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Koh Tao
Heaven Only In Small Doses

"When I first met Koh Tao, she was like a lithe teenager on the way to becoming someone beautiful.  When I ran into Koh Tao again 11 years later, she looked like a washed-up drunkard that everyone in town had already taken for a spin."  Doug Knell, Doug's Republic

My personal experience with Koh Tao is a microcosm of Thailand's metamorphosis from the Nineties to the Noughties from tranquil unworldly travel mecca to corporatized banana pancake-paved theme park. 

What happened to me here in Thailand between 1994 and 2005 in Koh Tao has happened to zillions of others between two different time periods a dozen years apart in Thailand and elsewhere.  I just read another traveler's story about his experience on sleepy backwater Koh Phangan in 1994 and his repeat trip to what had turned into a Cancun-inspired Spring Break-type party zone twelve years later.  He and I have more in common than he knows.

Koh Tao diving

Come here and dive like everyone else and then get the hell out of here

I arrived on Koh Tao for the first time in July 1994.  The dock was primitive and there was just one road -- and not a great one -- that moved out from the pier at the 'capital' of Mae Haad, a nothing town with just a few shops back then, towards Sairee Beach.  You looked out from the road from a beaten pickup truck that plied the route towards the beach below to see little dots of bungalow settlements in the lush jungle.  Accommodation was basic, USD 2 to 4 per night, and there were only limited hours for electricity.

Koh Tao, then as now, is a diving destination.  Even back in '94, there were at least a half dozen dive schools on the island.  I had recently gotten certified in the US and was eager to go diving in a place that didn't require a thick wet suit and a hood.  Schools in '94 were hungry for the business.  I signed up for a package of 10 dives at a rate of 325B (then USD 13) per dive.  The school was flexible about letting me do one or two dives an afternoon.  On most of the dives, it was just me, the divemaster, and the boat.

I got to know a few people around the Sairee bungalow settlements.  There was a very communal feeling which I've seen written about by travel writers describing their own experiences in Thailand in the late 80's and early 90's.  I left with an address book full of contacts I never pursued that, in today's corporate backpacker climate of meet and greet, would be superficial Facebook buddies.

The return in 2005 and again in 2007

It was with some trepidation I went back in December 2005.  My memories of the place were such fond ones that I wanted to see the place again, despite having been told by other travelers that the island was no longer the bare bones bungalow paradise I remembered it as.  Okay, nothing stays the same.  New York City in 1900 doesn't look the same as New York City today, and to most of us, that's a good thing.   I wouldn't want to stay in a USD 2 bungalow again anyway.  A little bit of development on Koh Tao wouldn't hurt anything.


Blue Wind Diving Koh Tao Koh Tao bungalow
Scenes of Koh Tao:  I find the old bungalows I stayed at in '94 torn down and renovated (left); doing what people come to Koh Tao to do (middle); standing in front of what might be the only building that still looks like it did in 1994 (right)

A little bit, that is.   What greeted me in Mae Haad pier on that rainy morning in December 2005 was more than a little bit of development.  Mae Haad was now a lot more than a few shops, and it never really ended.   Mae Haad just sprawled along the once dirt road I'd taken by pickup truck to my 1994 accommodation up towards the well trodden in-spots at Sairee Beach and now southwards as well to Chaloke Bay, which had zero development in '94.  Where there had once been spartan bungalows now lay copious ATM's, three 7-11's, and restaurants serving Mexican, Indian, Italian, probably Ethiopian, too, if you looked for it.

The rain was fierce and rather than try walking along the main road to see what I could find in Sairee, I opted for some bungalows right in Mae Haad, something I could never have imagined doing back in '94.  But the way Koh Tao looked today, Mae Haad wasn't all that different in feel from the restaurants, bars, massage parlors, and stores on Sairee. 

I did later manage to relocate the same bungalows I stayed at in '94.    By 2005, all the trees along the water had been razed for construction, and so much more accommodation had been built, so finding the old place, if it still existed, wasn't easy.   The '94 bungalows were ancient history.  Newer, $6.50 bungalows lay in their place, only slightly better than the $2 bungalows from '94 because they contained a bathroom.  A yoga studio had been built on the edge of the grounds, and I returned for several classes in '05, trying to reconcile the memories of '94 with what I was seeing before me now.

Koh Tao diveDiving was still the name of the game.  Without diving, Koh Tao would likely have seen a fraction of the development.  Dive schools had mushroomed.  There could've been thirty or forty.  Who was counting anymore?  The eastern side of the island around Mao Bay and Tanote Bay had become home to dive resorts.   Many visitors now booked dive packages that included accommodation on site. 

Ten-dive packages had skyrocketed in baht terms, by more than 100%, to 700B a dive.  Because of the dollar's appreciation against the baht from 1994 to 2005, the dives only cost $17 each, 'just' a 30% rise in dollar terms since '94 when there wasn't thick competition.  In fact, the Noughties Koh Tao had done away with price competition altogether.  All the dive schools had signed an agreement to keep prices fixed.  Competition was to be based on the quality of customer service and care. 

Koh Tao sounds great on paper, but it ain't so great in the water.  Once you've booked your dives, it's the same dive sites over and over and over and over and over again.  Can you say Chumphon Pinnacle?  White Rock?  Japanese Gardens?  You'll be repeating them like a broken record during your stay.  And once you get there, your boat, probably packed with half a dozen divers or more, will be one among another half dozen boats . . . or more.   When I asked why we didn't go to locations further afield, the answers were always the same.  The water is too choppy, visibility is poor.  I think it all comes down to cash and convenience -- for the dive shops.  The broken record dive sites are the easiest to get to and involve the least dive planning.  The dives in the Noughties were shorter than anything I'd done in '94, a combination of diving to the tune of the least fit breather and ultra conservative divemasters with very little experience eager to keep it brief. 

I am not basing this on one negative experience.  Against my better judgment, I returned to Koh Tao in March 2007 after spending 6 weeks on Koh Phangan, to give it a third chance.  I stayed once more in Mae Haad, at the same bungalows as I did in 2005, but this time in an air-con unit with cable, but I booked my dives at a completely different dive school.  The former school had been torn down and relocated to the eastern side of the island.  Same old thing.  Same locations.  Same short dives. 

Other reasons to (not) show up

Everything on the island is geared around diving and snorkeling.  People go to bed early to arise fresh with the morning sun for their dive courses or dive packages.   Sairee is the best beach on the island.  Hence, the massive development here since the mid 1990's.  If you're looking for a beach holiday, you've got better beaches on Koh Samui and Hua Hin on the Gulf of Thailand side and in Phuket and Krabi on the Andaman side. Better diving, too, although the Similan Island diving off Khao Lak involves boat trips, multi-night boat stay accommodation, and Great Barrier Reef pricing.
Koh Tao map
Don't snorkel or dive?  Coming to Koh Tao makes about as much sense as becoming an accountant when you hate math.

Okay, you're not a diver/snorkeler, but a gourmand.  I'll ask again:  why come here?   I was not amazed with the quality of food, either foreign or Thai. I ate extremely average Mexican food; a reasonably priced but not incredibly prepared Italian buffet; and inexpensive Thai food considered amazing by local foreign residents, but nothing that would win culinary awards on the stage of greater public opinion. If good food had been so easy to come by, why did I let a Welshman who stood to be a great grandfather before age 50 drag me all the way out near Sairee Beach for a panang curry?

Are you a prostitute connoisseur?  Why come here?  The pickings are minimal and costly.  Your moaning will go a lot further on Koh Samui.  Want to line up a Thai wife or husband or just impregnate a Thai to propagate your gene pool into succeeding generations?  Ditto.  You'll have better opportunities to maximize the chromosome combinations in plenty of other places.

Are you an avid biker?  Why show your face here?  Roads crisscross the island ever more so than they did in '94, no question about that.  But the last time I was here, good roads didn't go everywhere. The map above shows you just how much the island remains off limits to bikers.

There's nothing wrong with Koh Tao.  You can come here for a few days or for a week and rather enjoy yourself.  It's when you ask yourself the question "Should I go back?" that things become iffy.  Koh Tao's not best in class for anything.  It's heaven only in small doses.  And if you require mind-altering substances to believe you're in heaven, you can get better drugs cheaper in other locales, too. 

Back in '94, virtually untouched because it didn't offer enough creature comforts to attract the package hordes and banana pancake trailblazers, Koh Tao offered an unadorned beachtime diving experience that I think you'd be hard put to find many places nowadays.  That was its charm to me.  With that unique feature of the island relegated to history, I now judge Koh Tao much like any other well touristed jam packed locale, and I think there are better places in Thailand to spend one's vacation days. I wouldn't even bother pursuing a divemaster course here. Instead, I'd base myself on Koh Samui and journey to Koh Tao on the days I needed to do my dives.  

When one day a time machine is invented that will allow me to travel back to Koh Tao in 1994, I'll pay a premium over the $2-4 bungalow charges just to enjoy the place again.


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