We arrive by speedboat. The weather is gray and gloomy, but we don’t see it that way; for us, it is vast, sly, mysterious. We have just spent three noisy days in Bangkok, among tuk-tuks and canals and the constant smell of watery rubbish. Now we look forward to the islands. We are looking forward to Koh Yao Yai.
At the pier, we chat with a couple of Australians until a passenger car comes to pick us up. I’m with my friend, Susan, who planned this trip and has a better idea of what the island will be like than me. Yet we are both bug-eyed as we bump into each other along the road to our compound. Susan says the greenery reminds her of Arkansas; I say it reminds me of the Bahamas. In reality, however, Koh Yao Yai is just itself: an island along Thailand’s southern tail, hilly and isolated, with stilt houses and rubber trees growing in grids.
According to conventional traveler wisdom, Susan and I shouldn’t even be here at all. We are in July, in what is variously called “low season”, “rainy season”, “monsoon season” or, more euphemistically, “green season”. Rain falls frequently during these months, and while the average temperature isn’t an appalling 85 degrees, everything feels warmer due to the humidity. According to one website, “Southern Thailand is the worst area to visit during monsoon season” – yet that’s precisely where Susan and I chose to go. We’ve decided to interpret ‘out of season’ not as a ban, but as an invitation: a chance to see this remarkable country when fewer other visitors are around and, more specifically, when our schedules permit.
We stop at the resort town of Koh Yao Yai Village, where a speedy porter takes our luggage to one of the six thatched-roof villas that line the beachfront. The hut is spacious and airy, with large windows and an outdoor shower like in a Herbal Essences commercial. During peak season, these villas sell out six months in advance, but Susan and I were able to book our villa four weeks ago. Here, then, is the most obvious benefit of off-season travel: popular locations are readily available and at an excellent price. (We pay the equivalent of $140 a night; in December, beachfront villas are around $235.)
During peak season, which typically runs from November to March, prices throughout Thailand can double from their off-season lows. International tourism slows from April to October, although there is a moderate increase in visitor numbers during the summer months. Some parts of the country experience a bit more variation; in the Gulf of Thailand, for example, just east of Koh Yao Yai, the dry season lasts from around February to October. But wherever you go, tourism here is directly linked to the weather: the sunnier the sky, the busier the streets. According to the Thai Minister of Tourism, 60% of hotel positions are currently vacant. (Susan and I come at a time of intense industry vulnerability: Weeks after our visit, officials will announce a plan to help fill a huge COVID-related employee void.)
A strong storm blows over Koh Yao Yai the first night of our visit. The rain is accompanied by a strange scratching noise that startles me as I try to fall asleep. At first I think it’s an animal, but then I realize it’s palm fronds brushing the roof of our shed. Eventually the sound becomes almost soothing and I fall asleep.
The next morning comes bright, sunny and clear. Susan and I take advantage of the good weather to head towards Hat Laem Haad, a sand spit that begins to disappear with the rising tide. We try to take pictures, but no camera can capture the dazzling weirdness of the tree-covered limestone islands in the distance – the way they seem to float, like icebergs, above the blue-green water.
Back at the resort pool, we take advantage of the swim-up bar. “We love the rainy season!” we say to ourselves, pointing ironically to the uninterrupted sky. Below us lies Phang Nga Bay, where the low tide has exposed huge swaths of seabed to the late afternoon sunlight. Susan and I feel like we’ve discovered a magical travel tip, a secret way to enjoy a vacation with hardly anyone else around. Of course, it rained yesterday, and maybe it will rain again tomorrow. But for travelers who can handle a little uncertainty, the rewards…all that!-hit us as more than worth it.
The next day is just as sunny, so Susan and I rent a pair of bikes and ride around the northern half of the island. We pass platters of thin, silvery anchovies, or “ching chang”, which have been left to dry in the hot equatorial sun. These fish are used, among other things, for the fermented fish sauce that gives many Thai dishes here their particularly earthy punch.
As we continue, we meet no other tourists and only a few passing Thais. “Fifteen minutes!” shouts a man on a motorbike, and I have no idea what he means – but maybe he guesses how long it will take us to get to the beach, because in a quarter of an hour we arrived at Son Bay, another beautifully secluded stretch of sand. The beachfront here is cozier and less majestic than that at our resort, though it’s certainly no less attractive. Evergreen trees lean over the sand; tiny translucent crabs scuttle with the lapping of the water.
For several minutes, we sit, chat, and snack on dried banana slices. When we get up, Susan is surprised to find a black cat directly behind her; she lets out a weary cry of laughter and we cautiously return to our bikes. The cat hisses at us all the time, its face pinched and bored.
To Susan’s dismay, more cats are waiting for us at the resort’s beach bar, where we’re going to have dinner that night. We strike up a conversation with our server, a charming and caring man named Anthony. We ask about the surroundings, and Anthony tells us about a place called Bird’s Nest Island, which dominates the view from the restaurant. Nests made from bird saliva are harvested there, he says, and then made into “bird’s nest soup,” an expensive delicacy in Chinese culture.
Another advantage of traveling in low season is that Anthony has time to talk with us – only two other tables have customers. He tells us about his wife, his children and his rubber tree farm.
“Do you like it on Koh Yao Yai?” I ask.
“Yes,” he said smiling. “Yes.”
Heavy rain forecast for Saturday, our third full day on Koh Yao Yai, but Susan and I are not even thinking of canceling a planned boat trip to nearby islands. Bad weather is simply a part of off-season travel, and our awareness of this fact has prepared us, even curious, for the contingencies that might have frustrated us in high season.
Nil, our talkative guide, takes us to the pier, where we board a low wooden longtail. (These traditionally Southeast Asian boats are distinguished by high bows and propellers that extend from long helm masts.) Nil warns us that two separate storms are heading directly for Hong Island and the surrounding archipelago, where we are heading now. Susan and I giggle, scanning a horizon that has already begun to darken. The gap between the sun and the gust is oddly distinct; the sky looks like a split screen.
Soon the storms are upon us, so we retreat to the hold, where we gaze out of the plexiglass windows at the aquatic circus around us. Even now, the islands are as weird and beautiful as ever. They almost seem to move with us, moving as we pass between them.
We take refuge in an eroded cave on the edge of one of these islands. The captain ties the boat to a pair of stalactites that hang from the ridged stone ceiling. When the storm has partially passed and we’ve headed to another nearby island, Susan and I jump in the water. We are looking for Nemo fish; sea urchins are avoided; we rub ourselves against the strange tingling sensation that stings our skin. The only other guide boat soon leaves the area, and again, it is completely alone: there are no other travelers here, no other inhabitants, no one.
At Koh Lao Lading, one of the region’s busiest islands, we join eight other boats on a beach nestled against a limestone cliff.
“So many boats!” Susan says, but Nil shakes his head.
“So many boats? he said smiling. “No. You should see it in high season.”
At Hong Island, our last stop, we climb a long metal staircase to the top. Despite being a longtime hiker, I’m surprised to find myself nervous at the intensity of the steep drop below us. Or maybe it’s just the clouds crawling and conspiring wildly across the vast, foamy sky.
Yet despite all this, the clouds are just as beautiful. They cast a shale-colored grayness over the waterscape, granting us a version of the same dark grandeur that Susan and I noticed the day we arrived. It is not the simple, uncomplicated splendor of a sunny day. It is something different, something attractive precisely because it is different. It’s out-of-season beauty: that mix of ideal and imperfect, desired and unexpected, pleasant and uncomfortable. Of course, I would love to see this view when the sun is shining. But bright and sunny isn’t the only rewarding way to experience Koh Yao Yai – or any place, for that matter.
This, ultimately, is the greatest dividend of off-season travel. Not the crowds or the low prices, but a certain openness. When “perfection” is not possible, you are not disappointed by its absence; you are, on the contrary, open to more varied and multifaceted beauties: to the prehistoric islands of stone rising out of the water; skyward, and the billowing gray clouds that swirl, drift, and pour. It was an accident of timing that we came to Thailand during the rainy season. But what if we were to make such decisions more deliberately? What if we were to think of “off season” as a kind of “in season”, actively researching destinations when we are generally advised to avoid them? Perhaps our adventures would be all the richer, all the more surprising, all the more embracing of the world in all its marvelous multiplicity.
It’s almost time to leave. Susan and I walk back down the stairs to Hong Beach, where we stand alone in heady, blissful silence.