It snuck up on me. It really, really snuck up on me. I had a feeling I’d like Koh Tao, the tiny #3 ‘me too!’ island in Thailand’s Gulf Coast – but I severely underestimated its charm. Often cast in the shadow of bigger sister islands Koh Samui (miles of posh Western-leaning resorts) and Koh Phangan (unbridled neon party debauchery), Koh Tao has a laidback backpacker vibe all its own, in a Goldilocks ‘just-right’ sort of way.
Spanning 21 sq. km (that’s 8.2 square miles), the island is incredibly easy to get around. As a reference for those of you back in the ATL, that’s approximately the same size as my hometown of Powder Springs. There are no addresses here; instead, there are basically just 2 main roads (one of which is a footpath by the beach). It’d be impressive if you managed to get lost.
So yes, Koh Tao is diminutive in size – but what it lacks in geographic breadth, it more than makes up for in personality. First and foremost, this is a mecca for backpackers and dive bums. There are more than 80(!) scuba shops in town, offering incredibly inexpensive certifications and diving opportunities with instructors and dive masters from every corner of the Earth. No matter what language you speak, there’s a shop here that’d be thrilled to teach you how to dive, in your native tongue and for very little cash.
If any given building isn’t a dive shop, there’s a 99% chance it’s either a kickass restaurant, a bar, a massage parlor, a tattoo shop, or a 7-Eleven. Koh Tao life goes a little something like this: Eat, dive, eat some more, dive again, watch the sunset, party a bit, and then get up early again tomorrow to rinse and repeat.
Because the place is so compact, everyone gets around by way of motorbikes, mostly small 100-125cc models. There are hardly any cars, aside from the ubiquitous white pickup truck taxis, chosen for their versatility to haul around dive gear and smiling divers in their beds, wind in their salt-kissed hair. Shoes are rarely worn. Shirts, selectively.
The food here is incredible. There’s ample roadside street food, including decadent Thai banana pancakes, BBQ skewers, and even huge buckets full of sugar and whiskey for 150 bhat ($4.80). There are local mom-n-pop hole-in-the-walls serving up flavorful Thai classics while you perch on plastic stools (a favorite meal of mine at one of these was chili pork with rice and a banana smoothie for 110 bhat, or $3.50). Since this is such a global place with a vibrant expat community, there’s representation from nearly every great cuisine around the world (aside from the always-elusive Mexican, anyway) for those times when you get tired of Thai food.
A thorough tour of KT will also reveal muay thai gyms, some great little hikes with beautiful ocean viewpoints, classes for freediving and trapeze, a very famous cabaret, about a million dogs, a single Buddhist temple, and lots and lots of beachfront. (More on some of those in a bit). The beaches here offer relaxation, buzzy lounges, nighttime fire dancers, snorkeling, and hammock-slung palms.
What’s most difficult to convey, though, is just the vibe here. It’s as stress-free and relaxed as you can imagine, but it does come alive at night. Rather than being clogged with 19-year old British boys screaming at the top of their lungs whilst dripping in neon facepaint, however, it’s a more grown-up party scene. I spent more than a few nights watching the sunset from beanbags over mojitos or cheap beers while DJs spun deep house tunes, or shooting pool at a bar atop a mountain famous for its great views, its resident dogs, and its homemade brownies with, um, medicinal properties. Days when I wasn’t diving or climbing were spent lounging by my hostel’s rooftop pool with my Kindle in hand, or swapping dive stories with locals and travelers alike. Koh Tao never pressures you into always ‘doing’ something, but if you want to – you can.
Aside from lots of lounging and eating, my most memorable experiences in Koh Tao included a couple of very cool night dives, a day of climbing and rappelling amongst the island’s mountaintops, an evening at the notorious nightly Queen’s Cabaret, and an afternoon trapeze lesson, of all things.
First, the dives. While scheduled for 5, I was only able to do 3 dives during my week in town – conditions at the area’s best dive site weren’t cooperative this week, so that trip was sadly cancelled. That said, the dives I squeezed in were very cool, indeed. I completed my first deep shipwreck dive, the HTMS Sattakut, and then tackled UV Night diving, an incredibly cool experience that’s surprisingly uncommon. UV diving entails nighttime diving with ultraviolet flashlights, and special UV-reactive facemasks, resulting in an underwater world that bursts to life with a neon glow not unlike neighboring Koh Phangan’s notorious Full Moon Parties. While most diving focuses on spotting marine life, UV diving is all about the coral, and the bizarre alien lifeforms that call the ocean floor home. This was an incredible experience, seemingly ripped straight from Hollywood’s ‘Avatar’. Take a look:
One of the local shops close to my hostel, GoodTime Adventures, specializes in multi-sport activities, including Scuba diving, snorkeling, standup paddle boarding, rock climbing, and the aforementioned trapeze. I elected to join them for a morning of climbing and rappelling with a local guide, and for an afternoon trapeze session. The climbing was good fun, though it exposed just how rusty I am – about a year ago, I was climbing regularly 2-3x weekly, but the time off has shown! All the same, it was a great way to spend a morning, and provided some great views of the island – as well as some good company to share them with.
I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed the trapeze experience. I’ve been jumping at every opportunity to try unique new activities, so naturally I figured I’d give this a go, too – but I actually found that I really liked it a lot, and had a natural knack for it. In fact, I was the best in our small group class, and the only one to successfully complete two in-air catches at the conclusion of the 2-hour lesson. I found it to be really rewarding, particularly after nailing those grabs, and a surprisingly coachable activity despite an obvious complete lack of experience. It was a really fun workout, and I’m glad I gave it a shot!
Despite all of these fantastic experiences, one of the best of all may have very well been the widely renown Queen’s Cabaret, which puts on truly spectactular shows every single night at 10:20 PM – for FREE (Just buy one overpriced drink)!
Quick lesson: Thailand is widely known for its tolerant cultural acceptance of kathoeys – but you probably know them as ladyboys. Kathoey culture is incredibly widespread in Thailand. Whereas transgender communities elsewhere are often ostracized or deeply stigmatized, they thrive all throughout Thailand, resulting in a vibrant and very visible kathoey community. That said – if you’re new around here, you might not even notice – because these ladies are stunners. Seriously, some of these performers are borderline VS underwear model material, and with extensive surgery and hormone therapy, ‘spot the adam’s apple’ isn’t exactly a reliable method of picking out the transgender community around town.
The show itself was completely extravagant. It begins innocuously enough, but quickly becomes outrageous, soliciting unwitting participants from the crowd and becoming progressively more risqué – though never outright trashy – as it goes on. Performances are clearly incredibly passionate and meticulously practiced, and the crowd – pretty equally represented by both men and women – really goes nuts. I got a stiletto heel to the chest a few times.
Ultimately, the show is really exciting, tons of fun, inexpensive, and perhaps best of all, really refreshing. The island clearly loves and accepts these performers and embraces their decision to live their lives according to their own rules, and seeing a big diverse international audience get together to laugh, blush, and cheer in unison made for a really great way to spend an hour.
I mentioned in an earlier post on this blog that I’ve really never been one for the beach – so I was honestly a little apprehensive about visiting the Thai islands. I wondered whether I was wasting valuable itinerary time visiting a place that wasn’t really ‘for me’.
What I found in Koh Tao, however, was a community that I really fell in love with. Hard. This tiny little paradise has so much character, and so much of it strikes such a chord with me in a really resounding way. I’m honestly really sad to say goodbye – even a week here felt woefully inadequate. In another life – or even in a weird chapter of this one – I can totally see living here for a short time. I certainly wouldn’t be the first to fall victim to Koh Tao’s charms – some just never leave.
But ALAS – it’s time for me to get out of dodge. I’m not going far – just to Thailand’s other coast, the Andaman, which is known for some of the best scuba diving in the world. While Koh Tao offers a ton of fun and inexpensive dive sites, the Surin islands – where I’ll be heading in a few days – host some absolutely world class spots. Like in Australia, I’ll be diving while living on a liveaboard boat that will explore this gorgeous tropical stretch of ocean for a few days.
Once I get dried off, I’ll be saying goodbye to Thailand (until I return much later this year to see the North) and hopping a plane to Cambodia, where I’ll be visiting a VERY well-trodden part of the backpacker trail and exploring one of the most incredible man-made structures in the entire world. And things only get more exciting from there – this next month (and some change) is going to be one of the most jaw-dropping, life-changing, and challenging parts of my entire world adventure. But hey… we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.
For now, goodbye Koh Tao – I love you.