While travelling I usually don’t stay at the same location for more than a few days. There is so much to see in the world, I don’t take much more time than that. And honestly, in most cases I’ve already seen the best of a place in that time. The hunger for something new gets too big and I get restless and have to move on. Sometimes however a place gets to you: you don’t want to leave. This is what Koh Tao in Thailand did to me. It grabbed me and (almost) didn’t let me go.
It’s my first time in Thailand and the first long distance travel I do by myself. After more than two days of flying, driving and boating I arrive at Koh Tao, the little sister of better known Koh Samui and Koh Phangan (yes, the one from the full moon parties). Less (over)developed, more quiet and more relaxed, and the perfect choice for a few days scuba diving. Because that’s what the island is well known for. And for good reasons, because the beautiful corals and colorful fish, little current, the clear, warm water… and not entirely unimportant… cheap diving, it’s a perfect place to immerse yourself into. Exactly the reason I’m visiting this island!
Koh Tao accommodation surprise
The sun has set about two hours when I get off the ferry. At the end of the pier there’s a wall of taxi drivers waiting. I push through the crowd, because if all is well, there’s a driver from Roctopus waiting to take me to my hotel.
Driver and accommodation have been arranged for me, so I have no clue where I’m going to end up. While I’m at the back of the pickup truck, we drive over one of the few roads there are on this small island. In the dark I see little of the island and after about five minutes we turn left, onto a small bumpy dirt track.
The dirt track is even worse than the road that took us there and so dark I have absolutely no idea where we’re heading. A little voice in my head’s asking me if I shouldn’t have arranged a hotel by myself. Where am I going to end up?
Though it feels like I’ve ended up in the middle of nowhere, it is a nice place. The building is surrounded by palm trees and several small buildings made out of corrugated sheet metal panels giving it more of a “being on a small tropical island”-feeling then the larger accommodations I’ve seen along the road. The room is decent and quiet and it’s only a small stroll to Sairee Beach.
Koh Tao by night
I quickly freshen up, because my driver is still waiting for me. He takes me to a bar on the beach where I’ve agreed to meet Westy. This friendly Kiwi is co-owner with Roctopus Dive and arranged the pickup and accommodation.
Because the bar has no walls, a pleasant breeze is blowing from the sea and there’s a nice view onto the beach. It’s quite busy, but after asking around for a bit I get pointed to Westy sitting at the bar. After having talked over email, it’s nice to finally be able to put a face to the name. We chat a bit and get introduced to a few others from Roctopus Dive. The crew has a party tonight to celebrate four of the crew getting their divemasters. I’m always in for a good party and it’s a great opportunity to meet some new people.
Everyone is so friendly, in for a chat and so incredibly relaxed. Though I don’t know anyone, it quickly feels like I’ve been there for years. This seems typical for this island. Wherever I go, as soon as I grab a beer and sit down, I have a chat with a total stranger. It’s so easy to make new friends over here. Before I know it, it’s well past midnight when I get back to my hotel.
Diving around Koh Tao
After last night was late, but great, I’m wide awake at around seven. After three years without diving, I finally get back in the water. I’m really looking forward to this.
The variation between dive locations is huge. The first day we dive at Red Rock, Japanese gardens and Twins. These locations are relatively shallow. Good spots when you’ve got little experience with diving or if, like me, it’s been some time since your last dive. Large boulders are overgrown with beautiful coral surrounded by colorful fish, nudibranchs and the odd sea snake.
In the days that follow we head for Chumpon Pinnacles and Southwest Pinnacles, which still is easy diving, but with depths of 30 meters also more interesting for advanced divers. Large pinnacles are overgrown with massive fields of anemones and huge groupers and barracudas are swimming around. It’s supposed to be a good area for spotting some sharks (even whale sharks), but we don’t get to see those.
Like that isn’t enough, several ships have been sunk around the island. We take a dive at Sattakut Wreck. A WWII ship, with big guns on the bow and the stern of the ship. With somewhat limited visibility and the history of the ship at the back of our minds, it’s a totally different dive then the one at the reefs a few kilometers away. We look for big stingrays underneath the hull of the ship and cruise slowly over the deck, surrounded by large schools of fish.
More than just diving
But Koh Tao has more to offer than just diving. Despite the many warnings I rent a scooter. The roads are in poor condition compared to those at home and there’s a good chance of being scammed. Nonetheless, a scooter seems the best way to see at bit more of the island.
Luckily Westy knows a guy that can be trusted and after collecting my scooter, I make my way up north. At the end of the road out of Sairee Beach I get to a viewpoint with a beautiful view on Nangyuan Island: Three small islands connected by a narrow beach. Unique in the world and beautiful to see.
I didn’t get to go there, but if you get the chance: go. It’s beautiful, but go early morning or late afternoon. Around midday the island gets flooded with tourists. If you like to visit the viewpoint I visited, try and go there at sunset. I’ve been told that from there, you can see the sun set between the islands. That must be a beautiful sight!
From the viewpoint I make my way to the south of the island. There are so many beautiful bays where you can take a plunge with your snorkel, but not everyone of them are easy to reach. I choose to go to Shark Bay. Easy to reach and a good spot for snorkeling. From the beach I can already spot the first fish and a bit further from shore you can swim between the corals and fish. Visibility is also a bit better further from shore.
Around sunset I head back to my hotel. A sunset like you can expect from a tropical island. A forest filled with palmtrees, bathing in the warm, golden light of the setting sun. Despite of the many mosquitos I love it, but this also means the end of my last day on Koh Tao. Or does it? Shall I stay just one more day?
Koh Tao… goodbye?
After having spent five days on Koh Tao I really don’t want to leave. I should have payed notice to all the warnings of dive instructors who also got here for “just a few days of diving”. They ended up staying months or even years. I came for just two days, ended up staying five and could easily stay another two weeks… or months… or more. What is it with this island?
I’m really getting doubts, but Thailand has so much more to offer. Despite really wanting to stay a bit longer I get my backpack and reluctantly get on the ferry the next morning. On to my next destination: Khao Sok. Where I’ve been doubting for days whether to turn back or not.
More stories and pictures from this destination and others will come soon. Because, no matter how great Koh Tao was, I’m glad I moved on. Thailand had so much more to offer. More about that soon!