When it comes to grand beach escapes, the Thai islands rank up there amongst the world’s best. Without a doubt the limestone cliffs of Maya Bay just off of Koh Phi Phi are stunning. Yes, the parties on Koh Phangan are legendary, and diving around Koh Tao is remarkable. The only problem for some adventurous travellers is that these places are no longer well kept secrets to the rest of the world. Literally thousands of travellers arrive daily, often via large ferries carrying 200+ passengers at a time. For those looking to disconnect and explore truly unchartered territory, the search for new ‘undiscovered’ destinations may be over. May I present to you, Koh Phayam.
This may very well be the perfect secret island getaway for you – or it could be your worst nightmare. It all depends what you’re looking for. So here’s the rundown on Koh Phayam before you book your ferry ticket.
Koh Phayam Basics
Roughly 18 square kilometres, Koh Phayam sits as the second largest Thai island in the Andaman Sea. Near the southern tip of the Myanmar border, it’s located four kilometres from Koh Chang (the largest island) and a 45 minute speed boat ride from the port town of Ranong. Ranong itself is just shy of a 90 minute flight or 8.5 hour bus ride south of Bangkok. Ranong’s airport is exclusively a domestic one, with only two daily Nok Air flights from Bangkok. This inherently works to keep some of the crowds of international tourists at bay, though the island is undoubtedly growing as a travel destination.
Truly Quiet & Low Key
Koh Phayam’s resident population is somewhere between 500 and 650 people. The most common types of accommodation include very modest bamboo bungalows or tents on the beach. Power and wifi are intermittent in most locations and hot water a rarity, though it’s not really needed in such heat. As many as half of the restaurants and accommodations close down entirely during the rainy low season from May to October. There are no banks or ATMs. To be clear, Koh Phayam does offer some new high-ish end accommodation, such as Blue Sky Resort, CEDE Boutique Beach Resort, or Phayam Lodge, but you’re certainly not going to see widespread development in the form of chain resorts. There are also no 711 stores or for that matter, any cars on the island either. Both CNN and Conde Nast Traveller have likened the island to the Koh Samui of the 1970’s. I trust you get the picture.
Perfect For Some Travellers…
After spending nearly a week on Koh Phayam and chatting with other travellers during my eight months across Asia, I can confidently say it’s paradise for some. For context, I had already been to the “popular” islands, and was looking for some true R&R before a week long dive liveaboard. The allure of deserted beaches and chill time spoke to me. The beaches are lovely, wide, and relatively clean. While not a problem during my visit, sand fleas and tiny jellyfish do seem to be a pervasive issue in many traveller reviews.
While Tripadvisor currently only recognizes four “things to do” on this island, there is admittedly more to see and do. Your days on Koh Phayam may very well consist of any of the following:
Tanning and exploring Aow Khao Kwai (Buffalo Bay) Beach. Covered in swaths of tiny white and pink shells, Aow Khao Kwai is worth a visit for both the mangrove forest to the south west of the beach and the impressive rock formations on the north east end. Drinks and food are easily bought at one of the accommodations along the beach. This area is known to be quieter with more family style resorts than its larger counterpart, Aow Yai Beach.
Learning to surf/boogie board on Aow Yai (Big Bay) Beach. Each morning and late afternoon just as the sun dips below the horizon you’ll spot a few dozen surfers in the water trying to catch a break. Board rentals and lessons are on offer from a handful of shops along the beach. Though I’m not a surfer, and wasn’t overly impressed by the November surf, it seemed approachable enough to lure newbies in and fun enough to keep them there.
Sunset watching. For those who need even more zen, sunset watching on Aow Yai Beach each evening borders on a spiritual experience. Since the massive crescent shaped beach is three kilometres long, it’s also a joggers dream come true as long as one avoids the oppressive mid-day heat.
Hiking and biking. You can easily spend a full day exploring around the island’s narrow roads and trails. Though ‘off the beaten path’, you will never actually be further than one or two kilometres from the nearest local restaurant and cold beer. Bicycles cost 100 THB while scooters are 200-350 THB for daily rental exclusive of a gas top up.
Photography. There is an abundance of nature scenes from lush jungle to barren beaches. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to spot and photograph the Wild Hornbills that call the island home. Unexpectedly, there are also several seemingly abandoned construction sites around the island that make for interesting subject matter.
Taking a yoga class. Ever growing in popularity, 1-Self Yoga offers yoga classes on the island. Note Charmain’s classes last three hours comprising extensive 60 minute breath work session, 90 minute yoga and 30 minute meditation for approximately 300 THB.
Diving. There are a handful of scuba dive operators on the island, including Phayam Divers and Andaman Discovery), with daily snorkel or dive trips. Though broadly speaking, the Andaman Sea and Similan Islands offers some truly exceptional dive experiences (mantas and the odd whale shark during the right time of year), I found the day trips from Koh Phayam somewhat unfulfilling given the logistical effort involved. It’s far better to opt for multi-day liveaboards that depart from nearby Ranong with The Smiling Seahorse or A-One-Diving.
Visit another island. Though it’s not quite “island hopping”, a visit to Koh Chang gives you a fresh set of dining options for a day or two. Ferries depart daily between the two islands.
Getting things done. Naturally, so much down time on the beaches lends itself to reading (or even writing) a good book. If a traveller was working remotely and doesn’t need strong wifi, it’s certainly a distraction free environment. I found the time to write this article and a handful of others.
Eating well. The absolute dining highlight of the island is the unexpectedly brilliant vegetarian food ‘scene’ (and yes, two places are enough to make a scene). A piece of my heart will forever remain at Cha-Chai Home. Family run and serving high quality organic and vegan smoothies, superfood salads, pastas, homemade dessert and coffee, it’s a treat for the eyes and taste buds. Guests can even borrow one of over 1,500 books from the colourful on site library. Best of all? Charmin and Chai sell homemade tomato jam, pesto, and other tasty spreads to take home for around $5 USD each. Not to be forgotten, Phayam Cabana also deserves honourable mention for its vegetarian dishes as well, though the restaurant does have meat options too. The island’s premiere crop, cashew nuts, are featured in many dishes across all restaurants.
Staying in nature. Yes, proper bungalow accommodation is available but, there is something magical about camping – or rather, ‘glamping’. Friends Bungalow is perhaps the perfect balance between the two. In addition to bungalows they offer six furnished tents, housed on thatched roof platforms, with private bathrooms and partial ocean views, for just 600 THB or $17 USD/night during high season.
…Not So Perfect For Others
Plumbing and electricity expectations are often a quick and easy way to test someone’s travel style. If you can tolerate ‘gravity fed’ toilets or spiders passing by as you take cold showers, you’ll be more than fine on Koh Phayam. To be fair, most accommodations have flush toilets and hot water during set hours of the day. Or all day for slightly higher nightly rates. If however, you expect a soaker tub with a view, don’t even come to Asia. And definitely don’t visit Koh Phayam. Only a small handful of resorts have full power 24 hours a day. Most use generators for set blocks of time and simply give guests flashlights through the night.
I’m a massage addict, particularly while I travel. While I don’t insist on five star facilities, I’m fairly stubborn about cleanliness, private rooms, fresh linens and properly trained adult staff. Koh Phayam is lacking in this regard. Nothing worthy of recommending in the $10-15 USD/hr massage range.
If part of your travel adventure includes parties, then the island may disappoint. Only a small group of restaurants and bars at attract enough of a crowd during high season worthy of mentioning. CEDE Boutique Beach Resort, Rasta Baby Bar, and the crazily constructed Hippie Bar pretty much exhausts the beach-front list. A handful of other inland bars have rotating events during the week (as to not compete), which are advertised on roadside placards around the island. This is NOT a party all night, bottle service type of destination.
Adrenaline junkies may also become quite bored on Koh Phayam as it lacks the impressive rock climbing and cliff jumping of Krabi. Further, motorized watersports options such as jet skis or parasailing don’t yet exist. However, stand up paddle boards, kayaks, and scooters are readily available for self guided tours and exploration.
History buffs or travellers who really enjoy digging into local culture will also be let down. While local Burmese and Thai service staff are by far pleasant and engaging, most of the notable accommodation and dining options have foreign owners (mainly Dutch, German and French). You’ll have great conversation, but it won’t be about Thai history. There are certainly no museums or heritage monuments on the island to speak of.
Ultimately, Koh Phayam was just what I was looking for. But, I had a decidedly low key agenda in mind, and had months in Asia to enjoy other adventures. It may also be your perfect secret island escape. Well suited for someone looking to avoid the crowds for a few days while travelling Thailand.
Does Koh Phayam have the best beaches? No. But perhaps the least crowded if that’s how you evaluate quality. The best food? No, and meals are comparatively expensive given the remoteness of the island. The best accommodation? Again no. Is it worth travelling to from outside of Asia all on its own? Certainly not. However, beyond the buzz of new construction and cicadas it does have an undeniable peacefulness about it. It’s raw and beautiful, while still possessing most of the creature comforts that many travellers want, whether they admit it or not. Koh Phayam is more than capable of leaving a positive lasting mark on those who visit it. I have to admit, I’m one of them. You may be too.
Koh Phayam travel photos by Madeline Burch