This will surely be a long-ish one, but I’m not sorry ’cause it’s a good one, so settle down, settle in, and enjoy. Once again, I’ve embedded photos into the text.
So, first off, ‘koh’ is simply the word for island in Thai. Koh Yao, Koh Samet, Koh Phi-Phi, all islands. I’d first heard of the Koh Yao—of which there are two, Koh Yao Noi and Koh Yao Yai—when I watched an action movie called The Mechanic: Resurrection and, noticing that parts of it took place in Thailand, looked up the shooting locations, which included Koh Yao Yai.
When I decided to go to Phuket, I added Koh Yao Noi, which is the more accessible of the sister islands, to my must-see list for the area (‘Yao’ means ‘long’, while ‘Yai’ means ‘large’ and Koh Yao Yai is in fact larger, but Koh Yao Noi is more developed. ‘Noi’ means ‘small’ but in the context of amount… So, it’s like they’re saying, “Large Long Island and a Little More Long Island”).
I’d told my colleague and travel buddy about my plans and she agreed that they sounded good, so we shared a Phuket-priced (meaning wildly overpriced) taxi to the pier.
So, we’re on the boat from Phuket to Koh Yao Noi, which only cost 200bt (about $8 and a third of what the cab cost), when a western man sitting in the seat ahead of us turns ‘round and says, “I hear North American accents.”
This was Dan. He was originally from the Chicago area—and, coincidentally enough, from the very area where my colleague had lived; he’d even gone to school where her mother was a school nurse, though not at the same time—but he and his Thai wife, Nook, had been splitting their time between Koh Yao Noi, where they had a home, and Las Vegas. They had two young children now, though, and wanted them to go to school full time in the US, so they planned to sell their island home. They were just returning to Koh Yao Noi after being away for the better part of two years.
We couldn’t chat much over the noise of the boat’s engine but, once we reached the island’s dock, the couple offered to lend us their kayaks, which we could take from their home. They had rented a cab for their luggage and gear—on the island cabs are just trucks with benches built into the bed—and intended to take a scooter home. So we simply jumped in with their bags.
The island countryside rolled by, splashed with mangrove marshes and dotted with grazing water buffalo. The island is just barely developed, with a few hotels and resorts along parts of the coast, but it’s inhabited by a small population of Muslim fisher-folk who tend to keep to themselves. The island is quiet, the roads unpaved and used only for local traffic, mostly scooters and the odd truck.
Beyond the trees, we caught glimpses of the Andaman Sea and, rippling along the horizon, the slightly darker forms of other nearby islands, like a floating mountain chain.
Once the cab ground to a halt, we hopped out and grabbed as many bags as we could carry, lugging them down a short path to a pair of simple but well-kept buildings: a small boat house cum shed, and the main house. A couple of excited mutts greeted us, racing around our ankles and sniffing at the bags.
Dan and Nook had beat us there and helped us with the bags, then showed us to the kayaks. They hadn’t been used in some time, so we cleaned them out in the shallows. The home was set right on the shore and sheltered by a sparse spread of mangrove trees, the water only about a foot deep here.
Dan explained that if we headed south (our right) along the coast, we’d get great views of the cliffs and access to a few good wild beaches. This sounded perfect to us. He also said that we shouldn’t be too long as the tide recedes in the afternoon, leaving behind a kilometer of mud and rocks. Now, at this point, I said that this shouldn’t be a problem as we had to be back by around 3:30pm to ensure we catch the last boat off the island and back to Phuket at 4:30pm. He nodded, leading me to believe that this was a suitable timetable, both to catch the boat and avoid low tide.
That last line up there, my friends, is what we call “foreshadowing”.
Once the kayaks were ready, we hopped in, each with our own boat. These were proper sea kayaks, with a closed cockpit but no skirt. We paddled through the mangroves until we broke through and out to sea.
The sight that greeted us is rather difficult to describe with any real accuracy. I’ll try, sure, but I think the photos that will follow my humble but clumsy attempts at description will do more than I ever could. A thousand words and all that.
The water is a crystalline blue, stretching out to our right and to the shore, a thin line of beach dotted with the occasional fishing boat and bristling with palms, the jungle-clad ridge of the island’s mountainous spine rising beyond. To our left, farther islands, a whole chain of them, crowded the horizon in progressively lighter shades, until the farthest islands actually blended in with the sky and vanished.
As we drifted along, the beach gave way to steep limestone cliffs. I had heard that Koh Yao Noi had become the newest rock climbing go-to spot for adventurers who’d already tackled and grown tired of Krabi and Railay, and now, with these massive walls of stone rising above me, I could see why.
The sea had carved horizontal trenches into the base of the cliffs, creating overhangs under which we could pass, like shallow caves. These often gave way to Dan’s promised wild beaches, stretches of perfect white sand backed by ragged boulders and cliffs, and lapped by bath-warm waves.
We decided to stop at one of these beaches but, just as we approached it, a speedboat materialized—seemingly out of nowhere—and made its much faster way to the beach. We could see that it was piloted by a Thai man but carried a couple of very white and very round foreigners. We figured this local had probably promised his charges a beautiful and secluded “secret beach” and we decided not to break his promise for him, possibly costing him money and further clients.
Besides, the island was rich with beaches and we found another in seconds. This one was smaller and most of it smothered in shade, but it was also nestled behind some interesting rock formations which I quickly scaled. From the top, the view was stunning.
On the way back down, I followed the rock wall past the formations and to . . . another, even more beautiful beach. I called my travel buddy over and, within seconds, we were swimming in the Andaman Sea.
Now, the only possible gripe we could have about these beaches were the stones and petrified coral that littered the sea floor, cutting our feet and toes like glass. Luckily, the water was deep enough and we could swim. We couldn’t imagine walking any distance among those stones blades.
That, for your information, was another tiny bit of ever-so-subtle foreshadowing.
Eventually, we checked the time and realized that—oh, shit—it was already past three! We figured we’d have time to get back to Dan and Nook’s, but we had no time to waste. On our way back, we didn’t stop to admire the surroundings or snap photos, we just paddled.
As we made our way back, I saw a couple of men, too distant to identity, walking along the shore. One waved and so I waved back, but didn’t think much more of it.
It didn’t take long, however, for us to realize things had changed. Those distant islands, for example, seemed to have grown closer, their outlines clearer against the blue sky. Conversely, portions of the coast that we had skirted just an hour ago, now stood a hundred yards away. Boats that had been anchored and floating on our way out were now beached on our way back in. Fishing nets that had been completely submerged and invisible now towered above the waterline, still dripping. The beaches, those white slashes of sand, blended not into clear blue waters but dark mud studded with stones and the jagged spurs of dead coral.
We were too late: the tide had receded, was still pulling back before our eyes. We kept having to paddle away from shore, following the water as it distanced itself from the island and grew shallower by the second. Soon, my kayak’s hull scraped the bottom, my paddle chipping against rocks and coral with every stroke.
To make matters worse, we could no longer recognize the shore, which had completely changed. We couldn’t find Dan and Nook’s house. There were trees here and there that could have been their mangroves, but then again, maybe these were trees that had been entirely submerged before.
Eventually, we couldn’t move any farther. We had to get out and walk, try our best to drag our kayaks back to their berths. There were several problems with this plan, however: for one, time was wasting and progress was painfully slow, so we would never make the last boat in time at this pace; secondly, dragging the kayaks like that would almost surely damage them; and third, my colleague had no shoes on.
I had worn my hiking shoes, knowing I might want to do a bit of hiking or climbing, but she had entered the kayak barefoot, and now the stones and coral were cutting her feet to ribbons.
We stopped and went through our options. I was reasonably certain that Dan and Nook’s home stood some two hundred yards away at a diagonal, all of it through mud, rock and coral. Otherwise, we could head about one hundred yards straight to the coast, and then another one-fifty or so along the coast to Dan and Nook’s, thereby shortening the amount of distance walking through the mud and stones but extending the overall distance and time.
I suggested that maybe my friend could wear my shoes for half the distance, then I’d take them for the second half. Of course, this just meant we would both be injured instead of just one of us suffering, but it seemed only fair.
It was at around that moment that I noticed a figure making its way from what I figured to be the general location of Dan and Nook’s house. It seemed to take forever, the figure barely growing as she or he slogged through the mud, occasionally stumbling over a stone or bit of coral. Soon, though, we recognized Nook … and the pair of flip flops she held in her hands for my colleague.
She said that they’d expected us back over an hour ago, that Dan and a friend had even gone looking for us: the men who’d given me a wave. Nook got to work trying to tether the two kayaks together, hoping that the three of us could carry both in a single trip. Unfortunately, though it was a clever idea, we never managed to effectively lash the paddles to the boats to use as carrying handles. We quickly realized that we’d have to carry the kayaks back one at a time, doubling both effort and—more importantly—time.
In the photo above you can see my kayak, stranded and forlorn.
Half way to shore, with Nook and my friend carrying the front and myself at the rear, Nook announced that it was no good; it would take us too long and we would be certain to miss the boat.
It should be mentioned here that a private boat off the island would coat us upwards of 7000bt (about $280), while a hotel was an option but would also cost us. Oh, and we didn’t have that kind of cash on us and the island probably had a single ATM, if that.
So, Nook wanted us on that boat—and we concurred.
She ran off and we saw her speak to a few local men. Soon, they were walking toward us and pointing at the second kayak, which we had left stranded some one-hundred yards back. We assumed these two men would grab the second boat while we took care of the first. But they waved us away, making it understood that they would gather and carry back both boats.
We couldn’t believe it. And there were more surprises in store for us. Starting with Nook, tiny upon her scooter, roaring up the road and hurriedly waving us over.
“Quick, quick,” she shouted. “Come! Come! Quick!”
We ran. She told us that she’d phoned a cab-truck and told the driver to head this way, that we’d meet up with him. She’d also instructed the driver to call the boat operator and ask him to wait for us.
We hopped on, Nook driving, my friend behind her, and me hanging off the end of the bench. Nook sped us up the dirt road, slowing only to maneuver around potholes or the odd stray dog. About two thirds of the way, we crossed paths with the cab and Nook threw a hand out, waving him to a stop. We climbed off and much too hurriedly gave Nook our infinite and horribly embarrassed thanks, offering her money for her troubles, which she refused. We clambered into the cab and the driver took off.
And the boat? It was waiting for us, given that Nook and the cab driver had actually managed to get us there five minutes before departure. I even had time to buy us a couple bottles of water before boarding.
On the way back, the boat jouncing over waves, Koh Yao Noi receding into the horizon, we sat mostly in silence. It all felt a little surreal. What had begun as a supremely relaxing yet invigorating experience had so quickly devolved into an intense and rather embarrassing adventure. My colleague was close to mortification, I think, but I guess I adopted a somewhat more positive outlook. Sure, we’d likely ended up being more trouble than not for both Dan and Nook—especially Nook—and, yeah, thanks to us, maybe they’ll think twice before kindly offering their kayaks to a couple dumb foreigners, and, okay, the whole experience could have cost us a lot of money and did, to a degree, tarnish an otherwise wonderful island experience; all of that is true.
But, what truly stands out for me is that I’d been the recipient of yet another example of what I’d come to know as Thai Friendliness. Yet another example of Thais being unnecessarily helpful, generous and kind. Even when the recipient of that help, generosity and kindness may not entirely deserve it. It’s this kind of experience that makes Thailand such a special place.
So, in the end, in a decidedly selfish way, I can say without reservation that it was all worth it.
I just hope that—with time—Dan and Nook feel the same way.
Awright, and we’re done! Still with me?
Kanchanaburi’s up next.