Guest blogger and award-winning Australian travel writer Louise Southerden finds an unusual swimming companion on Koh Chang island.
I’m not quite sure what my first thought was on seeing the wiry, bearded man walking towards me along the beach that first morning. Sure, he looked normal enough, in his straw hat, shorts and T-shirt. But it was early (too early for the sunbathers that usually emerged after a late breakfast) and he seemed to be carrying a backpack (unlike your typical early-morning tourist out for some exercise before the heat became too intense).
Still, I prepared to give him a friendly wave – we were, after all, the only people on the beach at that hour – and get back to what I’d been doing.
This had become my morning routine during my first week on Koh Chang, one of the largest islands in Thailand: wake up, walk barefoot along a sandy track to Klong Prao beach, the longest on the island, do a few yoga moves on the sand, then have a swim before wandering back to my bungalow for breakfast.
I’d just sat down and started some warm-up stretches when my new friend walked right up to me, took a sleeping mat from his backpack and silently unrolled it mere inches from my towel.
“Yoga,” he said in an unmistakably Russian accent, taking off his shirt.
He’ll probably just do his own yoga moves while I do mine, I thought. But he started doing exactly what I did, copying my sun salutes, my warriors one and two, my pigeons and cobras… It seemed a bit odd, but I went with it.
Afterwards, we introduced ourselves without the benefit of a common language. By drawing in the sand, Andrei explained that he’s from Siberia, had been climbing in Krabi and was on his way to Cambodia (Koh Chang is near the border) to renew his tourist visa. Then he bear-hugged me, skin to bare skin. “Shall we swim?” I suggested.
“Shall we swim?” I suggested.
“Da, da,” Andrei said, nodding and pointing at a small island on the horizon.
“Ostrov,” he said, “40 minute.” He held up his watch – a fluorescent orange ladies’ one with diamantes on the quarter hours – and jabbed at the numbers with one finger.
“Too far for me,” I said, explaining with gestures that, unlike him, I had no swim fins. I agreed to swim as far as I could, and we both stripped down to our swimsuits.
As we waded into the water, Andrei put on his orange swim cap, stuffed some cotton wool in his ears – and slipped off his Speedoes, tucking them neatly into the strap of his mask behind his head.
Um, this is a first, I thought: ocean swimming in Thailand with a naked Russian climber. It had rained the night before so the water was mercifully murky, but as we swam out to deeper water Andrei, playful as a puppy, delighted in diving down and swimming bare-bottomed beneath me.
I didn’t make it to the island – I headed back to the beach after about 20 minutes while he swam on, alone – but I saw Andrei on the beach again that evening, watching the sunset and entertaining his two Russian friends by doing handstands. As soon as he saw me, he ran over and gave me another hug. “Yoga Swim Louisa!” Then he wrote some numbers in the sand: a time for us to meet the next morning.
Andrei and I swam together every day that week, along the beach, sometimes to Nemo-patterned dive boats anchored offshore. And I did eventually make it to the island – by renting a kayak on my last afternoon on Koh Chang.
Halfway there, I saw something splashing. A dolphin? A large fish? Then I spied the orange cap. Andrei was on his way back to the beach, having already swum to his “ostrov” – for the second time that day. I invited him to hold onto my kayak for a rest.
“Niet,” he said, smiling while vigorously treading water. Then he gave me a wave and swam on with the ease of a dolphin, a naked Russian dolphin in Thailand.
Getting there: Buses to Koh Chang leave from Bangkok international airport three times a day; the trip takes about six hours, including the half-hour ferry ride to the island. I stayed at Blue Lagoon Bungalows on Koh Chang, which has bungalows from 350 baht a night (April-October, low season) and 500 baht a night (October-April, high season), next to Klong Prao beach.