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.
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.
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
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.
reasons to (not) show up
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.
|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
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
Back in '94, virtually untouched because it
didn't offer enough creature comforts to attract the package
banana pancake trailblazers, Koh Tao offered an unadorned beachtime diving
experience that I think you'd be hard put to find many
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.