Tag - turtle island

Triggerfish and Turtles

diving_ko_taoI’m 28 years old in the year of Our Lord and I can say that very rarely do I finish a day on this lonely planet with a smile on my face the size of China. Yesterday I ate my evening meal whilst grinning from cheek to cheek. Why? Because I had become a scuba diver! Koh Tao, about 50 km from the east coast port of Chumphong in the Gulf of Thailand was the location for my first experiences under the sea. Tao is truly one of the most beautiful places on earth. Resident population 2000, 21 km square, main industries: diving, fishing, diving, growing coconuts and er, diving.

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.

Koh Tao: Island Travel at a Turtle’s Pace

Koh Tao: Island Travel at a Turtle's Pace
Koh Tao: Island Travel at a Turtle's Pace
Koh Tao: Island Travel at a Turtle's Pace
Koh Tao: Island Travel at a Turtle's Pace
Koh Tao: Island Travel at a Turtle's Pace

On a holiday to Koh Tao, the scubadiver’s equivalent to Mecca, I made the disheartening discovery that I couldn’t dive. Blame nerves, claustrophobia, or downright wimpiness; the thought of being deep underwater filled me with panic. And so, while my friends and travelmates had a ball on the sea floor, I sought out other activities to keep busy. Lucky for me, and any other island-bound traveller, Thailand’s diving capital is amok with back-up options.

Koh Tao (“turtle island,” though I didn’t spot any) is the smallest and most northern in a cluster of traveller-friendly islands in the Gulf of Thailand, along with Koh Samui and Koh Phangan. But unlike the hard-partying Phangan, and the touristy-picturesque Samui, Koh Tao is often left off the backpacker itinerary. The bulk of Koh Tao’s visitors are scubadiving enthusiasts or curious amateurs, ready to dive and then leave for the hotspots further south. Here, khaosanroad.com shows why Koh Tao merits a visit, even if you never venture past shallow waters.

In the water or on dry land, your itinerary will overflow with things to do. Sairee Beach, Koh Tao’s largest and busiest stretch of sand, teems with life and energy at all hours of the day or night. It boasts many options for the curious traveller, with guesthouses, restuaurants and stores as well as many dive and rental shops to choose from. Those looking to escape the hustle of Sairee beach should head to the southern point of the island, where Ao Chalok Baan Kao, Koh Tao’s second most famous beach, where a dense row of guesthouses, mellow bars, restaurants and dive shops overlook one of the cleanest beaches around.

The small island is relatively easy to explore, and motorbike rentals and taxis are abundant. While the uneven roads might ensure a white-knuckled journey, the quiet, rocky Laem Nam Tok (at the north end of the island) and the picturesque snorkeler-haven of Ao Leuk (on the eastern side) are well worth the bumpy rides motorbike or taxi. Alternatively, a day of exploring the parameter of Koh Tao by kayak gives an up-close look at the small scenic beaches which are difficult to access by road, but are easy to dock at for some sunbathing or swimming on sparkling clean shores.

Venturing around the island by kayak, swimming in the clear turquoise waters, or snorkelling past the bright green reefs and tropical fish; there are many aquatic pastimes close to land. Meanwhile, in deeper waters, divers from around the world converge to explore the intricate coral, bright and exotic fish, and beautifully unsual plantlife that thrive underwater. Many dive shops on the island offer a full range of dive experiences, PADI courses ranging from beginner to professional, as well as fundives at any of the 30+ dive sites surrounding Koh Tao. My travelmates sung the praises of Carabao Diving School (at Ao Chalok) for their scenic diving experiences with friendly multilingual instructors.

In terms of island dining, you won’t fall short of options on Koh Tao, where local fish is served up beside more tourist-friendly fare. The island boasts an oddly high number of Mexican restaurants (music to this North American’s ears), bakeries with coffee and pastries, and 24-hour pizza. I would recommend the reasonably-priced barbecue stalls of freshly-caught fish, served with buttery baked potatoes and corn on the cob.

On the western side of Ao Chalok, the View Point restaurant, which you might mistake for the German embassy on account of all the expat divers, has the best food I’ve tasted on the island. At the end of a late night, Sairee beach is prepared with all-night food options. The old tourist standby of foodstall phad thai and banana pancakes is sold on most corners to keep the hungry partiers happy.

Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.