I asked for quiet. For peace. For empty beaches and fresh nice food. I asked for local cooking, small bars, and good coffee. I asked for sunsets and sunrises and a door that opened to the sea. They said the quiet was impossible. Not in Thailand. Never in Thailand. Everywhere has people. Everywhere is crowded. Everywhere is popular. I was hrummphed on a number of travel forums when I asked for suggestions. But himself found it. Koh Yao Noi.
Little Yao Island sits beside its neighbour Koh Yao Yai. It’s predominately Muslim, turning the country’s religious stats on their head. Some 96% are Muslim, which goes a long way towards explaining the quiet. Even though it was off-season, there was little evidence of clubs or party hangouts. Quite a number of restaurants (Muslim-run) don’t serve alcohol. And when you do find a shop selling the hard stuff (Green Coffee House has a few bottles, and a liquor store beside the mini-mart about 100 m beyond 7 Eleven on the opposite side of the road has a good selection), you get it wrapped in a black bag. I’m partial to a sundowner, especially on my hols. And I could only have one each evening, as the concept of diet soda hasn’t hit Thailand – it’s full fat or nothing. That’s the choice you get.
We stayed at Kao Yao Seaview Bungalows, arriving way before check-in and a day early after a long, long train journey from Kanchanaburi. All the bungalows bar one were wooden houses on stilts, with lovely verandahs. The one we’d booked was the only cement building in the place, no stilts but a patio. I wasn’t at all impressed. Admittedly I was running on empty and crankier than a teething toddler and I did apologise for my grumpiness the next day when sleep had restored some semblance of sanity. In hindsight though, it was the way to go. Marble floors are so much cooler than wooden ones. And it was hot.
Our days took on a sameness, a routine of sorts. Up to watch the sunrise. Well, I got up once at 6am and was on alert for the rest of the week should a clear, cloudless morning happen (but it didn’t). Then a couple of hours work. Then off on the bike to Pasai Beach for a mango roti brunch and maybe a Thai massage. Then we’d go for a swim or drive down some side road to see what was at the end. We found floating fish farms. We found Muslim fishing villages deep in the mangrove swamps. We found mosques that had been built for a while and more that were in the process of being built. And we didn’t find one Buddhist temple. It couldn’t be more different from what we’d seen so far.
Of course, being an island, everything is more expensive. The market village offers the usual clothes and bags and bangles that appeal to the backpacking brigade at three times the prices as in Chiang Mai. Massages run to 400 baht an hour compared to 150 in Chiang Rai or 250 in Bangkok. That said, had we only come to Phuket and then hit the islands, I probably wouldn’t even comment. I’d have known no different. But I’m glad we went further afield. There is far more to this country than Krabi or Phuket. Far more to it than beaches and bars. Far more to it than cheap resorts and expensive spas.
I had plans to go over to Krabi or Phuket for the day but I never mustered up the energy needed to get there. We did go on a boat trip around the islands one day, sharing our boat with a young lad from Valencia , Spain, over here for the last six years teaching English in Bangkok, and his friend from the Philippines, a qualified nurse now also teaching English in the city. It was great to be on the water but landing on the islands was mad. All the boats were doing the same tour. We saw the same people at each stop. We were lucky in that it was off-season – it has to be crazy altogether in December. Himself would go off exploring. I’d amuse myself by taking photos of people posing for their Instagram snap or working on the perfect selfie. We’d been picked up by a songthaw – a motorbike with a crate-on-wheels attached to it and taken to the far end of the island to catch the long-tail boat. On the way back, we hit low tide, so he anchored a couple of hundred metres off our beach and dropped us into the water. We waded home.
I’ll admit to being a little discomfited by being so obviously white and non-Muslim. I made sure none of my bits was bared but even so, it felt strange. Hearing the call to prayer as I lay, half-naked, sunbathing on a beach was a little surreal. Having to search so hard for a naggin of whisky or rum made it taste better than local hooch has a right to be. Being in Thailand and not seeing one Buddha was disconcerting and disorienting.
Himself loved it. It played to his vision of retiring to a shack on a beach. He’s planning on two months next time. Off-season. Maybe October and November. Me? I’d last a month at most, and then only if I had my own kitchen. While the novelty of eating out (or being cooked for) has a lot to be said for it, when I do it every day, week on week, it loses its appeal.
Last summer, when P&R came to visit after their Danube cruise, P talked of craving normalcy. I get that. Completely. We’re nearing the end of the trip, currently on our way back to Bangkok and then to Doha. And it’s been quite the experience. sensory overload. I’ve run out of bandwidth for new; I’m craving sameness and KFC. And I’m missing my kitchen.
Thirty, or even twenty years ago, had you offered me the chance to travel the world for 12 months, I’d have leap-frogged a litany of lit candles to get to the top of the queue. Don’t get me wrong. I like to travel. I like that I can work from wherever I go, as long as I have Internet. I like seeing new places and doing new things. But I need some contrast, some downtime, some normalcy. Otherwise, it all becomes a blur of braggadocio, with pixelating placenames and conversations starting with ‘Where was it that….’
Getting to Koh Yao Noi
Take the ferry from Thalane Pier outside Krabi to ThaKow Pier on Koh Yah Noi or a speedboat or long-tail (cheaper) from Ban Rong in Phuket to Manoh Pier on the island. Last ferry from Phuket runs at 4pm.
Finding food, booze, and coffee on Koh Yao Noi
Pan’s Local Food is a winner – we went twice. Very fresh. And they do a decent local rum and coke. Ciao Bella on Pasai Beach is Italian run… they do great roti. Charlie Bar is the place to go for cocktails – JJ makes a mean Margarita. And from there you can order food from Chef Aon at Koh Yao Bistro, next door. At the high end of the island’s offer but delicious. The restaurant at Kah Yao Seaview Bungalows serves bigger-than-usual portions of fresh food, too, especially for breakfast. The best Morning Glory we had was at Thakhao Bay View. This amazing Thai vegetable is like a water spinach and it’s delicious. They also do the best coffee we found on the island and had just opened the roadside Sala Café at the bottom of their steps. We got in on a TV shoot with a famous Thai actress Nam Wham – background shot, of course, but amusing to see the locals go a little crazy. The Green Coffee Shop comes a close second for hot coffees and the Garden Café does a great iced coffee.
We caught the early morning speedboat and then had breakfast near Phuket. I watched as a monkey ran into the café and helped himself to a bag of nuts. Who needs TV in Thailand. Bangkok Airways is a dream to fly with – a lounge for all passengers – imagine. We have a couple of nights to go in Thailand and then it’s off to Qatar. Am hoping that the city behaves itself and that it being my second time to bumble around Bangkok, I’ll be more familiar with it all. I really don’t want to have to fight with it again.