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As the yacht zips through the Andaman Sea near Phuket, Thailand’s largest island, located off its southern coast, I soak up surroundings that God must have curated on a leisurely day. Water that is 50 shades of blue, desolate coves lapped by surf-tipped waves, bays brimming with karsts, and marshmallow clouds scudding across a cerulean sky. Childlike glee is appropriate, whatever your age.

Oohs and aahs rent the air as we approach Phang Nga Bay, known for the dramatic karsts that jut out of the water. One of these limestone islands, Khao Phing Kan, is famous because of a 20m-tall karst that sticks out of the water just 40m off its coast. Named Ko Tapu, the rock is popularly called James Bond Island, since it featured in the film The Man With The Golden Gun.

Soon, we drop anchor at Koh Panyi island for lunch. This is no ordinary island—it is a towering vertical mass of limestone. A fishermen’s village built entirely on an expansive network of stilts thrives in its shadow. Wooden beams that cling to the edge of the island stretch out over the sea in a maze of walkways and platforms.

Locals say the village can be traced to the 18th century, when three families of Javanese fishermen sailed north looking for a new home. They made a pact: Should they be split, any boat that found a suitable spot to live would raise a flag from its highest point, letting the others know where to come.

They sailed around the islands of Sumatra and the Andaman Sea, and followed the coastline up from Malaysia, into the waters of Thailand and then into the Phang Nga. After days of exploration, the island village’s founder, Toh Baboo, stumbled upon Koh Panyi. The island offered excellent protection against the elements and had plentiful fish, so Toh Baboo raised a flag from the island’s summit.

From three original families, the village has expanded to become home to 1,485 people, all descended from the island’s original settlers. As the number of residents grew, so this village on stilts expanded, even getting its own school with a playground and a mosque with a gleaming dome and minarets, all floating above water.

The village and its gold-domed mosque framed by a large limestone karst.
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The village and its gold-domed mosque framed by a large limestone karst.

A vibrant community prospers on this marvel. Children scamper about playing soccer while sinewy men hover around boats moored along a jetty so colourful I feel I’ve walked into a Van Gogh painting. Tourism is becoming popular, and there’s an array of souvenir stands and restaurants selling handicrafts and meals of fresh seafood.

The villagers seem to lead fuss-free lives. The men fish, while the women care for the young and elderly. “There are few jobs in the village," souvenir shop owner Abida Sayed tells me as I rifle through her wares—fridge magnets, handicrafts, pottery, coconut art items, hats, sunglasses. “Our community consists mostly of fishermen or water-taxi drivers. These jobs don’t pay much, but we manage. Some of us teach at the school, or work at the few restaurants. The coming of tourism has created a few more jobs, like mine," she adds with a smile. Walking about, I can see a guest house under construction, and rooms being added to some homes to host visitors.

“We have Wi-Fi in the village and the children have access to video games and television as well," adds Sayed’s mother Asifa, flicking TV channels with a remote. Though the village is fully electrified, she says the remote location means villagers have to pay three times as much as the rest of the country for it.

But the remoteness isn’t deterring visitors. While most make day visits, some opt to stay overnight for an immersive experience, eating local food and sleeping above the gentle murmur of waves. The floating football pitch is especially famous. It was built in the 1980s by the island’s youngsters, who were inspired by the 1986 Fifa World Cup in Mexico. Though a new pitch has come up since, the village retains the old pitch that was painstakingly crafted from scraps of wood and fishing rafts. The surface was not ideal. The ball would often fly into the sea, or sharp nails protruding from the old wood would pierce the players’ feet. But, the boys continued to play and sharpen their skills. Within months, Koh Panyi had a strong football team. Even today, Panyi FC is one of the most successful youth soccer clubs in southern Thailand, though the boys who built the original pitch are now grown men.

The islanders also take immense pride in their school ,which has around 200 students and employs 13 teachers. “We try our best to sensitize children to the environment," explains Farida Apa, one of the teachers. Children learn about recycling, collecting old bottles and cans to sell and generate funds for the school. They also learn about hydroponics, so the village can grow its own vegetables and become self-sufficient, Apa says. “These projects teach the kids to be more conscious and caring towards their environment," she adds.

Culture is the glue that binds Koh Panyi. Visitors too are expected to respect local customs. As Koh Panyi hosts a large Muslim community, visitors are requested to dress modestly; no short skirts, shorts or bikinis. Alcohol and pork are not allowed on the island.

None of that seems to discourage visitors, I think, partaking of a delicious meal of Thai salads, fresh vegetables, fruits and fresh seafood like shrimps, crab, lobsters and fish. Hijab-clad women and men in colourful sarongs serve us with a smile.

I leave Koh Panyi contemplating the intriguing dynamic between man and nature. For between the island’s spell-binding beauty and its wise residents exists a natural harmony that is instructive. In a world buffeted by climate change and ozone depletion, the islanders send out a powerful message about sustainable development, care for the environment and integration of local communities.

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