Ko Tao, the Island of Turtles, Divers or Food Lovers?

By on November 15, 2017


After twenty-four hours of buses, planes, tuk-tuks and ferry boats, we finally made it to Ko Tao, the second stop on our tour of Thailand.  

Recognized as one of the cheapest places in the world to get your underwater diving certification through PADI (the Professional Association of Diving Instructors), the island is responsible for certifying over 65 percent of the worlds licensed divers.  Where most courses run around $600 a piece and require a minimum of five days of intensive training, here, $300 and three days of tireless training will grant you a certification, free housing and free transportation from Bangkok.

It’s no wonder really that over 70 dive shops cover the small island.  

Until 1954, Ko Tao was an uninhabited island, a jungle covered rock known for its abundance of turtles, sharks and active bird populations.  

Between 1943 and 1944, the island was used as a political prison for the Borawadesh Uprising on Ko Tarutao. It wasn’t until 1947 that the island was settled by two brothers from the neighboring island of Ko Samui. It has since become one of the most visited islands in southern Thailand.

As a result, the island abounds with tourists here for two reasons: to dive, and to party.  Hotels, hostels, dive shops, restaurants and bars cover the western beaches of the island. Walking down Sairee at night, music thumps to a different beat from bar to bar and tourists dressed in bikinis and souvenirs wander through the brightly lit side streets, plastic gin buckets dangling from their hands.  

Micha’s desire to get her diving certification brought us here. Being the land mammal that I am, I opted out of the three day training and decided to explore the island on my own.  

“What are you going to do?” one of her instructors asked me when I dropped her off, his voice incredulous, as though there could be nothing but going below the surface of the water to experience here.     

There are two things that make backpackers in Thailand stand out: Their enormous backpacks, and the road rash and bandages covering their faces, hands, and legs from motorcycle accidents.

Though I’d been warned of the perilous pitches of the hills on the island and was urged to rent a motorcycle, my mother’s voice in the back of my head and my inexperience on bikes pushed me to spend the day walking. Besides, I live in Jackson, so how hard could it really be?

Turns out, very. Not only are the roads incredibly steep — I’m talking Snow King boot-pack steep — but they’re windy and narrow. On top of that, it was 90 degrees out and the air was full of humidity.  

My sneakers had been wet for three days due to the moistness of the air which in turn rubbed my feet raw, leaving blisters on parts of my feet I’d forgotten I had.  

Nevertheless, the Island was a contradiction of dirty and dark as well as naturally resplendent. I walked past the deserted beach of Sai Nuan, where palm trees hang lazily over soft waves lapping against a white beach nestled between two piles of rocks, and to the small town of Chalok, passing dark shacks and empty shops along the way. The electrical wires piled high above my head buzzed with exertion.  

Chalok Beach, though long, was too narrow to walk on. Bars lined the entirety of the white sand. Onwards and upwards, I climbed up and down a few hills to find Sai Daeng Beach on the southeastern part of the island. I moved on to Tanote Bay, which proved even more crowded with beach layers and snorkelers, and walked back across the island to Mae Haad Bay.   

With sweat covering every inch of my face and body, it was time for a swim, a beer and some food.  

One of the dive instructors had recommended we try Coconut Monkey, a beachside restaurant in Mae Haad near our hotel. I dropped my fanny pack at a table, ordered a Singha and wasted no time in plunging myself into the teal water. It was warm, salty and perfect. I felt the walk slip off my skin and disappear into the sea.  

By the time I’d returned, my beer sat perspiring on my table.  I took a few sips, read over the menu and was delighted to find fresh fruit bowls with homemade yogurt, thai salads with avocado and chicken and many more fresh, delicious options.  

After having fried noodles with eggs for breakfast every day, and curries with rice for lunch and dinner — not that I’m complaining — it was a exactly the change of pace I needed in my day.  

After Micha finishes her PADI, we plan to pack up and head to Koh Samui for a few days of yoga and R&R at Vikasa Yoga Retreat.  

While we haven’t partaken in Thailand’s notorious party scene, we’re both looking forward to a little down time and serenity after a week of the bustling atmosphere here in Ko Tao.  PJH

About Helen Goelet

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