Escaping to the Yao Islands from Phuket

By Brad Night

The Yao islands are delightfully under developed

Almost hidden, Koh Yao Yai and Koh Yao Noi rest within the Koh Yao Archipelago of Phang Nga Bay on the southwestern coast of Thailand and constitute what are known as the Yao Islands. Devastated by the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, the clean beaches of Big Yao Island and Little Yao Island have seen the return of a greater number of tourists each year since, although these idyllic stretches are far from crowded.

While the Yao Islands are located in a lush region of the Andaman Sea famed for its natural beauty, most holiday travellers prefer to spend their vacations in the considerably more urbanised resort areas of Krabi, to the north, or Phuket, to the south. The Yao Islands are among the most beautiful destinations in the country, but there are reasons why they remain considerably less popular than it might seem they should be.

It takes a certain kind of traveller to decide to pass a vacation in an area almost primitive when compared to the bright lights and excitement of nearby, well-known tourist hotspots, and the Yao Islands remain mostly untouched by the rapid modernisation that has steam-rolled over the rest of the region. Despite recent developments and a slow emergence over the past couple of years of a few luxury-style resorts on the more accommodating of the two islands, a week here is still a step off the beaten track.

Covering a relatively small area of 137 square kilometres, the Yao Islands are inhabited by roughly 12,000 residents, most of whom are Muslim Thais rather than Buddhist. Harbouring close, friendly and hospitable communities, both islands are accustomed to visitors but tourism does not yet account for as great a percentage of the local economy as the long established industries of fishing, rubber cultivation and coconut plantations. Perhaps the biggest selling point of the islands is the wonderful offshore views of Pha Nga bay from the northern sides of Yao Noi island and the Hong island archipelago from the East.

Due to a modest visitor services infrastructure, particular religious customs and rules, and a rural way of daily life, vacationers to the Yao Islands need to be prepared in order to make the best of what could be an unforgettable holiday. The islands offer those travellers brazen enough to walk beyond the glare of neon, hostess bars, high-rises and fast food franchises and into the untamed forests of mangroves and coconut palms a unique vacation where relaxation is paramount.

Some of the best offshore views in the Andaman

The Village Tour is one of the few sightseeing tours available in Koh Yao and can be organised by in-house agents at most of the island’s hotels and guest houses, as well as through several participating agents in nearby Phuket. The daytrip begins with a long-tail boat ride to a local rubber plantation where an educational stroll reveals how the latex is processed into sheets of rubber. Continuing through stretches of scenic rice paddies, past resident wildlife and exotic birds, the tour pauses at the fish and fruit market for lunch. Reaching Ta Kao Village in the afternoon, visitors are guided through and allowed to observe the local women at work decorating Thai silk with batik designs.

The are a number of interesting cave paintings among not only the Yao Islands, but also other islands within Phang Nga Bay. Some of the paintings, indicating several distinct communities of a mixed-origin population, date back as far as 2,000 years.

Both islands have numerous beach areas; however, the strong sea currents leave some quite gravely at low tide and not exactly pleasant for swimming or sunbathing. Others like Pa Sai Beach on Koh Yao Noi and Loh Pa Raed Beach on Koh Yao Yai present long stretches of powdery white sands sloping into clear emerald waters backed by shady trees and coconut plantations.

While accommodation is limited in number, both islands possess some guest houses of a standard variety. There are a handful of luxury resorts, with The Paradise standing out as something truly exclusive. Situated amid the limestone cliffs of the northern portion of Koh Yao Noi, most of the executive guests arrive and depart by boat and seldom venture out of the five-star oasis. Overland, The Paradise resort is accessible by way of a narrow dirt road, steep hills and mud-filled crevasses.

Dan’s Koh Yao Retreat rests atop a hill with an impressive view of Phang Nga Bay. Executively appointed rooms, sun decks, swimming pools, fishponds and waterfalls add a stunning backdrop to its seven traditionally styled thatched-roof bungalows. The retreat compound, although prepared to welcome couples and families, caters primarily to larger groups.

The Yao Islands are accessible from the surrounding areas of Phang Nga and Krabi, but are most commonly and easily reached from Phuket. Boats departing from four different district piers in Phuket make regular ferry trips to both Koh Yao Noi and Koh Yao Yai, each three to four times a day. The trip is inexpensive and takes approximately an hour.

A few considerations worth keeping in mind while visiting the Yao Islands relate predominantly to the Muslim beliefs of the local people. Foreigners, especially women, should dress modestly, even on the beach. The consumption of alcohol, while not prohibited, is largely discouraged and often unavailable outside of the resort hotels. Those who arrive with the expectation of go-go bars and discos will be sorely disappointed as there aren’t any here at all.

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