Thailand - Phuket Sailing
Written by Nick Walton
When you’ve been in the din of Bangkok for a week, with its crowded night markets and revving tuk-tuks, the silence of the seas at the base of Koh Phi Phi Leh’s towering limestone cliffs is almost deafening.
There is nothing but the gentle lapping, slapping, silk-on-silk sound of waves on the yacht hull and the occasional cry of a passing frigate or formations of black-naped terns jostling around their nests on the pockmarked cliff face. While boatloads of young tourists, in various stages of an undercoat tan, crowd the famed beach on the other side of the island, each looking for their own The Beach experience after the international success of the Leonardo DiCaprio movie filmed here, we have the leeward side to ourselves. I’m travelling with three others, all in different stages of stupor, as our Sunsail Gibsae 43ft charter yacht Istan bobs in the wake of distant fantail boats and the occasional high-powered tourist transfer. With the sun on my face and a cool breeze blowing from Krabi, it’s about the most idyllic place in one of the world’s most beautiful locales.
Thailand is picture-perfect for sailing, with modern marinas, predictable weather patterns, and great value for money on and off the water. If there was a gateway to the best cruising grounds in the kingdom, it would be the tropical islands scattered across the Andaman like so many jewels on silk sheets. And the first stop south from Phuket is always tiny, famous Phi Phi Leh.
I had first visited Phi Phi as a rookie journalist in the wake of the 2004 tsunami, and had the hidden lagoon, with its idyllic strip of pearl-hued sand and its swarms of inquisitive tropical reef fish, all to myself. It’s virtually impossible to have The Beach all to yourself these days, save for the tiny window between sunrise and the arrival of the first colourful dragonfly-like ferry, packed with tourists hoping to snorkel and star in their own Facebook photoshoots. But at the back of the island, at the base of the sheer limestone cliffs that are so popular with Thailand’s swallow bird-nest industry, it’s much easier to find your own little slice of paradise, especially if you’re already waking up there on a yacht charter.
My first experience sailing a yacht – save for the terrifying day trips on my grandfather’s battered Beneteau, was here among the islands of the eastern Andaman. These pristine sailing grounds have proven increasingly popular with yachties, with small communities forming on islands like Koh Yao Noi and on the Krabi coast dedicated to visitors in the sailing months of November to March, when the monsoon brings cool weather and reliable winds.
Reluctantly we rise from our sun-kissed slumbers, hoist sail, and make our way due north to the main island of Phi Phi Don. This island remains one of the favourite sailing berths in the Gulf and for good reason; its pristine beaches are great for swimming, there are plenty of mooring sites and, if you’re looking for accommodation off the boat, the likes of the Zeavola Resort at the island’s northern tip offer up luxurious digs on terra firma. From our mooring in tranquil Loh Bakao Bay, we watch the last light of the day drain from the sky while fresh barramundi fillets grill and crackle on the barbecue at the stern. Below deck one of my travelling companions, a world-wandering Frenchman named Yvan Ey, chops lettuce and sips beer while singing along to an eighties French classic on the stereo. Skipper Chris Green, a veteran of the seas surrounding Thailand, lounges at the stern watching the sunset, while his offsider, a young Canadian skipper named Jason, calls the bow home.
By mid-morning the next day, after a refreshing swim off the bow into water the colour of lime cordial, we’re on our way to the Krabi coast and one of the region’s most famous yachtie locales, Rai Leh. It’s time for some real work as the winds gather themselves and whip across the northern tip of Phi Phi Don, making us earn our passage. It’s perfect conditions for sailing; the sun is warm, the winds consistent, and Istan performs to perfection as Yvan mans the helm, a cigarette clutched between his lips. At Koh Poda, a tiny uninhabited island near the Krabi coast, we drop anchor for a well-deserved swim to the beach, before sailing the last league towards the cliffs surrounding Rai Leh, the sky ahead turning from robin’s-egg blue to violet and indigo and, finally, as we tie to a mooring buoy in the harbour, darkness.
Dominating a finger of land between towering limestone cliffs, little Rai Leh is only accessible by boat thanks to a long pristine coastline backed by towering peaks that draw rock climbers from across the globe. We take the tender to shore for a few cold beers and some spicy Thai cuisine, slogging our way the last hundred yards through knee-high sand and mud as the receding tide flees the Krabi coast.
Like a slice of Thailand forgotten by mass tourism, Rai Leh boasts little beachfront bars and restaurants filled with sailors and mountain climbers and the odd sea kayaker. “It’s nice to have one spot you can go where things are as they always were,” says Chris.
“I only hope it stays this way.” That night, back on the Istan, we fall asleep to the sounds of music, laughter, and an occasional roar of applause from the Bamboo Bar on the beachfront, which hosts muay thai tournaments backed by a local DJ. If you’re looking to make Rai Leh home for a little longer, the Rayavadee is the only resort on Phra Nang Beach and boasts stunning sea views and luxurious villas and pavilions that are among the most private in Thailand.
It’s our final day and we’re finishing the triangle with a visit to Koh Yao Noi, the smaller of two islands which lie between Rai Leh and Phuket’s Ao Po Marina. Noi is the better developed of the two and is a popular stop-off for yacht charters heading back to base or further north into the UNESCO-listed Phang Nga Bay. We dine on our last lunch off a beautiful strip of beach that’s now home to a luxurious Six Senses resort, as the island becomes increasingly popular with the well-heeled looking for privacy in the tropics. Two other crews follow suit, making the most of the cloudless day to swim off the back of their vessels or zip over to the resort for lunch. It’s an experience only matched by the sunset that follows our progress back to the marina, the four of us rested, bronzed, and reluctant to return to civilisation after being seduced, once again, by the charms of the Andaman.
The Hidden Beach
While many tourists flock to Phi Phi Leh for its hidden beach, Koh Hong, located east of the Yao islands in the Ao Phang Nga National Park, is still relatively unknown internationally and offers day trippers and sailors a chance to discover their own Eden. Accessible by fantail from Ao Nang beach near Krabi, Koh Hong features a stunning internal lagoon, accessed through a tiny opening in the limestone cliffs which protect the pristine environment within. These huongs or internal lagoons remain popular with fishermen looking for solitude as they nap the daytime away, and offer safe and clear snorkelling in a depth of about one to two metres. The gap to the ocean is so narrow that only one longboat or dinghy can fit through at a time, ensuring that tranquillity prevails.
Phuket is no stranger to luxury resorts, but the outlying islands of the Andaman have always been the preserve of intrepid travellers and budget backpackers. No more. Six Senses Yao Noi, created by green hospitality guru Sonu Shivdasani, has brought international luxury and a distinctive Thai feel to one of the region’s most popular mooring islands. The resort’s private pool villas are wreathed by lush natural jungle and face out across a coveted strip of talcum-powder sand. But despite their lavishness, the resort is one of the most sustainable in Thailand, with energy efficiency and waste management as important as its wine list and degustation menus served at the lofty Hilltop Reserve restaurant.
Distance: 5,268 km
Flight Time: 6 hours, 15 minutes
Frequency: 4 flights a day