Sawatdee ka! From my Instagram feed you can easily detect that I am in Thailand at the moment, which admittedly came a bit as a surprise to me. I never wanted to go to Thailand, ever. I thought it was for tourists, which of course I am not, I am a traveller. Big (snobby) difference! You hear the stories, you see the pictures: dirty, sleazy Bangkok, crowded, littered beaches, and don’t even get me started on Phuket with its ping pong shows and neon coloured nightlife. For years Thailand made it not anywhere close to my travel bucket list.
When I started my Cambodia/Vietnam trip last year in Bangkok and bravely decided to add a few days in the city, I only did it so I would now have first hand reason to properly snub it. Instead I fell in love with it. Just like that. I think it happened at 4am when I had just arrived and decided to not go to sleep but instead to have my first ever Chang (I have since switched to Singha, but the sentiment holds…) on my balcony overlooking a little canal in the Old City. There is nothing more exciting to me than the sounds and smells of a new city and in Bangkok’s case I loved what I heard and smelled: crickets, friendly banter amongst neighbours and the smell of jasmine, big city dirt, and fried noodles.
After that night I couldn’t wait to come back to properly explore all of it. I realized that with all the downfalls of a very touristy country, come the good reasons why people want to go here: the natural beauty, the parties, the most friendly people, beaches that are only crowded because they are just so damn beautiful, great infrastructure, and a favourable exchange rate, even for South Africans. I started to ponder over maps and blogs and routes – where to start and where to go? In the end I decided to see it, almost, all: a week in Bangkok, then Sukhothai, Chiang Mai, and as many beaches and islands as possible. My southern route started on the Andaman coast with stays in Krabi and Phuket with trips to Phi Phi Don and Phi Phi Lay and then I would follow the good weather season to the Gulf coast and stay another week in Koh Tao.
Now I have been here for almost three weeks now and while I have loved everything in the north, the south was a bit of a disappointment. Sure, I knew that the beach from The Beach wasn’t going to be secluded and private anymore, but I didn’t know it was going to be quite that bad. Tour boats as far as the eye could see, crowds and crowds of people, and litter; it was hard to see beyond it, to see how a place like this could once have been magical. The other islands and the coast of Krabi was all to similar unfortunately and Phuket just downright scared me.
But this is not a post to turn you off Thailand’s southern shores at all. Because luckily I found a little place that made it all better for me,. So in case you too need a little quiet pick me up in-between your speedboating, full moon partying, and night market bartering I recommend you head to Koh Yao Noi. Nestled in the ocean between Phuket and Krabi, accessible from both, it is a perfect, little island gem. It was described on my itinerary with the words muslim island, dress conservatively, no alcohol allowed and as you can imagine that wasn’t necessarily what I was looking for. No working on my tan lines? No cocktails after a long day in the sun? Phew. But I shouldn’t have worried.
As soon as I put foot on the island, I felt something new, something I hadn’t felt during this holiday at all. Before every place and everything I did had been exciting, loud in a good way, stimulating, invigorating, but here it was just quiet and a bit sleepy. By the looks just like another Thai island, but I immediately felt I could breathe deeper and felt more peaceful, the feeling of having arrived you usually only get in very special places. Turns out Koh Yao Noi is such a special place.
A short drive by songtaew took us to our hotel which was right on Pasai Beach in the east of the island. You know how it usually is when a hotel describes its location directly on the beach, just separated by a road – the road tends to be a highway, loud and impossible to cross, right?! In this case the road was just that: a road, inhabited only by an occasional motorbike and pedestrians. Then there was beach and not much else. Oh wait, I forgot to mention the café and massage place right on the beach. My bad.
While the island now boasts one ATM, a new 7 Eleven, and a good selection of guesthouses and small hotels, it is still wonderfully undeveloped. This is as local as it gets, because all these amenities blend in easily with Thai villages, rubber tree forests, rice paddies, and musical gas stations. The population is completely muslim, so you won’t find any temples here, but might just be woken by the call to prayer in the morning, and incredibly hospitable and friendly. Travellers don’t come here for parties, they come for tranquility and a glimpse of real life in Thailand. Mind you, there is still enough restaurants to get a beer after a long day of sunbathing, and the signs asking people to dress conservatively, simply remind visitors that bikinis are not appreciated while walking around the market, nobody will give you a second look while you are on the beach.
The beaches on Koh Yao are a little bit of an ugly stepsister compared to what the neighbouring shores have on offer. The sand seems less white, the water less turquoise, and all in all they are a bit more stoney and rocky, especially during low tide. But and this is a big but – you may just have them all to yourself! Unlike the paradise that is Phi Phi & Co which you will have to share with hundreds and thousands of other sun-seekers, this will be yours for the lounging. Beaches here are a bit edgier, a little less pleasing at first sight, but a whole lot of awesome. If Pasai Beach was a fashion designer it would be Dries van Noten or Martin Margiela, effortlessly cool and not everyone gets it. It doesn’t strike to be liked, which was fine by me, because it meant I could appreciate views like this all on my own.
Scared to be bored with a lack of annoying tourist activities? Fear not, because even here you will find offerings for all kind of entertainment: hire a bicycle, quad bike or motorcycle to take you all around the island, do yoga, go rock climbing, and of course play underwater. Always wanted to be on Survivor? Take a 5-island day trip to explore the surroundings on sea. You will have to share places like Hong island and Koh Phag-bia with some other tourists boats, but numbers are limited so you will find isolated stretches of sand, the odd swing on a tree, and always quietness once you submerge your head to look for little Nemo.
Upon return have a freshly made banana roti for tea and an aloe massage on the beach to turn your skin from lobster to 50 shades of tanned. Take a beach stroll and return the friendly waving of a local grandmother who is enjoying an afternoon nap in her hammock. Eat seafood dinner and remember to order your curry mai phet (not spicy), because everything is a little bit hotter in the south. At night fall asleep with a grateful smile on your face because the only thing you can hear is the crashing of the waves across the quiet, little road.
So come to Thailand, forget about The Beach, Koh Yao Noi is island life as good as it gets.