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Every island in Thailand I go to seems to be better than the last. After traipsing my way through jampacked Phuket and Koh Phi Phi, we took the 4 hour bus journey across Thailand’s southern mainland to the isolated piece of paradise that is Koh Tao. An hour and a half from the mainland port of Chumphon via the Lomprayah high-speed ferry, and an hour and a half from neighboring Koh Pha Nang, Koh Tao is seemingly content to sit in the middle of nowhere. Definitely my favorite Thai island thus far. The beaches are gorgeous and not overcrowded, the waters are clean and calm, the west facing beaches have picture-perfect sunsets seemingly on cue, and it actually has that true island feel that is missing from some of the more fast-paced islands. Simply put, I could easily disappear to Koh Tao (as many do).
Literally meaning “Turtle Island” in Thai, the island is now shockingly devoid of any turtles. That doesn’t mean that the waters and offshore pinnacles aren’t teeming with other forms of marine life, however. The diving here is phenomenal, and even though technically we had entered the monsoon season for this part of the country, the skies were clear our entire visit and the visibility when diving was outstanding. Amongst many other species of soft corals, reef fish, and sharks, the island is notorious for every diver’s facorite species, the whale shark. Per usual, all of the whale shark’s heard that I was coming and decided to stay hidden for the day, and I am still left with an unchecked box in the whale shark department, which is pretty pathetic. Not surprisingly, the same group of divers the day before saw three. We still got to check out some other cool stuff we don’t have back home though, including blue spotted stingrays, enormous triggerfish over 3 ft. long, and a school of 200+ barracuda.
Like seemingly every other diver in Koh Tao we took out to the water with Ban’s Diving, a dive company who, in conjunction with their resort, has got the entire dive and traveling backpacker scene completely locked up. Supposedly one of the largest dive operations in the world, Ban’s has it all figured out. If you dive with them you get to stay at their luxury resort for a fraction of the cost, which draws in all of the backpacker’s who normally couldn’t afford such a place. If you take a certification course your lodging is free. When you’re done diving, it’s all too convenient to simply eat at the Fishbowl restaurant and bar, which not surprisingly, is owned and operated by Ban’s. Need to us the internet? Ban’s owns the internet cafe. Need some groceries? Check out the store, which also is under the Ban’s umbrella. Here’s the thing though: Everything they do is so incredibly good, and at the same prices you’d find anywhere else. Their ingredients are fresh, they sell nutritional food at the store, the internet actually works, the rooms are clean, the grounds are immaculate, and while it grinds on a traveler’s ethos to support such a gargantuan pre-packaged establishment, having a place that actually has everything you’re looking for and at such a good price is too tempting to pass up.
While the diving center and pier area is centered around Hat Sai Ree beach, the island actually offers remote, laidback accommodation and diving on all sides of the island. While the roads running along the west side of the island are nicely paved, getting anywhere on the island’s north or east side means climbing the mountainous terrain over pretty rough offroad tracks. Once you get there though, the simplicity and views alone are worth the bumpy ride. Just don’t expect to run into town for milk. We rented mopeds one day (around $6 for the whole day) and were able to explore a fair amount of the island. While Hat Sai Ree is definitely the epicenter of all the action, don’t let yourself get stuck there as the rest of the island is well worth a visit (and it’s cheaper too).
One night in town we were fortunate to catch the opening night of the Loy Krathong Festival, which is a Buddhist festival that spans two days during the 12th full moon of the lunar year. Designed as a tribute to the Buddhist goddess of water, krathong are floats made from banana leaves and banana bark that are sent down riverways to represent washing away ill fortunes. Occassionally, the krathong are sent into the air on homemade candlelit hot air balloons. This year’s festival took place at the local elementary school and was a joint festival and fundraiser. Aside from the food stalls and entertainment stage, everyone’s favorite moment was the performances by the youngest children aged 2-4 as they took to the stage for the proud parents and onlookers. The organizers were smart: if you want to get donations, send the cute little kids on stage to dance. I think they got something out of everyone in the crowd.
Finally, just before leaving the island we spent a pretty wild Halloween on the beach at the AC bar in town. Looking for a cheap costume, I simply took a laundry bucket from our hotel, tied it around my waist, taped some straws together, and called myself one of the infamous buckets that are so popular with the backpacker crowd (a bottle of rum/vodka, some red bull, and a soda all in a little miniature personal bucket). So basically I spent Halloween watching Thai firedancers while dressed as a bucket. Pretty standard, really.