Over the past week I’ve been calling two islands in the Gulf of Thailand ‘home’: Koh Tao and Koh Phangan. Koh Tao is known for one, and pretty much only one thing: scuba diving. It is one of the cheapest places in the world to take diving lessons, and ranks second to only Cairns, Australia, for the number of PADI certificates handed out each year. Why I was there? Exactly: to learn diving.
Diving on Koh TaoOr, to be more precise, to brush up on my diving skills. I had already obtained my SSI Open Water Diver certificate fourteen years earlier (coincidentally in Cairns, Australia), but hadn’t logged a single dive since. My knowledge was rusty, to say the least. But after three days of intensive training, I can now call myself a qualified open water diver again.
(For the obligatory travel blogging: the dive school I trained with was called New Way Diving, and I can wholeheartedly recommend them. They are a medium-sized school and differentiate themselves from the competition by only training in small groups (max. 4 students), being the first to leave shore for the morning dives (one day as early as 05.45), and paying special attention to reef preservation. My instructor was competent and responsible… but so are probably most of them.)
Aside from the diving, Koh Tao is one of those typical young tourist meccas. I would say ‘backpacker meccas’, but most resorts are too upscale to appeal to the real backpackers (read my article on backpackers and tourists to see why). For each Thai person on the street there would be five Westerners, the main evening attractions were pubcrawls and other ways to get heavily inebriated, and the local restaurants made good money selling mediocre pad thai and banana pancakes at heavily inflated prices. The diving aside, there wouldn’t be much of a reason to come here. (Well, one Kiwi fellow I met told me they had some pretty good muay thai dojos as well.)
Koh Phangan and the moon cycle
Koh Phangan offered more or less the same as Koh Tao, but without the diving. The island is mostly (in)famous for its full moon party, an event where thousands of backpackers gather on the beach and get absolutely shitfaced. (This is a far cry from the original spirit behind the full moon party, but it is what it amounts to today.) By now the tourism industry has picked up on the popularity of these parties, and offers something similar on every other day of the moon cycle. Two-days-before-full-moon-waterfall-party, anyone?The one thing that Koh Phangan has on Koh Tao is size. The former is some eight times larger than the latter, and has significant inland territory covered with mountainous jungle. In the absence of beach bars and moon-cycle-related parties, the backpackers stay away from the island’s centre. There is quite a bit of natural beauty left, in some places protected by national parks. I managed to do one day of hiking, clawing my way through dense jungle and being rewarded by some amazing views of the island from above.
Not surprisingly, the inland areas have also retained much more of their local charm than the coastal regions have. Here the local people aren’t out gunning for your money with overpriced taxi rides, Turkish massages*, and buckets of Samsong. Rather they are going about their daily business, but are happy to stop for a chat–if they speak any English, that is (or if you speak Thai). To get a more real sense of the island life, the inland territory is the part to visit.
After three days on Koh Phangan I decided that I’d seen enough, so I got up at 05:30 this morning to make the early-ish boat back to the mainland**. While walking the 3km to the boat pier, three taxi drivers stopped looking for a fare, but all tried to charge me 100 baht (three to four times the normal rate for such a ride), which I laughingly declined. Then a well-groomed young man on a motorcycle stopped to ask me where I was going and If I needed a ride. When I asked him how much, he told me 50 baht, but settled for the 30 baht I offered. We joked around a bit during the short ride to the pier. When I tried to pay him, he said “no, I was just kidding”. He probably wasn’t even a taxi driver. He must have come from the inland territory.
* Does it seem odd to you to find a Turkish massage in Thailand? It isn’t quite the same thing as a regular massage in Turkey. A Turkish massage in Thailand means a massage-plus-sex, and is just a very thinly veiled name for prostitution.
** In case you ever need to make this trip: pick the Raja ferry over the Songserm Express, as it’s both cheaper and way more comfortable. Despite its industrial looking exterior, the inside has comfy seats and couches in a bar-like setting, resembling a cruise chip from three decades ago. Songserm is faster, but this advantage is lost as it makes an extra stop on Koh Samui.
You can buy a combined boat-plus-bus ticket to Surat Thani for 100 baht extra, which is a good idea, as otherwise you’ll be left standing on a pier some 40km outside of the city. Don’t buy any combined tickets farther than Surat Thani yet, as you’ll basically be charged double or triple the normal price for onward transportation. The only exception is if you’re travelling all the way to Bangkok and want to ensure your seat on a comfortable 24-seater VIP bus. Otherwise just make your way to one of the city’s bus stations (depending on where you’re going) and buy your onward ticket there at the counter (ignore any touts or travel agents vying for your attention, as they will quote you a heavily inflated price).