Koh Tao is a tropical island off the coast of Thailand in the Gulf of Thailand. It can be reached by ferry from the mainland ports of Chumphon and Surat Thani. It can also be reached by fast boat or slow boat from the neighbouring islands, Koh Phangan and Koh Samui. Koh Tao is the smallest of these three islands and is only slightly bigger than 21 sq. kilometers. Tao is the Thai word for Turtle and the island is appropriatly named so because of its shape.

The islands, like others in Thailand (see Koh Tarutao), was used as a political prison in the 1930's. This is because even the most clever criminal or hooligan couldn't get off without the help of a vessel. (see Alcatraz). In 1944, Prime Minister Khun A-Paiwong, pleaded royal pardon for all prisoners on the island and three years later all were released.

In the late 40's the first generation of pioneers began to arrive. These original settlers led a simple life harvesting coconuts, fishing and growing vegetables. The population experienced slow but steady growth since the island was difficult to reach.

Until...

...the backpackers discovered it in the mid-80's. Soon after, it became a popular destination and experienced a rapid growth in tourism along with the rest of Thailand. Soon transportation to and around the island improved and the locals found themselves swamped by farangs.

Today, the main staple of the local economy is tourism and diving specifically. Koh Tao is one of the premier dive spots in Thailand and, officially, the cheapest place in the world for PADI certification. (PADI Open Water Course= 160 US $, inclusive of accomodation) It is also one of the few places in the world where during the right season (March-June) divers can swim with whale sharks, the largest fish in the world.

Koh Tao is a beautiful, serene and clean island and attracts a different crowd than its (in)famous neighbor, Koh Phangan. This is slowly changing, however, and the Full Moon, Half Moon, Quarter Moon and Eighth Moon Parties are slowly taking residence. More and more backpackers come here to get off the beaten path and to get away from the crowds. They beat the path and form the crowds. Off the beaten path is an elusive concept anyway...

I took the slow boat.

When traveling over expansive waterways, tourist guides usually provide a choice of transportation, fast boat or slow boat. All over Asia, I rejected the concept of the fast boat. I always took the slow boat, even if it took five times as long to reach my destination. It wasn't a matter of expense, rather I enjoyed the long boat rides, the travel, the extra time it gave to meet new people and sort out the mass of ideas that weigh so much while traveling.

The slow boat from Chumphon to Koh Tao is an overnight ferry that leaves at midnight and arrives at 6:30 a.m. It only runs in good weather and the boats have been known to sink in rough seas. (The fast boat takes approx. one and a half hours for the same journey). I caught a ride to the pier from the family I bought the ticket from. When I arrived, they told me to get on quick so I could claim a spot on deck. I was provided with a bamboo mat, which I laid out on the upper deck, next to about ten other backpackers who had done the same. The lower deck consisted of a loud, clanging, gas fume sputtering motor and numerous bags of rice. There were no life jackets on the boat.

Into the Gulf of Thailand we went.

The night was clear and the moon new, the starry firmament above eased my fear of rain. Squid boats speckled the water and the only sound was the waves splashing against the bow and the put put put of the motor. My fellow passengers and I hunkered down for the journey, making small talk, of where we had been, were from and our ideas about Koh Tao. We slowly drifted to sleep.

I awoke to rain, half asleep I reached into my pack for my poncho. The small roof was little protection from the sheets of rain and the swells of the waves that rocked the boat and onto the deck. As a group, we huddled closer together, using our bamboo sleeping mats as makeshift umbrellas. We tried to maintain composure. Three hours later the sun came up and we could see the green limestone bump of Turtle Island.

It really did look like a turtle.

Koh Tao is a small island in the Gulf of Thailand. Koh Tao literally means Turtle Island, due to its shape and the large number of marine sea turtles living in proximity. The island is only 21 square miles and has 750 inhabitants, is easy to get around and the people are friendly. Renown for the scuba diving and cheap ($200 - $350 US) PADI licenses, the island is saturated with dive shops and diving schools, most which double as guest houses. Other recreational activities on the island include; rock climbing, sea kayaking and snorkeling.

Besides sea turtles, a number of interesting marine life live near neighboring islands. (I only know the English names).


There are many other sites around the island, a dive guide can bring you to their favorites or to the seasonal hot spots. If you aren't into diving, you can easily rent a snorkel and mask for less than two dollars a day. The water has amazing clarity here and it's easy to view fish while wading at the beach.

The beaches on the island range from crowded to completely secluded. Ban Mae Hat is the pier, the main street with Internet access, post office, police station, Mr. J's store, Farango Pizza and the most guest houses. If you want to go elsewhere on the island you have to take a songthaew (20- 100Baht, .50- $2.50 US depending on the time of day) or you can rent a moto bike for 150B a day (not recommended for bar visits, the roads are dark and dangerous at night). The guest houses to the North and South, are cheaper and secluded, but are difficult to get to late at night.

Ko Tao also has more coconuts per square mile than anywhere else on earth.

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