As the boat dipped and bobbed leisurely towards the dock I realised I had no idea what to expect from this place, my first experience of one of Thailand’s famous tropical islands. All I knew of Koh Tao was that it was considered the diving capital of southeast Asia and it was kind of small. Brilliant sunshine blinded my eyes, and lugging my backpack along the jetty I could see right to the bottom of the shimmering blue water beneath me.
I jumped in the back of a taxi with an Italian traveller I’d met on the way there, and we arrived at one of the crappiest hostels I stayed in during my entire time in Asia. It wasn’t clean, there were no curtains, and only three cold dribbles of showers for all the guests to share. However, I was short of money and it was the cheapest place I could find. Initially I only checked in for one night, hoping to find a better place to lay my head the following day. In the end I stayed two weeks in the Koh Tao Backpackers, unable to find the will or motivation to move out.
The majority of my time on Koh Tao was spent beaching in the daytimes and living it up at night time. Sairee beach is the centre of the island in many ways. It’s where most of the dive schools can be found, the bars are stretched out along the sand and therefore the majority of travellers gravitate to this small town. The sea is the most brilliant turquoise you can imagine, wonky palm trees abound and the sand is fine white gold. I’ll never forget my first steps onto that beach when the beauty of the island first took my breath away.
Koh Tao’s nightlife is something else. It’s chilled and laid-back, but not too laid-back. Many nights were spent laying on the beach in the Lotus Bar listening to random tunes, being wowed by the nightly fire show and paddling in the shallows. The ladyboy cabaret at Queen bar is a fun, light-hearted bit of entertainment – I was reluctantly dragged up on stage and made to dance! There’s a range of amazing restaurants (I recommend Barracuda which has a delicious fish-based menu), lots of cute boutiques and a top-notch spa just off the main road. And that’s just the land-based activities.
The snorkelling here is unreal – the best I had ever experienced until I jumped into the Great Barrier Reef. I went on a tour with a dive school and we were lucky enough to swim with 1.5m black-tipped reef sharks – what an incredible experience. Later, I went exploring the rest of the island in a jeep with a few friends. The roads are horrendous but the east side of the island, especially Tanote Bay, is even more stunning beneath the water. I can’t rate it highly enough.
Koh Tao is just one of those places that gets under the skin. There are more beautiful beaches in the world I’m sure, and certainly the diving has taken a turn for the worse as the water is so overcrowded with PADI learners these days. I can’t quite put into words why I love the island as much as I do. Either way, I spent about 20 days of my time in Thailand on Koh Tao and could happily have spent more. To me it was an island with a perfect balance of beauty, fun and laidback charm. I’m already looking forward to going back one day.
After falling in love with the first island I visited, I was wary of visiting the others. How could they possibly live up to the wonder of Koh Tao? My next destination was the ultimate party island, Koh Phangan. It’s famous for the monthly Full Moon Party, but there is a lot more to this island than getting smashed on buckets on the sunrise beach. I made the excellent decision to spend a couple of days in the north of the island when I first arrived. I was totally knackered from my excessive partying on Koh Tao and couldn’t face the mayhem of Haad Rin just yet. The north of the island is said to be extremely beautiful, all cliffs tumbling down to bright blue waters and a peaceful vibe. It definitely didn’t disappoint. I stayed in my own clifftop bungalow overlooking the ocean – quite a luxury after slumming it in the crappiest hostel for so long. I had an awesome outdoor bathroom and a humungous gecko living behind my mirror which scared the living daylights out of me. After some serious sleep and relaxing on the northern beaches, I grabbed a cab south to meet some travel buddies at a Haad Rin hostel.
It’s pretty much impossible to hang out in this little town and not have a wicked time. There’s a party every night when the moon is full and the alcohol flows freely. If you are so inclined, you can visit the Kangaroo bar or Magic (Mushroom) Mountain for a hit of the happy shakes. There are some excellent cafes and Thai restaurants on Koh Phangan. The deep-fried shrimp at My Friend restaurant will always have a place in my food fantasies. My highlights here were spending two consecutive nights laying on the beach with one of my closest friends, staring at the night sky and spouting deep-and-meaningfuls in a way only that beach will make you; relaxing at the Sanctuary resort for a much-needed detox after a week of mad partying; and sleeping in a 26-bed dorm in Haad Rin and hanging out as a huge group, where I got to know a few special souls.
After Koh Tao, Phangan is my second-favourite Thai island. It’s a lot of fun, very beautiful and extremely backpacker friendly. It’s almost too easy to make friends and meet wonderful people there. Every time I visited this island (three times in all) I came away with some crazy stories, new acquaintances and memories that make me smile.
By far the most tourist-filled and developed island in the gulf is Koh Samui. I wasn’t overly convinced I wanted to visit Samui at all since it seemed so couple-, family- and luxury-orientated (and I couldn’t fit in to any of those categories). Yet it still has a lot of natural beauty and there is a backpacker scene here too, you just have to try a little harder to find it. I began my time here on Lamai beach, a busy stretch but not as popular as Chaweng which is found further north. Having just spent a mental month whirling through Vietnam and part of Cambodia, I needed some R&R. I treated myself to a private room in a beachfront hotel, and spent three days resting, reading and chilling out.
Three days was enough to make me a little sick of my own company and move on to a busier part of the island. I stumbled upon a little quirky hostel called Nids on Chaweng which had private bungalows and a pretty plush dormitory. The place is overrun by animals including dogs, millions of cats, rabbits, chickens and one of the biggest fish I’ve ever seen. It’s a proper menagerie but the animals all seem to leave each other alone and there were some days-old kittens that decided to live right outside my door. I met some great people at Nids and a lot of fun was had exploring the Chaweng nightlife. Ark Bar, Green Mango and a skanky bar with the cheapest/grossest buckets to be found became regular haunts. Samui is definitely spoilt by tourism and Chaweng doesn’t have a lot going for it except an OK beach and some decent bars and restaurants, but with the right crowd you can have a good time pretty much anywhere in the world.
After sampling my fill of the three major gulf islands Thailand has to offer, it was time to cross the peninsula and experience the Andaman coast. Koh Phi Phi was my first priority there as I had heard so much about it from other travellers. Some controversially told me it was a better island than Koh Tao. I’d have to judge for myself on that one. The gulf islands had blown me away with their fun, happy ambiance and absolute beauty. Getting on the boat to leave the east side for the last time, there was a definite sinking in my soul and it was hard to say goodbye to these places. Most of all, it was almost impossible to leave Koh Tao and I was nearly in tears – but I know my island paradise will be waiting for me to return some day and return I certainly will. Besides, thanks to a drunken incident I now have a scar on my knee to always remind me of the place I felt so happy in!