Beautiful but crowded and appallingly run
Aquamarine water embraces either side of a long stripe of white sand connecting three rocky hills on Ko Nang Yuan, one of the more visually impressive islands in Thailand. All over Ko Tao and as far away as Ko Samui, travel agents use the tiny island as a poster child for that perfect paradise, attracting enough day trippers to threaten the very beauty that they come for.
There’s no doubt: Ko Nang Yuan is gorgeous. Visibility is excellent at the large coral reefs found off either shore. While not super fine, the coral sandbar is stunning and it can be a lot of fun to swim off one shore before stepping across to the other, and back again as many times as you like. A sturdy wooden walkway skirts massive boulders to afford views of Ko Tao, which stretches only a few hundred metres away at its closest point. In the old days it was possible to swim between the two, but boat traffic now makes that dangerous.
So what’s not to like? First, the huge crowds that arrive each day with dozens of boat tours make it difficult to enjoy the island without being distracted by all of the bodies and boat engines. Quite a few diving boats also anchor offshore, favouring the calm and relatively shallow water for teaching first-time divers. The chaotic scene reminded us of a very popular amusement park ride, except that it’s a delicate natural ecosystem and not a work of steel and concrete.
Arrive at dawn and you’ll get to see Nang Yuan with minimal other people. By 10:00 it starts to get crowded, and by noon the beach and snorkelling areas are overrun. A great viewpoint tops the largest hill to the north, or so we’ve heard – the narrow trail was so stuffed with people that we weren’t able to make it to the top despite three different attempts. Nang Yuan simply isn’t big enough for the numbers of people that it is happy to charge to arrive.
The group that runs the only place to stay, Nang Yuan Island Dive Resort, owns the island and runs the daily operations. The resort offers pricey rooms and a restaurant serving below-average food in the 150 to 300 baht range, with a bottle of water going for 30 baht. During our visit, staffers struggled to keep it together while dishing out plate after plate to the hordes. Men’s toilets were filthy to the point of being unusable, and there was no running water in the bathrooms.
The resort pinches every last baht out of tourists that it can. Snorkels are rented out for 100 baht and two beach chairs or mats go for 150 baht: not unreasonable until you consider that surly staffers walk around prohibiting anyone from laying out their own beach towels.
Management attempts to justify this by claiming they need to “save” grains of sand, which might get stuck in towels and carried off the island. Considering the more-pressing environmental concerns facing Ko Nang Yuan, paying multiple staffers to yell at tourists for lying on towels is over the top – it seems obvious to us that the rule is primarily aimed at forcing tourists to pay for the mats and chairs. All visitors are also charged 100 baht to set foot on the island.
The bottom line is that Ko Nang Yuan is still worth a visit – if you make an effort to get there early. Dealing with the crowds could be worth it if coming from Ko Tao, since it’s so close and relatively cheap to go without a tour, but we wouldn’t book a tour to Nang Yuan from Ko Samui or Ko Pha Ngan. From those islands, we’d hit the Ang Thong Islands instead.
Longtail boat taxis charge 150 baht, one way, per person, with a minimum of two people, if coming from Sairee Beach and 200 baht from Mae Haad. Certain Lomprayah ferries also make a stop at Ko Nang Yuan, which can be hit on any number of day tours as well. Admission is 100 baht.
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.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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