Update: In February 2015, Wally Sanger died of natural causes at Paradise Lost on Ko Kradan. He will be missed. Condolences to his family and anyone who had the great pleasure of knowing him.
First published at Travelfish.org on November 10, 2011, this was my first-ever paid article as a travel writer.
Ever notice how avid world travellers — and especially sailors — seem to see the world a little differently than most? They don’t lock up their home and go on vacation, they part with their possessions and set forth on a journey. They don’t see the world as a big, scary, insurmountable planet but a perfectly accessible playground. They don’t have a plan and an itinerary; they have a thirst and a vision.
Originally from Hawaii, Wally grew up sailing from island to island while encountering diverse people, so he felt right at home when he first came to Southeast Asia in the 1960s. It wasn’t until 1980 at the age of 40, that he set out for good to sail the world, and more than 30 years later he’s yet to return to Hawaii or anywhere else in his native United States.
“I’ve been to just about every state, country, territory and island in the Pacific,” he recalls. After spending significant time in and around Australia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, he began to sail competitively, participating in races in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand. Wally then reached a crossroads. “Too much time on the open seas and you become your own worst enemy,” he says. So, about a dozen years ago, he began to poke around in Thailand’s Andaman Sea for some dry land.
But not too dry. Ko Kradan is a sliver of an island, now inhabited by only a few resort owners, park rangers and beach dogs. There are no roads, just one of Thailand’s finest beaches, and when Wally first arrived there was just one small resort. It was here he decided to drop anchor for good and begin clearing the small plot of land for Paradise Lost out of Kradan’s thick interior jungle. The process took no less than two years.
I ask whether people thought he was crazy. With a gruff chuckle he replies, “They still do. Hell, I still do.” Whatever people think, his resort now books up almost entirely during Thailand’s high season, with countless travelers returning year after year for Paradise Lost’s chilled out atmosphere, tastefully rustic bungalows and outstanding restaurant. More than that, perhaps, they come for Wally himself.
Our casual interview comes to a pause when a group of local Thais stop by to drop off some supplies. “Paw sawasdee krap (hello papa),” they say to Wally with palms together. With a grin I ask, “They call you papa, eh?” “Now, now,” he answers, “all Thais call older men ‘papa.’ It’s not special for me. It’s just the customary term that’s used, nothing more.” True as that may be, the respect these locals have for Wally is evident in their eyes and demeanor. Given his humble and kind disposition, it’s no surprise that he’s treated like something of a gypsy saint.
Wally’s not the sort to force his views on anyone, but I do manage to reel in a few bits of his seasoned sailor’s wisdom. On nations and governments he reflects, “The more simple and grassroots a society the better… You don’t see children crying much and you don’t see emaciated people… Families take care of each other. The people just take care of their own.” He encourages people from all over the world to get out and travel, pointing out that, “You’ll learn a whole lot more by traveling than you ever will in a classroom.”
And in response to my request for some final words to live by, he first replies, “No, nothing like that… We just try to teach the kids to take care of each other.” He pauses. A subtle grin emerges from beneath his scratchy white beard and he says sharply, “It’s better to be a ‘has been’ than a ‘never will be.’”
Indeed, Wally has been around, and he’s seen what most can only dream of. He’s a reminder of what travel is all about: exploring the world and discovering one’s place within it. Don’t have to take my word for it, though. Next time you’re in Thailand head out to Ko Kradan and hang at Paradise Lost for a while. As long as Wally’s around, you’ll be met with a very warm welcome.