Ko Yao Noi, or "Small Long Island", sits halfway between Phuket and Krabi in the middle of Phang Nga Bay. Found just a 30-minute speedboat trip away from Phuket, Yao Noi's tight-knit local Muslim community has led the island along a more low-impact, peaceful development path than its rowdy island neighbour.
Yao Noi boasts a diverse and photogenic landscape with mangrove forests lining its west coast, a lush, pastoral interior and sandy east-coast beaches with superb views to the towering karst islands of Phang Nga Bay. The 140-square-kilometre island is about half the size of neighbouring Ko Yao Yai, but it's the more developed of the two with more accommodation and tourism infrastructure. A 7-Eleven is one of the first shops you'll notice on arrival but aside from that the island is free of franchised blandness.
With Yao Noi's residents aiming to attract higher spending, "quality" visitors, a number of private villas and luxury resorts have sprung up, including the Six Senses Yao Noi, a pool villa resort that's been featured in all the luxe travel magazines and is recognised for its eco-friendly initiatives. Six Senses is one of the handful of high-end hotels that have led Ko Yao Noi to have the highest average room rate of all destinations in Thailand -- a whopping 9,519 baht in a 2013 hotel price index survey. (Compared to a national average of 3,364 baht.)
But those travelling on a budget have no reason to be scared away by Yao Noi's purported exclusivity. Beyond the resorts life goes on much as it did before the arrival of tourists, with Yao Noi villagers still farming, fishing, tapping rubber and swinging in hammocks strung up under their stilted homes. Plenty of flashpacker-priced rooms are found here, and without too much trouble you'll still find places that fit the budget traveller's ideal: beach bungalows for around 500 baht.
Many bungalows are family-run and generally Yao Noi's budget choices are better maintained and built with more care than similarly priced places on other islands in the Andaman region. Mid-priced accommodation with air-con rooms and swimming pools are in short supply here, however -- Ko Yao Yai and Ko Lanta in Krabi have better choices in this range.
Yao Noi's beaches are appealing stretches of golden sand but they tend to line shallow bays. At low tide the muddy, rocky shoreline is exposed – great for chasing crabs, but not so good for swimming. Relaxing on the beach and taking boat trips out to Phang Nga Bay are the main things to do on Ko Yao Noi, as well as simply enjoying scenic rides around the island's lightly-trafficked roads on a motorbike or bicycle.
Diving, snorkelling, sea kayaking and rock climbing are also top Yao Noi activities, and the island is also home to a yoga retreat and a Muay Thai boxing training camp. A few shops offer Thai massage at good prices or an indulgent spa session could be arranged at one of the upmarket resorts.
Yao Noi's idyllic backdrop has caught the attention of those wanting destination wedding events, not to mention honeymoons. What you won't find on Yao Noi is the Red Bull bucket-fuelled party scene found at other Thai islands, since drinking alcohol is largely frowned upon outside the resorts and visitor-oriented restaurants. Thirsty night owls will be able to find a scattering of bars, but for the most part the only buzz after dark is the screech of cicadas in the trees.
Ko Yao Noi has some Western and Thai restaurants but these are generally poor value compared to Phuket, so stick to the roadside stalls or village market if you're on a tight budget. A few independent restaurants including J'Taime are found in the main village, otherwise most bungalows and all the resorts have restaurants attached.
Weather-wise, the best time to visit Ko Yao Noi is during the drier months of November through April. In the southwest monsoon season the rain might keep you bungalow-bound at times so be sure to bring along some books. From May through October some places shut down but most of Yao Noi's resorts and bungalows stay open year-round with discounted rates in these rainier months.
Travellers returning to Ko Yao Noi from years past might notice a spread of concrete and that their favourite bungalow retreat has now added three or four snazzier new huts out back, but overall Ko Yao Noi remains green, clean and tranquil. With a strong local community keen to stave off the crush of development faced by other islands, there's a feeling that the good ship Yao Noi is being steered on a steady course. For those hoping for a taste of Thai island life at its best, Ko Yao Noi is hard to beat.
By Lana Willocks.