Thailand: Ko Panyi's rooms with a sea view

Most tourists visit Ko Panyi on a day trip from Phuket. Fiona Terry decided to stay the night - and savoured its distinctive lifestyle after dark

Through the gaps of the wooden slatted floor I could see the sun's reflection dancing on the stilts supporting my room high above the sea. I lifted the raffia hatch in the wall to be greeted by the sight of several fishermen in boats below, fixing nets. A young man on crutches struggled to negotiate the narrow maze of uneven gangplanks interlinking this village on stilts. I wondered what life must be like for him in the sea-locked community. Children whipped around him on smart mountain bikes, the nearest thing to modern transport the island could feasibly support. They disappeared around the corner, giggling. It must have taken them all of six or seven minutes to cycle the entire circumference of compact Ko Panyi.

Through the gaps of the wooden slatted floor I could see the sun's reflection dancing on the stilts supporting my room high above the sea. I lifted the raffia hatch in the wall to be greeted by the sight of several fishermen in boats below, fixing nets. A young man on crutches struggled to negotiate the narrow maze of uneven gangplanks interlinking this village on stilts. I wondered what life must be like for him in the sea-locked community. Children whipped around him on smart mountain bikes, the nearest thing to modern transport the island could feasibly support. They disappeared around the corner, giggling. It must have taken them all of six or seven minutes to cycle the entire circumference of compact Ko Panyi.

This Muslim fishing village is suspended on a mass of barnacle-covered wooden poles and hangs off the side of a tiny island on the west coast of Thailand. A half-hour boat ride from the coast near Phang Nga, the settlement is home to 1,500 people, some 250 families, whose descendants first came to the area from Indonesia hundreds of years ago. These days the labyrinth of narrow wooden walkways, the covered market and the fish restaurants attract tourists by the boatload, many from the nearby island of Phuket. Most visit only briefly then return to enjoy the glitz and lights of the resorts. My partner and I, however, had decided to stay overnight in one of the two basic wooden bungalows with rooms available to visitors. We'd spent some days on the island of Ko Phi Phi, becoming increasingly frustrated with the number of tourists crowding its shores. We saw Ko Panyi as our chance to escape and get a taste of tradition.

Our journey began with a trip in a small wooden longtail boat through the mangrove-lined backwaters in Phang Nga Bay, calling at caves with ancient paintings, stalagmites and stalactites and one of the bay's most renowned features, James Bond Island – known locally as Khao Ping Gan, meaning "leaning rock" – which featured in The Man with the Golden Gun. One woman from another boat stripped down to her swimsuit and swam out to touch the rock. We, however, were keen to reach our sea-locked village. As we chugged nearer to Ko Panyi in our water taxi, we caught sight of its mass of angled stilts and tin roofs. The ramshackle village clings like a limpet to the cliffs.

We stumbled out of our boat and made our way towards the shacks where our boatman had told us we'd find our room. Inside an open hallway sat a toothless old man in a vest top and long trousers. He showed us to the door of our room, handed over a padlock and key then slipped back to his chair without a word. The room contained just a bed and mosquito net, but the setting was magical. From the hatch in the wall we looked down three metres to the water and out across several floating fish farms. Just at that moment a large boat pulled up outside, quickly followed by another. It was rush hour. Smartly dressed men and women climbed out, commuters returning from their work on the mainland. The longtails in which they'd arrived were traditional Thai vessels, long, thin wooden boats powered by car engines mounted on the stern with a long drive shaft connected to a propeller. The more luxurious one had a canopy to shade from the fierce Thai sun.

Along the main thoroughfare in a covered market, stalls were crammed with dried fish and meats, sarongs, plastic jugs and shell trinkets. By the time we arrived, the day-trippers had already gone, and stallholders were surprisingly nonchalant.

Inside smoky cafés groups of men had congregated to drink tea Thai-style, with lashings of sweet condensed milk. In contrast, the women were still gathered around the pathside water taps, beating washing against the posts. Fresh water is considered precious by the locals. It used to be shipped in tanks from the mainland. Now it's pumped from a reservoir built on an island a few kilometres away.

The villagers' unique surroundings have made them very resourceful. The mosque is supported by a small area of the rock itself. As well as a place of worship, the villagers also have their own school, health centre and run a popular football club. The thought of players trying to keep the ball within the confines of the narrow pathways seemed comical but apparently during low tides, a nearby area of sand becomes available. There's just time for a quick game before the tide rises and the sea covers the pitch again. Bungalows are made of wood, the more luxurious ones clad with plasterboard, all with corrugated iron roofs. Outside many hung cages of yellow birds; some kept chickens.

As the glow of the sun disappeared, the generators cranked into action and through the open doorways we saw families gathered around TV sets. Back at our base there was no sign of such luxury, but a huge feast awaited us on the dining table. The cook, Mai, was a brusque lady, in her 50s. We were the only guests for the night but there was enough food on the table to feed seven or eight. Dishes were full to brimming with fried fish, noodle soup, rice and fried vegetables in a sweet sauce.

Throughout the meal Mai ran back and forth in her flip-flops and apron to an incongruous-looking modern phone box that had been sited near our room at the end of the jetty. This satellite telephone is the island's only direct form of communication with the outside world. Being closer to her household than any other, Mai seemed to have landed the job of answering it each time it rang. She'd then organise a search party of children to fetch the required villager.

After the meal, Mai's brother Prasit came to meet us. He took us for coffee at a small, covered outpost where everyone happily shuffled along to make space for us. Prasit handed us strong black coffee in tiny cups. "Where are the women?" I asked. "At home caring for the children," said Prasit. Their relative isolation has preserved the fisherfolk's strong Muslim culture. When it comes to childcare and the home, it is the women who take responsibility.

Prasit explained how Ko Panyi first became a tourist destination. "We used to rely solely on fishing for an income," he said. "But competition meant we had to look for alternative sources of finance." It was Mai and Prasit's brother, the village postman, who came up with the idea of bringing tourists to the island. He had been making daily trips to the mainland for years to collect the mail. The venture quickly became a success and villagers enjoy the new employment opportunities it offers.

On the way back to our room a little girl ran past, shouting something to Prasit in Thai. "That's my niece," he explained. "Everyone here is related." When we reached our accommodation, Prasit showed us how to hook up the heavy-duty car battery in case we needed light after the central generator shut off at midnight. Only the lucky few have their own personal source of power.

In the moonlight we could see the water had almost reached the top of the barnacles – about a metre from our floorboards. I prepared to be lulled to sleep by the hypnotic sound of the water rippling around the poles beneath our room. I just hoped that Mai's telephone wouldn't ring.

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