“Welcome to Koh Panyee,” the tour operator said in his Thai accent. He offered his hand to help me out of the long-tail boat so I didn’t accidentally slip into the water between the boat and the pier.
This was not a place you could reach by car or bike. You could only get here via boat or helicopter. And the only place a helicopter could land would be on the majestic floating football field, built by the residents of Koh Panyee to feed their passion for football.
Koh Panyee residents are quiet. They keep to themselves. One look at them and you can tell that they understand their dependence on tourists, who, in an attempt to discover the island’s way of life, arrive in swarms day after day from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Inhabited by Malay-speaking, Islam-following fishermen 300 years ago, Koh Panyee still receives 30 percent of its income from fishing. However, tourism is the blanket that keeps its feet warm. During the rainy season, this ratio reverses.
A city that floats on water, or rather, stands on stilts in the middle of the Andaman Sea, cannot necessarily accommodate all of the creature comforts for visitors and locals alike; and even if some are arranged for, they come at a cost. Electricity costs six times more on Koh Panyee than it does in Phuket. By this standard, the souvenirs sold by the Koh Panyee women in the mall, the lunch buffet in the restaurant, and the packaged food items and drinks sold in the stores on the island all cost more.
While every structure on Koh Panyee is essentially built on stilts, there is one that defies the odds: the Koh Panyee mosque. It is built on the ground of the island, and being far from any kind of mainstream civilization has allowed the place to remain clean and quaint. The air in Koh Panyee is fresh and the sunlight is unadulterated.
Koh Panyee bends its knee to three passions: God, fishing, and football. While the distance from the mainland has certainly brought the people closer to their God, which can be seen in their humility, tranquility (save for the tourists talking, there is no loud music or any kind of neighborly chatting among the residents), and devoutness.
Women in Koh Panyee maintain a strict religious dress code. Their heads are covered by scarves, and their bodies are modestly draped from the neck to the ankle. In contrast, the men wear silky shirts and glossy pants.
Thirty-one years ago, the football-worshipping children of the island took up the unprecedented challenge of creating a football field on their very island, right on the sea. Their original prototype, a floating wooden football surface, had nails sticking out of it. Today, they have their very own successful football club and a much better football field by the side of the school, which is also largely funded by the government and, to some extent, the tourists.
Koh Panyee also specializes in making boats for fishing and ferrying tourists around the neighboring islands. A large long-tail boat costs 380,000 baht (USD 11,500).
Called “Pulau Panji” in Malay, the native language of the island, Koh Panyee/Ko Panyi is a demure heaven floating on hope, built and secured by the peculiar doggedness of its people who have, over time, fought tooth and nail toward achieving a state of affairs and livelihood many only dream of.