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Taking the road less traveled Spending a year in five continents to embrace my "inner turtle", to live simply, and to avoid being shark bait!

Thoughts on Koh Tao

THAILAND | Thursday, 1 March 2012 | Views [1961]

Several restaurants play movies on their TV at night to attract diners; most have no clue what the movie is. This one thought the movie is named

Several restaurants play movies on their TV at night to attract diners; most have no clue what the movie is. This one thought the movie is named "Russell Crowe" based on its cover, funny!

Koh Tao, aka Turtle Island, is a great place to release your "inner tortoise".  No one really observes time, and days of the week don't matter (unless you want to join the pub crawl, which takes place on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays).  It's a great place for scuba diving, snorkeling, Thai massages, or generally do nothing. If you're itching for other entertainment or activities, then it may not be the best place.

The island is relatively small. There's no bus, no traffic light, not even a stop sign.   Almost everybody gets around by motorcycles or mopeds, with the occasional pick-up trucks use for deliveries or act as taxis. There are paved roads that connect the village where the pier is (Mae Head) to the other two big villages, Sairee and Chalok Baan Kao. Other than those, the other roads are rough and at times steep. 

I can group the population of Koh Tao into three groups: the local Thais who either own businesses (dining, lodging, grocery stores, gift shops) or work in them; the expats, mostly western Europeans, who make up the scuba diving community; and the migrant workers, mostly from Burma, who do the labor-intensive work like construction, home maintenance, or anything that requires heavy-lifting. Most tourists are from Europe; I hear German, Danish, and Swedish spoken more often than English. There are some Australians, few Americans, and even fewer Asians (although I found them later elsewhere, more in another story). Since practically all tourists and expats speak English, the Thai business owners cater to them and have learned enough conversational English to get by; even the Burmese workers know more English than Thai. 

As for the cuisine, again because of the tourists and expats, the restaurants all serve "dumbed down" Thai food or western food like hamburgers, pasta, or pizza. Pissed me off that it was easier to find a cup of cappuccino (60 baht) than Thai iced tea (30 baht). When I observed the local Thais eat their meals, they were more like Chinese meals: dishes were shared, mostly stir-fried, with each person having his own bowl of rice.  There were a lot of greens (vegetables I've never seen before), steamed fish, and soups served with rice. Curries were quite runny (always thought Thai curries were thicker, wrong!) and salads were "pounded" together using a mortar and pestle. I loved watching this one lady cook from her food cart. The menu posted on the cart only contained "dumbed down" Thai dishes, so instead I watched what the Thai customers ordered and I followed suit, except I asked for my dish to be less spicy. Those were always the best meals, and cheap too!

There are plenty of bars and restaurants in the three big villages. Some restaurants show movies to attract diners; they would post the one or two movies to be shown that night so people walking by would know ahead of time. They have no regard for what the movie rating is, so plenty of R-rated movies with violence and/or nudity were shown, even though families with young children may dine there.  Most bars serve cheesy cocktails so best to stick with beers, and they stay open until 3 or 4 AM.

My favorite activity besides diving was getting a Thai massage, only 300 baht (US$10)! Thai massages use no oil, maybe just an ointment like tiger balm, and some clothing are worn. These tiny Thai ladies grind their fingers and elbows into my back as though their life depended on it; they also stepped on top of me entirely, usually with their feet on the back of my thighs.  Even their toes were strong, pinching my butt!  Still, I liked that the massages made me "work", twisting me around and pulling my muscles, since I was quite sore from diving and also from sleeping on a very stiff mattress. If I could have gotten a massage everyday, I would have, but because of diving and the residual nitrogen in my body afterwards, I would only go on the days I didn't dive. 

What impressed me the most about the Koh Tao Thai community was how they must have adapted and built their business because of tourism and the diving community. Besides the businesses that grew out of the increasing number of tourists (over 300,000 per year) such as restaurants, bars, and gift shops, there were also long-term rentals for the expats, laundry service, used book stores with books in all kinds of European languages, tattoo parlors (it seemed 99% of the diving community have tattoos), nail salons (it cost more to get a manicure than a one-hour Thai massage), medical offices (diving could be hazardous), travel agencies, internet cafes (Skype is very popular), and motorcycle rentals (I really wanted to try but balked, last thing I needed was a broken leg).  Just 15-20 years ago, Koh Tao was a small sleepy island with only fishing as its main occupation, and now it has transformed into a world-class diving destination. I do hope it remains slow-paced and with only thriving local businesses though. If a Starbucks or hotel chain ever opens, that's the end of the Koh Tao charm.

Tags: koh tao, scuba diving, thai massage

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