Posted on December 26, 2015
Koh Yao Noi floats in the sultry blue of Thailand’s southern Andaman Sea, a quiet little island with some great rock climbing.
We caught the regular ferry over from the mainland, which is an oversized wooden long-tail laden with locals and their goods (notably, an enormous bag of raw chicken wings). It takes about an hour and is a really beautiful ride. Hundreds of island rise steeply out of the water in this area – limestone monoliths topped with abundant shaggy jungle. Many of the cliff faces are cut in at their base by the sea – from a distance (particularly at low tide) they look like so many marbles rolled carelessly into a clear, still, puddle.
Compared to neighbouring islands like Phi Phi, Yao Noi is really low key. Along the sea front you’ll find bungalow resort after bungalow resort but venture a little inland and every curve of the dirt road brings you another mile of rubber tree plantations, fields of pineapples or wild limestone outcrops hugged by banana plants.
The inland villages are sleepy little affairs with one general store selling everything from shampoo (one kind) to chilli (at least five kinds) and a couple of side-of-the-road, menu-less, restaurants. To me, they (and the scenery) are the main attraction of the island, other than climbing.
The beaches are low lying tidal sand/mud flats with (to Australian eyes) quite a lot of rubbish on them (although I’ve seen worse on the Med). We gingerly attempted one swim then decided we’d wait until we got home – living 200 metres from one of the world’s great metropolitan beaches kind of spoils you. As you’d expect, most of the tourists there (and really, in the whole area at this time of year) are Europeans desperate to escape the winter and happy with any place that offers sunshine and warm weather – the Thais are very happy to supply their need.
We stayed at the inventively named ‘Holiday Resort’ which was reasonably cheap and cheerful, especially considering we were visiting at the hight of the high season. We had an in-room bathroom with hot water (sort of) and a flushing western style toilet. The fan was great and I could do my yoga session under it without totally melting. We even had a kettle and complimentary tea and coffee. Pretty luxurious by our usual standards!
The main crags are located in the far north of the island, near ‘Paradise Resort’. To get there from the pier and most of the accommodation, it’s a long scooter ride along a bumpy and steep dirt path. With two people and a climbing pack, it scared the bananas out of me and I ended up jumping off and walking down all the steep sections, which felt a lot safer.
Once you reach Paradise Resort it’s a decent hike through the jungle to the first crag, bee wall. Back in the day you used to be able to walk right through the resort, which cut about 20 minutes of hiking time off your walk, but the Resort now refuses to let climbers through. They also refuse to let long-tails stop at ‘their’ beach (which used to be an alternative to the sketchy bike ride). The Resort itself is expensive and (like the rest of the island) has a mudflat for a ‘beach’, so I wouldn’t recommend staying there.
Luckily the jungle (or what is growing back between the rubber plantations) is absolutely gorgeous. It’s a riot of greens: slender banana palms with their tall sails of india green and young pale-chartreuse leaves waiting to unfurl – drooping stems with their rich maroon flowers and delicate pale hands of fruit; crocodile coloured vines as thick as a girls’ wrist, twisting and looping from the tall trees; huge leafed Elephant Ears in a bright forest green; purple-green trailing things with cruel spikes; tiny absinthe coloured leaves quivering in the heat; and cool celadon mosses draped over the curves of rocks, roots and branches. It’s worth the walk in itself (although I’d recommend actual walking shoes rather than plimsoles or flip flops).
Bee wall, predictably enough, was covered in bee hives. Some of them were absolutely massive – you look up to a good 60 metres of white, cream and pink-orange cliff and it takes your eyes a moment to adjust to see the hives – enormous golden brown oyster mushroom shapes clinging to the walls. Really impressive, but not exactly inviting.
Around the corner (you can walk along the beach at low tide) you’ll find signs to The Mitt (off to your left) and HB wall (off to your right). Further along to the right you’ll eventually come to Big Tree wall. The ‘Big Tree’ is in fact very very big – we got a boat there last time we visited and I remember being pretty impressed. Actually, now I think about it, you could probably get a boat to Big Tree and walk in from that direction – nice!
The Climber ran up a few climbs (I think up to a 7b) and I enjoyed a few holiday graded 6a’s. There is quite a lot around those grades and even the easy stuff is basically polish free (hurrah!). The limestone offers a lot of fun tufa moves and although things can degenerate into jug hauls (especially on the easy routes) they’re interesting jug hauls, often with tricky feet. I really enjoyed it and there was enough to keep a 7c (limit) kind of climber entertained for a few days – but there isn’t all that much, that I saw, if you’re climbing harder than that.
It’s a beautifully quiet area – we had three days at The Mitt and HB wall and really only saw a handful of people. We climbed, hung out in the hammock and just enjoyed the gorgeous view of the sea and islands (best from the top of a route, obviously!). It was pretty special to have a place like that to ourselves and I’d definitely consider visiting again.