Our pick-up is a wooden fishing boat of jaunty colours and a coughing engine that takes us across a blue bay just beginning to sparkle in the early-morning sun. Spray flies up over the bow and soaks my unsuspecting fellow passengers, but the response is good natured. We're all relaxed and sun-kissed on this Thai island cruise.
Our motor-yacht Panorama II is anchored off Koh Yao Yai in the Andaman Sea, halfway between Phuket and mainland Krabi. Those in the know come here for the island's dive sites and laidback village lifestyle. We skim past splendid crescent-shaped Laem Haad Beach, which lures occasional filmmakers to its talcum-white sand, nodding palm trees and beautiful blue-bay backdrop.
You can imagine the hum of Phuket just over the rim of the sea, but Koh Yao Yai moves to a different rhythm. It's fringed by mangroves and the floating wooden huts of lobster fishermen. Its hills are patchworked in rainforest and rubber plantations. Islanders are Muslim and traditionally minded, and have no desire to turn their island into another raucous Thai beach resort. They run eco-homestays and small tourist-oriented businesses that use local products to make herbal oils, soap and sweets.
We meet community expert Bang Yaa at the pier, where housewives inspect buckets of glittering fish. Soon we're hauling our way into the hills in the back of an open truck. This new Peregrine Adventures journey through the Thai and Malaysian islands is an anti-cruise sort of cruise. There's no huge cruise terminal here – or anywhere, until we arrive at journey's end in Penang. No disembarking thousands, no slick "local experience" tours that are really just a stickybeak out the windows of an air-conditioned coach.
On Koh Yai Yai we're air-conditioned by the breeze, and our local experiences include spending an hour with a family of weavers who create mats and containers from pandanus fronds, which are softened in water, split into ribbons and deftly interwoven. The matriarch of the house is 85, wrinkled as a concertina but still nimble of finger – and toes, which she uses to hold her pandanus ribbons in place as she works. Her gold-capped teeth gleam as she cackles at our feeble foreign attempts to weave.
We move on, passing snorting water buffalos, a lonesome bar whose owner slumps asleep on the counter, workers tapping at rubber trees, a bend in the road with views to infinity over an indigo sea peppered with humped islands. Traffic consists of the occasional teenager, white teeth grinning, spluttering past us on a motorbike.
Not your place, then, if your idea of a cruise shore excursion is shopping for overpriced bags or beating your way through crowds towards a Big Sight. Peregrine Adventures is all about local experiences, community awareness and a light footprint. Instead of jetboating in Phuket, we're taking a hike up into the rainforest, where Bang Yaa shows us useful foraged plants. We use slingshots to fire seed pods across the hillside, where we hope they'll take root as part of the island's forest regeneration program.
That afternoon, we stop at a village house where chickens scratch beneath the verandah. The family serves sticky coconut rice that has been cooked inside the distinctive fly-trapping leaves of pitcher plants. Our accompanying drink, sweet and pale purple, is made from butterfly-pea flowers plucked from the garden. Nobody is boasting about farm-to-plate experiences though. Muslim girls in pink or yellow headscarves, gaudy as a flock of parrots, just giggle as they trial words in English. They wave us goodbye from the gate as we lurch off in our truck, waving back.
Thai Airways International flies daily from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth to Bangkok, with onward connections to Phuket. See thaiairways.com
Peregrine Adventures offers several cruises in the Thai islands, round trip from Phuket or between Phuket and Penang in Malaysia. The writer was on an eight-day cruise between Phuket and Penang. Prices from $2586pp twin share including transport, half-board and most activities. Phone 1300 765 896. See peregrineadventures.com
Brian Johnston was a guest of Peregrine Adventures.