Empty beaches, deep starry nights and hammocks strung to cheap bungalows are a few of the simple joys found on Ko Phayam. Since the late 2000s, this medium-size island in the Andaman Sea has added some cushy accommodation and become relatively easy to reach, all while preserving a mellow vibe favoured by artists, hippies and long-stayers.
Millions of bioluminescent plankton made the surf glow neon green as we waded off Ao Khao Kwai late one December night. Up above, the stars shined so bright that it seemed like we could see halfway across the galaxy. Awe-struck alongside a few new friends we’d met at a beach bar, it was easy to understand why they return to Phayam each year.
The laid-back atmosphere, affordable rooms and ease of meeting other people make Phayam a great choice for independent travellers, especially those seeking an extended stay. A network of sealed lanes, bicycle and motorbike rental, and even motorbike taxis, make it easy to get around. The lack of cars, 7-elevens and large resorts keep the island from feeling too commercialised, even as WiFi and 24-hour electricity are no longer hard to find.
Anyone who appreciates the earthy-crunchy side of Ko Pha Ngan should really check out Phayam. Bars and art galleries with names like Rasta Baby and The Shadow dot long beaches and narrow lanes threading an interior flush with flowers, butterflies and hornbills. Thai reggae-heads join an unusual Buddhist temple, a Moken “sea gypsy” community, quite a few Burmese staffers, and weekend Thai visitors from the mainland, to add some cultural depth.
A handful of large families that have been here for generations own most of the land, maintaining rubber and cashew farms while operating many of the 40 or so places to stay that began to appear in the late 1980s. Many permanent expats migrated here after years spent on islands like Ko Tao and Ko Lipe, fleeing the grind of mainstream tourism after discovering that Phayam’s natives had protected more of the tranquility and sense of community.
Moves like these did come with a sacrifice that also applies to travellers: Ko Phayam does not generally boast clear crystalline water off its shores. Some of its beaches do however see metre-high breaks even in dry season—surfing, boogie-boarding and windsurfing can all be arranged. Other activities include fishing, bicycling, yoga and long strolls on the sand.
When you feel like snorkeling in clearer water, sign up for a day trip to sublime Ko Surin or the islands in Laem Son Marine Park to the south. These chains also host scuba sites that can be hit as day trips, or you could hop on a live-aboard to strike north into Burma’s Mergui Archipelago. Those who prefer jungle to coral can pop over to Phayam’s less-visited neighbour, Ko Chang Noi, to hike in its more formidable forests.
Phayam’s tourism season lasts from November to May. The busiest period is late December through February, but bungalows can usually be found on the spot outside of the peak time around Christmas and New Year. Rainstorms drill the island from May to October, when most resorts close, and precipitation often continues into early December. A cashew festival is held annually in March to mark the harvest with music and sports on Ao Yai.
A 20-kilometre boat ride southwest from Ranong town takes you to Ko Phayam, the second northernmost Thai island in the Andaman Sea after nearby Ko Chang Noi. Mountainous Zadetkyi is the most noticeable of the many Burmese islands that loom to the west. Phayam comes in at about 35 square kilometres, with most of it blanketed in rubber and cashew farms. Visit in March to see the cashew trees blooming with bright red fruit that smells as good as it tastes.
Public ferries disembark at a pier extending from the island’s only real village, located roughly halfway down the east coast. Here you’ll find a cluster of eateries, bars, motorbike rental shops and travel offices, with a tourist police office and public medical clinic found a little further up the road.
Phayam’s two main beaches, Ao Yai (“Big Bay”) and Ao Khao Kwai (“Buffalo Bay”), cover either end of the west coast and are each backed by several freestanding restaurants and shops. Both are around four kilometres long, though a long patch of rocks slices Ao Khao Kwai into separate northern and southern sections. Spanning the centre of the west coast, a two-kilometre-long mangrove coast separates the two bays. A few smaller beaches are also found on the east coast.
Narrow sealed lanes run along the east coast in either direction from the pier: north to Wat Ko Phayam and Ao Mae Mai, and south to Ao Mook and towards the offshore islet of Ko Kham. Head inland from the pier and the first left (south) runs for a few kilometres to the far southern end of Ao Yai, passing a turnoff for tiny Ao Ko Kyu along the way.
Continue inland from the pier, passing this first left turn, and you’ll reach a crossroads. Keep straight (north) and the lane runs for two kilometres behind North Ao Khao Kwai before turning to dirt and ending at isolated Ao Kwang Peeb. A left (south) shoots past the turnoff for South Ao Khao Kwai before continuing for four kilometres to the centre of Ao Yai. A right (east) cuts back east to Ao Mae Mai and Wat Ko Phayam.
While there are no ATMs on Ko Phayam, Took’s Place in the village is one of a few places that can swipe credit cards and hand over the cash for a 5% charge, which is often cheaper than paying international ATM and exchange fees. Some of the better-equipped resorts also offer foreign currency exchange and cash advances.
Internet terminals are available at a few travel offices near the pier, and some resorts now offer free WiFi that tends to be patchy. Cell coverage is usually strong throughout most of the island, though the tower runs on solar cells and service can weaken when it’s overcast. Thai provider SIM cards can be topped up at convenience stores like 99 Minimart on the road to central Ao Yai.
Ko Phayam does not have a central power source, but in recent years some businesses have installed large enough generators or solar panels to sell excess electricity. The result is that many resorts now have power all night long and for much, if not all, of the daytime during high season. Some of the more rustic bungalow spots still have electricity only from around 18:00 to 23:00.
It’s possible to cross the border to Burma at Ranong / Kawthaung and return to Phayam in a single day, but the “good old days” of hanging out for months while doing a border run every 30 days to get a fresh visa-exempt stay have come and gone. You should get a tourist visa if planning to stick around for more than a month or two. (See the Thailand visa page for details).
By David Luekens.
Last updated on 15th January, 2017.