I woke just as the night was beginning to fade; I could make out dim figures sprawled out on mats across the cabin floor. I looked up at the open window for a few minutes as I lay and felt the boat rolling gently in the swells, then got up and poked my head out the window. I could see the island's profile in the murky pre-dawn light, surprisingly close. I tiptoed around sleeping fellow passengers, climbed down the ladder, and stepped onto the foredeck to watch the sun rise over the approaching island.
We'd been traveling for the better part of two days: Thirteen hour flight from Seattle to Taipei, followed by three more to Bangkok, then an eight hour train ride to Chumphon. The six hour overnight boat ride across the Gulf of Thailand was the last leg to our destination, Koh Tao.
Koh Tao means "turtle island" in Thai. There used to be a lot of sea turtles that nested on the island's beaches, long since chased off by humans. The island's moniker also could've come from the turtle like profile of the mountain on its southern half. Looking at the dark outline, I could certainly see the resemblance.
I heard about Koh Tao from a pilot friend of mine who found it on Google Earth and jumpseated to Thailand on a few days off to investigate. The pictures he emailed back intrigued Dawn and I: sandy beaches punctuated by outcroppings of great smooth boulders, placid bays flecked with colorful longtail boats, palm trees swaying in the breeze. Throw in some sun and spicy Thai food and it seemed the natural Spring Break destination. A few other friends reported that Koh Tao was the best island they visited in Thailand, and we started planning.
As the boat approached the ferry dock in Mae Hat, other groggy passengers appeared on deck. A Thai man and I exchanged pleasantries in the few words we knew of each other's languages; a French couple happily snapped pictures of each other and shared an early morning smoke. The peacefulness ended when we reached the pier, for the night boat is primarily a cargo boat and a good many locals were on the deck waiting for shipments. Eventually the bustle died down enough for Dawn and I to shoulder our packs and make a jump for it.
Mae Hat, besides serving as the disembarkation point for ferries, is the main commercial center for the island. It was hastily built up as the island's popularity exploded over the last five years, with new guesthouses, restaurants, bars, amusements and even nightclubs appearing regularly. The wild-west approach to growth doesn't make for a very picturesque arrival to Paradise. Two parallel streets lead inland from the sea and are lined with rental motorbikes on both sides. A single narrow alleyway bisects the two main roads, providing access to waterfront businesses. Motorcycle taxis and sôngthâew clog the pier area, the drivers insistently calling out "Ta-XI?" to every passerby.
The worst excesses of development are confined to the island's western shore. North of Mae Hat lies Sairee Beach, a mile-long crescent of sand fronted by a mixture of cheap bungalows, luxury resorts, and dive shops. The island's only paved road connects Sairee to Mae Hat, then swings into the island's interior until reaching the southern shore at Ao Chalok Ban Kao. At Chalok most of the operators are diving resorts, and the mood is considerably more mellow than Mae Hat or Sairee.
The rest of the island is relatively undeveloped. A half dozen bays around the north and east coasts are reachable only by longtail boat or by braving the island's steep, rutted and washed out interior roads. A few days into the trip, Dawn and I tried reaching one on our motorbike. It was truly hazardous with both of us on the bike, and even by myself the route was quite challenging. We gave up before reaching the bay; the atrocious roads once again helped keep this side of the island fairly pristine.
There's another enclave on the southwest coast, a bay called Ao Jun Jeua. The road there is even more hideous than those to the east side, which keeps things quiet. After seeing the cacophony of Mae Hat, Dawn and I decided to stay in Jun Jeua. To bypass the road, we took a sôngthâew to Chalok and hiked west along beaches and then up and over a headland. Seen from the ridge, Jun Jeua is a wide bay broken into several coves by large rock formations. The beaches are clean; the turquoise water is impossibly clear, and you can see the coral formations twenty meters offshore. Polished wood bungalows with thatched roofs dot a grassy hillside.
When Dawn and I walked up to Sunset Bungalows, the elderly owner was watering the grass. "Bungalows available?" I asked. He nodded. "Fi' hunder' baht," he said, motioning towards the bungalows up the hillside. "Sick hunder' baht," he nodded at a few beachside units. We splurged and went with the 600B bungalow.
And this brings us to the real reason Thailand is a backpacker paradise. Sure, the scenery is beautiful and the weather outstanding and the food delicious and the people friendly. But the real attraction is that Thailand is cheap. Dirt cheap. The exchange rate is 34B to the US dollar, so that seaside bungalow - the nicest one on this bay - was $18 per night. We could've gone next door and got an older one up the hill for 300B ($9) a night. Our meals rarely cost over 200B for both of us. The motorbike we hired was 150B/day. Even long-distance transport is cheap - you can get from Bangkok to Koh Tao for around 700B.
The funny thing is that veteran backpackers complain about how expensive Thailand is getting. After the 1997 asian economic crisis, the exchange rate was as high as 55B / 1 USD, and you could still land a beachside bungalow on Koh Tao for 150B. Many a backpacker lived on $10/day and still had money left over for weed.
Alas, gentrification is coming to Koh Tao, as it did to Phuket and Koh Samui before it. The first luxury condos have been built. More and more new arrivals step off the ferry pulling rollaboards rather than slinging backpacks. Koh Tao is even being offered in pricey packaged tours. Development continues apace.
The question is just how much more the island can take. A few areas could already be described as environmental disaster zones. Sections of vegetation have been cleared for roads and buildings, leaving the mountainous terrain susceptible to erosion. Exposed sewer and water pipers are commonplace, as are caches of discarded building materials and partially demolished abandoned structures. Runoff sometimes clouds the famously crystaline waters that put Koh Tao on the map in the first place as a diving destination. Top-end development will probably avoid the worst excesses but will further exacerbate the island's most pressing problem: lack of water. The last several years the island received insufficient rain during the wet season at the same time that demand for water was skyrocketing. The freshwater reservoirs in the mountainous interior got dangerously low during the hot season, resulting in water rationing. Nobody has come up with a solution, and nobody is curbing development until one is found.
Environmental damage aside, development is changing the fundamental character of the island, which makes old-timers a bit resentful. I took a scuba diving lesson my last day on the island. Paul, my instructor, is a 32 year old British expat who first came to the island ten years ago. The last few years have seen the biggest changes, he told me as we lurched down the road to Mae Hat in the bed of a sôngthâew; the atmosphere is completely different.
"It used to be all divers here, most for five or six months at a time, just here to have fun diving and relax. You'd dive all day and have a beer or two with your mates after dinner. But now...you've heard of Ibiza, yeah? That's the scene we're headed for. People come for a few days at a time, and they just want to party...and be entertained. Did you see the bowling alley down the street, and the mini golf course? Unbelievable. Did you know they're doing elephant trekking down at Jansom Bay?"
I nodded. The flyers for it were everywhere.
"I heard rumors but didn't believe it until my mate saw the elephant getting off the night boat. Like the bloody circus is coming to town...." He shook his head. "You know, the number one cause of death on the island used to be coconuts falling on people's heads. Now it's motorbike accidents - most involving alcohol."
I believed it. This is a bit of a crazy place to ride a motorbike completely sober. The single concrete road connecting Chalok to Mae Hat and Sairee is narrow and crowded but people fly down it, Thais and farang alike. The sôngthâew drivers are the worst, though. They essentially own the road, and they pay little heed to motorbikes - especially farang on motorbikes. Accidents and injuries are appallingly common. Cuts and bruises are seen so often on travelers returning from the islands that they're jokingly called "the farang badge." As more roads throughout the islands get paved, high speed crashes are overtaking low-speed spills. Paul told me of pulling a bloodied motorcyclist out of a ditch after he hit a sôngthâew full-on at high speed. He was still drunk from the night before.
I wish I had a chance to know the old Koh Tao. But for all the gripes of Paul and other veterans, Koh Tao is still a pretty nice place. The worst overdevelopment is pretty localized. The party scene is mostly confined to Mae Hat. There are plenty of quiet coves with beautiful beaches perfect for lazing the day away under the shade of a palm tree. And Koh Tao's original attractions, the clear waters and coral reefs teeming with marine life, are as spectacular as ever.
Island life was supremely relaxing. We went to sleep to the crash of waves and woke every morning to a cacophony of cicadas, roosters, and jungle birds. We'd ride to Mae Hat for breakfast, enjoying the cool morning air. We'd find a nice stretch of beach for the morning and wade or swim, walk, take pictures, read, whatever. I hired snorkel gear for a few days and found the marine life to be amazingly diverse and colorful. In the afternoons we'd return to "our" west-facing beach and enjoy the breeze as the setting sun turned the island golden and the sky red. The restaurants were all open-air with stunning viewpoints, and you'd eat at low tables while sitting on cushions on the floor. The food was uniformly delicious. There is still paradise left to be had on Koh Tao.
For how long? Who knows. The word is out and the masses are coming. Dawn was reading Alex Garland's book "The Beach" on this trip. One of the central themes of that book is the hypocrisy of backpackers and other self-proclaimed "independent travelers" searching out the ideal unspoilt paradise, consuming it to death, and then complaining that it's "too crowded" or "too touristy." Already, backpackers "in the know" favor Laos and Cambodia over Thailand; word on the street is that Cambodia has islands that are marvelously beautiful, uncrowded, and cheap. Koh Tao, it seems, is yesterday's news.
We left Koh Tao on Lomprayah's high-speed catamaran. It only takes ninety minutes to cover the distance that takes the night boat six hours, and zips 240 passengers along in air conditioned comfort. Lomprayah recently took delivery of a third, larger ship, and they have plans for growth in their service to Koh Tao, Koh Pha-ngan, and Koh Samui. As we cruised out into the Gulf of Thailand, I looked back to see Koh Tao receding into the distance. Within a few minutes the people on the pier were indistinguishable. Then the sôngthâew and moterbikes faded, then the bungalows and shops and bars. Finally there was only the island, as it was in the beginning - a jewel shimmering in the Gulf of Thailand.