I’m a water baby.
I learned to drive a boat long before I ever got behind the wheel of a car, and as a kid, I spent most of my summers running between the pool and the river. So I could not pass up a place that offers unlimited opportunities to swim in the clearest water you’ll ever see.
Koh Tao is actually known for great diving, and the multitude of schools there hand out more PADI certificates in a year than anywhere else in the world save Cairns, Australia. People flock to the island for three-day open water courses because it’s cheap (relative, of course) and the dive sites are gorgeous. I, however, did not go to Koh Tao to dive. I considered it briefly once I arrived, but 1) despite being a competitive swimmer, the idea of being 10-20 m underwater is terrifying 2) I have no real intention of doing much diving in the future, and I’d have to be recertified by the time I do and 3) I had other objectives for my time on the island. Let’s review.
First and foremost, I wanted to lay on the beach, read a good book, and nap.
I stayed in Sairee Beach, which is sort of the center of tourist life on the island. The beach itself was gorgeous, though there’s not much of it at high tide thanks to the restaurants and spas and resorts that have built up right to the water line. I’m glad I stayed within easy walking distance to everything (most of the dive resorts are between Sairee and the pier, so they’re mostly walkable as well), but I grew very tired of being surrounded by shouting drunk people and nearly getting run over by motos swerving up and down the narrow streets.
But back to the beach. The water was so clear, the sand very white, and the views decent. And there were plenty of bars to pull up a cushion, grab a drink, and watch the world go by.
Next, I really, seriously wanted to cliff jump on the east side of the island. I met a great group of people that I hung out with for a few days, and they all agreed to hike the few kilometers over the mountains to the other coast, where we expected to find gorgeous views and lots of rocks to dive from. It was a challenging hike over steep paved roads and steeper rocky trails, and when we finally arrived we found an abandoned bungalow resort (like broken windows and furniture and people’s belongings creepily scattered everywhere) and a spray-painted arrow out to the supposed jumping point.
We climbed over makeshift bridges and slippery boulders out to said point. Unfortunately, the water was incredibly rough, and we couldn’t figure out how or where to climb back out. And as there’s no hospital on Koh Tao, it seemed like a poor life decision to actually jump.
So we settled for a nice view instead.
The same group was also up for renting a boat and doing some snorkeling at a few of the dive sites. Lots of tour companies run snorkeling excursions, but we felt like it’d be better (and cheaper, in the end), to hire a taxi boat and snorkels and go on our own schedule.
So we wandered down the beach and negotiated with a driver, and he took us up and down the west coast to the most popular coves. They’re the same things we would have seen on a tour, and I was disappointed that it was too choppy to go around to the other side of the island (Shark Bay, anyone?), but it was nice to go at our own pace, and no one could really complain about how beautiful the ride was.
I have lots of video footage from the different sites, but I haven’t had time to sit down and edit it yet. The coral wasn’t colorful and impressive, but the fish sure were.
Last but not least, I wanted to kayak. This I did on my own — I rented a single boat from a guy on the beach and headed out to Koh Nang Yuan off the NW coast of Koh Tao where there’s a single resort and not much else. It’s a huge tourist draw — day boat trips, and such — because there’s a really nice lookout point and a series of beaches that connect what are actually several tiny islands.
It’s weird walking this stretch because there are waves crashing in from both sides. The path up to the lookout point winds around a few bungalows and then up cement stairs, and the view looks back over the beaches. It’s, um, gorgeous.
I had two hilarious-after-the-fact moments of panic on this adventure. First, I kayaked straight up to the beach and left my boat, paddle, and lifejacket when I went to hike, figuring there’d be no reason for anyone to mess with any of it. As I walked away, I had this what-if moment but quickly dismissed any concern. Of course, when I returned, my paddle was missing. There were two problems with this. The first was that I couldn’t go anywhere on my own without a paddle. The second was that not only would I have to hire an expensive longtail boat to take me back to Koh Tao, I’d also have to pay a huge fine to the kayak rental guy.
I stood around for a few minutes and debated what to do (Should I steal one from another boat? This thought actually crossed my mind.) before I went to a dive shop on the boardwalk to see if they knew what was going on. This was when I learned that you have to pay 100 baht to get on the island, and since kayakers don’t go through the pier, staff members steal their paddles in exchange for that fee. So I paid, recovered my paddle, and felt very relieved.
The relief didn’t last long, however, when I headed out and realized that the tide and wind combo were moving twice as fast as I could paddle. In the other direction. My kayaking excursion quickly went from fun to physically exhausting to nearly dangerous. There was a point at which I wondered how I’d ever get back since I was paddling past the same rock for a half hour, and I couldn’t stop to rest because it’d just undo all the work I’d already put in. I thought maybe I’d have to flag down a longtail boat for a tow. I made it in the end, but not without a fair amount of worry. I recommend maybe checking the tides before trying this yourself.
Finally, the sunset over the water never gets old. Not ever. Nor does a can of cold beer while watching said sunset.
That about sums up my last few days on the islands (for now). It was lovely to spend two weeks in the sun getting tanner than I’ve ever been in my life, and I feel like I might need another round of beach time later in my trip. But first, a few weeks of history and culture in Cambodia!