Travelogue: Thailand, Ko Yao Noi

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” While our first 24 hours on Ko Yao Noi were easily the lowest point of the trip (I’ll explain), even that does little to sully the memory of these dreamy islands in the Andaman Sea—and our stay here was ultimately a highlight of the two weeks we spent in Thailand.

We had arranged to fly home from Phuket, and reserved our last two nights there, but hoped to find a quieter island for the majority of our beach days. When we’d last visited the country, we’d chosen to head to the other coast—the gulf of Thailand—and to the island of Ko Samui; this was our first time on the west coast. After much debate and a lot of Instagram geotag stalking—on account of many discouraging reports of over-crowded islands and reefs, I am happy to report that we found a spot that had that just-right (elusive) mix of castaway fantasy and drinks-when-you-wish.

Ko Yao Noi was the spot, our small island of choice—30 minutes by speedboat from Phuket, in the middle of Phang Nga bay.

Our transfer from Elephant Hills in Khao Sok National Park took us on a nearly three-hour ride south through forests and small villages, both punctuated by towering limestone karsts that would appear to rise out of the horizon. It was a long ride, but I enjoyed seeing parts of the country that weren’t in our guidebooks. One village seemed entirely dedicated to making brooms—we passed hundreds of drying grass bundles by the side of the road.

We crossed a bridge onto Phuket and turned off for Bangrong pier, where we’d learned a public ferry would be available to take us to Ko Yao Noi, with frequent departures. Our hotel, Ko Yao Island Resort, offered to arrange transportation by longtail or by speedboat, but the cost difference would be quite significant. We did take their offer to have a taxi meet us when the ferry arrived to the island, however.

Getting dropped at Bangrong pier was a bit of an exercise in trust: the driver let us off with our bags and there was a moment when Aron and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows—is this really the right place? I spied a vehicle with the name of our hotel on it and was put at ease, but I think it took Aron a bit longer as different men approached in offer to help with the purchase of our ferry tickets. It was helpful to have known in advance the timetable and prices for the crossing to feel like everything was adding up.

Macaque monkeys darted into sight to steal bottles of soda from the trash while we waited, some carrying their clinging young, as the dockmaster occasionally got up to shoo them off. Eventually we climbed aboard a speedboat with many other passengers. It was hot and stuffy in the cabin, so Hudson and I snagged the last remaining spots in the bow and let the wind hit our faces as we sped along.

And to our relief, there was a man waiting for us at the pier when we arrived. We climbed into his taxi—a truckbed, fitted with benches—for the final leg.

The island is small—just over 50 square miles—and a single loop road winds past beach bars and mangroves, past sandy beaches with Phang Nga Bay’s beautiful waters in the background as well as rubber trees, farmers, and water buffalo.

We’d chosen Ko Yao Island resort for our hotel after I’d spotted some pictures of the views from the legendary Six Senses Yao Noi. I saw the Karst islands of Phang Nga Bay and thought: I want to go there! It occurred to me that there must be some good places nearby with those same views. This was right next door—and while still a splurge, our stay was a far cry from the Six Senses rates. I looked back at the queries I posted to some travel forums, seeking recommendations for any island in the area, and here’s what I’d written: “a resort/hotel that feels boutiquey but has amenities common to a resort (like an on-site restaurant/bar/spa and maybe a kids’ club). Would like comfort, but not too much pretension. Most important to us: Expectation of families. Doesn’t have to be specifically geared for families (water slides etc.), but don’t want to feel like we have to tip-toe bc we’re the only ones with kids. Also: Nice view from room, and a two-bedroom or at least some extra space for sleeping kids.”


It seemed like an impossible request. The nice places seem geared for honeymooners, the rest for backpackers. There was hardly any sign of children in the Instagram geotags for the islands. But somehow this place actually ended up checking all the boxes!

As soon as we stepped through the gates, we looked out and agreed it was one of the most picturesque places we’d ever been. Thatched-roof bungalows looked out to the bay, each with open-air showers and bathtubs, and an open floor-plan. Ours had two beds, divided by a partial wall, with sliding doors that opened to the lawn. Each seemed just far enough from its neighbor.

But here’s the “worst of times” part…

I was tempted to pull out my phone to take a picture (recall that our SLR had stopped working the previous day), but thought ‘better to take pictures later.’ We sat down, accepted some welcome drinks, and handed over our passports while the children went running for the lawn. Aron went after them, just to be sure no one went straight for the sea, and I finished the check-in process. When it was time to go to the room, I briefly left our bags to call after them to return. I couldn’t help myself: I reached into my pocket for my phone.

It wasn’t there! Panic ensued. I was sure it was in my pocket—I almost took it out just moments before. But it was possible that it slipped out while I was sitting on the sofa at registration. I felt 95% certain. But there was just enough doubt that Aron went running back to the taxi to search the benches. If it had come out there, it was possible it was somewhere on the road. I kept looking at the young woman who had checked us in thinking that she must have taken it, perhaps when it had come out of my pocket on the bench—but that 5% of doubt made me too hesitant to accuse her. What could I do? It was the worst feeling—thinking that someone who is offering you help, and who is getting you set up in your room with all of your things, may have just stolen something so valuable. And if it were her, was it just her? Or were the other employees involved? It was a complete shock—and feeling fairly certain it had been stolen just as we were checking in made us feel so vulnerable and violated. It was awful.

We tried to get as many photos from the cloud as possible, saving them to Aron’s phone, but all of the videos we’d taken on the trip would be gone—and most of the photos from the previous day. We tried to move on, and did our best for the next couple of days to forget it had happened, but we sort of lost a day to this. And every now and then the woman would come and check on us, and the sadness would come back.

At one point, she offered that she knew a guy in town who sometimes finds phones. And “could we give her the passcode so he could see if one were ours?” Of course, we said no—we offered a reward, offered to go to him, but there were reasons this was not possible. It was all so fishy! So I spoke with the manager about this story, and that’s when he told me they too suspected she’d taken it, along with some petty cash. She was an intern visiting from Geneva (and from a wealthy family, with no need to steal). They would be dismissing her, but would offer not to involve the police if she returned the phone.

So that’s how, 48 hours later, I got my phone back! I still can’t believe it!

Of course none of that is typical to a visit here. And what’s more memorable is this water, this view.

I’d read on Travelfish that Yao Noi’s beaches “tend to line shallow bays. At low tide the muddy, rocky shoreline is exposed–great for chasing crabs, but not so good for swimming.” I’d checked the tide charts and was concerned as were to be there during some of the month’s lowest tides. It was true that many of the beaches we passed featured land-locked boats at low-tide and long walks to get to the water. Somehow this bay was an exception. Even at low-tide, it never lost its appeal.

We had four nights on Yao Noi. Each day with breakfast at the hotel. There was a buffet with yogurts and fruit, eggs and regional specialties, that was set up each morning. And not only were there signs that children were welcome—high chairs, crayons, and Mickey cups—there were even other children! Two other families with children the same age were there during our stay.

The hotel stay included some activities—each day there was something new on the chalkboard. There were twice-a-week free yoga classes, some free excursions to neighboring islands, and daily 15 minute head-and-neck massages in the mornings. Hudson was so interested in those and the staff was so kind that he even got an abbreviated 5-minute version. “That was my first massage ever, and it was the best one ever,” he beamed afterward.

You were also able to borrow kayaks, snorkeling equipment, and bicycles. But mostly we spent our time floating, swinging, and collecting shells.

We regrettably skipped the first excursion, but caught one on our last day. There was one other thing that made those first 24 hours rough: it was the one time I got sick on the trip. Thankfully, Aron was like a well-stocked pharmacy and it was over really quickly with some immodium. (Not all food-borne illness can be remedied with that, but we were lucky.) It seemed wise to hold off on the boat ride—just in case.

That afternoon, instead, we went into “town” to see about hiring a boat for a day-tour on our own.

Most travelers seem to enjoy touring the island on two wheels at some point, and I anticipated we might do some exploring, but this turned out to be our only trip away from the resort. We learned the island is home to a yoga retreat and a Muay Thai boxing training camp, and has a majority Muslim population—so it would be important to respect the local culture by dressing modestly away from the beaches.

There’s a small strip of shops around a 7-Eleven convenience store (air conditioned!), where Hudson and Skyler picked out bracelets and I looked to replace my sunglasses; and a series of beach-side food stands and guesthouses where we stopped for some sweet roti.

While the kids were entertained by PaSai beach and the sweet treat, I stopped at a few kiosks to find out prices for daytrips. Most seemed to be offering 6-8 hour longtail trips, including lunch, to see 3-4 islands for about 4000 baht or just over $100USD. I arranged for one to pick us up from the beach in front of the resort the following day.

Back at the hotel, the kids filled up on mango smoothies as soon as the two-for-one cocktail hour began, and Aron and I tested the house specials.

The sun was intense, so we would seek out the shade whenever possible. One of my only complaints about the resort would be the limited shade. I was happy we’d brought long-sleeved sun shirts for everyone.

When the tide was low, we discovered the tiniest crabs pushing little balls of sand out of holes on the beach. They’d create fascinating little firework-like patterns all along the shore.

The kids loved looking for bugs, lizards, crabs, and frogs. The other wildlife? Mosquitos… especially in the open-air bathrooms. We were glad we’d come prepared (we brought lots of Picaridin); the hotel also used smoke coils to drive them out, and we slept under nets.

That afternoon, as a few afternoon rainstorms passed through, Aron read to Hudson and I snuck away to the spa for a massage. We each had one massage included in our stay, and happily added more in the following days.

Daily massages are one of those things that are actually pretty reasonable in Thailand—they are considering submitting Thai Massage to the UNESCO list as part of the national heritage—so we felt like we needed to catch up after only having one in our first week.

We ate all of our dinners at the hotel—usually with Skyler falling asleep in our laps at some point through. Independent travelers could venture further for better value, but we enjoyed everything we tried off the menu.

One evening was a seafood barbecue—which was particularly appealing to the kids because it meant a tray of raw fish on display. Hudson really wanted to try the giant Tiger Prawn, and it didn’t seem like it would add up to too much, so of course we obliged. But when the bill came, I saw that it had been almost $25USD! Our math had gone terribly wrong somewhere between the kilograms and converting baht into dollars! He asked for another prawn the next night, and we explained that he might have to get a job first.

On our second full day, we were picked up early by the longtail I’d reserved in town. We were really hopeful to find some good snorkeling and knew that an early start would give us the best chances.

Our first stop was to “Red Rock Island” or Koh Daeng—and there was a great deal of colorful fish and some healthy reef.

It was pretty exciting to drop anchor and look down into the clear waters, full of fish. I was so impressed by Hudson’s eagerness to jump in.

We’d brought all of our masks and snorkels from home. Hudson’s is a great one for kids—it’s a “dry” snorkel and it’s works so well. I highly recommend it for beginners or anyone who has trouble purging water. I’d also packed a kid-sized inflatable snorkel vest for Hudson and a puddle jumper for Skyler.

She took a bit more convincing—refusing Aron’s initial invitation in order to stay on board with me and her baby doll (who came everywhere with us). But eventually she got into the water to swim, too, when I offered her a life jacket (like Hudson’s) over her puddle jumper! It was the first time we’d all gone off the boat together!

Along with all the fish, we found some giant clams and some Christmas Tree Worms.

Next was Koh Hong (Room Island) which was a magnificent sight: you travel through a narrow passage to enter into a jade lagoon, shallow and salty. There isn’t any marine life to speak of, but it was like swimming in a giant pool!

After we left, we pulled onto the beach that rimmed Koh Hong for lunch. This was actually my favorite part of the day.The views were incredible from under the trees.

They put down some beach mats and opened up containers of rice, pineapple, and a delicious chicken dish—with lime, and fish sauce, and cashews nuts. Aron is still talking about it, actually.

We took turns snorkeling out with Hudson, and happily found a large population of sea squirts. Aron, less happily, encountered a large population of sea urchins.

The last island we pulled up to would be heaven for anyone who likes to post drone-photos: part of the Hong archipelago, a horseshoe shaped sand bar stretched out into the sea toward Ko Yao Yai.

We actually realized at that point that Hudson had left his snorkel on the previous beach and so we didn’t stay long there—instead convincing the reluctant captain to pass back by and let us pick it up on the way home.

It seemed to me that it would be incredibly helpful to be able to do some extra research before coming to know exactly which islands would be the best to stop at, but that it’s very difficult to find detailed lists. There are a few well-beaten routes and most boats seem happy to stick to those. We kept wondering if there were a hidden gem for snorkeling, but I’m not sure we’ll ever know.

The most popular tours take daytrippers to see the “James Bond Island,” where the movie The Man with the Golden Gun was filmed, and combine it with the floating village at Panyee Island. Others go further toward Railay Beach in Krabi (supposedly spectacular for climbing) or to Koh Phi Phi, made (in)famous by the movie The Beach. We heard mixed reviews of the latter: most say that the island has been spoiled by crowds and party-goers, but some of the guests at our hotel said there were still less-frequented parts where the offshore snorkeling and diving had been fantastic!

The following day we saved for relaxing at the hotel. The kids played lawn games and swam in the pool (despite that beautiful sea just steps away), and we all took walks down the shore. I spotted an enormous compound that I’d seen on the rental site Kid & Coe, and the kids spotted an enormous monitor lizard!

Aron and I each took turns getting massages, and it was after one of those that I got my phone back! So it was an all-around great day!

We also made friends with the other families staying at the property—they were traveling together from Denmark—and Skyler would call out to them “my friends!” whenever they’d pass. Aron and I actually went over for beers after the kids were in bed one night.

We couldn’t get enough of the Massaman curry, and probably ordered it at some point every day. Another favorite item was a cocktail with so many herbs and seasonings, you could have topped off a salad after finishing it. I asked for the ingredients:

Gin and Malibu Rum, with Kaffir Lime and Leaves, Chiles, Lemongrass, Lychee, Simple Syrup, and topped with Soda Water. I haven’t replicated it yet, but I’m hoping to soon.

From the reception area, one can also go on a walk through the neighboring mangroves—the paths, I discovered later, actually lead to the Six Senses Resort. Had I known, I might have said we should go there one night for a drink. On the walk, I saw mudskippers (an amphibious little fish), lizards, and—most exciting of all—a hornbill!

I can’t tell you how many times we’d just find ourselves struck by the scenery there. You’d be walking along talking or thinking about something else and just have to stop and remind yourself to look again and take it all in—it was so beautiful!

On our last day, we joined the hotel’s free boat excursion rather than take off early for Phuket. We were in no rush to leave.

We returned to Hong Island’s lovely bay but also saw some new places: Koh Pak Bia and Koh Lao Le Ding.

The latter means Paradise Island, and it was clear why someone would name it so.

Afterward, we had a few more hours to spend by the pool and have lunch before heading off to the pier. We said goodbye to the wonderful staff—many apologized again for the crazy start to our visit, as they were clearly otherwise a close-knit group there.

It was hard to believe we were nearly done with our time in Thailand. Only two final days in Phuket to come…

Previously: Bangkok (part 1), Bangkok (part 2), Khao Sok National Park

Next up: Phuket

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