The east-coast village boasts Phayam’s most extensive collection of freestanding eateries and bars. A standout is Sabaidee, which is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner on the lane running south from the pier. Big portions of Thai food are tasty and reasonably priced, including a massaman curry that’s large enough for two to share and made with enough curry paste for a nice burn following the potatoes, chicken and peanuts. You’ll also find fresh coffee and excellent sandwiches on fresh breads.
Head a little further south down this same lane to find a few large seafood restaurants with seaside decks that fill up with Thai diners on weekends. At Kho Phayam Seafood we had a good pla neung manao featuring a whole white snapper simmering in a broth of lime, garlic and chilli. Other options include som tam with horseshoe crab and grilled prawns and squid, with prices running from 100 to 220 for most dishes.
Further from the pier along the main inland road, a cluster of simpler spots dish out cheaper seafood along with grilled meats served with som tam and other salads pounded by cooks from Northeast Thailand. The ladies at Nud Udon (sign in Thai) whipped us up a delicious and fiery tam taeng (cucumber salad) and gai yang (grilled chicken) with sticky rice and cold beer for around 200 baht all up. Afterwards you might stroll across the street for fried roti with sweetened condensed milk, one of a handful of finger foods sold by street-style vendors under a thatch awning on the way out of the village.
A great option for dinner and drinks is Rendezvous, run by Tim, an American who used to own the Sport Corner Bar on Sukhumvit Soi 20 in Bangkok, and Som, a Thai chef who has worked at big-name Bangkok hotels. He ensures that the beer is ice-cold and that flat-screen TVs are tuned to the best sports of the day—Premier League, NFL, Fiji versus Japan in rugby—you name it. She cooks well-balanced panang beef curry along with other Thai dishes, burgers and even some Mexican options. We liked how the pub-style menu features real-deal Thai dishes like kung chae nam manao (raw prawns with lime and spices) in the same column as Caesar salad and nachos. The liquor selection includes top-shelf options like Grey Goose and Don Julio. The pub draws a good crowd of expats and long-stay travellers who often mix things up by wandering down the lane to a pair of other expat-run pubs: Hell’s Bells and Oscar’s.
Ao Khao Kwai
Another good cluster of freestanding restaurants is found where the island’s main north-to-south road meets the turnoff to South Ao Khao Kwai. Here we recommend Krua Khun Kao (the sign says “Kruq”, a typo), run by a couple from Chiang Rai. The tom yum that we tried was terrific, with big chunks of squid, fish and prawns so fresh that they melted in the mouth, all bobbing in an expertly prepared broth flavoured by lime juice and chunks of fresh galangal. The laap pla tort (Northeast-style fried fish salad) was also tasty, even if it was toned down a bit for Western tastes. The open-sided restaurant is open for lunch and dinner, and daily cooking classes are offered from 11:00 to 12:00. Nextdoor is Cha-Chai Home, a vegetarian Thai restaurant that was also recommended to us.
Only resort restaurants are found on the sand of South Ao Khao Kwai, where June Horizon serves tasty deep-fried som tam and other decent Thai dishes along with fresh coffee, beer and cocktails served to tables set up on the sand. It’s enchanting when the soft lanterns are lit up after dark. While we didn’t try it on our last visit, we’ve also heard good things about the Western food at Buffalo Bay Vacation Club’s large beachfront restaurant.
Up on the lane running behind North Ao Khao Kwai, My BBQ is a huge restaurant serving grilled seafood and other Thai dishes. It doubles as a reggae bar with occasional live bands performing under a vaulted pavilion. Across the street is Fisherman, which appeared to be a good option if My BBQ is too big and noisy for you. On the same inland lane, Flower Village serves some Italian dishes along with a house-made limoncello cream. Down on the beach, Mr Gao’s restaurant at the same-named resort was closed for renovation when we passed through but has a long-standing reputation for quality Thai fare.
For reggae-inspired nightlife, head to one of the most eye-catching structures found on any Thai island: Hippy Bar. You’ll be floored upon seeing the three-storey driftwood castle that looks like a psychedelic pirate ship, complete with a long bow reaching out over the sand. The mellow staff serves beer and smoothies, made with or without rum, to travellers who settle into all sorts of perches built into the “ship.” Parties with live reggae bands that can be heard straight across the bay are held monthly. After grabbing a drink or two here, you might wander a little further north to relax on some of Archan Pan’s own driftwood creations.
On the main lane leading away from central Ao Yai, vegetarians should head to Baan Nam Cha (Tea House) for a spread of Burmese dishes like gyae toh (ginger and cabbage salad) and garam masala hae (coconut curry with pumpkin and potato) along with veggie dips and sandwiches on house-baked bread. The veggie “laap” burger that we tried could have used more seasoning but was satisfying nonetheless, especially when accompanied by a pot of oolong tea. The Burmese and Western staff serves more than a dozen types of tea along with free-trade organic coffee and smoothies made with ingredients like peanut butter, ginger and caramel. Look to the loft if the ground-floor tables are full.
Another cafe serving good Western food in a hippie-style atmosphere is Sathanee (The Station), located near Baan Nam Cha on the same inland road. House-smoked bacon and salmon is served on multi-grain bread with pickles, mustard leaves and chillies. The hours are sporadic but the location makes it easy to stop by on the way to or from Ao Yai. This lane also hosts Meditteraneo, a good pizzeria run by an Italian expat who spent years making pizza and pasta at Forra Diving Resort on Ko Lipe. You could also head further inland to Mae Kai, a pink-fronted eatery that will satisfy your som tam and grilled chicken craving. On the lane that shoots south behind the beach towards the south side of Ao Yai, Pad Thai Nid Noi is a go-to spot for pad Thai, pad see ew and other wok-fried Thai noodle dishes.
On the beach itself, Friends pleases crowds with a mix of Thai, Burmese and Western food served to tables set up on the sand or under a roof. The attention to detail that makes this resort special comes through in the food: sandwiches are made with thick slices of cheddar cheese on great house-baked breads, and the “Burmese salad” features pickled tea leaves in a crunchy, sweet and sour mixture that we found exceptional. For a bigger spread of Thai fare, we also heard positive reports about JJ Seafood located on the other side of the beach.
While it’s not set in a wildly imaginative structure like Hippy Bar on Ao Khao Kwai, the Rasta Baby Bar on the northern stretch of Ao Yai has a similar reggae-inspired atmosphere. It throws some of the island’s best parties about once a month, featuring Thai reggae greats like Job 2 Do and Som Rom Band. Some of the resorts also throw parties in high season so have a poke around to see what’s on during your stay.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.