We arrive by speedboat. The weather is gray and grim, but we don’t see it that way; to us it is sweeping, sly, mysterious. We have just spent three clamorous days in Bangkok, among the tuk-tuks and the canals and the steady whiff of watery detritus. Now we are eager for the islands. We are eager for Koh Yao Yai.
At the pier, we make conversation with an Australian couple until a passenger wagon arrives to pick us up. I am with my friend, Susan, who has planned this trip and has a better sense of what the island will look like than I do. Still, both of us are bug-eyed as we bump along the road to our resort. Susan says the greenery reminds her of Arkansas; I say it reminds me of the Bahamas. Really, though, Koh Yao Yai is only itself: an island along the southern tail of Thailand, hilly and remote, with homes on stilts and rubber trees that grow in grids.
According to conventional traveler wisdom, Susan and I shouldn’t even be here at all. It is July, in what is variously known as “low season,” “rainy season,” “monsoon season,” or, more euphemistically, “green season.” Rain falls frequently in these months, and though the temperature averages a not-appalling 85-ish degrees, everything feels hotter because of the humidity. According to one website, “Southern Thailand is the worst area to visit during the monsoon season”—and yet this is precisely where Susan and I have opted to go. We’ve decided to interpret “off-season” not as a prohibition, but as an invitation: a chance to see this remarkable country when fewer other visitors will be around—and, more to the point, when our schedules allow it.
We pull into the Koh Yao Yai Village resort, where a speedy porter takes our bags to one of only six thatch-roofed villas lining the beachfront. The cabana is spacious and airy, with huge windows and an outdoor shower like something out of an Herbal Essences commercial. During high 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 places are easily available and for an excellent price. (We’re paying the equivalent of $140 a night; in December, beachfront villas go for about $235.)
In the high season, which generally stretches from November to March, prices throughout Thailand can as much as double from their off-season lows. International tourism slows from April to October, though there is a moderate rise in visitors in 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 correlated with weather: the sunnier the skies, the busier the streets. According to the Thai Tourism Minister, 60 percent of hotel positions are presently vacant. (Susan and I are arriving at a moment of intense industry vulnerability: Weeks after our visit, officials will announce a plan to help fill a huge COVID-related employee vacuum.)
A heavy storm blows through Koh Yao Yai the first night of our visit. Accompanying the rain is a strange scratching sound 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 against the roof of our cabana. Eventually the sound becomes almost soothing, and I fade into sleep.
The next morning arrives bright, sunny, and clear. Susan and I take advantage of the weather by making our way to Hat Laem Haad, a spit of sand that begins to disappear with the rising tide. We try taking pictures, but no camera can capture the dazzling strangeness of the tree-covered limestone islands in the distance—the way they seem to float, iceberg-like, above the blueish-green water.
Back at the resort pool, we avail ourselves of the swim-up bar. “We love rainy season!” we say to each other, gesturing ironically at the unbroken sky. Below us stretches Phang Nga Bay, where low tide has exposed huge swaths of seabed to the late-afternoon sunlight. Susan and I feel as if we have discovered some magical travel hack—a secret way to enjoy a vacation with almost no one else around. Sure, it rained yesterday, and perhaps it will rain again tomorrow. But for travelers who can stomach a little uncertainty, the rewards—all this!—strike us as more than worth it.
The next day is similarly sunny, so Susan and I rent a pair of bikes and ride around the northern half of the island. We pass roadside trays of thin, silver anchovies, or “ching chang,” that have been left to dry in the hot, equatorial sun. These fish are used for, among other things, the fermented fish sauce that gives many Thai dishes here their particularly earthy punch.
Continuing onward, we encounter 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 perhaps he is guessing how long it will take us to get to the beach, for within a quarter of an hour we have arrived at Son Bay, another strip of beautifully secluded sand. The beachfront here is cozier and less majestic than the one at our resort, though it is certainly no less attractive. Evergreen trees lean out over the sand; tiny, translucent crabs scuttle with the lap of the water.
For several minutes we sit, chat, and snack on dried banana slices. When we stand, Susan is startled to find a black cat directly behind her; she lets out a yelp of frazzled laughter, and we make our way carefully back to our bikes. The cat hisses at us all the while, its face pinched and bored.
To Susan’s dismay, more cats await us at the resort’s beach bar, where we go for dinner that evening. We strike up a conversation with our waiter, a charming and kind-faced man named Anthony. We ask about the surrounding area, 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, then made into “bird’s nest soup,” an expensive delicacy in Chinese culture.
That Anthony has time to talk with us is yet another dividend of low-season travel—only two other tables have patrons. He tells us about his wife, and his kids, and his rubber tree farm.
“Do you like it on Koh Yao Yai?” I ask.
“Yes,” he said, grinning. “Yes, I do.”
Heavy rains are forecast for Saturday, our third full day in Koh Yao Yai, but Susan and I don’t even think about canceling a planned boat tour of the neighboring islands. Bad weather is simply part of traveling off-season, and our awareness of this fact has made us prepared—curious, even—about contingencies that might have frustrated us in high season.
Nil, our chatty guide, takes us to the pier, where we board a low, wooden longtail boat. (These traditionally Southeast Asian boats are distinguished by tall prows and propellers that extend from lengthy tiller poles.) Nil warns us that two separate storms are headed directly to Hong Island and the surrounding archipelago, where we’re now headed. Susan and I laugh nervously, scanning a horizon that has already begun to darken. The divide between sun and squall is eerily distinct; the sky looks like a split screen.
Soon enough the storms are upon us, so we retreat to the hold, where we gaze out the Plexiglas windows at the watery circus that surrounds us. Even now, the islands are as strange and beautiful as ever. They almost seem to move with us, shifting as we pass between them.
We take refuge in an eroded cave space at the edge of one such island. The captain ties the boat to a pair of stalactites that hang from the streaked, stone ceiling. When the storm has partially passed and we’ve made our way to another nearby island, Susan and I jump in the water. We scout for Nemo fish; we avoid sea urchins; we brush at the odd stinging sensation that prickles our skin. The only other guide boat soon leaves the area, and again with are completely alone: There are no other travelers here, no other locals, no one.
At Koh Lao Lading, one of the area’s more frequented islands, we join eight other boats at a beach nestled tightly against a limestone cliff.
“So many boats!” says Susan, but Nil shakes his head.
“So many boats?” he says, smiling. “No. You should see it in high season.”
At Hong Island, our last stop, we climb a long metal staircase to the summit. Despite being a lifelong hiker, I am surprised to find myself nervous about the intensity of the sheer drop below us. Or maybe it’s just the clouds that creep and conspire wildly in the vast, frothy sky.
Still, for all this, the clouds are also lovely. They cast a shale-colored grayness over the waterscape, granting us a version of the same dark grandeur Susan and I noticed on the day of our arrival. This is not the simple, uncomplicated splendor of a sunny day. It is something different—something alluring precisely because it is different. It is off-season beauty: that mix of ideal and imperfect, longed-for and unexpected, pleasant and uncomfortable. Of course, I would love to see this view when the sun is shining. But bright and sunny is not the only rewarding way to experience Koh Yao Yai—or any place, for that matter.
This, in the end, is the greatest dividend of off-season travel. Not the sparse crowds or the low prices, but a certain posture of openness. When “perfection” isn’t possible, you aren’t disappointed by its absence; you are, instead, open to more various and many-sided kinds of beauty: to the prehistoric stone islands that poke from the water; to the sky, and the seething gray clouds that swirl and drift and pour. It is an accident of timing that we have come to Thailand during 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 “on-season,” actively seeking out destinations when we’re generally advised to avoid them? Perhaps our adventures would be that much richer, that much more surprising, that much more embracing of the world in all its wondrous multiplicity.
Soon it is time to leave. Susan and I take the stairs back down to Hong Beach, where we stand, by ourselves, in a heady, happy silence.