You don’t have to spend very long on Koh Yao Noi to start to feel like you have stumbled upon that elusive traveller dream “the best kept secret”. Why aren’t there more people here you wonder? While also secretly hoping they don’t suddenly arrive. Even locals working in resorts and restaurants obviously built for tourists ask, “how did you find us?” with a touch of surprise in their voice. Like someone who has decorated their home for a party but never actually sent out the invitations.
The answer to their question? Well, how does anyone find anything these days? Google! Qualifying our search of the Phang Nga region with words like “remote”, “peaceful” and “away from the crowds” Koh Yao Noi is where we happily found ourselves.
Koh Yao Noi (meaning small long island) and it’s sister island Koh Yao Yai (big long island) are located in the Phang Nga bay between Krabi, to the east, and Phuket, to the west. Koh Yao Yai is the larger of the two islands but Koh Yao Noi is the more developed and more tourist friendly of the two. It covers an area of about 50 square kilometers. Speedboat ferries leave Bang Rong Pier in Phuket around 6 times a day and will whisk you out to this tropical refuge within an hour.
Most of the accommodation is on the east of the island where perfect little sandy strips of beach look out across tranquil water to a group of impressive limestone karsts a few kilometers from shore.
The majority of Koh Yao Noi’s 3,500 or so inhabitants are Muslim. Their attitude is open and moderate. Many, but not all, of the local women cover their heads. You will still be able to get a beer or a cocktail if you desire, though bacon with your morning eggs might be harder to come by.
While crowds of holidaymakers have inundated nearby Phuket, Krabi, Phang Nga and Koh Phi Phi in the last decade Koh Yao Noi has escaped any significant development. Tourism contributes to the islands economy but it’s not the only source of income. Traditional industries like fishing and rubber plantations remain important. Locals are laid-back, friendly and quick to greet you with a warm smile. This feels like a very tight-knit, authentic rural community and you feel privileged to be welcomed into it.
So what can one do here? Well it’s the type of place you can quite happily do very little. Slow down your pace, quieten your mind and breathe in the beauty around you. Let the days drift by with a bikini, a sun lounger and a good book as your companions. Take intermittent dips in the warm ocean floating on your back admiring the changing colours of the karsts as clouds waft in and out.
You’ll more than likely get the urge to have a closer look at these nature-made monuments, and that can be easily arranged.
Most accommodation providers will be happy to arrange boating excursions for you, but you might save yourself a few baht by booking directly with one of the local operators.
Husband and wife Kong and Poom run Saferoh Tours close to Tha Khao Pier. They offer a range of day-trip options to nearby islands in their traditional Thai dragon boat and can supply snorkelling and fishing equipment and/or a kayak on request. Lunch is also provided on daylong excursions and you can expect tasty home-cooked delights like chicken with cashew nuts and crunchy tempura vegetables.
Your first stop should be Koh Hong, about a 20-minute boat trip from Tha Khao Pier. “Hong” translates as “room” and refers to the islands large interior lagoon walled by towering limestone cliffs, which can be accessed by boat at high tide. But this islands real gem is its picture perfect white sandy cove where clear turquoise waters reveal a dazzling array of tropical fish. In fact you don’t even need your snorkel to see some of them as schools of little black and yellow fish swim around your legs in the shallows. Koh Hong has a small picnic area and toilet facilities and although it’s popular with day-trippers remains surprisingly quiet considering it’s beauty.
Hopping in a sea kayak for a leisurely paddle is a great way to explore these archipelagos even closer up as you’ll be able to get into nooks and crannies your dragon boat can’t. Around Koh Panak is particularly interesting to explore, as there are a number of sea caves you can paddle into.
If you’re starting to miss the crowds take a daytrip to Koh Ping Kan (better known as James Bond Island). This narrow pillar of rock has been attracting visitors since it starred alongside Roger Moore in The Man with the Golden Gun in 1974. A constant stream of boats pull in from Phuket and Phang Nga and it can be a bit of a shock to the system after the peacefulness of Koh Yao Noi. In high season you’ll have to queue to get your photo taken in front of the famous rock. Unlike the other small islands there are a number of stalls here selling jewellery and touristy trinkets (but surprisingly little James Bond memorabilia).
After your 007 pilgrimage it’s a short trip to Koh Panyee, a 200-year-old Muslim fishing community whose stilted homes rise out of the sea clinging to a rocky outcrop for support. These days there are a number of large restaurants on the waterfront that cater to the boatloads of tourists who disembark for a look around. There are also numerous souvenir stalls vying for your tourist dollar, but it’s an interesting little place and still worth a wander. Check out the small floating soccer pitch built from old scraps of wood and read the community’s list of rules (and punishments). You don’t want to get caught with a beer in your bag here – the fine is 5,000 baht plus a goat.
Back on Koh Yao Noi the sun loungers beckon, but if you’re feeling a bit more energetic there are also opportunities to try rock-climbing, Muay Thai boxing, yoga or a Thai cookery class. Or rent a scooter and seek out secret beaches down traffic free dirt roads.
If your idea of a perfect holiday involves shopping and nightclubbing this isn’t the place for you. But if you want blissful relaxation combined with a bit of healthy activity, in a place that still has a firm hold on its traditional way of life, then this is it. Locals are happy they’ve avoided the rapid development seen on other islands and are proud of the relaxed piece of paradise they have to share. You get the impression they intend to keep it that way.
Leah Carri is an Irish freelance journalist currently based in Australia. She has kindly shared her experiences in Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com visitors. If you’d like to check out her blog you can see it here. Leah is currently available for writing projects and can be contacted by email.
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