Another of our OBT articles. After our super-busy, roving retirement, three-week tour of Southeast Asia we knew we would need some time off. We decided to check out two different Thai Islands, Phuket that is large and popular and Koh Tao an island you’ve never heard of.
Getting to Koh Tao
After a couple of days in Bangkok, our next stop was Koh Tao, a small island in the Gulf of Thailand.
We learned “Koh” is Thai for “island.” The only way to get there is by ferry, the shortest of which is from the island of Koh Samui. So, we flew there. Arriving in Koh Samui, we immediately got a vacation sense. The Samui airport is low and informal, with an island vibe. We arranged for a transfer to the ferry terminal, about 30 min away, via the ferry company. Then we waited for our bus. I had to rat out some smokers nearby to get them to move. It was a prelude to many smokers in Koh Tao and some in Phuket.
After the 2-hour ferry ride to Koh Tao, we rush past many taxi and hotel hustlers because the hotel looked to be walking distance. But it wasn’t on a road. We wind up carrying our bags for a stretch on the beach. When we arrived at reception for The Beach Club Koh Tao (dripping with sweat), we saw a sign showing free transfers to/from the pier. We had rushed away too fast and they had actually had a guy there waiting for us 🙁
“Rustic” is the Best Way to Describe Koh Tao
Every time we discussed our visit to Koh Tao, Diana kept mentioning that it was “rustic”, by way of setting expectations. Rustic is one of those euphemisms we use between us, effectively saying “I know this isn’t fantastic, but this is the best we can do, so embrace it”. Even with the rustic caveat, our lodging left a little to be desired.
The beachfront room was nice, but we never got much cooling from the AC. There were no privacy curtains, so we had to use the blackout shades for the whole room whenever we wanted to get changed. The plumbing was less than stellar. Aside from being unable to put toilet tissue in the bowl, the flush mechanism often didn’t work well, requiring multiple attempts. The Wifi was achingly slow and intermittent. Diana spent DAYS trying to upload photos, only leading to mounting frustration. But, hey, it was beachfront, after all:
Dive School, but Not for Us
Sadly, diving is also less than stellar. All the dive boats were large, meaning many divers are swimming around the same coral outcrops. The outfit we choose to dive with often had 20 people in the water at the same time and place. The visibility was mediocre, the sites were crowded and not too interesting (except maybe the stone circle on the sandy bottom that seems to always contain 2 clownfish).
Our first divemaster is Antony, a young French guy who had been on the island for 5 months and only recently completed his divemaster certification. His inexperience showed when he forced me to stay in the water when my air was down to 30 bar (from 200) and I’d already done my safety stop. I should be getting out of the water with 50 bar, but I wind up getting out with 20. That made me very uncomfortable.
Diving is cheap here ($33/dive, all in), but we never went deeper than 50 feet. We later learned that PADI has added a new cert, adventure diver, that is now required to go below 50 feet (up to 100 feet). Of course, we have gone on many dives below 50 feet, but the dive shop insists we take a course for $60 to get the new required cert.
It seems like PADI extortion, but they have leverage being the only surviving organization to run dive operations. We acquiesced, figuring we will have to do it sometime, somewhere. The next dive with Youri, a Belgian who has been on the island for 5 years, made for much more pleasant diving for us. Every fourth store in town appears to be a dive shop and there are dozens. In fact, the entire island seems to be set up as a way for young folks to get certified on the cheap.
My First Scooter
One day, Diana had a cold and couldn’t clear her ears, so no diving. Instead, we sleep in and decide to pick up a scooter to explore the island. 200 Thai Bhat gets a scooter for 24 hours. 300 Bhat ($10) includes scratch insurance. 450 Bhat ($15) includes bumper to bumper insurance.
Having NEVER driven a scooter before, I opt for the 450 Bhat version and we head to nearby Sairee Beach to check it out. We were told the scene there was more lively than where we were staying, which it is. Everything is still rustic. The main “street” along the beach is 8 feet wide and made with paver stones. Cars can’t go there, some scooters do, but I’m way too inexperienced to try, especially with Diana on the back. Together on the bike, it was hard for me to control the scooter.
From Sairee, we head north but choose not to go down the “road” marked with “needs a machete” in our maps.me app. We then went east to another small beach. Paid 20 Bhat to park the scooter and hung out for a while, along with quite a few others.
Returning from the beach, heading up a steep hill, I lost control of the scooter and drove it into a pickup truck that was coming down the hill towards us. The scooter and truck seemed OK, but I sustained a bad right wrist sprain and Diana broke her favorite Minnetonka sandals. Losing further interest in exploring the island, we went back to the hotel to rest.
My sprain started feeling worse, so we found a nearby clinic, where the doctor manipulated my wrist and declared it was not broken. He charged 700 Bhat for the consult and wanted another 5500 Bhat for pain meds. Diana and I decided to punt on the pain meds, she already had some I could use. We followed the doctor visit with a few very effective pain-relieving cocktails. More than a week, later, my wrist still hurts at times especially as I write this. The 450 Bhat scooter rental price paid off the next day when I simply handed the owner the key and walked off, no questions asked.
Getting Out of Dodge
We got up early to get a 9 am transfer to the pier for the 9:30 ferry. The place was mobbed. 500 people were trying to get off the island on the same ferry. It took Diana 30 semi-panic-filled minutes to convert vouchers to tickets in a poorly managed line. When we finally get on the boat, we are lucky to find 2 aisle seats for the 2-hour return trip. Later folks had to sit outside if they could find a seat at all.
Offloading the boat takes a long time, but we get onto a bus and straight off to the airport, with plenty of time to make our flight. Bangkok Air (tagline Asia’s Boutique Airline) has a decent, small lounge in Samui. Bangkok Air was actually really nice and they served food on all four of the one to two-hour flights we took.
We booked a hotel at Karon Beach, quite far from the airport. Our transfer van took us through much of the island. The scene was worlds apart from Koh Tao. Stores and shops, franchises, are everywhere. There is even an outlet mall. After a couple of days at the hotel, we decided to head to the next town over to do some shopping. We nearly got lost in a massive mall. You can get almost anything here, except maybe a good manicure and Minnetonka sandals. We made do with new Crocs sandals and a mediocre manicure.
Karon Beach is on the Andaman Sea, roughly parallel with Sri Lanka on the other side of the Indian Ocean. This was our first time to dip our toes into the Andaman Sea but, sadly, there was a strong riptide, so we don’t really want to get too far in. Worse, a storm washed a lot of trash and very small pieces of plastic onto the beach in front of our hotel, including medical sharps. Every day, the hotel staff would go out to rake up the beach. It helped, but each new tide seemed to bring in more plastic waste. The issues with plastic in the oceans really hit home when we saw it for ourselves, close up.
Nostrovia (Cheers in Russian)
Both in Koh Tao and Phuket, cheap and good eats (my favorite) are easy to find. There were more than a few places where we could get cocktails for $3, local dishes for $3-4 and western food for about $5-10 per dish. It didn’t take us long to figure out that when you order Thai food it always comes out fast and western food takes much longer.
One thing we had not encountered elsewhere in SE Asia were Russians. Phuket had many advertisements in Russian. Most restaurants had a Russian menu. There were Russians staying in our hotel and Real Estate offices have listings in English, Russian and Chinese.
It seems like too much effort to get to Koh Tao, given the crowded diving and minimal infrastructure. It is unlikely we will return unless we are living in SE Asia and we wouldn’t come back for more than a week. Phuket has more to see, but the state of the beach lowers my future interest. We will probably check out Koh Samui another time and maybe the smaller islands in the Andaman Sea. We have heard good things.
Which islands appeal to you?