Julian's Diary- Koh Tao
The boat ride from Koh Samui to Koh Tao (on a ship from Sea Tran) lasted two and a half hours and we spent most of it trying to get situated. No matter where we chose to sit on this two story ship, we just couldn’t escape the stagnant tropical heat. We noticed several tourists with the same predicament and some were even wearing motion sickness bracelets, so after moving around the ship we eventually we resigned ourselves to standing on the outside deck towards the back of the ship where we could take full advantage of the constant breeze blowing as well as an excellent view of all the ubiquitous little islands in the distance dotting the Gulf of Thailand.
When the ship finally pulled up to Koh Tao’s Mae Haad pier, Nina and I grabbed our bags and prepared to disembark like eager children after a long car ride. As we exited the ship and walked down the pier, we were greeted by a long line of local men holding up signs with the names of several resorts and nearby lodging facilities printed on them. Rather than risk being scammed, we opted to share a songthaew (a pick up truck that has been converted into a ride sharing taxi by turning the bed of the truck into an extra cabin with wooden seats and metal bars installed) with a group of four other people (a Spaniard couple backpacking through Asia and another European couple that had just arrived from Vietnam wearing the quintessential bamboo conical hats) to take us to our resort. We piled into the back of the songthaew pickup truck and endured a cringe worthy ride with each of us tightly gripping the support bars while the truck drove over unpaved, bumpy and often flooded roads, climbed up steep hills, rolled even faster on the opposite side of those steep hills and came dangerously close to decapitating us while maneuvering under a huge boulder.
We finally arrived at our resort (Dusit Buncha), which was situated on the edge of a rocky hillside cliff, and we were promptly greeted by a member of the friendly concierge staff who endearingly mistook me for a native Thai from the mainland. Shortly after checking in, we were introduced to two local men who had arrived to escort us to our bungalow suite. They carried our bags and led us down a steep slope along the side of a hill, which had steps that were carved out of the island’s natural rock, and finally over a wooden bridge which ran parallel to a boulder laden beach alongside an absolutely breathtaking view of island formations in the near distance.
Upon arrival to our bungalow suite, I tipped the men 20 Baht for their trouble and they proceeded to laugh at me before leaving us to our own devices. I must’ve forgotten that 20 Baht is equal to less than one U.S. dollar and in my haste to tip the gentlemen I committed a faux pas. “No worries. I’m sure it won’t be the last time”, I mused.
We settled into our bungalow and took a moment to appreciate everything that it had to offer. It was beautifully decorated and had a large bathroom with a shower carved into the rock of the hill as well as a sunroom with a heart shaped tub overlooking the beach with a magnificent view of the exotic islands in the near distance noted earlier. The suite’s dark cherry wood floors led us from room to room as we gasped at just how fortunate we were to be staying at this little paradise for a fraction of what we were used to paying back home.
We excitedly walked down to the beach in order to capture some cinematic drone footage and take a swim in the island’s turquoise water before nightfall’s reach obscuring the water’s perfect clarity. As sunset approached, the jungle in the hills above us really came alive. We could hear the cricket-like sound of various animals all around us, growing louder by the minute, as well as the occasional bird call coupled with the buzzing sounds of various unknown bugs working in perfect concert. It was as if an entire organism was awakening to play host to our curious desires for natural beauty. Alongside this backdrop of natural sound, we reflected in silence as the sun began to set beside the two jungle islands in the near distance
The next morning we visited our hotel’s breakfast bar, which was situated on an outdoor terrace overlooking the adjacent double jungle islands noted earlier. Although the meal was average (buffet-style with your typical selection of popular Western cereals, omelet stations, pancakes, waffles, etc.), the view was nice and through our previous research we had learned that those double islands were in fact a popular tourist destination known as Koh Nang Yuan. This island attraction was known for having some of the best snorkeling available in the area as well as a famed viewpoint at the top of one of the mountains.
After breakfast, we climbed up to the lobby and waited for one of the hotel’s complimentary shuttles to take us to Mae Haad pier, from which we were planning on finding a boat for hire to shuttle us to Koh Nang Yuan. The cool morning air brushed our faces as we sat in the bed of the shuttle/pickup truck that took us into town and along the way we could see some of the locals getting ready for the day. They were pruning trees in their yards, trimming the hedges in front of their houses and one even waved at our driver with clippers in hand. Indeed, this was one of the only times that we saw more locals than tourists in Koh Tao.
Once we were dropped off at Mae Haad pier, we walked into one of the ubiquitous 7-Elevens in search of some bottled water and snacks. We were pleased to find that the prices were consistent with what we had seen on Koh Samui and we eagerly moved towards the back of the line to pay for our things and begin our day of exploring. The place was packed full of young tourists and backpackers who looked like they had just graduated from school and they wasted no time indulging in every unhealthy consuming binge possible. Cigarettes, beers and cheesy microwavable garbage for breakfast were their vices of choice.
On our way to the pier, we browsed through several tourist shops in search of a hat and sunglasses to shield us from the Thai sun for which we were terribly ill prepared. Even though we were used to the tropical heat, we swore that this sun was burning our skin and eyes at an angle and depth that we had never felt before. After some haggling with limited success (since it’s a small island with a heavy tourist population and high demand for products), we managed to buy these items and head out in search of a charter to Koh Nang Yuan.
At the pier, we had no trouble finding a long tail boat for hire since the area was populated with locals holding up signs with “fixed” prices offering passage to Koh Nang Yuan. Once again, we haggled with limited success and accepted the fact that today we were just not going to be winning any price negotiations. We quickly hopped into the boat of one of the friendly locals and he proceeded to ferry us across to the popular double island formation of Koh Nang Yuan. On the ride there the boat hugged the coastline and we could see plenty of boulder laden beaches, bungalows high up in the hills of the jungle and other tourists snorkeling.
Our boat pulled up to Koh Nang Yuan but it was too small to reach the pier so we were instructed by our driver to grab our things and climb up from the boat to the pier via some wooden planks with rotted out holes that were installed on one of the pillars. The entire ordeal reminded me of running through an obstacle course and getting to the part where you have to climb up one of those wooden pallet walls, carefully having to maneuver each foot in between the planks to avoid falling as you climb up higher and higher. Knowing that we would look back on this moment someday and laugh, Nina and I smiled at each other and proceeded with a carpe diem attitude. We climbed up the plank wall, pulled ourselves onto the pier (similar to pulling oneself out of a swimming pool) and proceeded to walk through the makeshift security checkpoint for all visitors. To our surprise, we weren’t allowed to bring any outside food or drinks, so we were forced to drop everything off (including our GoPro drone) at the checkpoint and retrieve them at our departure.
At last, we had made it to that distant jungle escape that we had fantasized about from our hotel on Koh Tao. The main beach was lined with a few rows of umbrellas and lounge chairs, a beach side bar and restaurant that offered life vests and snorkeling gear for rent, and a shop selling snorkeling gear and tourist nick knacks. There was also a hotel with what seemed like luxury bungalows in the adjacent hillside. Overall, the island was teeming with a dichotomy of visitors ranging from young backpackers to families on vacation.
Nina and I followed the signs that pointed in the direction of the view point that we had come here to see and walked for about 15 minutes over a wooden plank bridge which took us around the back of the island and over the rocky but beautiful clear blue ocean from which we could see schools of vibrantly colored fish swimming around, until we reached a series of cement steps leading into the jungle. We climbed up the cement steps and endured the intense jungle heat, profusely sweating and without any water, for about 15 minutes until we reached…….a line of people waiting to climb up to the viewpoint. “Rodrigoooooo!!!!! Dame agua, Voludo!” (translated as “Rodrigoooooo!!!!! Give me some water, you asshole!), said an exhausted young Argentine backpacker as he was sitting on the steps waiting for his friends to return from the viewpoint.
After patiently waiting, we finally climbed up to the viewpoint and looked for the perfect spot to take a picture. Dodging selfie-taking photo bombers in the background, we managed to finally get our photo album worthy picture when we suddenly had an idea. “What if we climbed up even higher and got the absolute perfect picture without having to maneuver around other people taking selfies?” Nina and I crawled under a boulder so that we could get to a more secluded area and started climbing up the side of several other boulders in order to get to a better view point. Slowly but surely we climbed up these boulders, wedging our feet in crevices and grabbing tree branches for support while helping each other up along the way.
Eventually, when we were so close to reaching the very top, an exhausted Nina just couldn’t climb anymore. She wedged her body in between two boulders, pressed her legs against them for support and rested while I continued to climb.
I finally reached the very top and indeed, what a breathtaking view it was. Down below, I could see the sandbar which connected the two islands flanked by the clear water on all sides. As I looked up, I could see the other island which looked uninhabited except for various boulders sticking out of the jungle trees. I was too afraid to stand up because the winds at that height felt quite strong and at this point I was not in the mood to take on additional risks. “I’m such an idiot. How the hell am I going to climb down from here?” I mused.
Climbing down the side of those steep boulders proved more arduous than climbing up. For the most part, if we couldn’t place our feet firmly, we would just slide down the side of the boulders until we got to a point when we felt comfortable enough to plant our feet. We finally made it down to the stairs without injury, for which I was thanking GOD, and headed over to the beach area. We rented an umbrella and lounge chair and swam in the water for a little while. Despite the intense jungle heat, the water was cool to the touch and it provided a nice relief. Unfortunately, we were not able to snorkel, as we hadn’t purchased the gear and there were no more snorkel sets for rent.
When we were finished, we walked back to the pier and our long tail boat that we had hired was there waiting for us so we climbed down into the boat and headed back to Mae Haad pier on Koh Tao. Once we were back on Koh Tao, we bought some snorkel gear and bottled water and then looked for a place to eat as Nina at this point was not feeling well. We were looking forward to attending a pub crawl on Sairee beach later that evening but Nina’s symptoms (headaches, dizziness and fatigue) continued to worsen so we opted to head back to the hotel and rest up before heading back to Sairee beach for the pub crawl. As the night progressed, her symptoms worsened and I deduced that she must have gotten heat exhaustion as a result of the day’s physical activities in the heat with no water (Nina's Diary of events link, Click here to read), so we decided to cancel all plans for the rest of the evening and just go to sleep early.
Our Last Day
The next morning, Nina and I packed our bags as we were heading out to catch our ferry to Koh Phangan (Diary of Koh Phangan, Click here to read) later that afternoon. Although Nina was still feeling ill, she decided not to let that ruin our trip so she agreed to muster up the energy to go snorkeling that morning. After checking out of the hotel, we took the shuttle to the main pier at Mae Haad and negotiated, successfully this time, a charter for a long tail boat to take us on a snorkeling excursion around the island from one of the ubiquitous sign holders (at the pier, there are numerous locals holding up signs with “fixed prices” for a variety of excursions).
Our boat driver knew the best snorkeling spots, which were often secluded areas just a few meters from the shoreline. Although I would later get badly sun burnt as a result of an all morning snorkeling excursion, it was truly incredible to see what many would consider the other half of the world (underwater). Schools of rainbow colored fish surrounded us, guided by their own curiosity of new visitors to their world. Coral formations open and closed in response to the stimuli of having us swim up close to them. Most surprising of all was the fact that one didn’t really have to go too far from the shoreline to snorkel. Just a few meters out and knee deep in water was enough on some beaches to be able to see schools of fish moving all around. As we drove around the island, moving between snorkeling sites, Nina turned to me and said “I can’t believe this is my life right now”.
After our snorkeling excursion, we walked around the pier one last time and then waited for the ferry to come and take us to Koh Phangan where we were to attend the famous full moon party. As we sat there, surrounded by other tourists and backpackers, I wondered “indeed, this is our life right now.” It was another culture shock experience.