Koh Yao Noi
To the west, thousands upon thousands of tourists are filing between Phuket’s bars and beaches. In the east, blizzards of backpackers are scaling rock faces and hopping on long-tails along Krabi’s curvaceous coast. While not too far south, on beautiful Phi Phi Island, hordes of hormonal 20-somethings covered in day-glo body paint are downing two-for-one drinks well into the night. But here in the middle of Phang Nga Bay, 45 minutes’ sailing time from Southern Thailand’s busiest resorts, on the gorgeous island of Koh Yao Noi, it’s all empty beaches, butterflies and birdsong.
My first morning has the dreamy quality of an Ang Lee movie: I roll out of my netted bed at Six Senses Yao Noi at 6.30am to watch the starry sky, glazed with velvety clouds, morph from indigo to lilac to ruby, amber and turquoise. A distant scattering of limestone islands punctuate a liquid-gold sea; a pair of rhinoceros hornbills cluck-cluck-cluck as they canoodle on a branch nearby. For a moment, I feel like I’m the only person in the whole world. In fact, there are fewer than 4,000 of us on the whole island.
“We only have five villages on the Yao Noi,” my tuk-tuk driver, Toom, tells me as we wobble our way around the island’s bucolic interior later that day. “Some 99% of the people are Muslim, 50% work on rubber and coconut plantations, 30% are fishermen, the rest are old or children.”
We dismount from our red-and-yellow chariot to stroll through a forest of rubber trees, where the lines of silvery trunks create an eerie chiaroscuro effect. The farmers are all in bed now, having risen at 2am to tap the bark for gooey gum, which will then be mangled into square tiles and sold on the mainland for flip-flops and car tyres at 25 baht (50p) a kilo. The only sound is the shush-shushing of the breeze through the leaves.
The rest of the day unfolds at the same sleepy pace — the sight of a lone rice farmer wading through a glassy field, kids kicking a ball around a dusty street, a leathery fisherwoman with a smile as wide as the horizon proudly displaying a wriggling bucket of sandfish. And then there’s the beaches, tangles of mangroves, a driftwood swing hanging from a palm tree, white coral sands lapped by warm, green waters, all backed by the astonishing panorama of Phang Nga Bay.
As the sun dips below the horizon, I consider Koh Yao Noi: an island hidden in plain sight. It rarely gets more than a glance from tourists passing by boat, and I hope it stays this way; little more than a blip on the radar.
How to do it: Scott Dunn has seven nights at Six Senses Yao Noi from £2,400, B&B, including transfers and flights.
Words: Lee Cobaj
I sit up in bed and listen to the sound of feet padding across the springy, palm-leaf roof. It’s hard to tell how many monkeys are up there now, but a new thud every few seconds suggests another arrival. I pull back the curtain and peer out the window. Green coconut palms dapple sunlight on the sandy path in front of my hut at the back of Ao Tonsai Beach. In the distance, the sea sparkles behind the forest line.
The beach lies on the northwestern corner of one of Thailand’s most stunning seaside retreats, Railay, in Krabi province. But I’m not here, entirely, for sun and sand. I slip on some flip-flops, grab my climbing bag and head out into the warmth of the morning. On the eastern side of the peninsular, the tide is high and the water is calm, so I decide to swim around the rocky headland, separating the two beaches of Ao Tonsai and Railay West. The shallow sea is bath-water hot but the swim only takes 15 minutes. On shore once again, I rig up my ropes on the shaded face of the cliffs to the east, and spend the next few hours scaling the epic rock faces: some of the world’s best climbing terrain. Golden limestone cliffs rise 300ft above the sea and, from the top, I look down over tangled mangroves, tropical jungle and white strips of sand either side.
By mid-afternoon, the heat has got the better of me. I retreat to a waterfront bar for lunch. I know the guys who run it and they eat with me: red snapper, cooked in lemon, garlic and ginger.
As the sun goes in, the people come out to party, and 2am somehow quickly rolls around. I’m tired but not quite ready for bed. Buying one last beer, I take a stroll. Heading through little walkways between huts and hostels, I wind my way to the tip of the peninsular finally to emerge from the trees on to one of the most incredible beaches in the world: Ao Phra Nang. The moon bathes the sea in silver light and the deserted beach hums with the sound of a million chirping insects. In the distance, I hear the howl of the monkeys, calling me home.
Words: Jack Southan
Andy is not who I was expecting as my Muay Thai instructor. He’s well over 6ft tall, has shockingly bright blonde hair and is built like a… well, you get the picture. The 35-year-old British ex-army giant — a dead ringer for Rutger Hauer — tells me that, after arriving here from a tour in Sierra Leone, he only planned to stay for six months. To de-stress, he took up Muay Thai. Known as the ‘art of the eight limbs’, it incorporates clinches, knees, elbows, punches and kick — a national sport first used by Thai warriors as a form of self-defence.
“I proved quite good at it,” says Andy, “and ended up staying here for 10 years.”
He’s been at the Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui for the past year-and-a-half, putting guests through their paces. My partner and I are here for the Introduction to Muay Thai course and you can see the attraction: the ‘ring with a view’ offers an expansive Gulf of Thailand panorama. Thankfully, it’s also under shade. It’s 11am and hot but we begin with a warm up, nonetheless.
“When people come and try the whole Muay Thai course, they forget they need to acclimatise,” says Andy. He’s chattier than we are at this stage, as we’re in the midst of three-minute planks, three-minute kicks to the side in press-up position, diamond-hand-shaped push-ups, bridge and walkovers to the side, and more.
“You need a strong core,” Andy explains. And stamina, I’d say. “This sport involves lots of knee and elbow fighting; you fight facing forward,” he explains. “In the ‘orthodox position’ [as he calls it], you also need to learn how to defend.”
I know that won’t stop me ending up black and blue. Roundhouse kicks using shins, push kicks with the soles of the feet, then more roundhouses, are followed by elbow strikes. Then it’s 100 knee kicks followed by punching combinations: jab, cross, upper-cut; jab, cross, elbow strike; protect with knee, then more roundhouses. Ouch.
We talk HIIT (high intensity interval training) and EPOC (excessive post-exercise oxygen consumption) and I downplay my background in taekwondo. This is not the time to get competitive. Then it’s over, almost as soon as it’s begun and I feel cheated. I want more. He’s right, I’d probably have wanted to book a whole week of it.
The next day, I get up and touch my knee gingerly. Ouch, again. Nice colourful legs for a sundress. I’d booked into the Muay Thai massage recovery treatment that morning… painful in an entirely different way, and, once again, of my doing.
How to do it: Introduction to Muay Thai, at Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui, THB 2,500 (£50) per person.
Words: Maria Pieri
Published in the Jul/Aug 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)