The Koh Tao Experience

Koh Tao isn’t ‘just’ an island; it is a shared experience of 7-11s, Scuba diving, late night dancing in the ocean, buckets of alcohol, fire dancers, and balloons filled with laughing gas.

Koh Tao by Air

On paper, the island of Koh Tao is an 8 square mile speck of land in the Gulf of Thailand.  It was formerly used as an island prison in the 1930s and ’40s, it’s now a bright spot on the South East Asia backpacker scene along with Koh Phi Phi, Koh Pha Ngan, and Koh Samui.  The island has become a Scuba mecca, second in the world only to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia in certifying Open Water divers.  In reality, Koh Tao is something completely different.  The real Koh Tao is something like this…

Hotel California.  The Bermuda Triangle.  Koh Tao.  All three of these places share a mystical property that mesmerizes people and suspends them in a state of trance similar to a snake charmer working their craft.  An article written on Travelfish by a long-term traveler neatly sums up this charm:

When asked to write about life on Ko Tao from a longterm stayers point of view, all I could think about were the three biggest lies told on the island. I’ll leave you to ponder the other two but the biggest, without a doubt is, “I’m leaving tomorrow.”

This phenomenon is actually so well documented that there isn’t actually anything new say about Koh Tao, and so I am not going to try.  In fact, after three weeks on the island I’m convinced that a completely new and unique experience on the island is nearly impossible.  Anyone who comes to Koh Tao is going to experience one or more of the following phenomena and walk away with a set of experiences that be shared with anyone else who has ever spent a few nights on Koh Tao.  The Full Moon party lasts but one night; Koh Tao is eternal.

It’s nearly 5pm and you’ve just finished an afternoon of Scuba diving.  Your mouth is dry and throat parched from breathing compressed oxygen for the last 90 minutes while floating over soft corals and swimming through shoals of fish.  As you get off the long-tail boat that brought you back to shore you meet your dive master to log your dives at a table conveniently located at a beach bar participating in the time honored practice of “Happy Hour.”  Beers are 2-for-1 and you split a few with your diving buddies from the afternoon.  Eventually you notice an orange glow on the horizon and move from your table to the beanbags on the beach and stare in awe while this happens.  At this point you’re not sure if the sky is really on fire or if the bartender gave you a complimentary pair of beer goggles with the last set of beers.

Sunset on Koh Tao

A few hours later happy hour has ended and you’re getting hungry.  Still on your beachside beanbags, you notice a few fire dancers setting up for the night a few feet in front of your group and decide to stay to watch and eat.  Dinner is wonderful and exactly what you needed, because after half a dozen beers everyone needs a plate of rice or noodles in their stomach.  All the while, someone is juggling balls of fire, swinging them around their head, under their legs, and behind their back.  A few beers later the smell of kerosene hits a high note as every single beach bar on the island has their own fire show in full swing.  The music is changing though – gone are the sounds of low-key trance covers of classic jazz tunes and songs from your younger years; the beat count is starting to rise and you’re hearing the DJ play through the newest electronic music available and remixes of the cheesy pop songs everyone loves to hate. (I’m looking at you ‘Call me Maybe’)

Fire Dancing (1)

At this point happy hour beers have led to “Drink Specials” on buckets of alcohol.  The most common of these are the 2-for-1 buckets of SangSom (Thai Whiskey) and Coke for 200 Baht – $6.  Everybody around is a budget-conscious backpacker, so naturally these are seen as the most cost-efficient way to have a good time.  Soon you realize it’s difficult to dance while carrying a bucket of mixed-drink without spilling it on yourself, but you’re on a beach and everyone is getting wet so it’s not a big deal.  You continue dancing.

And dancing.

And dancing.

It’s 3am and ‘American Pie’ is being blasted over the speakers at the bar you’re at.  Everyone is singing; nobody really knows the lyrics.  It’s closing time but the night is just getting started.  You’re enjoying the company of the people you’re dancing with, although there isn’t a chance in hell that you remember more than one of their names.  It could be the buckets of alcohol, the fact that over the music “Lu” sounds like “Sue”, or the headache you’ve got from sucking one too many balloons of laughing gas.  None of this matters though, the most important task at hand is finding somewhere else to go because the lights just turned on and the music was turned off.  Someone mentions something about a pool bar that’s open late and you follow.

It turns out that “Pool Bar” is only half truth.  There is a pool, and there is a bar – but there is no pool bar.  You look across the pool and see a dozen people in the pool who are thoroughly enjoying the company of someone they met earlier in the night.  In the other direction you see a group of six lady-boys enjoying drinks after finishing their last cabaret show of the night.  You try not to get caught staring as two of them go to the bathroom and you anxiously watch to see which ones they use.

Hours later the sun has come up.  Your group shuffles to one of the 7-11s nearby to grab bottles of water and ham and cheese toasties.  There is nothing else open so this will have to do for now.  If you look closely you can see the dive masters and DMTs begrudgingly walking to work to prepare the morning dive boats; you’ll recognize them by the jealous daggers they shoot from their eyes as you’re still going at 6am and they had to go home by midnight.  They assume they’ll get the last laugh when you leave after a few days on the next boat out while they stay on the island for another two months.  On the beach you recount the evenings activities and try to account for the people who disappeared throughout the night.  You’ll do it while looking out at an image of the ocean similar to this.

Koh Tao Morning

You eventually wake up around noon.  You may shower, or you might just put on your bathing suit and go back down to the beach to have breakfast.  Wondering if last night was a dream or if it was real, you contemplate if tonight – or any other night – could ever be like that again.  It will be, but only here on Koh Tao – the Hotel California of Thailand.

Eventually you may find a way to escape Koh Tao – to get off the island and continue your backpacking through Thailand.  It will, without a doubt, be at a date later than you originally expected.  When you finally leave you’ll think of returning.  You’ll think of the Koh Tao Experience.  You close your eyes:

The sky on fire.  Faces illuminated by kerosine.  Memories blurred by balloons of SangSom and buckets of laughing gas.

Koh Tao

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16 thoughts on “The Koh Tao Experience

  1. I am so jealous…. there is just something not right with this picture. Me working and you wandering. Will you take care of me in my old age after you have moved me to Kho Tao? Do they have any retirement homes there. Daddy and I could move there with you……. Love you, Mama

  2. Ahaha I read these blogs for your mom’s comments.. they’re awesome.. sounds like I need to add Koh Tao to my list

  3. Pingback: On leaving Koh Tao (a tale of two Butterworths) | One Way Backpacking

  4. LLLLOVE this piece! I LOVE “the ROCK”! Koh Tao is magical and you capture it very well. I was there 6 years ago and still keep in touch with friends I made on the island. I think of that magical place every….single…day, it is in my blood and it is where I discovered the meaning of life! Thanks for the memory and will see you there one day I am sure!

    • Thanks man, I appreciate it. In 40 years I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone who has been going there recently decides to retire there.

      Out of curiosity – how’d you stumble upon this? It seems like someone randomly posted/reposted it on facebook but I can’t nail down a source.

      • In 40 years Koh Tao will not be the Koh Tao we love, it will be more like Koh Samui. I love hearing stories from people who visited Samui when it was like Koh Tao.
        My friend Gigi posted it on Facebook. She lives on the rock and wanted to remind those of us who know, what we have been missing.

  5. I lived on Koh Tao in the early 2000s for 20 months. I originally went for a 5 day visit. It is a truly magical place that I miss every single day, even 11 years after I was last there.

    • I am soooo glad to hear that!!!! Now I know I am not the only one. I was there to finish my dive certification and dry out from the cold I got while in Bangkok and ended up staying for almost 6 months!!!! I think about it EVERYDAY!!!! and it has been 7 years!

  6. Hi! Thanks for a great post. I visited Koh Tao last October and didn’t love it (stayed in Mae Haad which was pretty quiet) but I’m going back this December for my AOW. Do you mind me asking where you dived? I’ll be traveling solo so I would love to meet people like you did (and do some quality diving, of course). Thanks!

    • Susie, I did ALL of my diving with Big Blue. If you go to BB, have Jim Donaldson hook you up most of the instructors I had have moved on but safety is their number one concern. I would also recommend Master Divers and ask for Ayesha Cantrell, tell both of them Q sent you. I stayed at Big Blue as well on Sairee Beach, maybe you would like it more out there. Mae Haad is more town and Sairee is more beach, with great shore diving and snorkeling.

      I traveled solo as well and Sairee is perfect for meeting people. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions at QLittlestar@gmail.com. January is a great time to see mantas in the Similans, let me know if you need someone over there.

    • Susie – Similar to Quinn, I was at BigBlue and had a great time. Ironically I may be going back there soon to do my DiveMaster training…I’m trying to figure out if it’s worth going soon knowing that rainy season is coming up on Tao …or floating around the SEA area and waiting until later to do it when it’s somewhat more dry.

      BigBlue has a great reputation and has gotten pretty big, but manages to keep a very close-knit feel to the operation they run. I’ve yet to meet a DM or Instructor there who came off as a jerk or unlikable in any way.

  7. Pingback: 6 Months Later: Unexpected Stories From 186 Days of Travel | One Way Backpacking

  8. Pingback: Everything Ends – Part II: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand | One Way Backpacking

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