Ko Yao Yai, or "Big Long Island", running about 30 kilometres in length from top to bottom, sits halfway between Phuket and Krabi in the middle of Phang Nga Bay. Though only a 25-minute speedboat trip from Phuket’s east coast, this long, narrow island ringed with thick mangroves and white-sand beaches has somehow avoided becoming another hectic island resort. It’s more than twice the size of neighbouring Ko Yao Noi, but tourism development here lags behind its sister island.
Yao Yai’s slower pace of change likely rests with its local population, mostly conservative Muslim Thais who seem largely content to keep with a more traditional way of life. Though the island is now home to more than a dozen resorts and guesthouses, fishing and farming remain primary means of income for Yao Yai residents.
Life is simple here yet there’s a feeling of fertile abundance, as seen in Yao Yai’s lush landscapes of coconut groves and rubber plantations, and its tidy villages of mostly handcrafted stilted wooden homes surrounded by tropical potted plants and bougainvilleas. The island’s infrastructure is good, being on the electrical grid with decent internet and mobile phone service throughout. The scenic main road that runs the length of the island is mostly smooth and easy to navigate, and more of the dirt-track side roads are being upgraded.
With its accommodation mix mostly in the mid-range to luxury level, Yao Yai tends to attract a more serene type of traveller, couples on a romantic escape and families seeking a quiet beach holiday. Beyond the occasional privately organised event, there’s certainly no party scene here. Alcohol is largely only available within the resorts, though one liquor store has now opened near Chong Lad village and, perhaps inevitably, some Reggae dudes have raised their Rasta flag at a bar just outside the Yao Yai Village resort.
Beach-hopping and exploring the island by motorbike or bicycle are among greatest pleasures of staying on Yao Yai. The beaches here are mostly narrow strips of white sand in calm, shallow bays that transform into mud flats at low tide – thus for most beaches you’ll need to time your swim sessions with the shifting of the tides. Loh Paret beach along the west coast is a notable exception, and with its appeal of all-day swimming and sunset views, this is where much of Yao Yai’s (limited) resort development is taking place.
If swimming and sunbathing at deserted stretches of sand starts to wear, a number of local operators are on hand to take you out on karst island or mangrove kayaking trips, ATV offroading, fishing or diving excursions or agricultural tours. Inland, between Chong Lad and Klong Hia piers, you’ll find the island’s best views atop the Ko Yao Viewpoint, reached via a steep pathway that the landowner Khun Coco hacked out from his rubber tree plantation. He charges nothing for going up there, though you could stop for a meal or drink at the roadside restaurant run by his daughter. He also runs private kayaking trips through the mangroves.
Snorkelling is possible off some of Yao Yai’s beaches, or on boating trips out to the nearby islands of Ko Khai Nok and Ko Khai Nai.
The above two gorgeous yet speedboat-infested islands swarming with daytrippers are hopefully not hints of what’s to come for Yao Yai, but, sadly, a jet-ski operation has set up near Loh Jark pier on the island’s southeast coast. Loh Jark beach is where you can find a bit of the "Hello my friend!" hustling more commonly seen on places like Phuket or Ao Nang, but so far it’s the only beach here with this kind of scene.
Loh Jark’s worrisome developments aside, Ko Yao Yai remains one of the most unspoiled, truly tranquil islands of the Andaman coast.
By Lana Willocks.