated: Sep 13, 2014 10:00:11 PM IST
Cast Away: Living on an Island
Image: Getty Images
The tree-covered Koh Chang island is six hours from Bangkok, four of which are in a car or bus, one in a ferry and one in a local taxi

It is mid-afternoon, and a balmy breeze riffles my hair, carrying with it the saltiness of the sea. I climb to the upper level of our ferry so that I can see Koh Chang as we draw closer. It feels like coming home.

The four-hour drive from Bangkok to Trat is behind me, and although my body is tired, my heart leaps at the sight of the small, tree-covered island. This will be my home for the next two months. The water grows clearer as we leave the mainland behind, and the sun glints off the silvery fish swimming close to the surface. Involuntarily, I take a deep breath and the tight knot in my shoulders, formed from hours of cross-continent travel, begins to loosen.

There’s a quote by Pico Iyer that I like a lot: “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves, and we travel, next, to find ourselves.” In the early days of our relationship, my partner and I spent long hours talking about trips we wanted to take, places we wanted to see or live in. But time, life, jobs and years went by, and we realised we’d been taking just one two-week holiday every year. In the meanwhile, we’d added to a list of things we wanted to do, but barely had the energy to pursue them, and it felt like we were losing ourselves a little more every week. We worked hard, played hard, and were chronically dissatisfied. Weekends were too short, weekdays too long, and stiff necks and acidity became chronic problems.

Then, one day, we realised we’d never be able to be happy like this. So we took the plunge: Sold our car, gave up our rented apartment, and quit our jobs to travel for six months.

We found ourselves standing at the airport one night, all our worldly possessions packed into two backpacks and one carry-on bag, our comfort zones, everything we knew well, behind us. Ahead: A road trip across America, a bit of walkabout in Australia, and then a sojourn in Koh Chang, a small island just off the eastern Thailand mainland that we had visited for four days a few years ago and fallen deeply in love with.  

And now, after four months of constant travel, we were watching the sunrise over the island,  sipping a cocktail to celebrate our arrival.

We were fitter than we’d ever been before, but also in need of a little downtime to process and absorb all that we’d seen. We couldn’t wait for our lives as island-dwellers to begin, to develop a better relationship with the place and the people. It was also our time to gracefully end the six-month journey and decide where we wanted to go from here.

Koh Chang is six hours from Bangkok, four of them on the road, one in a ferry and one in a local taxi on an island. While this makes it less popular with the Pattaya-Phuket party animals, it is precisely the reason why we love it. There are no giant neon signs, hardly any go-go bars, and certainly no shopping malls. Koh Chang is not for tourists, it’s for travellers. Each of the 10 beaches has its own identity, from Lonely Beach’s hippie vibe to Klong Kloi’s more local feel. The water is calm during the tourist season, and you’ll see everyone from toddlers to senior travellers playing in it without the fear of being knocked over by a rowdy wave. The island is about 500 sq km in area, and takes a day to do a scooter ride around it.

Cast Away: Living on an Island
Image: Getty Images
By the time the sun goes down in Koh Chang, even the most enthusiastic beach-goer heads back to wash off the sand and sunscreen, and get some dinner

Once we settled down and unpacked our bags in the one-room ‘bungalow’ that was to be our home, time just… slowed down. The hours slid by, golden and sweet and lazy. Like the summer holidays of childhood, days stretched before us—no itinerary, no schedule, no to-dos—all of them our own, each shiny with opportunity. When you live on an island for two months, if you don’t visit the waterfall today because something more interesting presents itself, you can always go tomorrow, or the day after.
Back home, our mornings started with a list of tasks we had to finish at work, deadlines we had to meet by the end of the day, and weekend lists of things to be done. But now, the lack of structure let us live our days exactly as we wanted.

Cast Away: Living on an Island
We’d wake up early to make the most of our time, enjoy a breakfast of fresh fruit, tea and croissants from the local German-run bakery (neither of us could stomach the meat/fish soup that is a local breakfast option), and then make plans. We would spend hours swimming, perfecting our strokes and our underwater breathing technique; then lie on the sand between swims, reading and eating ice cream. When we wanted some exercise, we took off on a small scooter to explore the waterfalls and hiking trails. We went snorkelling and floated in awed silence over giant sea tomatoes (that’s what they looked like; I don’t know what their scientific names are and none of the guides could tell us) that were five feet wide and three feet high. We took sea kayaks and paddled nervously over stretches of dark water where you couldn’t see the ocean floor.

By the time the sun goes down in Koh Chang, even the most enthusiastic beach-goer heads back home to wash off the sand and sunscreen and get some dinner.

We experimented with tangy salads, steaming curries, delicious plates of noodles and rice, and washed it all down with a beer or fresh coconut water. Thai is a difficult language to pick up, but we quickly learnt how to order the dishes that we loved best. Sometimes, if the mood struck us, we’d indulge in pasta or tortilla dinner from the authentic Italian or Mexican restaurants on our beach. And we always stopped for the local dessert delicacy—banana and coconut pancakes fried in front of you and covered in sweet cream or Nutella—sold from a cart by a not-always-friendly old woman.

Most evenings started or ended at our favourite coffee shop-and-bar, where we’d befriended the gregarious German host and his lovely Thai wife. We spent hours with them, and with the travellers who came by, having  long conversations even with people who spoke little English, with the help of Google Translate on our phones.

The demands of city life can make one cynical, even harsh; on our travels, and here, we found ourselves realising that the world is full of warm, wonderful people.

Many of us who met at that small cafe had only two things in common: A love for travel, and a quest for the best Pad Thai on the island. And that was enough of a base for many animated and far-ranging discussions.

When we left for our trip, we had to deal with a number of questions, but the one that was hardest to answer was, “Won’t you be bored with only each other for company?” But the whole point was to see new places and meet new people. We were curious about how they lived, what they thought, how they viewed the world and their place in it. With every new friend we made, we took something back with us. We made promises to each other to be like some of the people we met: New parents who were using their maternity leave to travel with an eight-month old baby, a retired couple using part of their pension to pay for a diving class. Almost every day, we met people who had chosen the unconventional path and had found happiness. We learnt that you’re only as old, as lonely, as unhappy or as dissatisfied as you let yourself become.

Cast Away: Living on an Island
Image: Corbis
One can spend hours swimming, snorkelling and kayaking at Koh Chang island

One thing you realise is that it’s still simple to be happy. Living on an island is a lesson in minimalism, and you don’t really need much to get by. We packed up the sweaters, boots, long-sleeved flannels and thermal wear that we’d used so gratefully in America and Australia, and lived in shorts, thin tees, and swimsuits. Our daily needs were sunscreen, a bottle of water, towels and our Kindles. The only time I felt an itch to acquire something in those two months was when we spotted a cheap snorkel set at a beach shop. Once we’d bought it, our twice-a-day swims focussed on spotting and chasing the small fish that bobbed about in the shallows. Grooming was a matter of brushing our teeth and slapping on some sunscreen before heading out the door, because everything was going to be washed off in the sea anyway.

I liked to think of it as a communal baptism of sorts: A cleansing of the spirit, and a shedding of all that is unnecessary. Life is pared down to the essentials and what is important suddenly becomes very clear. We only missed the people who were most important to us, only spent time on what we loved doing most. I worked my way through my long-neglected reading list, finishing about 30 books in those two months, and relishing every moment that I could read without having to answer a doorbell or a phone call. I did my writing until the early hours of the morning, not worrying about having to wake up in a few hours.

My partner followed up on his photography, searching for tutorials and assigning projects to himself. We wrote our blog, kept in touch with loved ones, and had long rambling conversations that we wouldn’t have had time for back home.

Cast Away: Living on an Island
There’s a theory that salt water is good for you, which explains the rise of many spas offering salt-water therapy, but there is no replacement for living by the sea. Despite all the sunscreen, our limbs turned nut-brown,  and the salt bleached our hair into tawny manes. Small scars and scratches from underwater coral criss-crossed the soles of our feet, but foot massages twice (or thrice!) a week, and aromatic Thai massages, took care of all our aches and pains. With each day that passed, we felt calmer and more at peace with ourselves. We’d worked for so long, slotted into specific designations and job functions, that we’d forgotten there was plenty more we were good at.

For all that soul-strengthening reaffirmation of our selves, we returned to uncertainty. We had no home to come back to, no jobs to clock in to on Monday, and owned only a backpack full of sandy clothes. Six months earlier, this would have been very scary. Now, we were filled with confidence.

The family and friends whom we’d kept in touch with—the ones who we’d realised were the only important people—helped us find our place again. They shared their homes, their cars, their clothes and their time until we found a place for ourselves and settled in.

It’s been six months since we returned from the biggest journey of our lives, and we find ourselves changed in many ways. We appreciate the feel of our own pillows at night, or a good cup of coffee. We’re no longer happy to be inactive for long, now that our bodies know how it feels to sing with strength. And we’ve decided to strike out on our own, freelancing, writing that book we long planned to, or finally getting around to building that start-up that we’d always dreamt of.

Because now we’re filled with inspiration and belief in ourselves, and because we’ve remembered what it is that makes us tick.

(This story appears in the 19 September, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Nikki

    Great read! We love Koh Chang, it\'s our favourite island in Thailand. We will be heading back February 2014 for our 4th time! Each time our visits are longer and longer! Very true about the daily grooming...brushing teeth and sunscreen! Count down is on!

    on Sep 18, 2014
  • Yash

    Great! I would love to replicate the same.

    on Sep 14, 2014
  • Shradha Balia

    Very well expressed and thought provoking. Hopefully it will inspire many more to find their nirvana journey.

    on Sep 13, 2014
  • Dhawal Oza

    Such a well written piece jotting the amazing 6 month journey and a beautiful experience Filled with life long memories. Kudos n salute to both of you once again. And many readers would die hoping to live the lives You\'ll have lived. Everyone is handed adversity in life, No ones journey is easy. It\'s how you\'ll handle it. And that\'s what makes you\'ll unique..

    on Sep 13, 2014
  • Sunil Mehta

    nice, thanks for sharing.

    on Sep 13, 2014
  • Deepak

    Wish I could do the same once in my life time....Kudos to both of you who did what your heart felt !!

    on Sep 13, 2014