Saturday, June 12, 2010

KO TAO เกาะเต่า

First there was Ko Samui, then Ko Pha-Ngan; now, the cult of Ko Tao (‘Ko Taoism’ perhaps?) has emerged along Thailand’s crystalline Gulf Coast. Today, thousands of visitors come to worship the turquoise waters offshore, and quite often many of them stay. The secret to Ko Tao’s undeniable appeal? Simple: although the island is only 21 sq km, tiny Tao sure knows how to pack it in – there’s something for everyone, and nothing is in moderation. Diving enthusiasts cavort with sharks and rays in a playground of tangled neon coral. Hikers and hermits can re-enact an episode from ‘Lost’ in the dripping coastal jungles. And when you’re Robinson Crusoeed out, hit the bumpin’ bar scene that rages on until dawn.

Many years have already passed since the first backpacker came to the scrubby island and planted a flag in the name of selfrespecting shoestring travellers everywhere, but fret not, there’s still plenty of time to join the tribe. Ko Tao has many years to go before corporate resort owners bulldoze rustic cottages, and visitors start discussing stockholdings rather than sea creatures spotted on their latest dive.


Ferries pull into Mae Hat, on the western side of the island. This seaside town has all the tourist amenities one would need: travel agencies, hotels, dive shops, restaurants, internet cafes and motorcycle rentals. The biggest village on the island is Sairee Beach (also called Hat Sai Ri), about 2km up the coast. Here, travellers will find similar amenities but in greater quantity. Chalok Ban Kao, on the muddy southern coast, is the island’s third settlement. The island’s eastern and northern coasts are fairly undeveloped compared to the bustling west coast, with only a few bungalow enterprises on each little bay. A paved road connects the west coast to Tanote Bay; a fourwheel vehicle should be used when navigating any of the other rugged roads in the area. About the only thing of historic interest on the island is a large boulder, which has the initials of King Rama V, commemorating his royal visit in 1899.


The ubiquitous Koh Tao Info booklet lists loads of businesses on the island and goes into some detail about the island’s history, culture and social issues. The pocket-sized Sabai Jai is a new publication on the island dedicated to ecotravel.


All divers must sign a medical waiver before exploring the sea. If you have any medical condition that might hinder your ability to dive (including mild asthma), you will be asked to get medical clearance from a doctor on Ko Tao. Consider seeing a doctor before your trip as there are no official hospitals on the island, and the number of qualified medical professionals is limited. Also, make sure your travel insurance covers scuba diving.


As a general rule, there are 24-hour ATMs at every 7-Eleven on the island. We also found five ATMs orbiting the ferry docks at Mae Hat. There is a money-exchange window at Mae Hat’s pier and a second location near Choppers in Sairee. There are several banks near the post office in Mae Hat, at the far end of town along the island’s main inland road.


There’s no government-run TAT office on Ko Tao. Transport and accommodation bookings can be made at any of the numerous travel agencies, all of which take a commission on services rendered.

Dangers & Annoyances

There’s nothing more annoying than enrolling in a diving course with your friends and then having to drop out because you scraped your knee in a motorcycle accident. The roads on Ko Tao are horrendous, save the main drag connecting Sairee Beach to Chalok Ban Kao. While hiring a moped is extremely convenient, this is not the place to learn how to drive. The island is rife with abrupt hills and sudden sand pits along gravel trails. Even if you escape unscathed from a riding experience, scamming bike shops may claim that you damaged your rental and will try to extort you for some serious bling.


If you are planning to dive while visiting Ko Tao, your scuba operator will probably offer you discounted accommodation to sweeten the deal. Some schools have on-site lodging, while others have deals with nearby bungalows. It’s important to note that you only receive your scuba-related discount on the days you dive. So, for example, if you buy a 10-dive package, and decide to take a day off in the middle, your room rate will not be discounted on that evening. Also, a restful sleep is important before diving, so scope out these ‘great room deals’ before saying yes – some of them are one roach away from being condemned. There are also many sleeping options that have absolutely nothing to do with the island’s diving culture. Ko Tao’s secluded eastern coves are dotted with stunning retreats that still offer a true getaway experience, but these can be difficult to reach due to the island’s dismal network of roads. You can often call ahead of time and arrange to be picked up from the pier.