Koh Tao is an island in the Gulf of Thailand. It translates as “Turtle Island”, not because of the turtle population there (there are quite a few) but because the island is shaped like a turtle.
I was told whilst on the Koh Tao that the island’s many diving centres issue 6% of all the PADI certifications in the world. With an official population of 1382 (seasonally variable) that’s quite an achievement!
The main strip is on the West side of the island. Called Sairee beach, it’s where most of the dive shops, bars, clubs, shops, restaurants and massage parlors are. Laundry is also pretty cheap at 40 Baht (80p) per kilo – washed and ironed. It’s pretty much where all the action above surface of the sea is to be found. The beach runs north to south along the west coast of the island. Behind the beach front bars and hotels is a paved path running roughly parallel to the beach. People and mopeds share this space, along with more shops and bars. It’s much further back from the beach that you’ll find where the locals live.
Our place was at the far north of Sairee Beach at a place called the Bow Thong Resort. We picked it after reading some reviews complaining about the noise at the more central parts of the island. We wanted a bit of peace, even if that meant a bit more of a walk. Overall the place was great: we had a lovely hut, with a good view of the beach from the veranda, which was a great place to relax in the shade. The staff were mostly friendly, even if the place felt as if it was being run by characters right out of Fawlty Towers. The waiter, Sam, a Burmese migrant worker, was especially friendly and helpful.
Koh Tao, it’s fair to say, is a bit of a party island. Given its reputation as a diving mecca, it attracts thousands of Gap-year backpackers at a time. Many stay on to work as dive guides to serve the next horde of new divers. Many others enjoy a drink in celebration at having survived another recreational no-decompression dive. One night, we were having dinner at a bar where newly-created Divemasters were getting their initiation hazing. This involved a swim in the dark out to some boats on a wild goose chase to get some crates of booze from boats moored nearby, followed by lots of oily CPR and drinking.
Perhaps wishing to keep an unblemished record, the schools on Koh Tao are quite strict. Duncan and I visited about a dozen schools and only one would take us out to dive without paying through the nose for a refresher session. Ultimately, we caved in and booked a refresher with Seashell Divers on Sairee Beach. We picked them because they seemed to have the best balance of friendliness and professionalism of the schools we’d seen. We also liked that they believed in small groups and early starts to get to the dive sites. Small groups are an obvious boon, and believe it or not at 6am jump in the water is much better than an espresso – plus there’s a good chance you’ll catch a shark or even a turtle napping.
We had our refresher with Seashell Divers. At the time, it felt like a bit of a waste of money – we already knew what we were doing. Over lunch, we discussed the dive sites for the afternoon with the guides. Due to currents, the best sites that day were on the east shore of the island, so we jumped into pickup trucks and crossed through the jungle to the other side of the island.
Seashell’s dive boat was a big yellow thing, in which the crew lived as a family (the forecastle was therefore off-limits as it was a family home). The front of the boat was emblazoned with the words “Long Live the King!”.
The water was lovely and warm: I didn’t even need a wetsuit. We checked out two dive sites that day, with good visibility at the first site. The second site had worse visibility, but that’s how it goes sometimes. We saw all the usual small reef fish and a curious turtle swam alongside us briefly. On surfacing from our second dive, we left the meditative calm of the world below the waves and emerged into a torrential downpour. The surface of the sea was cratered with raindrops and the temperature had dropped significantly. Getting back to the dive shop was quite an adventure in itself as we went to find a mooring spot and arrange for the cars that took us across the island to meet us.
Whilst on Koh Tao, we also met up with Scott, a friend of mine from the Vietnam trip. Scott was coincidentally in Koh Tao as well to relax after tearing through South Asia. After we said our goodbyes in Saigon, Scott went on through Cambodia to visit the Ankor Wat and the Killing Fields. Scott was staying at the #1 rated Tripadvisor hotel on Koh Tao, the Woodlawn Villas. There appears to have been some gaming of the Tripadvisor system to make the Woodlawn Villas look good. The reality was that his experience at the Woodlawn Villas was abysmal.
One day, as I was walking to drop my laundry off, I saw a chap standing under one of the many coconut trees lining the beach. He had a rope leading up into the tree and was calling up to whomever was rustling around up there. Now and then, a coconut would fall from the tree. I noticed that some of the other trees must have been harvested already by these two guys because there were piles of coconuts next to other trees. I figured that the chap up in the tree must be quite the acrobat and skillful climber. It was only when the man’s friend climbed down from the tree that I saw it was a monkey. I wonder if he got paid peanuts.