‘The cats are very friendly here…’ we remarked as a snowy ginger cat padded its way through The Waterhouse. We were staying in Koh Yao Noi, a remote, undeveloped island in the south of Thailand, sitting in between Krabi and Phuket in Phang Nga Bay. Cats are everywhere on the island and we were joined by three or four friendly felines as we made our orientation around our accommodation and the surrounding beach. The setting was beautiful, overlooking a working fishing beach dotted with longtail boats and hundreds of crabs. The lighting was best in the early evening, I would sit on our balcony and watch the silhouettes of fisherman docking their boats in the sand after a day’s work.
Koh Yao Noi is one of the most undeveloped islands in Thailand affording a really authentic insight into the lifestyle. In addition to this, we travelled in shoulder season and during Ramadan, so other travellers were few and far between. The island is 95% Muslim and the sense of community is very apparent. We soon learnt that the land surrounding The Waterhouse was owned by the family of our host Karem; to the right his sister and to the left his cousin.
The island is compact with small roads and hardly any (if any), cars. The locals get around on mopeds and motorbikes, so we did the same. To get one, we just had to take a short walk to a moped hire place on our road and exchange 150 Baht (£3.50) and it’s all yours for 24 hours. ‘Koh Yao Noi is the only place in Thailand you can leave your key in your moped and know it will be safe’ Karem told us, and we believed him; If Thailand is the ‘land of smiles’ then Koh Yao Noi is the land of friends. Literally everywhere you go, you are welcomed with warm smiles from local people, even as you briefly pass them by on a motorbike. It doesn’t take long to feel part of the island and start to imagine yourself living here. ‘We are seeing an increasing number of foreigners set up home here’ we were told, ‘the local people have no problem with this, as long as they respect the way we live’. For a Muslim island, the way of life was refreshingly laid back, although it is advised that travellers dress modestly, there is no requirement to, and you are accepted everywhere you go.
Sadly I did actually come off my motorbike, it seems I have a travelling curse; something always happens to make it a struggle – On my last trip to India I lost my voice entirely for the first four days. I think Karem could sense I was feeling a bit down because of my fall, and he invited us for what he called ‘fishing and a BBQ at sunset’. Intrigued me and my partner Laura agreed and met him at the pier that evening. We set off on a longtail and were sailing for about 15 minutes before they put the anchor down, we sat confused wondering why we were stopping as we appeared to be in the middle of the sea, but we followed our hosts off the boat and as we stepped into the clear, warm water we realised it was really shallow. The low tide had revealed a white sandy pathway to a secluded beach, we walked along it admiring the view and then Karem laid out a picnic blanket and candles and told us more about the unique island. We learnt that the group of bright green lights we could see in the distance, were not coming from a nearby island as we expected, but they were, in fact, enormous fishing boats catching squid. The squid come out at night as they are attracted to the moon so the large lights imitate the moon to enable them to catch them.
As it was Ramadan we sat and talked while the sun set around us until the faint sounds of prayer in the distance filled the air and we knew was time to eat. We sat there until the last of the light vanished and bolts of lightning flashed around us, revealing the silent longtail floating a few metres away.
We all climbed back into the longtail and made our way back to the pier and Karem invited us late night fishing. We were both really excited to see more of the island lifestyle and sea life, but sadly the lightening brought with it a storm so we were unable to go back out.
A few days later we had left Koh Yao Noi and moved onto Phi Phi Islands; a cluster of islands of otherworldly beauty (but unfortunately a lot more touristy). As we sat having a drink one night on the beach we saw nine or ten bright green lights in the distance; a lot brighter from Phi Phi than from Koh Yao Noi, and remembered the tranquillity and simplicity of that beautiful island and way of life.