Our time in Koh Tao was easy and pleasant; the island is a relaxed combination of local Thais who gain a living through tourism, and a lively traveler/diver scene. There is a sort of symbiotic cooperation there that forms a perfect contrast to the island of Utila, in the Caribbean sea off the coast of Honduras, which in many other respects is nearly identical to Koh Tao.
Both islands are the smallest and most northern of a chain of three, and are almost completely dominated by Dive tourism and backpackers. They are similar in size, share a mountainous terrain, tropical climate, and are surrounded by warm, azure seas that are filled with coral gardens teeming with colorful sea life.
Life ashore, however, is very different; the locals on Koh Tao are generally happy, cordial, and extremely nice, while those on Utila are generally angry, bitter, and subtly hostile. The difference, of course, is rooted in the host cultures - Thailand is an ancient Buddhist country that has never been colonized, while Honduras suffers from the brutal heritage of the Spanish Conquest. My recollections of the vicious, confrontational, antagonistic conduct of the Utilans gives me an appreciation of the Thais that only increases the longer I stay here.
To get to Koh Tao we rode the overnight car ferry from Chumpon. It’s a rusty old bucket with a flat deck that was loaded with freight and a couple of cars. A bridge house in the back doubled as quarters for the crew, and flop house for the passengers. The second floor was an open room with a chest high platform welded along each wall, thereby affording two levels of communal sleeping space. Thin mattresses lay side by side the length of the floor and platforms, creating, essentially, one giant bunk where all of the passengers could recline at their ease - encased in stifling heat, rocked by sloshing waves, and serenaded by a diesel lullaby. It was an entertaining passage, at least, although restless and uncomfortable.
We arrived at koh Tao before dawn, disembarked, shouldered our packs, and trudged up a darkened lane. A few blocks up, an early rising shop keeper was just setting out his chairs and tables, so we tarried there over coffee and breakfast long enough to allow the sun to illuminate the sky.
That side of the island, the western shore, is dominated by one long beach, which is nowadays lined end to end with dive shops, restaurants, and guest houses. One author referred to it as a “Tourist ghetto”, which is close enough, although everything is reasonably nice. We chose, therefore, to walk to the southern end, where a smaller beach offered a more comfortable and laid back environment.
We found reasonable accommodations at a place called the Tarapon bungalows. It was a small hut built of teak wood on the hillside just above the beach. A small deck on the front looked out over the bay to the anchorage, where a handful of dive boats lay moored. Along the beach just below the bungalow was a small dive shop and an outdoor bar called ‘Babaloo’. Built all of driftwood and bamboo, it was artfully decorated with faux rock art and curious bits of cast off junk, like a pink push button telephone that hadn’t worked in decades, mounted on a post in the sand as if it were some stone age phone booth. The bartender was a very friendly kid from Bangkok named ‘Aut’, who doubled as DJ and barmeister. The evenings there were warm and comfortable, with the quiet hum of conversation filling in the spaces between the songs as fire spinners lit the sand with a reddish glow, whirling their fiery scepters in hypnotic arcs that dazzled and enchanted.
The days we filled by walking, riding, and exploring, the island being crossed by steep, rough, dirt roads and edged by countless beautiful coves. A little honda motorbike was our trusty steed, let out at the exorbitant toll of three dollars a day. Once we’d got the hang of it, riding up imposingly steep, drastically rutted dirt roads became more of a carnival ride than the life threatening chore it started out as. We explored north, south, east and west until the every place within reach of a 125 cc honda had been accounted for. Among them were high mountain tops that looked out to distant oceanic horizons, remote bays of crystalline water, exravagant resorts, and abandonded, grassy hilltops, scattered with palm trees, that received the light of the setting sun like a temple.
Once the limits of the air-breathing island had been found out, we looked into the water-breathing world. A snorkel trip to a small bay on the east shore yielded visions of luminescently colorful fish, grazing unconcernedly among the coral, and several glimpses of a young black tipped shark, perhaps sixteen inches long, that moved through the water with the grace of a bird in slow motion. Toward the end of our stay I joined the nearby dive school for an adventure dive. We rode out for an hour in an old, but well kept Thai fishing boat to an underwater formation called the Chumpon Pinnacle, which is a submerged peak about four miles offshore. We dove twice, and each time had several sightings of bull head sharks, perhaps six feet long, that cruised the bottom below us.
Five days of Koh Tao convinced us that five days was not enough, and reluctantly we departed to continue our travels to the north. We set off to meet up with an old friend in Pai, near the very northernmost limit of Thailand. That narrative, however, must wait for another day.