A Trip to Koh Tao (aka Death Island)
“Hey bro, if you’re planning a trip out to those islands you wanna be careful. There are some dodgy people out there and the cops are bent,” said my erstwhile Kiwi work colleague.
“Yeah, how do you figure that bro? Any personal experience?” I said picking up on what he was telling me.
“As it happens bro, I do.”
“My uncle was murdered on Samui a few years ago. I went out there with my dad to sort out his affairs and attend the funeral. My uncle was in business with another foreigner. They were running a yacht charter company and they fell out. The other guy shot my uncle through the back of the head. The local cops arrested the guy just before we got out there. In our first meeting with a local lawyer we were told “for the right price” the assailant could be eliminated. We got out of there fairly quickly after the funeral. The prick that murdered my uncle was back in Holland eighteen months later. The word is he paid off the cops to get out of Thailand.”
Although not planning on doing a trip to Samui this time around I’d been there in the past and got the feeling there was an undercurrent of potential violence there if any outsiders threatened the interests of the locals. It wasn’t a difficult stretch to imagine the same type of protectionist mind-set also existed on the two smaller islands of the group; Koh Phangan and Koh Tao. The recent double murder on Koh Tao, and the rumoured cover up, also indicated the potential hostility/intimidation by the locals towards outsiders tended to be exacerbated by smaller boundaries. In scientific terms, the smaller the petrie dish the more damaging the effects of an infective bacteria on the healthy entities. This trip was not just about taking photos and having a look around; it was also about assessing the mood of two of Thailand’s more idyllic tourist destinations.
The starting point for a trip to either Koh Phangan or Koh Tao is invariably Bangkok. The majority of those heading there are the younger crowd who tend to be on a budget. In this regard the train down to Surat Thani is their preferred option for stretching the finances. I wasn’t on a budget and therefore had zero interest in a long, cramped train ride. The quickest and least stressful travel option is on the plane and Thailand’s number one domestic budget carrier, Nok Air, has plenty of flights each day to both Chumpon and Surat Thani. Which airport you choose to travel to will be determined by which end of the island chain you want to go to. Those heading to Samui first should choose Surat Thani, simply because it’s closer to Samui. Those wishing to hit Koh Tao first should travel to Chumpon simply because Koh Tao is the first port of call for the ferries from Chumpon. Koh Phangan is in the middle so it’s a roll of the dice which side you start from. Regardless of which airport you choose you’ll be in for a 1.5 hour bus ride to the ferry terminal after disembarking from your plane ride. If you choose Chumpon you’ll be in for a lengthy wait at the ferry terminal before boarding the 1 pm departure. Having not been there before I caught the 5.40 am flight out of Don Mueang thinking I’d still have time to catch the 7.30 am ferry out of Chumpon. No such luck unfortunately as I didn’t figure on the long bus ride from the airport terminal to the ferry terminal. A flight with Nok Air to Koh Tao includes the bus transfer and ferry ride. If you only book as far as Chumpon you’ll be up for an extra 200 THB for the bus transfer and another 600 THB for the Lomphraya ferry. There are a number of ferry services out to the islands but the Lomphraya fleet appears to be the best in terms of speed and weather handling capabilities. All the Lomphraya vessels are steel built, catamarans.
Even though I’d missed the 7.30 am ferry departure the four hour wait turned out to be quite interesting and the terminal was located on quite a picturesque part of the Chumpon coastline. The weather was great and with time to kill I settled in with a couple of coffees and kept the camera handy for any photo opportunities. As it happened it turned out to be a fairly educational and interesting four hour wait. One of the great things about travelling is you get the opportunity to meet a diverse cross section of people on the road. As I was chugging through an espresso at one of the small coffee stands I struck up a conversation with a chap sitting at a nearby table. Torsten, a German, was an environmental engineer (specialising in soil depletion mitigation) who’d just finished a four month contract in Laos and was now taking the opportunity for some chill time in Koh Phangan before heading home to Hamburg. As we sat there discussing the world’s ills, and how things may be righted, the waiting area began filling with those who’d traveled down from Bangkok on the train and bus. With the month’s (November) full moon party in Koh Phangan only a few days away the benches began to fill with a predominantly young crowd who had the definite look of party hounds about them. My new German buddy commented that most of them were what is termed “Hipsters.” I’d heard of this term before but wasn’t actually sure what defined a Hipster. According to Torsten Hipsters are an “apolitical” crowd whose main concerns are having a good time and their appearance. In other words they’re not interested in politics or world affairs and their main focus is having a blast (booze or drugs) and looking the part. Keeping in shape – being lean and ripped – seems to be given requirement for all hipsters and for the males; a hat (often a Fedora) is a standard part of the get-up.
Torsten went on further to add that in Germany there is now the emergence of the ecster, a more extreme form of hipster, who have taken up the environmental banner. Most are tree hugger types who tend to be rather emotional about environmental issues but have no practical clues as to how one goes about improving soil, water and air qualities. But the important thing is they are seen wearing the correct attire, and memorabilia, and waving banners at all the important gatherings.
The ferry departed pretty much on time at 1 pm and with a localised squall moving in from the East Torsten and I sought out the comfort of a lounge seat inside the main passenger cabin for the 1.5 hour run across to Koh Tao. The ferry actually makes a double stop at Koh Tao. Before docking at the main island there is first a short stop at the islet of Koh Nangyuan. This is the double island, joined by a strip of white sand, which is often depicted as the idyllic, untouched paradise of Koh Tao. The reality, once you see the crowds lined up at the jetty, is far more sobering. It seems as though people are having to que up in paradise these days. What is also never seen in those picture perfect postcards is the scores of boats milling about the island and ferrying people to and from the jetty. After a brief stop to allow the paradise seekers to disembark, and take on-board those who’d already got their fill and were moving on, it was on to the Lomphraya Jetty at Mae Haad Bay. My travel plans to the island group involved a three day stay on Koh Tao before concluding the trip on Koh Phangan. I took my leave from Torsten, we exchanged contact details and planned to meet up again in three days time. Prior to departing Bangkok I’d made an accommodation booking, through Agoda, at the Blue Diamond Resort – http://bluediamonddivingresort.resort.kohtaoisland.net/ – at Mae Haad Beach. For those who want to avoid the crowding and noise of Sairee Beach, the Blue Diamond is not a bad choice. It sits at the very southern end of the beach side lane, which runs the full length of both Mae Haad and Sairee Beaches, and is only a 200 meter walk from the Lomphraya Jetty.
The only slight negative of a stay at the Blue Diamond Resort is that they have a strangely late starting time, of 8 am, for breakfast. For someone such as myself who likes to be up and about early in the day to begin an exploration of the location I’m in, I found this to be a bit of an inconvenience. I was to find out later the late starting, and finishing, times for breakfast is an SOP on these islands. Apparently it has a lot to do with the fact the majority of the clientele happen to be party animals and as such wake up late. The hotel I stayed in on Koh Phangan ran its breakfast until 1 pm.
Although Koh Tao is relatively small in comparison to the other islands in the group it’s probably still too big to explore on foot. After getting settled in at the Blue Diamond I wandered back along the beach side lane and found a motor bike rental shop with a good selection of scooters at a reasonable rate of 200 THB per day. An interesting feature of a lot of the scooters available for hire, probably due to the number of dirt tracks on the island, is instead of normal street tires they’re equipped with nobbly’s. With part of my explorations of the including a ride up to the highest view point (379 mtrs above sea level) of the island, a spot shown on a local map as Mango Viewpoint, I duly rented a scooter with nobbly tires.
As mentioned already there is a beach side laneway which runs all the way from the southern end of Mae Haad Beach to the northern end of Sairee Beach. The lane way is not the main island thoroughfare, that is further inland. Although, judging by the number of motorbikes running up and down it, one may be forgiven for thinking it was a main thoroughfare. The lane way is a conglomeration of restaurants, dive shops, bars, small hotels, café’s, travel agents, massage shops and trinket sellers with modern, cement structures crammed in alongside the wood, and corrugated iron, shanties which jut out over the high-water mark. The lane way is continually congested with foot traffic constantly dodging motorbikes while street side hawker’s carts create additional choke points to be negotiated in the narrow thoroughfare. It’s the type of organised chaos the Thais seem to specialise in at these supposedly idyllic beach resort locations.
For those who need a bit more elbow room and soon tire of dodging and weaving along narrow lane ways, the main island thoroughfare is just a couple of hundred meters further inland and it’s standard size, two lane construction is a welcome relief. To get across to the other side (Eastern side) of the island, or to drive up to Mango View point, you need to use this road. As it was getting late in the day I decided to save the Mango View point until the following morning. With the aid of a local map I set my scooter on course for the Sunset Viewpoint – at the Northern end of the island and as far as the coastal road would go – a great spot which overlooks Koh Nangyuan. There is one central intersection on this main artery running the length of the island. The turn to the left takes you down to the northern end of Sairee beach and is also the start of the coastal lane way. The right turn leads up and over the spine of the island and down to the beach areas of the eastern side. Straight ahead eventually takes you to the sunset viewpoint. It’s actually impossible to miss as you continue on until the road dead-ends, park your bike and then follow the signage through the Dusit Buncha Resort until you arrive at the seating area perched on a pile of granite boulders rising from the ocean depths. Actually the whole area is a mass of these granite boulders and makes for a picturesque setting with the Dusit Buncha Resort neatly positioned in amongst these large boulders and the surrounding lush jungle.
As luck would have it I’d timed it perfectly and was settling in comfortably at a table, drink in hand, just as the sun was sinking into the western horizon. The hotel had done amazing job in building a boarded walkway across the outer most boulders to the ocean’s edge. As I sat there with camera at the ready a crowd of young travellers were out on the furthest most viewing platform enjoying the late afternoon ambiance as the sun continued its drop to the horizon. Beyond, the lower island of the Koh Nangyuan group was silhouetted in the pastel hues created by a haze of cloud and a distant squall.
Eventually one of the groups which had been down on the lower viewing platform came up and took a table next to mine. Within a couple of minutes we’d struck up a casual conversation. They were three young English guys in Koh Tao doing a few diving courses. They’d been on the island a couple of months so I figured they’d probably heard a bit of gossip re the murder of the two English backpackers twelve months previously. When I casually broached the subject they seemed a bit hesitant at first but eventually loosened up after I’d bought a couple of rounds of Heinekens. Their main concern was the locals overhearing any conversations about this fairly touchy issue. We were out of earshot of the wait staff so they pretty much confirmed the rumours that I’d heard, and read on various Thai centric websites, in the follow up to the tragedy. The two Burmese being charged were just scapegoats. Apparently the real perpetrator was a member of one of the powerful families who controlled the island. The word on the street was he fled the island within hours of committing the crime and was holed up overseas somewhere. Immediately after the murders any foreigners who’d actually known the true events were threatened with severe repercussions if they spoke out. Some left the island in fear of their safety and those who’ve remained have stayed tight lipped on the issue. I thanked the guys for their time and promised no names would be mentioned.
In my limited dealings with a lot of the locals, in the short time I’d been on the island, it wasn’t hard to notice a certain level of surliness, bordering on arrogance, about them. Perhaps it was just the fact that after years of being a tourist hot spot they’d become burnt out on the never ending stream of farang’s pouring into the place? Even so one would think there’d be a degree of gratitude displayed for the fact those thousands of tourists pouring into the island have made many of the locals quite wealthy. But the often sour looks on the faces don’t show it and it’s hard not to detect an undercurrent of intimidation there. As if to say “This is our turf and you are just a visitor here. Step out of line and we will fuck you up.”
One place, and probably my favourite spot on the island, where the locals seemed a bit more hospitable was the Mango View point on the highest peak of the island. Possibly because they’re away from the madding crowds below, and there are fewer tourists bugging them, the staff seemed altogether a lot friendlier. Part of the ascent up to the view point involves a ride/drive up a steep one lane track so care is needed particularly on the run back down. To get there turn right at the main intersection at Sairee Beach and take the road which leads to the other side of the island. About five hundred meters up from the intersection there is a track on the left which takes you all the way up to the viewpoint. The track is well sign-posted so it’s easy enough to identify. As mentioned the track, or trail, is a one laner and there are a number of blind corners so watch out for vehicles coming from the other direction. The track twists and turns over and around hills and ridges on its journey to the peak. The flat sections are predominantly dirt with potholes filled with rainwater in many locations. Most of the steeper sections have a C-Pack (cement) surface which has probably been laid to enable vehicles to successfully negotiate the worst parts of the ascent in the rainy season. Somewhere near the top there’s a fork in the road. Take the left turn and continue on to the entry checkpoint. A local, probably the guy with rights to the surrounding land area, is charging a 100 THB fee to get up to the viewpoint. There’s a parking area approx. 200 meters further on. Park your bike and walk up onto the large rock which juts out over the surrounding jungle for an uninterrupted view of the island to the south. There’s a small shanty there which sells cold drinks, coffee and beers. Grab a drink and pull up a cushion in the covered viewing platform that’s been built for those wishing to get out of the heat or rain. I got up there at 8 am, having forgone my breakfast at the Blue Diamond, and enjoyed a coffee and fried rice in the morning ambiance of a view over the island; one of those rare moments in Thailand to be savoured.
After spending three days hanging out on Koh Tao I think a fair assessment might be that if you are not into scuba diving, snorkelling or partying there really isn’t a hell of a lot to do there. There are plenty of beach side cafés and restaurants to hangout in but even that gets old fairly quickly. Just on that I’d like to put in a plug for the Coconut Monkey Café at Mae Haad Beach – http://www.tripadvisor.ca/ShowUserReviews-g303910-d8787498-r329296719-Coconut_Monkey-Ko_Tao_Surat_Thani_Province.html – which is run by an Irish Couple and seems to be the only place on the island which makes an A-grade Cappuccino or Latte.
As mentioned, scuba diving is the predominant activity on Koh Tao and there are plenty to choose from. Prices are probably about the same for most courses. The difference in quality probably lies in the equipment available for use and the shop’s infrastructure, which will inevitably include the standard of the diving vessel. Some shops, such as the omnipresent Ban’s (the largest operation on the island) also include accommodation in their course/training packages. Even so with the number of dives shops scattered up and down the length of the island one may wonder if many of them are economically viable, long term. The larger operations such as Ban’s probably are due to the quality of the services they have to offer at relatively competitive prices. From my own experience of being in the scuba industry in Phuket I would say many of the smaller operations are just existing after the highs and lows of seasonal impact is averaged out. Sure, the shop owners and scuba instructors at the highest level – those who actually train others to be instructors – will be doing okay. But for your average run of the mill PADI diving instructor, or dive-master, it’s long, fatiguing hours for not that much in return. My own observations after spending a bit of time walking the coastal laneways on the island and checking out a number of the dive shops is there are the usual bevy of young, enthusiastic suspects who are living (still believing) the dream and that they’re making a difference. That their PADI instructors certificates are the pathway to a real career. For those at the very highest level it possibly is but for those on the daily treadmill of being in the water and instructing/guiding, it definitely is not.
PADI will tell them all something different of course – selling the dream – but the reality is scuba instruction is just a means for young travellers to make some cash while they’re travelling the world and hanging out at beach resort areas. Scuba instructors in Thailand do not make real world incomes and there’s certainly an element of risk in what they do due to the potential for decompression illness and the fact many work under the radar here; they are employed but have no work permit. Sure they’ve got some nice certificates to hang on the wall (I had that once as well) but as I finally realised a long time ago after getting a bend, that and fifty cents buys you a coffee in the real world.
In conclusion I would say it’s worth a short stopover but as already mentioned if you’re not into scuba diving or partying there’s not a lot there to keep one occupied. Regarding the broader question on the general mood of the island and whether there is a discernible undercurrent of potential hostility from the locals to outsiders? My take on it is if one is a short term tourist you would never pick up on it. It’s only those who’ve lived here for a while and are able to see below the surface of the local’s commercial faces that their true demeanours are exposed. Having lived in the south of Thailand for a good number of years previously my take on the locals in koh Tao is they are not much different to any other Thais in the south. They are generally friendly and welcoming but seem to be much more protective of their turf than Thais in other parts to the North. Perhaps because the South has a long history of wealth generation by way of tourism and they’ll do whatever it takes to ensure their interests remain first and foremost above all other concerns. As if to say “you are welcome to visit here but don’t fuck with our rice bowl. And if you do, expect repercussions.” Which, when regarding the situation on Koh Tao, is rather ironic? According to history references such as Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ko_Tao – the island was used as a penal colony for political prisoners up until 1947 at which time it was abandoned after the then Prime Minister asked for and received a royal pardon for all the prisoners. Following the abandonment it could be concluded the island was, and possibly still is, government owned. Those who moved in and populated the place following the abandonment more than likely have taken up ownership simply through squatters rights. If one was to dig deep enough it may well be those claiming land ownership have never actually bought and paid for the land they claim is now theirs. Whatever the case may be there are now a number of ruling cliques on the island who basically control every commercial interest. This is how it works: they allow foreigners to set up small businesses but only to a point where they don’t become a threat to the local’s interests. They will never allow a foreign owned business to become too successful or get to point where it starts to impinge on the profitability of the locally owned competing operations. If this occurs the foreign operator will begin to have problems i.e., problems with the local Police, problems with the Immigration services, sabotage to plant and equipment and last but not least threats, intimidation and physical assault. A foreigner can only be successful to the point that the locals allow them to be. They rule the roost and are able to orchestrate controlling influences, which can include criminal activity, with impunity. So much so that as the years go by and crimes committed go unpunished – normally in collusion with the local law enforcement agencies – a certain arrogance develops which reeks of “we are a law unto ourselves and we can do whatever we want.” On a small, and isolated, island like Koh Tao, which is separated by a constant physical barrier, the degree of scrutiny by higher levels of officialdom is much less than on the mainland. And money, in large amounts, always has a marked influence in this part of the world. Pay enough and you can get away with anything, even murder.
The rumours that a member of one of the local power groups was responsible for the murder of the two British backpackers, is more than likely true. What is also true is the story of what really occurred that night will never be revealed. What can be revealed though is this: on a small island such as Koh Tao there are local ruling cliques who control everything which occurs on the island. They often operate in fierce rivalry with each other for the position of top dog. It’s a social system where status and the maintenance of face count for everything. Losing face to a foreigner, and not seeking retribution, would be viewed as a sign of weakness; that the foreigner is in control and the local has lost control. Foreigner’s ignorant to this social nuance run the risk of severe retribution; particularly if they’re drunk and mouthing off in front of their girlfriends or mates. In a small petrie dish the infective bacteria can soon destroy the healthy organisms which lack any viable defense mechanism’s. Koh Tao? Great place for a short holiday but that’s about it.