2Magazine Managing Editor Trevor Ranges kicked off his writing career as a specialist in beaches and islands. He recently returned to Koh Yao after a ten-year absence from this pair of Phang Nga Bay islands to share with us this dispatch.
I originally traveled to Koh Yao Yai as part of a major upgrade of Fodors Thailand travel guidebook. I wanted to expand the offerings to include beaches and islands that were more off-the-beaten-path. Little did I know that Koh Yao would remain off the radar of most travelers for more than a decade. I had never been to Yao Noi, but I understood that it was still a relatively sleepy destination.
Occupying 140-square-kilometers at the center of Phang Nga Bay, Koh Yao Noi (Little Yao Island) is about half the size of neighboring big brother Koh Yao Yai (Big Yao Island). As the (relatively) more developed of the two, Koh Yao Noi may have a few more ATMs (as well as a 7-11), but the island is still predominantly unspoiled—certainly still more pristine than the mainland Krabi beaches or those of Phuket. Consequently there is a diversity of attractions on the island, both natural and cultural for visitors to enjoy.
Fish Farm: It doesn’t sound so cool at first, but it’s really one of the most interesting things to experience on the island. Out on his floating nursery in the channel between Yao Noi and Yao Yai, Mr. Bangneed (081-270-7393) not only raises fish to sell at the market but also keeps a variety of marine life for entertainment, education, and just plain ol’ passion. It’s a veritable floating aquarium—and a hands-on one at that—featuring leopard sharks you can pet, giant hermit crabs that scurry across the deck as a puffer fish blows up in your hands, and much more.
Lung Bao’s Coconut Garden: Lung Bao (aka Uncle Coconut) operates a small farm on the west side of the island; surrounded by rice fields, he raises mangoes, passion fruit, sapodilla, limes, flowers, and—obviously—coconuts. Most of the produce he sells to his friends; it’s the coconuts that the visitors come for (they actually are particularly scrumptious). Because of the increasing popularity of the island, however, his coconut crop occasionally can’t keep up with demand so he’s building a coffee shop on premises. It would be a shame to miss out on a coconut, from Lung Bao, but his beautiful gardens are worth a visit just to see.
Island Hopping: With its location in the center of Phang Nga Bay, Koh Yao Noi is surrounded by some of the most beautiful islands in Thailand, including Koh Tapu, aka James Bond Island. Consequently, island-hopping by longtail boat, speedboat, or even kayak is one of the highlights of a trip to Koh Yao, particularly Ko Hong (aka Ko Lao Phi Lae), the largest of more than a dozen tiny islands that collectively form the Mu Ko Hong archipelago—part of Than Bok Khorani National Park, whose headquarters lie on the Phang Nga mainland to the north.
For a day trip, there are lots of islands to choose from, but don’t miss Koh Ku Du, where three spires from two karst islands that provide a sheltered gateway into a circular cove harboring a slice of sandy beach from which you can swim, take photos, and/or relax on the shady beach; Koh Roi, where there is a hole in the rock wall through which you can wade to access an expansive open-air “room” within the center of the island and one is greeted by the squeaking of boisterous bats; and Koh Hong, which features a little beach outside the entrance of the famed lagoon with a rope swing and shady picnic area, and a main beach that rivals that of famed Maya Bay on Koh Phi Phi Ley—the sand here is soft and fine, the waters tranquil and clear, and trees line the coast, allowing guests to swim, sunbathe, or nap in the shade.
Rock Climbing: Opposite the parking lot for the Tha Khao Pier and Batik Center is the center for climbing on the island: Koh Yao Rock Climbing (083-969-2023 / 099-356-3984). As most of the climbing routes on the island (and nearby Koh Ku Du) are accessible only by 4WD or boat, you’ll need the assistance of the proprietor, and for that you’ll need to plan ahead—drop by and he’s often dozing in the back room of his office. The routes are generally on the more challenging end of the spectrum, offering mostly vertical rock faces that extend up from the water to several hundred meters above the bay!
What to eat?
Roti: While many visitors may be more familiar with the Indian-style roti (a flatbread that often accompanies a curry), roti in Southeast Asia is as distinctive as it is delicious. Typically cooked on a flat, circular pan imbedded in a pushcart, roti is made to order in front of the customer. In addition to dough that is pan-fried to a thin, crispy consistency, roti ingredients traditionally include egg or onion, but can now be ordered with banana, chocolate, nutella, or a combination of such filings.
Where to dine?
There are a number of beachside restaurants, particularly along Pasai Beach, serving relatively inexpensive Thai food, including seafood, on tables next to the beach. There are also some local restaurant in Tha Kai town: look for the open-air shop that sells take-away fried chicken—it’s really good.
Hornbill Restaurant - The traditional and rustic appearance of the Hornbill Restaurant is in keeping with the local environment, but the menu features a blend of modern, international and local recipes. Dine on dishes including a spicy southern crab curry, make-your-own som tam, and catch-of-the-day San Francisco-style Cioppino. In harmony with the theme of the restaurant, Cape Kudu’s kitchen uses rice from the Puern Pluke Puen Kin project that supports local farmers and the natural environment attracts the occasional Oriental Pied Hornbill, many of which live in the forest behind the resort.
Kayaking: Along the east side of the Yao Noi there are a number of small islands in kayaking distance of the coast. The southern end of Tha Khao Bay and straight off Pasai Beach each have an island with a beach that is accessible by kayak on higher tides—both can also be accessed by sandbar when the waters are low! The best kayaking destinations, however, are Koh Nok, off Laem Kor Beach, and the sandbar at the tip of Hua Lam Beach on Koh Yao Yai, just opposite Laemsai Pier.
Bicycling: The island is small enough and flat enough (there are two “steep” hills that aren’t really killers) that one can easily pedal from beach to beach to beach, enjoying each along the way including stops for lunch, a coffee, and a snack. You can fill up the day without exerting too much energy (you are on vacation after all) and still feel that you got some exercise in the process. Consider a side-trip through the rice fields to visit Lung Bao’s Coconut Garden, but make sure to get directions first!
Koh Yao Signature Experience:
Community-based tourism: CBT in Koh Yao Noi is organized and operated by a collective of more than 30 families. For their efforts to celebrate local life and culture and to build environmental awareness, the community won the ‘2002 World Legacy Awards for Destination Stewardship’ from Conservation International and National Geographic Traveler. CBT guests learn about the environment and culture of local communities, through homestays, eating tasty Southern Thai food, and a mixture of discussion and direct experience provided by such organizations as Andaman Discoveries.
Batik: Beside the boat pier in Thak Khao is he Thak Khao Batik Workshop (081-081-2131 / 089-295-6322), a government-sponsored OTOP center run by local women. Here you can learn how batik is made, watch three generations of women work on colorful pieces of art, and then purchase one to bring home. Many are marine and island themed and are as practical for beach use as they are beautiful souvenirs.
Everything 10 baht truck: As you explore the island you will inevitably come across a large white van literally covered with stickers, but not stickers stuck to the van: stickers hanging from all sides for sale to locals and tourists alike. This sticker shop on wheels circumnavigates the island, announcing itself with a loudspeaker and stopping here and there for shoppers to peruse and purchase its goods.
As the local population is majority muslim and tourism on the island is oriented towards more low-key, nature-oriented pursuits, there aren’t a whole lot of nightlife options. That said, many of the beachfront restaurants sell beer and buckets of ice, and we heard there was a bar behind La Luna restaurant, but we never made it over there, opting instead for beachside beers.
Where to stay?
Cape Kudu: It was still under construction when we visited so, by now, the team should really have operations in full swing. While not directly on the beach, the resort built an elevated, private stretch of sand between the road and the bay, featuring the same stunning views of Phang Nga Bay that you get from the restaurant and room balconies.