Ko Yao: the islands you're looking for

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First published 8th August, 2006

If you're looking for trackless forest and untamed wilderness, the best advice is usually to head to northern Thailand, or better yet, northern Laos. But just an hour away from Phuket, lie two islands where KFC has yet to even think of opening up its doors, where dirt roads turn unexpectedly into cow paths before being engulfed in forests of wild coconut palms and mangroves, where tourism is still an after thought, and where the clamorous din of commerce is nowhere to be heard. Welcome to the Ko Yao islands.

Ko Yao Noi and Ko Yao Yai (Little Long Island and Big Long Island) remain one of the last refuges for travellers who kick it 'old school'. While the vast majority of travellers consider these islands to be too far out of the way, we think Ko Yao Noi and Ko Yao Yai just about top the list of places you absolutely positively must visit during your trip to Thailand. To those who feel that their wanderlust has been thwarted by the islands and beaches elsewher, listen up, this is where you've been looking for.

The Ko Yao Islands have been spared until now for a few simple reasons. For one thing, the beaches aren't as perfect as they are on the Andaman side of Phuket -- at low tide, they full of rocks and no good for swimming. The Thais here are observant Muslims, and while there is certainly no separatist violence, they aren't quick to give up their land and their ideals to Western encroachment either. Alcohol consumption is still frowned upon in most restaurants -- at least those not oriented towards tourists, of which there are precious few. Finally, the low-quality of the eastern beaches of Phuket Island have pushed developed west and to the north, not to the east.

Ko Yao Noi beach scenes

The Yao islands are technically part of Phang Nga province and while accessible by boat from both Krabi and Phang Nga, the cheapest, easiest way to get there if from the eastern ports on Phuket Island -- with those showing up looking for girlie bars and night clubs quickly put on the next boat going back to Phuket. A trip is taken on a public ferry, nothing like the spiffy cruisers that ply their way daily to Phi Phi, and at a fraction of the price. The pier on Ko Yao Noi is not crowded with shops, touts, nor tuk-tuk drivers waiting to nab tourists the minute they step off the boat. In fact, it's a long ride to the centre of town. Once there, it's hard to believe this is the 'centre,' but this is where they put the lone 7-eleven two years ago, so it must be the centre. Otherwise, a few Thai shops and stalls, only one centrally-located guest house, and one bar/restaurant for expats and tourists to hang out in.

Ko Yao Noi, to date, has hosted most of the guesthouses and resorts, which embodies the state of transition in which the Island now finds itself. For the most part, the bungalows and guest houses here seem to be more oriented towards enjoying quality of life rather than quantity of income. Those 'in the know' make their way here faithfully, mostly in high season, and stay for the whole summer. That's been enough to keep the local tourist business afloat, and few here want that to ever change.

Ko Yao Noi beach scenes

True, the Ko Yao Island Resort has been operating for a while, with its unique, open-plan luxury bungalows, but the owners have been working hard to fly below the radar, and keep it special. There's one true luxury resort, The Paradise, in an stunning location amid limestone cliffs on the northern tip of the Island. But most of the guests there arrive and depart by boat, and rarely see the rest of the island. Investors may own the patch of land upon which the resort sits, but the jungle still has possession of the six kilometre dirt road leading overland towards it -- treacherous hills, creased by deep runnels and pocked with mires of mud big enough to swallow a tuk-tuk whole. Up until now, in the battle between the Island and its would-be developers, the island has been winning.

This would seem to be even more true of Ko Yao Yai, which despite its size, has far fewer places to stay. The bungalow operations around the Lohjak pier are so scraggly and misbegotten, it's hard to believe some of them are even in open for business. The Yao Yai Island Resort, with its collection of modest thatch bungalows giving on to the beach, has been the only prime destination for foreign tourists.

Ko Yao Yai beach scenes

But all this is about to change. The Evason is undertaking a huge project on Ko Yao Noi, and this time, between the site and the town, there's no buffer of jungle. As many as eight luxury resorts are set to be built on Ko Yao Yai in the next two years. New boat departures are already being added to the ferry schedule in preparation for the construction phase and the subsequent boom in tourism. The Koh Yao Islands represent something of a final frontier, and the rail road is a comin'.

Hopefully the lessons of Ko Phi Phi and Patong have been learned, and the tourist industry will work with the local population to preserve its character and way of life. Not to mention its dignity. But just in case that doesn't happen, you better head here now before it's too late.

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