Week Two, Day One – Mission Relax on Kho Yao Noi
Koh Yao Noi boasts a diverse and photogenic landscape with mangrove forests lining its west coast, a lush, pastoral interior and sandy east-coast beaches with stunning views of the exotic islands of Phang Nga Bay. Unlike some crowded, highly developed, party centered Thai islands, Yao Noi remains green and tranquil. This is Thai island life at it’s best. A predominantly muslim island in this Buddhist country, we heard call to prayer every evening from several of the island’s mosques.
In order to get to Yao Noi we said goodbye to the staff at Royal Cliff Resort in Khao Sok National Park and took a taxi for the three hour journey to Phuket’s Bang Rong Pier. From there we took a speed boat to Koh Yao Noi’s Manoh Pier. The ocean was calm as we weaved among the islands. The vegetation on the islands is so lush it grows right to the shore line except where there are stretches of sandy beaches.
From Manoh Pier we got into a truck taxi that took us to Mike’s Place, our Airbnb. Kuzoku, a friend of Mike’s and owner of Tabeak Viewpoint Guesthouse down the road, showed us around the house and made sure we were settled.
The house had a huge second story balcony off the master bedroom overlooking the stunning Phang Nga Bay. Jagged sandstone islands covered in thick foliage dotted the ocean view from the balcony creating a stunning canvas for the dance of colour at sunrise. Many mornings I would be up early watching the progression of colours across the sky and clouds as the hornbills settled into the trees around the house before flying off overhead.
During our time on the island we were seriously committed to our research, scouting out great places to eat, and the best place for our daily massage. Each of the four of us chose different styles of massage (feet, full body coconut oil or aroma massage, thai massage, herbal ball or tok sen, a type of massage where they use a wooden peg on your body and hit it with a mallet to deliver a vibratory “hit”. See my post from 2016 for more detail on tok sen.) Then we shared our experiences describing our favourite parts of the massage, the kindness and joy of our practitioners, and how fortunate we are to be here together.
After one particularly long, hot walk we swam in the ocean and then had THE best massages yet on our trip at Arita Massage. Arita Massage became a daily “must have” experience for us all as we agreed it was the best massage yet since arriving in Thailand. My Thai Herbal Ball treatment by Bpad was the best I have received and I loved my tok sen with Pu. This is the first time that the rhythmic feel and sound of the wooden peg and mallet over my whole body actually put me to sleep. It is hard to believe that one can fall asleep while being hit repeatedly with wooden tools. Pu used pegs I have never seen before; some with extra wide bases (for the IT bands) and another that looked like a sling shot allowing her to deliver the vibratory hit to both sides of my spine at the same time.
As I continue to practice speaking Thai, I make frequent tone errors and mix up my numbers or words. If I really want to be able to speak Thai, I have decided to be okay with being the fool, fearlessly (well not completely fearlessly) carrying on. A woman we met later in our trip in Chiang Mai from San Diego shared her experience of learning Thai. She has stopped trying to say the word “banana” in thai as a slightly wrong use of tone can turn the harmless word into an extremely rude descriptor. After offending a roti vendor on the street she is “banana” shy. Tony from California found that a slightly different tone inflection can turn the flattering complement of calling someone beautiful into calling them bad luck.
After trying out my Thai on the staff at Green’s cafe on the beach our first day, whenever I saw them they would ask me questions in Thai to test my capacity. I am using an online program called “Learn Thai from a White Guy” that was developed by a Canadian who has a great system for learning Thai. This has been super helpful in getting me enthused about learning Thai.
For me food is always a central part of travelling. The anticipation of food experiences, the planning of meals and the savouring of the variety of fresh and cooked delicacies is endlessly enjoyable in Thailand.
We met wonderful people and ate great food at Chaba Cafe, Kantery Cafe, Pyramid Restaurant, Baan Chang and VL, but our favourite restaurant hands down was the Rice Paddy Restaurant. Our first experience of this exquisite food and the charming German owner was during one of the evening rainstorms. On Wednesday evening we watched as a storm approached from across Phang Nga Bay from the comfort of our open air second story balcony. The rain came down just before dinner time with no sign of letting up. There is a truck taxi driver, Mr Withun Klasmut, who had driven us into town and back the day before. I phoned Withun to ask for a pickup to take us to dinner. I couldn’t figure out how to tell him in my limited Thai our exact location (at Mike’s Place. the Airbnb) up the hill from Klang Jark Beach, so I ask for a pick up from Tabeak Viewpoint at 7pm. Everyone seems to know where Tabeak is located. Withun found us at Mike’s Place in the dark and pouring rain at exactly 7 pm as he drove up the road just past Tabeak. On our way to Rice Paddy Restaurant, I was curious as to why he stopped half way at a little collection of shops along the road. He pointed to the ATM giving us the opportunity to get some cash if we needed it knowing we were going out for dinner. Super thoughtful.
We arrived in the dark and the pouring rain at 7pm for the last available table. The German owner was charming, so very friendly and obviously loved food, Thailand and thrived on greeting his guests. We started with cocktails that can only be described as Thailand in a glass. My Siam Sunray had vodka, coconut, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf and juice, ginger, chilli, and palm sugar. Shaun’s Orchard had gin, lychee juice. lemongrass, sugarcane and lychee fruit. Debbie’s Hayride had brandy, Triple Sec, and lime juice. The dinner began with an amuse bouche of half cherry tomatoes with peanuts and a sweet and sour sauce. The entire meal, and experience was exquisite: Pineapple fried rice with cashews, curry and raisons served in a half pineapple, Gaeng Madsaman, a rich, red muslim curry with chicken, potatoes and peanuts, and my personal favourite the Baramundi (a popular fish used in Thai cooking) in tamarind sauce and crispy onions. For dessert we had the generously portioned Rice Paddy Mango Cup with mango and coconut ice cream, fresh mango, sticky rice and coconut cream with a type of cotton candy like garnish on top. Truly our best meal and dining experience yet.
We returned to Rice Paddy for our last meal on the island during sunset. The view was spectacular as we looked out over the south tip of the island. Again we had a most spectacular meal. Some of Rice Paddy’s dishes are resurrected original versions of Thai specialities now often westernized in many Thai restaurants. They have taken the time to talk with local elders to learn how certain dishes were traditionally prepared in order to offer local, fresh food made with passion and time honoured methods. From the Rice Paddy website: “Cooking is like love, it should be entered into with complete abandon or not at all.” –Harriet Van Horne 1956
One day we went into town on the west side of the island to get some essentials (gin, tonic, fruit, and soda water and limes) and also found a great store run by Joy where we purchased island cloths such as batik sarongs, and Thai pants.
We booked a Thai Cooking Class with Mina in her home kitchen near the town. We met a mother and daughter from Poland that we immediately hit it off with and had way too much fun chopping fruits, vegetables and meat, and making our own coconut milk and cream from fresh coconuts using the traditional coconut grater that one sits on like a rocking horse! We ended the day eating our creations around a big table hearing all about Mina’s wild life growing up on the island. Her story was such a shock to us all as her confidence, joy, and the expertise she demonstrated during the class not once gave us an indication of her fraught upbringing. We left Mina’s with two new Polish friends having had a great food experience, and a book full of wonderful recipes to make at home.
Each morning I tried to do some type of exercise such as a Freedom Functional Fitness style workout, or a run. One of my favourite mornings ended up being a run along the ocean past some high end resorts to a small secluded beach where I went for a swim and then ran back to Mike’s.
On one of our walks down the beach we discovered a Mangrove swamp with a boardwalk running through it and a Phang Nga Bay hill-top lookout. On our way back to our place we stopped at Chaba Cafe where Melanie bought two great books, and we looked through their wine selection, art gallery, and bought some kombucha.
One day we hired a longboat captain to take us around the islands in the bay for the day. it was a glorious day of sunshine as we visited island beaches and bays. We stopped to snorkel fascinated by the colourful assortment of fish and coral. We spotted an immense jelly fish surrounded by small colourful fish swimming around it and within it’s gracefully undulating head. One of my favourite fish were the clown fish frolicking in the softly swaying coral – my “Finding Nemo” experience. One of the small islands had monkeys sunning themselves on rocks by the ocean. Our guide had chunks of banana that he tossed from our boat to the monkeys. One baby monkey kept doing cannon ball jumps into the water to retrieve the banana even if it meant diving down into the ocean. One teenager kept stuffing piece after piece into its’ mouth using its’ thumb to fill every space as his cheeks puffed out in all directions. Once he couldn’t push anymore into his mouth he swam back to the rocks to try and eat it all up.
On our last full day on Yao Noi my sister Melanie and I rented scooters to explore the island while Shaun and Debbie chilled out back at Mike’s. We had a map of the island, and suggestions of places to visit setting off with confidence. We had an eventful day and lived up to our “Buffel” reputation of taking the road less travelled, in search of our next great adventure. We rode through rubber tree plantations, on the edge of mangrove swamps, through rice fields, and on an ocean side road that ended in a chill Italian owned cafe at the north tip of the island.
In our search for a secluded beach we took the wrong road and had to turn back once the road became impassable. Our retreat came after climbing steep, rocky, rutted roads that looked like they had been washed out by rainstorms from a prior season and turned into a single track path through the jungle. Melanie and I only thought to stop and take a picture of our madness on these crazy roads once we were safely on a level, yet pitted, wet road after I peeled my fingers off the scooter handle bars. All ended well with a swim in the ocean and a return of the scooter without any damage to it or our ourselves.
None of us wanted to leave the island, yet we were excited to be heading for Chiang Mai the next day. I know and love Chiang Mai after having spent a month or more at a time there over the last few years. I am so looking forward to sharing this creative, vibrant Thai city with Shaun, Melanie and Debbie and then to begin the part of this journey that centres on my work as a Massage Therapist and Thai Massage Practitioner.