Koh Yao Noi is not on the tourist trail through Thailand. It’s just a short boat ride from the popular Koh Phi Phi (The Beach, anyone?) and the beaches around Krabi Town, but it doesn’t get many backpackers or young singles looking to drink for cheap. This is exactly why I chose it.
I had never heard of Koh Yao — though admittedly I’d done no research on Thailand — until I met a girl on my food tour in Singapore whose friend had just returned from the island and found it to be totally the opposite of the commercial, tourist-happy Thai islands. To balance out the time I planned to spend among the backpackers on the east coast, I immediately added Koh Yao Noi to my itinerary.
You know you’ve picked well when 1) no other traveler you talk to has ever heard of this island and 2) you are the only one who gets off the ferry when it docks.
Yao Noi and Yao Yai are sister islands in the Andaman Sea, and they seem to have resisted the beach party vibe that Southern Thailand is known for. The people on the island still earn their living fishing, farming, and crafting, and life is slow and easy. The local population is heavily Muslim and therefore very conservative, so drunken raves are generally frowned upon. The foreigners are mainly couples and young families and serious rock climbers, not people like me. It is not the place to make friends — but after a few weeks of meeting lots of people, I was ready for some alone time.
There aren’t any hostels or proper hotels on Yao Noi, just bungalows, and I got a private double just across the street from the beach. It was simple and rustic (read: not entirely enclosed, I made friends with a few lizards), but there was a hammock on the porch and the sounds of the birds and bugs at night and a little pond, and I was more than happy.
There’s not a lot to do on the island, and my bungalow was far from the “village,” so I alternated between sitting on the beach and reading in my hammock with a few bike rides, a day of climbing, and my cooking lesson thrown in for good measure.
The beach nearest my bungalow wasn’t the greatest to sit on, as it was muddy at low tide and disappeared at high tide, but I could walk about 2.5 K (and over one of the island’s big hills) to one of the best beaches of all time. I am not exaggerating when I say that I had this place totally and completely to myself for a few hours each day.
This is facing east so you don’t get the sunset, but those cliff formations and the clear, clean water give you plenty to look at. On my last day, I did a (ridiculously difficult) run to Haad Yao, a truly secluded beach reached only by trail or boat, and marveled at the fact that places like this exist.
So as I said, the vibe on this island is totally different from what I expected and from what exists in other parts of Thailand. Aside from the guests at the few luxury resorts, there’s a pretty significant expat community made up of climbers and outdoor lovers who came and never left. In the general vicinity of my bungalow, there were a number of restaurants that were owned or run by Westerners, some of whom were married to Thais. But mixed right in with this were the wonderful island locals who were warm and friendly and totally welcoming (not in a what-can-I-sell-you way) to a single white girl who can only say about three words in Thai.
I rented a bike one day and rode the complete loop around the island, and I did a fair amount of walking and running. So many people I passed waved or called hello or were willing to answer my questions or put up with my interest in what they were doing. After four days I felt like the folks around my bungalow area knew me, and if I had stayed for a week, I would have been a familiar face to most people. And like in Singapore, it was really cool to see everyone living their actual lives rather than catering to the tourist industry. On my daily walk to the pier/market, I passed by a gentleman who was building these wood/wire structures that look like giant crab traps. On the first day, I saw him building the frame out of bamboo. On the second, he was starting in on the wire, and on the third, he’d nearly finished. Given the language barrier I couldn’t ask what the structure was for (something in the water, that’s all the gesturing I could interpret), but I really enjoyed watching this project come to life.
I ate several meals at a seafood restaurant right at the pier run by the local women’s club. Aside from the fresh fish and incredible pad thai, I really enjoyed watching the women paint batik fabric. The same group is there all day every day, chatting and drawing and painting and cooking, and it was the kind of place you can hang out and absorb even if you don’t understand anything that’s being said.
I asked one of the women about the process of making the prints. First, they stretch the satin or cotton fabric onto a wood frame. You can see the pencil outline of the design, and after the pattern is complete, they use brushes and their fingers to shade in all these beautiful colors. It doesn’t take long to draw and paint, but each print has to dry for three days. The paint bleeds all the way through so the design is visible on both sides. I wanted to purchase this stingray one, but as I was leaving for my next destination a few hours later, I had to “settle” for a different print of marine life.
What I didn’t know — and discovered too late — is that I could have painted my own! When I go back to Yao Noi (when, not if), seafood and batik making at Tackao will be my first stop. I love that handicrafts are still a huge part of life on this island, and I hope that it continues.
This was a lovely (and brilliant) detour on my Thai journey. Koh Yao Noi is slow and relaxed and a little slice of untouched paradise hidden amidst the overrun islands in the area. If you need a quiet escape, this is your spot.