The perfect trip: Thailand’s islands
The view from Ko Yao Noiâs east coast looks towards the Krabi province. (Catherine Sutherland)
From white beaches, towering cliffs and sea gypsies to jungles and fiery food, take a voyage around some of Thailand’s most unforgettable islands.
Ko Yao Noi: Best for escape
The first ferry of the day has just docked at Ko Yao Noi (‘Little Long Island’) and it seems like half the island has turned out to greet it. Sinewy men, cigarettes dangling from their mouths, unload boxes of supplies into the waiting trucks, while locals greet their families and clamber into one of the spluttering tuk-tuks lined up alongside the quay. Apart from a couple of shacks lodged beside the harbour, there doesn’t seem to be another building – or another tourist – anywhere in sight.
In many ways, Ko Yao Noi has been trapped in time. The island – seven-and-ahalf miles long, more than six miles wide and home to around 4,000 people – has consciously resisted the development that has run rampant on many of Thailand’s islands. Empty beaches fringe the shoreline, hemmed in by cliffs and coconut trees. Much of the land is still covered by tropical forest. Water buffalo and wild cockerels roam among the palms and banyans, while farmers dry sheets of freshly tapped rubber under the trees.
‘This is how Thailand’s islands used to be,’ explains Su Potpradit, who manages the development of sustainable tourism on Ko Yao Noi. ‘The whole place is really like one big family. Everyone knows everyone else and we all look after each other.’
In many ways, the island owes its survival to its traditional democratic structure. Ko Yao Noi is governed by a group of ancestral elders – known as pu yai ban – and each of the seven districts has an equal say in major decisions that would affect the wider island.
Its strong sense of community and laid-back pace of life also make it an ideal place to escape. There are just a few small resorts, mostly dotted around the southern cape. The rest of the accommodation is in homestays, where guests are invited to join in with everyday life and experience the island through local eyes.
‘We’ve seen the way the other islands have changed over the years,’ Su says, as she strolls through the streets of the main village, ‘and we’ve decided that we don’t want that here. We want to hold on to what makes our island special – our culture, our history, our way of life.’
She ducks into a market stall, where local women are dyeing sarongs in a rainbow of tropical colours. On the street, mopeds clatter past and children wave from the backs of pick-up trucks, while in the fields beyond the village, evening shadows fall across the rice paddies and rubber trees.
Ferries run several times a day to Ko Yao Noi from Bang Rong pier, situated at the northern end of Phuket. The journey should take about an hour.
Where to eat
French flair and Thai flavours combine at the village restaurant Je t’Aime, where you can down proper pastis (French aniseed liquer) before tucking into Thai-spiced lobster or a classic massaman curry (mains from £5; 00 66 076 597 495).
Where to stay
In the northeast of the island, Paradise Koh Yao Resort is the best escape on Ko Yao Noi. Smart bungalows overlook a private beach. Other highlights include a restaurant where you can feel the sand between your toes (from £120).
Homestay accommodation is basic, but the experience of staying with a family is unique. Koh Yao Noi Homestay Club has a number of eco-friendly rental options.
Ao Phang-Nga: Best for exploring
A rosy-red sun is rising above the bay of Ao Phang-Nga. As the longtail boat skips over the waves, seabirds skim low through the spray kicked up by the boat’s buzzing motor, and patches of mist drift across the prow. Ahead, a chain of spiky islands – shrouded in dense foliage and spideryclouds – rises from the ocean. It looks like something out of Jurassic Park.