After our plane landed in Phuket, Matt and I caught a taxi to Bang Rong pier and managed to get tickets for the last boat out to Koh Yao Noi for the day. Before boarding the boat, we had time to grab a couple of Singha beers. As we embarked across the Andaman Sea at sunset we cracked the cold beers and enjoyed the feeling of getting away with something. Sabai sabai my friends.
Once on the island we made our way to Namtok Bungalows. The past two times Matt had visited the island he had stayed in these simple bungalows, which are pretty much open to the elements, have no air conditioning and are surrounded by standing water which breed hordes of mosquitos. Considering Matt’s intense dislike to heat and his legitimately severe reaction to mosquito bites, I was surprised and impressed about this choice. Upon arriving we ate dinner, cranked up a fan in our room and crawled under our mosquito net for the night. Three nights later we ended up having to find accommodations elsewhere because Namtok was full, but I would stay there again in a heartbeat. The relaxed atmosphere and incredibly friendly staff were big selling points.
Our first day on the island was spent exploring so I could get my bearings. We rented motorbikes from Namtok and did a tour around the island stopping on a beautiful beach for lunch and swimming. Lazy hours were spent reading in hammocks and drinking fruit shakes, but it is not in mine or Matt’s personality to lounge on beaches for more than one day at a time. Both of us agree that we would be terrible at vacationing if it weren’t for climbing.
So, the following morning we jumped on our motorbikes and headed out to the land-access climbing behind Paradise resort. The off-road scooter ride turned out to be pretty epic by my standards. Thank goodness for Molly, Becca, Chase, Artec and the Flagstaff Bike Rev ladies ride!! I don’t think I would have made it without my humble mountain biking experience. Even so, I was terrified most of the way.
Eventually we made it to the resort parking lot. Unfortunately the resort management has banned climbers from walking through resort property to get to the cliffs. As a result, the approach has become an hour-long slog through the mosquito infested jungle. After getting lost only once and sweating enough to soak through our clothes, we made it to Big Tree wall and roped up for a multipitch called Looney Tunes. The route started by climbing between and then above two massive tufas. It then continued up three more pitches with interesting movement and wild features. As with pretty much all multipitches on Big Tree, the descent was tricky because the route was drastically overhung (many also traverse). In order to get back down you have to clip back in to bolts on the way down and then use some serious teamwork to get both climbers back to the next anchor. As we rappelled the last pitch the sky unleashed a torrential tropical downpour. The next couple hours were spent hiking through the muddy, wet jungle and then riding motorbikes up and down slippery, wet hills. I did shed some tears, but later admitted to Matt that I would consider it type 2 fun by morning.
For dinner that night we stumbled upon a hidden treasure of a restaurant called the Sea Gypsy. It is owned by the sweetest Thai woman on the face of the earth. We would return for many more dinners over the next week. The Sea Gypsy’s favorite joke was to zap mosquitos with her bug zapper and ask us if we wanted barbecue mosquitos for dinner.
New Years Eve was spent taking a little kayak trip out to a beach on a nearby island, swimming in the surf and having a date night. We went out to dinner at a restaurant called La Luna, which is an Italian place run by expats. They make truly delicious thin crust, wood oven pizza. After many months of primarily Asian food, the pizza was welcome relief. A good number of nights were spent there drinking wine, stuffing our faces with cheesy, crispy pizza and indulging in fabulous desserts.
After New Year’s dinner, Matt and I relaxed in our bungalow until we heard the beginning of celebratory fireworks. We both ran out to the beach across the street and were greeted with a fireworks display on every visible beach. Both above our heads and out across the sea there were brilliant explosions of colorful light.
So turns out there are some climbing access issues on the island. Climbing used to be a big source of tourism on Koh Yao Noi, but about three years ago the National Park that includes the sea cliff climbing, called Phang-nga, got a new manager. He initiated a complete ban on climbing. From a news article Matt found, the manager’s reason for the climbing ban was that the cliffs were “too steep” and therefore too dangerous. Seriously? We decided to try our luck despite the questionable legality. Climbers are not really known for being the most law-abiding bunch anyway and some Facebook communications with locals were encouraging. The climbing directly behind the resort can be accessed by scooter and hiking, but the real gems of Koh Yao Noi are cliffs only accessible by boat. This is where things get challenging, but after a few more missions to Paradise and finding a large enough climbing crew, we managed to get a boat out to a magical place called Grateful Wall. We spent two afternoons there climbing and swimming.
Koh Yao Noi ended up being just as magical as Matt described. The climbing, the food, the new friends and the local community were wonderful. The crew at Namtok, some interesting expat characters and our favorite Sea Gypsy made us feel a part of the little community. Favorite places to eat include Kaya and the Sea Gypsy for authentic Thai and La Luna for some incredible pizza.
To make things even better, I got a message from my old friend Brock that he and his girlfriend Heather would be coming to Koh Yao Noi in time for us to meet up. I hadn’t seen Brock in years, so it was super special to get to meet up for dinner and beers on the other side of the world. No matter how many times it happens, I am always pleasantly surprised at how small the world can be.
Next and potentially last stop, Bangkok for a day and then back to the Green Climbers Home in Laos! This is the climbing area that started it all, so I’m pretty excited to go back.