What to Expect From a Boat Tour to Koh Yao NoiFriday, August 12, 2016 Boat Tours by Kate Rutkovskaya
Last week it was my six months anniversary of living in Thailand.
To be more precise, on Phuket island. It’s a very touristy place, but I was lucky to find a cosy spot in the epicentre of an expat haven. It gives me a unique pleasure of not being stalked by travel agents whenever I walk down the street or sunbathe on the beach. Instead, I have friends who have been living on the island for much longer. And if I want to do some sightseeings we just get in the car and they guide me around the island.
So it’s been half a year and it seems that I’ve seen all possible corners on this 576 km² piece of land and even some of the neighbouring provinces accessible by car.
So I thought that it’s time to start exploring the islands. There are plenty of them around Phuket and I’ve written about some when covering the best diving spots in Thailand. But I wasn’t ready for a diving course yet. Moreover, it’s low season – the weather sometimes gets nasty, and some of the sites are simply closed for visitors.
All I wanted is a relaxed tour on a comfortable boat around some tiny islands with gorgeous views and maybe some encounters with locals.
What I got in the end was so far beyond my expectations!
But wait a bit. Let’s first see what the options were.
Islands around Phuket
If you ever come to Phuket, you will definitely want to go to some of the legendary places of movie scenes, like James Bond Island which was starring in ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ together with Roger Moore, or Phi Phi Leh Island with its beautiful Maya Bay where ‘The Beach’ with Leonardo DiCaprio took place.
The two rocks in the middle were added with the help of computer graphics. This is how it actually looks like today:
For some people, these places have become an instant inspiration of their trips to Thailand. I have to warn you, though: as both destinations are super popular with tourists you can imagine how many people are gathering there. Some are trying to take a picture on that very beach where Leo was enjoying the view of Maya Bay. Others are striking a pose pretending they’re holding a gun with the huge leaning rock in the background.
There is also Coral island, perfect for snorkelling and watersports and Similan islands, which is basically a national park. If you’re just looking for some Paradise-looking white sand beaches, you might probably like Raya island.
There’s about a hundred more!
Phang Nga Bay
Most of the islands are located in Phang Nga Bay, which is a water body between Phuket island and the eastern Thai province Krabi on the south of the country. Actually, 10000 years ago there was no bay – people could just walk from Phuket to Krabi. And then… as if someone just took a loaf of stale bread and crushed it into a hundred crumbs.
Today the territory features about 100 different islands with curved shapes of limestone cliffs and surprise spots like untouched beaches and secret caves. Most of them are protected under Ao Phang Nga National Park umbrella.
There are several options of how you can explore the Bay: by speedboat, by kayak or canoe (which is often is one of the activities on a speedboat tour), or by catamaran or ‘luxury boat’ as they usually call it here.
Normally, a speedboat tour to one of the islands costs about 2000 baht ($57). A catamaran will cost about twice as much. Both will most probably include a transfer from your hotel to the pier, lunch and snacks if it’s an all day tour, snorkelling equipment and insurance.
As it was the low season, I decided to go by catamaran as it provides more comfortable sitting, fewer people on board and overall more high-level service.
I’ve chosen Blu Anda as the most popular company on the island with their own catamarans. After a quick conversation with my friends who were about to join me on this trip, we decided to go to Koh Hong island with kayaking at the Koh Yao Noi island.
Koh Yao Noi: Kayaking, the Old Tree and Cavemen
On the day of the trip we arrived at Ao Po Grand Marina where our operator has their own restaurant and before we went on board, we had a little breakfast with some Instagram-worthy canapes which definitely set the right mood for the day.
But the weather wasn’t so sure about our optimistic plans. As soon as we left the restaurant, it started raining. Thank God, the staff gave us some goody bags in advance. That’s where we found our salvation – colourful raincoats!
Okey-dokey, said the weather. Let’s see how you’re gonna handle it at sea!
But remember – we were going to travel by a beautiful 12-meter catamaran which proved to be one of the safest and cosiest water transports for such weather conditions.
Now I have to make a confession – I suffer from seasickness. At least I think so. I did have an unpleasant experience on a ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki once, and since that time I tried to avoid any sea trips. But to my surprise and despite the strong wind and huge waves, I was super comfortable on the catamaran. I actually spent the whole one-hour sail from Phuket to Koh Yao Noi sleeping!
When we arrived at our first spot, we had to transfer to a long boat, as the catamaran couldn’t get any closer to the island.
It was still raining and the whole scene of us getting off the catamaran, and in the longboat, and then off the longboat into the water and walking towards the beach – was quite epic 🙂
Tip #1: Don’t wear fancy clothes! You will get wet. All the time. Even if it’s not raining.
In fact, the best outfit for such trips is a swimsuit covered with some sports clothes. Even if it’s hot and sunny, I recommend wearing long sleeves and pants. And lots of sunscreen. It’s a universal must.
Apparently, I won’t have any more tips for you in this post as our trip so very well organised that we didn’t have to worry about anything. I even left my phone in my bag on the boat for the whole time. The company provided two (!) photographers who followed us on the route and took lots of pictures that we could purchase at the end of the trip.
At first, we thought that it’s just a waste of money as it cost 2500 baht ($70). But when we saw the pictures we just couldn’t stop smiling – so accurate they captured the key moments of the trip. We were also overwhelmed with all the emotions from the day so we just bought those pictures and have never regretted it after.
Besides the four of us, there was only one more couple on the boat. The girl was wearing shorts, and her legs were all red. She told us that they went kayaking the day before, and she was careless enough not to use any sunscreen. This story made us a little more happy about our current weather conditions – at least we won’t get burned!
All that was happening ever after we stepped on the island of Yao Noi was beyond all my expectations! And at the same time it was in line with what I was looking for.
Welcome to Koh Yao Noi
So we anchored in a bay with a short and narrow white sand beach. Thick tropical forest started right behind it. But when we approached the beach, we noticed a couple of massive bamboo roofs hanging between the trees surrounded by awnings.
There were people making fire and greeting us in the warm Thai manner.
They didn’t seem to speak any English though. Our guide told us that they were local people who manage the restaurant where tourists have lunch and just hang out for a while if the weather doesn’t let them swim and enjoy the beach time.
That’s exactly what we needed! We had some snacks and drinks on the terrace covered with bamboo, discussing what was next with the guide.
And next was kayaking! Yay! I tried kayaking only once or twice before and I loved it. But it was in a river. So I couldn’t wait to get into the kayak and go into the sea.
Meanwhile, the weather was only getting worse. Fortunately, we didn’t have to travel too far – we only went maybe 500 meters around a cliff to find ourselves in a cave.
My kayak arrived the last. Yeah, I know… We were enjoying the nature around us! And there’s a lot to enjoy really. You’re gliding along steep limestone rocks hanging right above your head as if about to fall. Quite dramatic!
A couple of times we got distracted and almost smashed into the rock and got hit by the dangling branches. But it was fun!
So we’re in a cave. The six of us tourists, four or five members of the crew that were following our kayaks in a longboat…and two half-naked men.
They hadn’t arrived with us so we were a little puzzled – are they local guides and will now walk us deep into the cave? But the cave didn’t seem deep at all. It was more like a beach under a rock.
Finally, our guide started talking: “These men live here.”
Wait…what? How is that possible? We were standing in a narrow cave surrounded by rocks and water from all sides, the only way to get out of there was by boat.
These constantly smiling tanned men were fishermen. They indeed live in the cave, deprived of all modern conveniences like running water (they bring it from the mainland) or electricity, not to mention the Internet or mobile phones.
Half of their time they live in this isolated cave on the northern end of Koh Yao Noi island. They catch fish all the time when the weather permits. Every two weeks they go back to Phuket or the Big Land to sell the fish and support their families (if there are any) and then go back to their secluded lifestyle. And some very strange cigarettes they’re making from those palm leaves… They eat the fish that they catch and the rice with herbs that they bring every time they go to the big land. They don’t like tourists but they must have had some connection to our guide and even allowed us to take a photo.
By the way, that’s their bedroom behind us.
And this is how I met cavemen for the first time in my life.
The feeling was inexpressible. So savage, so desperate. At the same time the fishermen were smiling and sometimes laughing at us when we rounded our eyes seeing their beds or how they cook – as if that was us who have the strangest way of life, not them.
They spend all their lives living in this cave. Their fathers lived here. Their grandfathers did too. And so goes on for many generations back in time.
They didn’t speak any English, of course. Our guide was trying to translate us what they said about their approach to their craft. And what they were trying to say was probably very close to what Hemingway said in ‘The Old Man and the Sea’: “Perhaps I should not have been a fisherman, he thought. But that was the thing that I was born for.”
Going back to the beach where the catamaran left us was even more challenging. The waves were rising higher and higher, and the wind was blowing like crazy. We were rowing as hard as we can, but the kayak was standing still.
And yet we made it and had so much fun all along!
It took us twice longer to get back than to get there. But it was worth it! Because as soon as we stepped on the ground we smelled food cooking. That was much needed after such an exhausting though very short trip.
After-Lunch Stories by the Fireplace
After a 5-course lunch – yeah, Thais love to eat a lot – we were hanging out near the fireplace when an old man approached us. It seemed he was with the crew all the time, but he never talked. And now he started talking, and we soon understood that he was another guide who specialised in the history and nature of Yao Noi island. He told us incredible stories about local people, who were serving us the lunch made of local products.
The name Koh Yao Noi is literally translated as Small Long Island. If you wonder if there’s a Big Long Island or a Small Short island – there’s a neighbour named Koh Yao Yai, which is quite big. Got it?
The population of Koh Yao Noi is about 4500 people. There are two schools on the island. Locals are mostly involved in agriculture and tourism. Most of its west coast is covered with mangrove forest, that’s where we were. The east coast with smoother landscape and breathtaking views of Phang Nga Bay is home to a number of luxurious resorts, e.g. the world famous eco-friendly Six Senses Yao Noi.
The old man was talking about the island with so much passion that we couldn’t help but wonder if he was a local too. He wasn’t. But he was one of the first guides who started tourism as such on Phuket island and developed all major routes since early 1990 when the first tourists appeared in the region.
As he was talking, his colleagues were coming up to us and making comments like ‘Forrest Professor knows it all’. We didn’t understand why they called him so until we went deeper into the forest.
It was still raining heavily. I mean it was a real tropical rain, no less.
When we were standing around the fire under the awning, talking and drinking hot coffee, it was okay and even fun. Felt like camping!
The Big Tree
But as soon as we got out and into the wild – it didn’t seem so cosy anymore.
We were walking through the tropical forest under the tropical rain and the Forest Professor was pulling over at each plant, talking about it and offering us to smell or taste it. It felt as if we were getting a degree in botany.
Finally, we arrived at our destination – a 300-year old 3-meters tall tree.
If you believe in the energy of trees, you will feel how powerful the Koh Yao Noi tree is. The roots of the tree spread for about 50 meters around – we noticed them far away on our way back to our camp.
Cruising in Phang Nga Bay
The day was passing by so nicely. All that we saw and what we did didn’t feel like all that tourist stuff you normally do. We felt very well connected with the local culture and nature. We were treated as welcome guests, and it made us want to stay on Yao Noi for more. But it was time to leave and after warm goodbying, with the local staff we got back on our catamaran and headed over Koh Hong island.
We didn’t know what to expect now, after all the adventures in the rain. But as soon as Yao Noi got out of our sight – the sky cleared up and the rain stopped
It took us about 15 minutes to get to the next stop – a turquoise lagoon between limestones cliffs. The colour of the water was unbelievable!
We moved slowly between cliffs, making a couple of stops and watching lizards climbing the rocks and fish swimming in between, until we reached Koh Hong.
Koh Hong – Paradise Island
Now this is a Paradise island! – was my first thought. We arrived in the afternoon, at about 4 pm when most of the tour groups left the site. So the beach was empty and very quiet. One beach faces the bay where we arrived, and you’ll find another beautiful lagoon if you walk past the cliff sticking out of the water in between the two bays.
The second bay is hidden from prying eyes so you won’t see it if you’re passing by the island in a boat. To appreciate its beauty and solitude you have to anchor and come here on foot.
Koh Hong is a small island in Phang Nga bay that suffered a lot during the tsunami in 2004. It’s a small island so people mostly hang out on the beach all the time. So when the huge waves stroke the shore, they couldn’t possibly run fast enough. There’s a very touching survival story of a couple who survived that day here. Get ready to drop a tear or two!
Today you can see the memorial between the two bays. After a quick tour around it, we were offered to snorkel and hang out on the beach for about an hour or so. The weather was fine, but not so sunny. When we got into the water it seemed much warmer in there, so we didn’t get out of there for the next hour.
Tonnes of amazing pictures and just very good time on the beach – that was quite a relaxing ending to a gorgeous day in Phang Nga Bay.
Would I ever go there again? Definitely yes! But only to explore the rest of the islands in the area. Or if someone offers me a free stay at Six Senses in Koh Yao Noi.
Stay tuned to be the first one to find out about my next destination!