By Simon Ramdsen
February 8, 2010
A walk across the street takes us away from Ao Nang’s bustle and past the food stalls selling barbecued chicken and papaya salad. We clamber onto the traditional longtail boat and head for a shimmering, turquoise-blue waterway, en route to one of Thailand’s most tranquil islands, Koh Yao Noi. We’re not going to hurry there, though, as it would be rather silly to rush across one of the most beautiful bays on the planet.
If the celestial powers had travel-sense it would be deemed a sin to come to the Andaman coast of Thailand and not see the Hong Islands – an archipelago of towering limestone karsts jutting vertically out of the water and looming above us as we cruise Phang Nga bay. We soon find ourselves meandering towards one of the bay’s many hidden beaches, on Koh Lading ('paradise island' in Thai). This is a small but picturesquely lovely stretch of white sand approached across emerald waters, gliding just a metre above a placid coral reef. We slowly approach the bleached-white beach with its giant coconut trees and its lush jungle backdrop, not wishing to disturb the tranquility by using the boat’s engine too much.
There are a few tourists scattered about, lounging on the warm sand or snorkelling with the fish, quietly contemplating and complementing the peaceful scene we have encountered. All is serenity until the moment we spot the ‘bouldering’ wall, our eyes lighting up as we size up another of nature’s playgrounds. It looks like a worthy challenge for us to measure ourselves against, its sharp, over-hanging limestone walls and stalactites creating all sorts of contortionist challenges (or 'problems' in climbing jargon).
I am surprised to hear that this bouldering wall is actually judged to be a relatively easy one, as it looks really difficult to me. Bouldering is a rope-free variation of rock climbing, where the climber sheds his gear and keeps only his rubber shoes and chalk-bag (and his shorts unless he really wants to show off). When the climber falls off the soft beach cushions his fall – unless the climber ascends too high, bouldering is as safe as a walk in a park. It is also an extreme work-out for the upper body in which it is easy to damage tendons and sinews.
My climbing partner Fon manoeuvres left to right and up and down with yogic bodily contortions, body held nearly parallel to the ground. A handful of day-trippers relaxing on the beach watch, in puzzled but idle amusement, no doubt wondering why anybody would bother to exert themselves in such an extreme fashion in such a relaxing place. Fon moves with feminine agility and poise and is made to look even more graceful by comparison with me, her slightly superannuated Western male climbing companion. I seem to be not so much rock climbing as rock-falling-offing - this thankfully doesn’t hurt, due to Thailand's soft sand cushioning my frequent falls. After a while Fon is glowing with perspiration, whilst I have virtually turned into a human waterfall. Thankfully the welcomingly cool sea is just a step away.
Wary of the sea urchins nesting on the reef’s floor we float on life jackets to the other side of the bay and find ourselves peering through windows of rocks out onto the myriad islands rearing sheer out of the shallow but deep blue water of Thailand's Andaman Sea. Back in the boat, our boatman is unsure if the tide is too low for us to be able to get into the Hong lagoon. As the long-tail boat’s engine fades to a stop we creep around the corner and see the opening to the lagoon, seemingly guarded by a solitary bird standing in the water. The boat drifts until it rests in the sand and there we are, standing in the middle of an enormous lagoon encompassed by rock buttresses on all sides, like worshippers in the nave of a vast karst cathedral. One massive stalactite is suspended overhead, dripping with pure mineral water and donating a sweet afternoon drink and shower. The Hong archipelago, the second stop on our island-hopping Andaman Sea safari, is an archetypical tropical paradise.
We leave the lagoon in search of a clandestine beach to melt into for a while before travelling on to Koh Yao Noi. It doesn’t take long to find a completely deserted bay, where we collapse and take naps in the shade of the trees – there are no suitable rocks around for us to play on. In the shallows a large monitor lizard takes the plunge and swims past our boat, its family of three concealed by the rocks and waiting for it across the bay, revealing themselves as it approaches.
Arriving on Koh Yao Noi, we receive what is almost door-to-door service, but would be better described as beach-front to beach-front service, as the boat comes to a halt on the beach directly in front of our resort. We are greeted with sweet welcome drinks as we absorb the tranquil beauty of the Koh Yao Island Resort, at the northern end of the island. Large coconut and palm trees stand on the bright green grass, shading the luxury bungalows. Each chalet faces the resort’s private beach, with its view of the islands further away outlined in differing shades of blue. The silhouettes of nearby islands are superimposed on those of islands in the middle distance, with both sets of silhouettes superimposed on the outlines of islands further away. Each of the three sets of silhouettes is a different shade of blue, creating the most beautiful island tableaux this author has ever seen.
Soon I am ready to climb. As I rise higher and higher the panoramic view of all the islands and lagoons becomes even more immense and my beloved cousin Diana, bobbing up and down in the water below, becomes smaller and smaller. This rock-face has arguably the second most beautiful view in Thailand, after Railay’s incomparable Thaiwand Wall. There is also a fair mixture of grades, so it is a good destination for the relative novice as well as for the expert crag-hanger. Complete beginners are recommended, before coming to Koh Yao Noi, to spend three days learning to climb on nearby Railay.
After the climbing we pause on the boat journey back in order to watch a party of Western residents playing on a deep-water slack-line. This is a 4-centimetre-wide, 30- metre-long band stretched between 2 islands, which the person attempts to balance on while walking from one island to the next – and almost invariably fails to manage, ending up with a 6 metre drop into the sea and a swim back to the starting point. What is it about watching people accidentally falling into water which makes spectators feel so happy?
Koh Yao Noi - The Low Down
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