Koh Phayam is a quiet island with beaches of big breaking waves and quaint little restaurants set amongst rubber tree forests.
Probably the best thing about being a teacher in Thailand is the generous amount of holidays we’re allowed. Our first time on Koh Phayam was set in one of these long holidays, the five day break allowing the time needed to really settle into our island adventure. We managed to organise a private van to take us from Nakhon si Thammarat, straight to the pier outside of Ranong. The comfort and ease of the private van over the crowded multi-staged public transport was an easy decision to make for only a couple hundred more Baht. We set out at 7am and after an uneventful journey, with only a few stops to shake off weary heads from the previous night, we arrived at 12:30pm with plenty of time to spare for the 2pm ferry to the island.
The little restaurant set right at the pier helped us pass the time, the owner was an excellent chef and all our favourite thai meals were full of flavour. We found out the owner was the mother of a student from Nakhon si Thammarat. She overheard us playing around with our Thai language skills, rattling off our Thai characters and speculating over what the restaurant signs could mean, which drew her attention. The lighthearted laughter of the locals, as we blundered our way around the language, was enough to break the ice and open conversation. It’s always when you crack your first beer straight from the frosted glass fridges of an ‘island’ restaurant that you know you’re on holiday again. The mood was set and before long we were on our way to our final destination.
The ferries are simple and slow, the upper decks are barren of set seating and simple plastic chairs are strewn about if you want to take in the views in the hot afternoon sun. It takes two hours for the ferry to make its way from the mainland pier to the island. The scenery around you is worth paying attention to as you make your ride between the tall cliffs of the mainland and the jungle covered shores of the other nearby islands. For most of the trip we hid away below deck, clipping the hours down with card games and awkward naps on hard wooden benches. After a while the ferry slowed and the locals began to gather their belongings, we climbed the paint cracked steps to the upper deck and took in our first sight of the stunning Koh Phayam.
After shuffling your bags down the long jetty you enter the small pier town. It’s made up of a string of small restaurants, a few bike rental shops and a general corner shop. Boatmen sit in chairs along the road, either sipping on tall beers or smoking cigarettes as they pass the hours between fishing trips. A lot of shops sat empty and the numerous motorbikes set out on the side of the road gave some indication of how busy the island might get when tourist traffic returns. Right at the main intersection there is a big map, detailing all the accommodation of the island at each of the main bays. We took stock of our position, considered some advice from a local, picked out our scooters for the weekend and set off North West in the direction of Ao Kao Khwai.
The island is cut in several pieces by long narrow concrete paths which potholes break through semi-regularly. We were careful while we drove as large families of dogs lay in the curves of the road, stretched out in the shade of the over-hanging palms. We got our bearings through trial and error, driving up one road and backtracking to try the next. The sign posts often point in more than one direction and arriving at the right section of the long beaches is a skill you acquire quickly. We had been advised to try out Golden Key Resort and so made our way down the Ao Kao Khwai beach road and turned down the water carved dirt path which was marked by the resort sign. The bungalows at Golden Key seemed cosy, quiet and reasonably priced at 250 Baht a night. The guests we saw lay about in hammocks as others read books down by the sand, the low season chill was thick in the air. Unfortunately for our bag weighted backs the guesthouse was full and so we mounted up on our scooters and set out for the next closest resort.
Jansom Resort turned into the lynch-pin of our trip, the spacious, cosy bungalows were set on a hill over the beach with views of the ocean broken with thick swaying trees. The beach was not even a two minute walk away and each day we’d fall asleep and wake up to the sounds of the waves breaking below us. In the evening we’d make our way back to our resort to catch the sunset and unwind in our hammocks, as we lounged around on the deck of one of our bungalows. The beds were comfortable enough, the kind of hard you get accustomed to in Thailand, and no one ever complained too loudly about starting our mornings a little late. After choosing our rooms for the weekend, we changed our of our sticky travel attire, set our bags down and headed down the beach for out first days exploring.
Ao Khao Khwai is a long stretch of beach with gentle breaking waves which makes for relaxed swimming. A small current pushed us back and forth along a shore lined with rocks and so while I wouldn’t call it perfect, you’re still able to float on your back and take in the pristine beach around you. After enjoying our first swim in the Andaman Sea we packed up our beach belongings and slowly made our way further down the bay. Small resorts lie tucked away behind island foliage and the resorts seem to be built with the idea of being as unobtrusive as possible. We explored a bar in the shape of a ship, the wooden bow protruded out towards the sea and tables and chairs sat above a rickety old ladder. The dusty bar tops and stacked furniture further impressing upon us how low the season really was. We ended our day on Ao Khao Khwai with a dinner at Golden Key Resort, the island generator hadn’t kicked in yet and our first dinner drinks were set to candle light. Eventually 6:30pm arrived and the generators sparked to life and a tasty Thai meal, interspersed with cold cans of Leo, wrapped up our first day on Koh Phayam.
The next days of the island were spent running scooters up and down the little streets until we found the right spots to eat, drink and chill. One of our favourite hangouts for the day was Ao Yai, a long flat beach with squeaky white sand. We parked our scooters and walked out to the beach, the curved bay sweeps out and the views immediately catch your eye. The only blemish on the beach is the assortment of trash which is washed up against the shoreline. The currents pull the rubbish into the bay and there’s not enough people around in low season to organise regular cleaning efforts. We set up our gear on the beach in front of Coconut Bungalows and headed out to the huge waves that Long Beach is famous for.. The waves of Ao Yai were the highlight of my trip, each day we’d eventually find our way back to the long beach to get back to enjoying them again. We spent hours tumbling about in the massive waves, they were perfect for body surfing and were the perfect workout to balance the days of island decadence.
The island was in low season and there weren’t any structured tours running or really even any tourist information shops open. One day, to break the pattern of eat-beach-eat-beach, we organised with a local boatman to take us round the island. The organisation wasn’t as easy as we’d imagined, the boatmen themselves spoke no English and our limited Thai wasn’t enough to broker a deal. Instead we found a local who was happy to play the middle-man, no doubt finding the opportunity for some easy money very appealing. After a bit of a hassle and some determined dock walking, we worked out the price to be 3000 Baht and set a time for the next day.
After a big tasty breakfast of hash-browns, bacon and cashew-nut coffee shakes at a restaurant called Jan’s, we met up with our big-footed boatman for the day and set off under a cloud-filled sky. We hadn’t clearly set what the agenda for the day was and so had no idea where we’d end up, only that we’d be done with our trip in four hours. The boatman sailed us round Koh Phayam and we got to take in the wild, rocky coastlines as we knocked back beers and tried to spot wildlife. The occasional hornbill sat in high branches, their orange bills giving them away among the trees. Twice they set off from their perches, the white crescent line of their backs beautifully contrasted by the rest of their gleaning black feathers. Big birds of prey sat brazenly on dead branches, unconcerned with our passing, their eyes never breaking from the sea as it broke against the rocky coastline.
We broke the trip half way with a stop at Khum Island in Ao Kow-Kyu, a small island that at low tide can be reached by simply walking over a sandbank which connects it to Koh Phayam. We spent an hour on the island, playing cards and eating sandwiches made from the fresh bread we’d purchased at Sabai Dee Restuarant near the pier. The sun had clocked its way across the sky and so we hauled our cooler box back on to the boat for the last stretch of our trip. The wind was whipping at the sea and with the sun spending most of its time trapped behind the high clouds, a chill had stirred in the air which made us happy to find our way back to the pier. On a high season organised trip, there’s definitely more islands around the area to explore but we were not disappointed with our boat ride and all agreed that the 300 odd Baht we each paid was worth it to get the unique perspective that was offered.
Because any good meal is best accompanied with at least a drink or two, we took to eating at the restaurant closest to our beds. Lucky for us Jansom had its own restaurant across the road, and it was fantastic for dinner. For three nights in a row we tried out their spicy soups, very spicy laab (thai minced salad) and their mouth scalding curries. They were a treat and to top it off, served by the most infectiously friendly staff. The woman who served us was the sister of the resort owner and, as we found out, had family in the province in which we all teach. Every night this opened up bubbling conversation and all of our meals were enhanced with friendly, genuine laughs and a laid back atmosphere. It was obvious that when the island is so quiet, any open establishment appreciates eight festive foreigners even if they turn up an hour from the 10 pm closing time. Nights on Koh Phayam ended back at Jansom on the decks of our bungalows, ice procured from the restaurant chilling our glasses. Each evening the wind picked up and once we were even forced to take shelter inside as a storm ripped through the night. For the most part though we filled the evenings with games and conversation, eventually turning in for the night, the waves and wind filling the sounds of the evening.
Koh Phayam is a beautiful island and by the time we were making our departure on the 8:30am ferry on the last morning, we had all agreed that four days on the quiet island weren’t enough. While many shops, restaurants and tourist desks stood empty; the island itself provided enough to keep the days full and exciting. That morning the calm flat sea carried our ferry home, contrasting against a peaceful weekend of crashing surf.
Ao Yai – this is the beach with the big waves, far and away the highlight of my weekend. There are surfboards for rent at Coconut Bungalows and there were many budding surfers in the water with us as we played around. It was dirty during low season but the locals assured us that it is cleaned regularly when the crowds return for high season.
Janson Resort – these bungalows were perfect for our weekend. Spacious, clean and set against the background sounds of the sea. The restaurant served our needs more than adequately and I’d highly recommend their Massaman curry. Although be warned, even the most hardy spice eaters had a tough time with meals that were asked to be ‘pbet mak’ (very spicy).
Low-season – it’s a mixed bag on this one. On one hand the roads were empty and the restaurants were quiet which made it an amazingly relaxed weekend. On the other, lots of interesting looking restaurants and bars were closed and I can imagine the variety would add a great deal to the charm of the island during high-season.
Getting In and Out
During low season there are two slow ferries which leave from the pier outside Ranong, called Phayam Pier.
There are two slow ferries which leave Phayam Pier at 8:30 and 14:00. The slow ferry takes about two hours to make it to Koh Phayam. It costs 200 baht.
There is the option of express speed boats which leave at 10:00, 11:30, 13:00, 14:30, 16:30 and 17:30. Speed boats cost 350 baht and take about 45 minutes to reach Koh Phayam. Please be aware though that during low season the speed boats may not be running.
There was a expensive looking resort called Blue Sky resort which seemed to have their own boats which came to the island.