Fiona Ralph discovers the relaxed side of Thailand’s Koh Tao, an island paradise with a chequered past.
I thought I had chosen a nice, laid-back island, the antithesis of notorious party spots Koh Phangan and Phuket.
As it transpired, I had. The name Koh Tao actually means Turtle Island, and for most visitors it’s a perfectly picturesque destination, though you may want to read up on recent news coverage before you go. The only issue is getting there. Travelling from New Zealand, it took us two days of travel, two flights, a slow ferry trip and a few unnerving taxi rides before we could bliss out on the beach.
After a night in Bangkok, we flew south to Surat Thani, then spent four hours on a ferry, piled high with families and backpackers, that stopped off at the more developed islands of Koh Samui and Koh Phangan before finally arriving at Mae Haad Bay on Koh Tao. A taxi ride through the bustling pier town and then over steep, rocky terrain ended with a sharp descent into Tanote Bay, a small crescent-shaped beach scattered with granite boulders, complete with mesmerising ocean views and a lush, mountainous backdrop.
Online reviews complained that the bay, one of the most idyllic on the island, was too far from the main town of Sairee Beach – the steep route down makes it too dangerous to scooter or cycle. We took this as the perfect excuse to stay put; the party action may have been a mere 10-minute taxi ride from Tanote Bay, but it, and the rest of the island, felt a million miles away.
Mountain Reef Beach Resort, where we stayed, was comfortable, affordable, right on the beach and run by an endearing Thai family. The restaurant wasn’t worth writing home about, but starting the day with a mandarin juice and fruit platter at a table overlooking the ocean was a dream. We booked our stay through Booking.com, which had heaps of options. There are over 10,000 properties available in Thailand, so the hardest part was choosing. Knowing nothing about the island, we simply opted for the most picturesque beach and happened to hit the jackpot.
Tanote Bay has just a few hotels, one restaurant (not including the hotel eateries), a couple of massage shacks and a dive shop, all accessed via the beach – you needn’t set foot on asphalt all week if you don’t want to. The vibe is family-friendly and relaxed – ideal for quiet nights in and sleepy days chasing the shade of palm trees.
For days, we meandered within a 100-metre radius, floating from our room to the massage shack to Lai Beach Bar, which served delicious northeastern Thai food, consuming one som tum (papaya salad) and pineapple shake after another. We snorkelled from our resort to the middle of the bay, catching our breath on the giant boulders, not quite brave enough to jump off.
Eventually we decided we ought to venture outside the confines of Tanote Bay for a day of sightseeing. The guide books urged us to take in the picture-postcard views at Koh Nang Yuan, a collection of three small islands linked by a tiny strip of sand. We hired a colourful longtail boat – as simple as hailing a taxi here – and made snorkelling stops at Sai Nuan Beach and Aow Muang (Mango Bay) on the way. The snorkelling had nothing on Tanote Bay, on the day we went at least, but Ko Nang Yuan’s stunning views were worth the trip. The group of islands has an admirable ‘no plastic’ policy, which involves checking plastic bottles at the entrance and only selling reusable glass bottles (although straws seem to have escaped the ban). We hiked up the hill in the late afternoon sun to take in the endless views, before traversing back down the boulder-strewn path to meet our boat driver, who seemed to love and hate us in equal measure.
With a final gruff farewell, he dropped us in Sairee Beach, Koh Tao’s bustling hub, on the opposite side of the island from Tanote Bay. For an evening, the sunset bars, fire shows and maze-like lanes filled with shops and restaurants were a thrill. I was glad we weren’t staying there, surrounded by beach clubs, backpackers and boats, but it was fun to take in a slice of local culture, get a massage in an air-conditioned room, and enjoy a taste of street food. The best pad Thai in Thailand is always the cheapest, and it would be criminal to leave the country without inhaling a
Nutella pancake (more roti than traditional pancake, deliciously flaky and fatty). More motivated visitors can also take yoga classes here, learn to scuba dive, join a fishing trip or rent scooters to explore the island.
As it turned out, my only brush with Death Island came at the end of our week in paradise, when I was struck down with the inevitable case of food poisoning – chained to the bed, bucket and bathroom for two days. There was no way I was island-hopping home on a slow ferry in that state. We changed our flights and ferries and amended our reservations on Booking.com, thanks to the handy iPhone app which means you can make or alter bookings from anywhere, and the staff at Mountain Reef brought rice broth to my bed while we watched the movie Water World on repeat.
Even after this experience, leaving Koh Tao was impossible. I can see why many visitors come for a week and end up staying a lifetime. There’s something about the chilled vibe and otherworldly beauty that tugs at your soul. To help us on our way, a torrential storm hit as we were boarding the boat, the first rain all week. We befriended another passenger, a local man holding a rooster on his lap, and watched the island fade away as we floated towards Koh Samui, and our flight home.