Laid-back Thailand escape

Photo of Cy Clayton

Pristine Koh Yao Yai feels a world away from its busier island neighbours such as Phuket.

Koh Yao Yai is one of those places that is equally beautiful in dreadful weather as it is when the sun is shining.

As tropical islands go, it’s everything Phuket (or at least Patong) is not. Laid-back, quiet, uncrowded and with no nightlife (and little alcohol to speak of outside the hotels), it’s perfect for travellers seeking the kind of holiday where lazy days and early nights are not something to feel guilty about.

Koh Yao Yai and neighbouring Koh Yao Noi — translated as “big long island” and “little long island”, respectively — are off the eastern coast of Phuket. Yao Yai is about double the size of its sibling and is the more traditional, less developed of the two. 

After four days in Patong, Yao Yai looms as a welcome change of pace. A 20-minute speedboat ride from Phuket’s Ao Po marina and we reach the island, where we dock at the private pier of our resort, Santhiya. 

We step off the boat and are greeted with the smells of the Japanese teppanyaki restaurant at the end of the jetty, where a few days later we’ll dine with our feet dangling over the water while our order of griddled marinated potatoes, soba noodles and prawn skewers is freshly grilled nearby.

Once we have checked into the hotel and enjoyed our complimentary neck and shoulder massages, we’re escorted to one of Santhiya’s fleet of tuk-tuks, which are used to ferry guests around the sprawling, steep property. The resort and its mountainous natural surrounds blend seamlessly into one another, not least for the lucky few who stay in one of the pool villas that we glimpse on our way up the mountain, where only the treetops of the hillside below separate one’s private pool from the picture-perfect ocean panorama beyond.

Our own accommodation is a luxurious ocean-facing room with sliding doors that reveal a carved wood balcony housing a day bed and an oversized bathtub. On our first night on the island, a storm hits after dinner and the balcony proves the perfect spot to take in the bucketing rain, lightning and impossibly loud thunder. It’s difficult to say which are lovelier — the sunny days on Koh Yao Yai where the ocean is at its most luminous blue and the steamy horizon positively sparkles, or the unsettled days where the wind rustles through the rainforest and the lightning appears to light up the farthest edges of the sky over Phang Nga Bay.

The morning after the storm, we walk the short distance from our room to Saitaara restaurant, where guests can enjoy 180-degree views over the bay, either from the infinity pool or its surrounding lounges, or from the restaurant itself. Here breakfast diners jostle for prime position along an open-air bar while traditional music plays by the buffet and the mesmerising ocean view challenges you to drag your eyes away.

With scenes such as these guests could be forgiven for, as we did, spending the majority of their stay within the resort.

When we do venture beyond Santhiya’s private beach frontage, a short walk up the roughly 1km strip of sand brings us out to a small collection of street food stalls, a mini market and some tourist vendors. A few minutes’ walk further inland finds an array of roadside restaurants dotted among stilted homes, including one that provided the best of many, many pad Thais consumed on our trip. 

Back at Santhiya, two eateries are at beach level: a fine dining restaurant that hosts nightly themed buffets and a more casual beachfront bar. Both are separated from the waves only by a row of sun lounges.

The beach itself we often have to ourselves. At other times it’s a hive of activity, from longtail boats coming in from trips to neighbouring islands, to fellow guests trying out Santhiya’s water activities (such as kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding and snorkelling. There’s also Muay Thai boxing, yoga and beachside massages on offer).

For all its beauty, Yao Yai is certainly not the magnet for daytrippers that Thailand’s better-known islands are. This was proved when friends who came to visit us from Phuket found their way to Yao Yai by hitching a ride on a local supply boat, which docked at various islands along the way to toss bags of rice and other supplies overboard to waiting locals.

We’d planned our own daytrip to Phi Phi with a local longtail owner but the weather had turned and we were — quite happily — left on our island. When the weather is calm though there are numerous islands that can be easily reached from Yao Yai, including the hotspots of Phi Phi and James Bond islands and various secret spots that Santhiya staff promised us were even more spectacular, but without the tourist crush.

We add this information to our to-do list, telling ourselves we’ll make more of an effort to explore on our next visit to Yao Yai (and there will certainly be a second).

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