The story of a place called Khanom

sandy beach with a woman walking in the distance

The best way to describe Khanom isn’t by its scenery (as stunning as it is). You can’t describe it by what to do there (hint: there’s not much). You can’t even describe it by its location near the islands (a mere ferry ride away). No, the best way to describe Khanom — a town so small that often Thai locals in Bangkok and Chiang Mai don’t know where it is — is by its people.

There’s the American expat, so kind-hearted she makes you think the world will be okay, who carries a stack of hula hoops with her wherever she goes so she can practice hooping when inspiration strikes. There’s the philosophical girl from South Africa who decided to abandon wearing shoes because the beach dogs kept stealing them, and buying new ones just felt like a waste of time and money. There’s the Canadian with the gorgeous singing voice who likes to go hiking naked through the forests back in British Columbia. There’s the American who says she can communicate with dragonflies, and the Brit who came to Khanom after a psychic on Koh Samui told her she needed to follow the pink dolphins (there are pinkish-coloured dolphins in the waters here). There’s the talented Thai artist who builds larger-than-life sculptures on the side of the road, and the German chef who hand-delivers homemade bread up and down the coast and serves the best schnitzel you’ve ever tasted out of his house. It’s this cast of characters that describes Khanom.

Khanom, in southern Thailand, is a part of the country that most backpackers and vacationers miss. Typically, travellers only head to the nearby town of Surat Thani to hop the ferries to the islands of Koh Pha Ngan or Koh Samui. But if you stay on the mainland instead, and ride a bus about an hour east, you’ll arrive in the district of Khanom, a collection of fishing villages and artsy communities along some of the best beach you’ll find anywhere in Thailand. Nadan Beach, the largest and most popular stretch of sand in the area, runs for 10 kilometres along the Gulf of Thailand — and when I say ‘most popular,’ I mean there might be about 30 or 40 people spread out, swimming and sunning along those 10 kilometres at any one time… and that’s on a busy day. Head beyond Nadan to the smaller bays and you’ll find even fewer people — if any at all.

motorbikes driving down the road in a Thai town

Definition of a traffic jam in downtown Khanom

I first came to Khanom because a friend had invited me — that’s how things are in this town. This isn’t the kind of place that you stumble upon accidentally; it’s almost impossible to find Khanom if you don’t know what you’re looking for. It’s entirely word of mouth that brings people here — friends of friends who taught English in Surat Thani, and who passed along the message to their friends. Or artists who heard about Khanom from another artist up in Bangkok, and made the trek down, maybe inviting a few other friends.

That’s why the first thing everyone will ask you when you arrive is, “Who told you about Khanom?” And all it usually takes to reply is a first name and their city or country, and someone will remember that the friend you’re talking about was in town two years ago and was a teacher or a writer or just a vagabond hanging out. And then, when someone arrives a few years later and says it was you who told them about Khanom, someone will remember your name and your story. In many ways, once you find yourself in Khanom, it’s like a piece of you stays there forever as part of the community. And it’s that community that makes Khanom, well, Khanom: a place where free spirits and independent souls can get lost together.

While not all of Khanom is hippie central (that’s Jam Bay — keep reading), as a visitor, it’s easy to think the entire place is filled with misfits and creatives who never really quite fit in anywhere else. But that’s just one facet. There are families with small children who come here on vacation, and the local fishermen who work the waters in the early morning hours, and the bored teenagers who hang out in front of the 7/11 at the main intersection, just like in any other small, country town anywhere in the world. And it’s that aspect — the sheer quiet, subdued nature of it — that makes finding yourself in Khanom even more special. Thailand is hardly an unexplored destination. Most travellers to Asia have spent at least some of their time in the sprawling metropolis of Bangkok, or on the party beaches of Koh Samui or Krabi or Phuket, or in the artsy mountain towns of Chiang Mai and Pai. Few make it to the parts of rural Thailand that fall off the typical Southeast Asia trail, instead choosing to find ‘undiscovered places’ in whatever is the newest up-and-coming destination (Vietnam, the Philippines) — but yes, such places really do still exist in Thailand.

exterior of a beach bar with motorcycles parked out front

Jam Bay: HQ for Khanom’s hippie scene

For that reason, when a new face arrives in town, it’s not long before everyone knows the newbie’s name. On my first day in Khanom last year, I was riding around town on the back of my friend Rachel’s scooter (the same friend who had referred me to Khanom — a freelance editor who in turn had been referred by friends of hers who taught English in the area, who in turn had heard about Khanom from other teacher friends of theirs…). I had only been in town for about an hour and hadn’t met anyone yet. As we rounded the corner past one of the pubs, a male voice called out my name. My head whipped around, my reaction confused. Rachel just laughed. Everyone knew she had a friend coming to visit, she explained. It didn’t take much deduction to determine that the new girl on the back of her bike must be that friend.

That night, Rachel took me to Jam Bay — a place that’s the hippie heart of Khanom. Anyone who has been to Khanom knows of Jam Bay and its owner Joe, who converted an abandoned fishing boat on the beach into a bar. Over the years, he’s added raised seating platforms with hammocks, pillows, and chairs and benches built out of driftwood. There’s a full stage at one end, kitted out with a sound system for open mics and the local reggae band that regularly plays — no trip to Khanom is complete without hearing the Thai reggae version of John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads (also while eating the goulash that’s served at Jam Bay and provided by the aforementioned German breadmaker). The place is so chill that Joe runs a DIY tab system: just write down your order in the notebook left on the bar and pay out your tab at the end of the week.

travellers sitting and standing at a beach bar

Joe holding court from inside his boat bar

It’s dangerously easy to get sucked into Khanom (and Jam Bay) and to stay far longer than you ever intended. Days blend into one another in this town where things move at a pace so slow it feels like it’s not moving at all. And even when you do say goodbye, it’s almost never forever.

On my last night at Jam Bay over a year ago, everyone there told me they’d see me again. I had only been in town for just under two weeks, but it was enough time to get into the groove of a place so unlike any other town I’ve visited — and enough time to feel like I belonged there with all those misfits and vagabonds, thanks to the unabashedly welcoming vibe. A few weeks ago, I finally made the trek back and was welcomed once again into the clan, almost as if I had never left. There were a few new faces, but also many of the same faces I remembered from a year ago. Some had never left while some, like me, had gone away and come back. But the absences didn’t matter, because this almost invisible corner of Thailand had preserved the pieces of ourselves that we had all left behind, making us, too, part of the story of Khanom.

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