Serenity & Bliss in Koh Tao

Koh Tao is officially my favorite place in Thailand.

Once again, I didn’t expect to say that – I didn’t even expect to like the place. That same week, I had just scored an amazing flight to Bangkok for my New Year’s holiday, and I was far more excited for that instead.

But much like all other unexpected things in life, Koh Tao really stole my heart.

For starters, Koh Tao* is the smallest Thai island on the Chumphon Archipelago and still part of Suratthani province (which we’re quite thrilled to admit, given that we teach in Surat city). It belongs to the family of touristy (read: drunk backpacker haven) islands that I most certainly wasn’t keen on hitting up, and yet I trusted the gut of my ever-knowledgeable manager that I’d love it. It’s also the least developed (but has obviously come a long way in the past few years anyhow) compared to Koh Phangnan and Koh Samui, which I loved.

*or Ko Tao – because once again, nothing is spelled the same across the board in this country

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Koh Tao is primarily known as a diver haven, especially with 70+ dive shops spread out across only 21 sq. km. However, there are countless other activities and ways to enjoy yourself even if you’re not an avid diver (i.e. snorkeling, trapeze, tattoos, tanning on all the beautiful beaches). It’s nicknamed “Turtle Island” because of its turtle-like shape. It’s also a breeding ground for hawksbill and green turtles, although I didn’t see any. Not like I was sour about that, since I’ve seen countless Hawaiian green sea turtles in Maui already, and that’s far cooler…

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Koh Nang Yuan

This gem. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t even know that this was a separate island from Koh Tao, although still considered part of it since it’s only a 15-minute boat ride away from shore. It’s actually made up of about three tiny islands connected by a “sandbar” that you cross in order to get to the island with the viewpoint.

Photography: Russell Goodman. He took the NICEST photos.
Photography: Russell Goodman. He took the NICEST photos.

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It’s a must-visit if you make your way all the way to southern Thailand. The white sand was quite rough (full of corals and shells), but the water was crystal-clear and the viewpoint was absolutely breathtaking. I think it even knocked Point Dorset (Wellington) out of my #1 spot for favorite views, which is something to say…

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You can actually stay on the island – there’s only one resort, and if you get a bunch of people together and split the cost of a room, it would probably be worth it.

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Not edited in the slightest, and it obviously still looks way better in person
Not edited in the slightest, and it obviously still looks way better in person

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The people

I met some of the sweetest, most fun expats on this island. I didn’t get pictures with half of them (I’m really awful at that, sadly), but I think that meeting them and exchanging wonderful travel stories made me feel so rejuvenated again.

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And this is exactly why I love traveling alone. You meet far, far more (and cooler) people when it’s just you, spontaneous and without plans, to meet all sorts of friendly faces. It’s why I stayed out until 3 a.m. on a rare night out with people I barely met that same day, and I completely loved it.

Sairee Beach

The most popular place for tourists to stay, this is the longest beach (1.7 km) – not the nicest, but decent. It’s a great place to base yourself if you’re staying in Koh Tao for multiple days/weeks/months. There’s great nightlife (far better than Suratthani city, obviously) and the main bar has a pool and diving board – although the water is extremely shallow, so you touch the ground when you jump off. Not the most safe, considering that the majority of people are intoxicated when using the diving board. But really, you don’t go to Thailand expecting much safety protocol anyhow.

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Heaping portion of Pad Thai
Heaping portion of Pad Thai

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There are a few rows of shops, bars, restaurants, and plenty of night market stalls with delicious food to fit anyone’s fancy. Nothing was overwhelming, which I quite liked. It’s also quite easy to rent motorbikes or get taxi boats to/from the other (nicer) beaches on the island from this location, so it’s a hub for many.

Hiking

I always scope out hiking trails first when I get to a new place, but the humidity mixed together with on/off downpours of rain left me quite deterred. I only squeezed in two hikes, but they were well worth the views.

Mango Viewpoint is definitely not an easy trek, with steep hills (think almost-vertical) running up and down throughout for about an hour each way. I happened to tackle this hike on one of the worst days on the island – we got about three full days of horrid rain paired with three full beautiful days – which made it that much harder.

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The view from the top is probably stunning on a sunny day, but once again, when I reached the top, all I was greeted with was fog, rain, and a sheet of gray that covered the skyline rather than blue skies. I was a bit surprised that you had to pay 100 baht just to see the viewpoint – a clear example of the island operating solely off tourism rather than public tranquility. Locals own the Mango Viewpoint bar where you sit and admire the view, and there’s another Viewpoint Bar on the other side that charges the same price just to enter as well.

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Being the idiot I am, I also decided to continue hiking down toward Mango Bay Beach (it didn’t look far at all on the map). Again, this is Thailand, so there are NO trails – just lots of red dirt, gravel, and potholes – so I honestly have no idea how people motorbike up and down these hills. I feared for my life as I tried to edge slowly down each hill, and the hike to the beach seemed double the time of what it took just to reach the damn Mango Viewpoint.

Not a bad place to wind up
Not a bad place to wind up

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I wound up at the entrance of Mango Bay Boutique Resort, where a local was guarding a security gate. Upon miming my doings (“Lost,” “Go down to beach?” etc.), I was taken pity upon and she guided me to her house downstairs where she called the reception desk of the hotel to translate for me. I was incredibly fortunate that the receptionist ended up being the manager, a young fellow from Dubai who could speak English, Thai, and two other languages I already forgot (this is why I’m not in grad school). From there, I was let off the hook even more and welcomed as a guest, where the hotel owner (and manager) let me snorkel in the beach (which ended up being semi-private) before being taken back, free of charge, via their private resort taxi boat.

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The snorkeling was absolutely beautiful – and it was the perfect way to spend a rainy day, since I didn’t mind getting wet when I was already swimming in the water anyhow. I had snorkeled there a few days earlier on a snorkeling tour, but I saw more on my own, including a large jellyfish. I was stoked on life since it was the first one I’ve ever seen up close in an ocean habitat.

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The amount of times I’ve always been taken care of (as opposed to being left to shrivel up) has floored me. I’ve been incredibly lucky.

John Suwan Viewpoint was much more worthwhile (and easier), as it only involved about 5 minutes of scrambling over a few rocks. I made the trek two different times since the first was grey-skied and rainy (always my luck). The weather later cleared for a beautiful sunset and I decided to re-do the sweat-drenched walk from my hostel to the rocks, because, when in Rome

Morning hike with rainfall
Morning hike with rainfall
Sunset hike, post-rain
Sunset hike, post-rain

And because of that second hike, I met a lovely English girl who mentioned that she was getting a bamboo tattoo, and that somehow led to me getting one with her. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized that Koh Tao was actually one of the best places (aside from the other islands and possibly Bangkok) to get a bamboo tattoo, so I made the best decision. It wasn’t too spontaneous, since I knew I wanted one before I left, but I wasn’t expecting to get a traditional bamboo one – I thought it would hurt like hell in comparison to a “regular” machine gun one. Which brings me to the next topic…

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Traditional bamboo tattooing

As mentioned, I’m obsessed and now only want traditional bamboo tattoos from hereon out. Far less pain (it only feels like a couple pinches), no blood, no healing period, no itchiness, no puffy skin or irritation, no avoiding-water-for-weeks-period. It’s a no-brainer, really.

My first tattoo (which was only the size of a penny) in New Zealand felt like a searing knife digging under my hip, and I wanted to die. I could barely walk back to my flat after it was done, and the healing process took weeks and was incredibly itchy and sore.

New Zealand
New Zealand
Thailand (apparently I only have one facial expression)
Thailand (apparently I only have one facial expression)

However, my bamboo tattoo (still quite minuscule) left my skin feeling good-as-new. It didn’t even feel like I had a tattoo – I was so amazed. It was also 1/4 of the price of my tattoo in NZ, which was expected – God bless you, Thailand.

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Thanks, Rastaink Tattoo (Chalak Baan Kao Bay, across from Big Bubble Dive Resort)!

UV Night Diving/Glow Scuba

Goodtime Adventures offers an array of awesome activities, and this was the coolest thing I’ve possibly ever done.

All photos via glowscuba.com
All photos via glowscuba.com

I don’t have any footage of the things we saw, but there are stunning photos online. I could only do UV snorkeling rather than diving since I got horribly sick, but it was still incredible. Swimming for over an hour with UV flashlights in an ocean that could only be described as a Full Moon Party underwater – it was enthralling.

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Here’s a video via Glow Scuba.

Neon/fluorescent hues of pinks, blues, purples, oranges, yellows and greens all blended together and it was truly mesmerizing. Regular diving and snorkeling is now forever ruined for me.

Getting around

Since Koh Tao is incredibly small, I opted to just walk around on foot everywhere. This posed to be harder than usual for me, since I’m spoiled by my motorbike – with the humidity, I absolutely hate walking anywhere. However, after researching some horrific online forums about renting motorbikes on the island, and then conveniently leaving my passport in Surat, I was basically off-limits from renting. Probably for the best, especially after seeing the gravelly/unpaved roads (some were even dangerous to walk on) and numerous injuries along the way.

Below are some spots we snorkeled at (via AC Resort, the cheapest package on the island and well worth it), although I can’t possibly remember if the pictures actually coordinate with the correct spots since I crammed everything on one SD card in one go…

Aow Leuk Bay/Shark Island

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Hin Wong Bay

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I left Koh Tao with two multicolored hair wraps, a bamboo tattoo, and a piece of my heart buried on the viewpoint of Koh Nang Yuan. To be continued another time… ❤

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