Rich with turtles (Koh Tao = Turtle Island) the flat sea around this utopia shimmers with a thousand shades of blue which change as the ever-present sun drenches the white beaches. Once a political prison and for a long time uninhabited, Tao seems like a place not long-discovered and now exploding into a Mecca for self-indulgent divers. Few laws govern this totally chilled environment but no buildings higher than the ubiquitous palm trees are allowed. Under royal patronage, the island's only tourist attraction is a large rock inscribed with the late monarch's initials. The Thai population is trying to maintain it's roots whilst welcoming tourist dollars by accommodating westerners with European cuisine. Hollywood blockbusters and the latest Fat Boy sounds in bars and the 2 clubs mix with the tinkling tunes of the waves on the shore in the evening. In all, a pleasant sense of harmony prevails and I felt as though I had found a special place.
The best was yet to come. Day one of our 4 day PADI Open Water diving course brought us to Ao Chalok Ban Kao, a secluded bay on the southwestern shores of Tao. We dived to a shallow 2m and completed the first job any diver must do- breathe! Taking off our respirators and masks underwater and then replacing them was quite a frightening experience as we felt like humans out of this world instead of fish out of water. And it is another world. Until this week I had only seen the amazing life that flourishes in tropical waters in tanks. In their own environment and illuminated by glowing sunlight, fish all sorts of sea life seem to emanate a beautiful aura which is difficult to describe.
Dives 2 and 3 brought me more confidence in my equipment and abilities underwater until I felt as though I could fly. Adding the 3rd (vertical) dimension reminded me flying and I immersed myself in the joys of swooping up and down from 5 to 10 metres, aiming for stunning coral then chasing my bubbles up towards the bright surface. Looking at my friend Paul, we made our "OK" signals every 2 minutes- as much wanting him to know I was not drowning as much as seeing that he was alright. As our minutes under water stacked up we soon started feeling like Jaques Custeau. We saw a stingray, which expertly dashed away from us when we disturbed it and a couple of triggerfish. These 40cm long fellas are common to Tao and are known for their ferocious defence of their territory. Once a pair of triggerfish (who are monogamous for life) nest, they create a conical exclusion zone with the base of the cone where they spawn and the large circle on the surface. The tactic of the sentinel male is to front you out until you leave his territory. A diver had 4 stitches in his forehead last week as he tried to stand up to the Daddy triggerfish. Happily, the 2 that we saw were happy enough to let us swim on by unheeded.
Our last dive led us to 18 metres and we played football with a rock surrounded by an audience of unbelievable coral, stingrays and Everton mint fish (?) Paul scored an amazing goal with a logic-defying overhead kick which beat the keeper in extra time. I sat on the marine subs bench feeling rather left out. On our way back to the dive boat we saw the captain of our boat with his harpoon in hand and tattoos over every part of his skin. At the surface he was proud to show off a red fish which was easily 2 foot long and would no doubt pay for his family to do whatever Thais do on a Saturday night.
On Thursday night, myself, Paul and 4 assorted Brits (90% of westerners in October are apparently British with the majority becoming French in April!?) took a 4 X 4 roller coaster ride to the top of one of Tao's two peaks. Venus Park is a nightclub on a cliff face-come-jungle which is as close to Enid Blyton's Land of the Faraway Tree as I can imagine. Try and imagine this: 1000 westerners and Thais full of cheer dancing until dawn. It was: EXTREME!
And so we had to leave Koh Tao. It was too fun. It was so beautiful. It has captured me and I will return. For now, we have continued on our way to the next adventure.