TRAVEL: Breathing in paradise in Thailand

Southern Thailand’s undiscovered Koh Yao Yai island is the perfect destination for a barefoot luxury escape, finds Neil Geraghty

From sunrise yoga to pre-breakfast jogs along the beach, early morning wellness activities can really kickstart that holiday feelgood factor – but nothing quite beats a Tibetan singing bowl meditation.

I’m lying on a yoga mat on the lawn of the new Anantara Resort on Koh Yao Yai island in Thailand, and Karn, our softly spoken meditation guide, is leading us through a tantric breathing exercise. In between the deep breaths my ears hone in on the sound of waves gently lapping on the beach and a hornbill chattering in a nearby tree. Karn strikes seven different sized copper bowls.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Each has a unique tone and a drawn-out resonance that penetrates my ribcage and propels me into a deep state of relaxation. It’s midnight back home and I’m aware I should be falling asleep but as the meditation continues I start to feel strangely energised. Remarkably, for the remainder of my stay in Thailand I barely suffer from jetlag at all.

Sunrise over Bird's Nest IslandSunrise over Bird's Nest Island
Sunrise over Bird's Nest Island

For travellers looking to enjoy the full beauty of southern Thailand away from the busy resort towns of Phuket and Krabi, Koh Yao Yai is a relatively undiscovered island and an ideal choice for a relaxing tropical escape.

The island lies in the heart of Phang Nga Bay, an inlet of the Andaman Sea that is famous for its ethereally beautiful karst formation limestone stacks that were immortalised in the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun.

The boat transfer from Phuket takes 45 minutes and at the resort we’re greeted by a musician wearing a shimmering crimson sarong and a pointed golden crown. She kneels down on a platform and starts playing the khim, a traditional stringed instrument similar to a European dulcimer which is struck using leather tipped bamboo sticks. The complex melodious refrains mixed with piercing tropical birdsong lend an exotic touch to the check in procedure added to which we’re presented with glasses of sapphire blue butterfly-pea flower tea and delicious caramelized coconut cakes made by local villagers.

The resort is built on the grounds of an old coconut plantation where mature palm trees add a graceful backdrop to the gardens which are planted with beds of fragrant jasmine and bright pink morning glory. My villa is located in the middle of the garden and is discreetly hidden from view under a grass canopy. Superficially it resembles a hobbit house but appearances can be deceptive. Inside, the villa is a light-filled ensemble of cavernous rooms which have floor to ceiling sliding doors that lead out to a garden with direct access to the beach.

The view from my bedroom looks out over a private pool onto a tranquil lagoon which at low tide is protected by a spit of sand that arcs around towards a jungle-covered island. Known as Bird’s Nest Island, its cliffs are a breeding site for swiftlets whose nests are harvested by locals to make the Chinese delicacy bird’s nest soup.The influence of nearby Malaysia is felt in southern Thailand’s spicy cuisine and after unpacking I stroll up to the resort’s Pakarang restaurant for an al fresco lunch of local delicacies.

The shallow waters of Phang Nga Bay are famous for their jumbo sized tiger prawns and I start with Som Tum Thai Goong Yang, a refreshing salad of barbequed prawns and baby green papaya drizzled with zingy lime juice. Coconut cream, chilli, coriander and peanuts are all staple ingredients of southern Thai food and come together in perfect harmony in Pakarang’s slow cooked Massamun curry where the fiery spices are tempered by chunks of sweet potato and, surprisingly, grapes.

In the morning I wake up just before dawn, make myself a coffee and wander down to the beach to enjoy the sunrise. The beach is east facing and with wispy clouds in the sky I’m treated to a dazzling array of colours that begin with pale pink, progress to blushing apricot before the sun rises behind Bird’s Nest Island in a fanfare of flaming crimson. After breakfast I hop onto a golf buggy to the jetty to join an early morning boat excursion to Hong Island, a jungle-covered nature reserve and one of the most beautiful of Phang Nga Bay’s islands.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

We’re the first day trippers to arrive and as we walk along the jungle boardwalks the only sound interrupting the hiss of insects is the eerie whooping call of an Asian koel, a noisy relative of the cuckoo. At Hong Island’s idyllic beach which is sheltered by towering cliffs, I swim out a short distance to snorkel around some coral covered rocks. At night shoals of fish seek shelter in the shallow lagoon and as the sun appears from behind the cliff edge and strikes the water I swim into hundreds of miniature fish in a hurry to head back out to sea.

As they swirl around my mask, their iridescence catches the sunlight and the flashes of light leave me feeling quite disoriented. After snorkelling I steel myself for a 400 step climb up to the top of the limestone cliffs from where I spot traditional fishing boats with elegant curved prows sailing around the nearby islands.

Back on Koh Yao Yai one of the most enjoyable ways to explore the island is to join a motorbike sidecar tour. The route takes us along a dusty track into a rubber plantation where the towering trees with interlocking branches have an almost cathedral-like grandeur. At a jungle clearing our guide disappears into the undergrowth and returns to show us the cupped leaf of a speckled pitcher plant.

He explains that it is known locally as a monkey pot and is a local delicacy used to steam rice in. Before lunch we stop at Batik de Kohyao where the friendly owners run batik workshops for beginners. It basically involves painting in the gaps between pre drawn wax designs but in the heat of the day is an immensely enjoyable and relaxing activity to while away the time.

In the late afternoon I head out again by boat, this time for a sunset cruise. As we lounge around on cushions enjoying cold beers, sushi and a mellow 1970s Spotify soundtrack we sail close to the karst stacks where I spot swiftlets returning home to roost, their nests built above stalactites that dangle from overhangs above the waves. Darkness falls rapidly in the tropics and as the sun sets the sky suddenly fills with flashes of distant lightning.

We need to make a beeline for shore before the wind picks up and in the fading light the twisted shapes of the stacks begin to play tricks on my eyes, especially after a drink or two. Sinister hooded monks, goblins and giant disembodied fingers all make an appearance and when we reach the jetty and jump into the golf buggies I feel glad to be back on terra firma where for one more night I can enjoy the creature comforts of this beautiful resort.

Rooms at the Anantara Koh Yao Yai Resort and Villas from £359 per night including breakfast;