Your probable vision when planning your dream trip to Thailand: Endless white sand beaches with hammocks and palm trees blowing in the breeze, bright turquoise and crystal clear waters broken only by colourful longtail boats and stunning rock formations. The gentle sound of lapping waves. The briny scent of sea salt.
Your Probable Reality: A sweaty elbow in the face as your crowded tour boat spills out into the sea in a manic rush to get a crowd-free selfie before everybody else. Pumping music. A faint smell of sewage. I exaggerate…sort of. I did personally witness the boat scene, and unfortunately it’s true that a sewage system struggling to keep up with rocketing tourism means that some places like the coast of Ao Nang did smell faintly rotten at times. But while they’re becoming more and more difficult to come by, there are still plenty of places to find peace and seclusion in Thailand if that’s what you’re after. One of these magical places is Koh Yao Noi.
Koh Yao Noi is part of an island chain to the East of Phuket, about half-way to Krabi, and it’s remained remarkably tourist-free. Since the population is predominantly Muslim, alcohol isn’t served in most establishments, which keeps the revelling backpackers at bay. So if you’re looking to party, this probably isn’t the place for you. Personally, my ideal itinerary would start with a few days of downtime in Koh Yao Noi before taking the short ferry trip to Krabi in time for the full moon.
On the ferry over from Phuket I took hundreds of frantic photos of the rock formations in the distance, much to the amusement of my fellow passengers who obviously knew how much more beautiful they were from the island. On the East side of Koh Yao Noi, the limestone karsts of Phang Na Bay jut majestically out of the sea, seemingly mutating shape and colour according to the changing daylight. They’re particularly spectacular at sunrise – when both the karsts and the sky turn various hues of incandescent pink and lilac.
We watched the incredible sunrise on the beach outside our bungalow at Suntisook resort, which is owned by the wonderful Mr. E and his wife, who is a ridiculously good cook. If you want to book excursions and trips, Mr E. is the man to speak to. The highlight from our time here was taking a typical Thai longtail boat out to the rocks in Phang na Bay, including the famous beach at Ko Hong. There are no official boat tours or companies, so Mr E hooked us up with a local fisherman who owned a longtail boat. I asked if he could meet us a couple of hours before the usual time so we could beat the crowds and the plan worked like a charm. Every island we stopped at, we were always one step ahead of the other boats, meaning that for a blissful half hour we had the paradisiacal beaches of this incredible part of the world entirely to ourselves. This is why I really recommend Koh Yao Noi to those who are after a more intimate Thailand experience. Not only is the island very slightly closer to the rock formations than the tours that leave from the Krabi coast, but the fact that the boats are local and private means you can have a more tailored, personal experience. I honestly will never forget floating past the overhanging rocks that graze the crystal-clear, turquoise waters, jumping off the boat into secret, hidden lagoons and being the only two people to rock up on Ko Hong, the most magnificent beach I’ve ever seen in my life.
If you want to do a shorter trip and remain on the boat, it’s an amazing experience nonethelesss. The longtails are not just beautiful to look at; lined with colourful cushions and pillows, they’re also wonderfully cosy. As well as the beautiful rocks and beaches, our fisherman took us to monkey island where we got to feed mango to the cute residents, and also brought us fresh local fruit to enjoy while we floated along.
For such a quiet island, there’s quite a lot to do. The day after the boat trip, we took a kayak out to some of the nearer karsts and islands (Kudu Yai is a must-see), stopping at secluded beach bars on the way to rest on the hammocks. Again, we were some of the only people there.
On the last day we rented out a scooter to explore Koh Yao Noi’s interior. We zipped past tiny towns, fields of bison and gum tree plantations, ending our day at the pier on the west side of the island to watch the sunset.
How to get there:
- From Phuket – From Phukhet airport, it’s about 25 minutes by taxi to Bang Rong Pier. From here, you take the hour-long ferry to Koh Yao Noi at roughly 50 Baht. Currently, departures are at 9.30, 12 noon and 17.30. The ferry will stop at Koh Yao Yai first.
- From Krabi – Ferries (traditional long-tail boat) depart from Ao Thalane pier on the hour between 9 am to 5pm. See the schedule here. The trip is about one hour by ferry but you can also get a speedboat which takes about 20 minutes.
Where to stay:
- Suntisook Resort – It has a beautiful location across from the beach and the owners are great. It’s also well located to rent out longtails and kayaks in the little ‘town’ down the road. You can rent bikes and scooters directly from the resort.
- Six senses – If you have a more generous budget, this is the most luxurious option on island. As well as offering an array of activities from cooking to Thai boxing to canoeing, they also provide unique touches such as free ice-cream all day and nightly movies on the beach with popcorn. The highlight is without doubt the view of the Phang Nga rocks from the infinity pool.
Where to eat: Honestly, there are just so many good places, but here is a short selection –
- Suntisook – You won’t find it as a restaurant on Tripadvisor, but I reckon has some of the best food on island. The raw prawns with lemongrass and chilli are amazing. The breakfast buffets are huge and delicious and have local as well as western options. J loved the sticky rice in the little banana leaf parcels.
- Kaya – Great, inexpensive local food. The Massaman curry is delicious.
- Hill tribe restaurant – Slightly more upscale, it specialises in seafood dishes. Order the seafood hotplate – the food comes out still hot and sizzling and is cooked off with a cool fireball.
What to do:
- Hire a Longtail boat to Phang Na Bay. Unfortunately I don’t remember how much we paid but I do remember being surprised at how little it was for such an amazing experience. It’ll work out as very inexpensive if you’re in a group.
- Take a kayak out along the coast. Koh Nok, one of the islands reachable by kayak, has a hill that you can hike up for stunning views. If you have the stamina, you can kayak to the north side of the island one day and then south the next.
- Rent a scooter or bicycle to explore the island (about 200 baht for half a day)
- Take cooking classes. Mina’s cooking classes has great reviews.
- Do yoga at sunrise while watching the karsts morph into various hues of pinky purple. Or take yoga classes.
- Have a traditional Thai massage.
- Take a trip to the beautiful and even the sleepier neighbouring island of Koh Yao Yai.
If you’re really keen to beat the crowds, check out my next post where I talk about Khao Sok National Park.