Day 4. 12 November
Alarms go off to wake us at 4:10am. It’s rough. Our animated Thai waitron/friend shows up and plops a tray of breakfast on my lap in my bed. He seems to be making fun of my morning face, which is actually quite funny when you are half-asleep. In contrast to last night’s feast, the soft white bread-that-once-was-warm-toast and rubbery cold white eggs aren’t great at all – especially not before the crack of dawn. Worse yet, the train seems to be standing still and I have no idea where we are or how long until we get to Chumphon. From there we will take a bus or shuttle to the port, which in turn will put us on a ferry to the first of our East Coast islands: Ko Tao. This ferry leaves at 7am though, so there is a schedule that needs to be adhered to.
Thankfully we arrive safely in Chumphon and wait outside with a large group of fellow tourists for the shuttle to arrive. It’s weird … suddenly you start feeling like you need to beat the other people to secure a seat on the bus. And everywhere else. We got here first. We planned this before you. Can’t we just have the island all to ourselves? No, you have to share and wait your turn. And if you try hard enough, it’s easy to look past all the gazillion other tourists and just notice the single longboat silhouetted in the sunset, or the flower in your cocktail, or the little stretch of beach that only you are occupying. It’s still paradise, and everyone gets to have their piece.
But I am getting ahead of myself here. As is a particular lady who is scouring the tired and waiting tourists for potential suckers to prematurely sign up with her diving school. She may be the first one we encounter, but certainly not the last. These people – these ‘vultures’ – are brilliant but conniving salespeople who wait at the ports and ride the ferries, working their way through the crowds offering the ‘best prices/accommodation/service/deals’ to any unsuspecting tourists who haven’t done their homework or are easily convinced by their tactics. Thailand is wired for tourism and the competition is tough. I don’t blame them, but it’s super annoying. No, they aren’t all liars and certainly not all scammers, but we promised ourselves we’d wait until we arrive at the islands and make educated decisions once we have all the info. Luckily Debbie and Bruce are hard as nails with this kind of thing, so we make them give the firm ‘no thanks!’.
We wait again at the port after the bus ride. The sun is up and so are our spirits. Sporting our little destination stickers, we finally get to board the ferry. That first sight of the water glistening in the early morning light – wow – the realisation that I’m in Thailand washes over me again. This is too exciting!
We pick a spot on the top outside deck of the ferry. Debbie has the misfortune of suffering from car- and seasickness so in every effort to not make every island hop a living hell, we join her up at the front, watching the horizon. It takes ages before we see the faint blue shape of Ko Tao up ahead. Every ferry ride throughout our trip is approximately two hours, and I can’t say that really much goes on in my brain other than ‘are we there yet?’. It’s a mindless, quiet journey with our own thoughts and the wind whipping in your hair and the steady engine droning away.
Another guy from a dive school comes to harass us, but has no luck. We’re finally getting closer and our first stop is dropping people off at neighbouring Nangyuan island. Which looks absolutely gorgeous. And probably a small fortune to stay in those bungalows.
Ko Tao is a tiny island in comparison to some of the others – approximately 21km² – and the main developed coast consists of Sairee Beach and Hat Mae – each with their own accommodation and restaurants. My Thailand book warns readers about the pesky locals who will swarm around you the moment you set foot on the island. It’s no joke. You stop walking for one second or just look around and someone comes and lands on you like a mosquito shoving a map under your nose and offering you a taxi or dive school. I don’t like conflict, but sometimes you have to be borderline rude to have some space.
We set off in search of one or two specific dive schools, because on Ko Tao you can often score discounted accommodation through the dive school of your choice. And we are here to dive. Ko Tao churns out more PADI qualifications than any other place in Thailand.
We enquire at one of the larger schools, but settle on Davy Jones Locker because they are medium-sized, come highly recommended, are run by predominantly foreigners, and just give us a very friendly impression. Their accommodation is dirt cheap (500B a night for a room that sleeps two), but it is very basic. Like two beds and a small bathroom and fan basic. And it’s up the road through an area of local homes and construction. We spend a good portion of time sorting all this out and signing up for our Discover Scuba Diving course tomorrow.
I can’t get to the beach soon enough. As we walk along the thin stretch of lapping ocean, I do wonder ‘is this it?’ because it’s not quite what I pictured. The water is just indescribably amazing. So warm you can spend hours in the sea. It’s already late afternoon but there’s no getting cold. We have indeed arrived at our beach holiday.
On your swims you’ll be sure to share the water with a number of boats, one of which has the words ‘Poonphol Tours’ in large letters on the side. I keep reading it as something else, so Bruce takes a picture of me and Han demonstrating how we see it…
Other than walking we’ve been rather inactive, so Debbie challenges us to join her in doing squats and lunges (and pull-ups). This is a lot easier when you don’t know anyone there and simply do not care, but not ideal in swimwear. I feel the aftermath of this for the next two days by the way …
By now the sun is setting, and it makes for spectacular silhouette photos. The ocean is like a lake with miniscule waves just gently touching the shore. It’s magical, just sitting there. Soaking it all in.
We’re all equally keen for our first massage ‘on the beach’. It’s a little structure with mostly open sides, one long row of mattress and two slightly older Thai women running this joint. I’m not really sure what to expect with this Thai oil massage, so you just kind of roll with it. And bend in half when she leans over on top of you and pulls your arms back. Oh my word, I might break. The beach sand mixes with the oils so it doubles as a slightly gross exfoliation. And don’t even think of being shy. They will fold that sarong as high up or as low down as they can! That said, it’s invigorating and relaxing. I definitely want more in the days to come.
A shower, then supper, then walking down Sairee beach in the opposite direction to check out the night life. The coast is lined with almost every type of bar/restaurant/lounge place you can think of, so if you want to rope jump with the fire dancers or sip a cocktail on a beanbag, there’s something for you. Amazingly, the music from each establishment doesn’t clash. Every night the shore is decorated with locals showing off their fire dancing skills. It’s particularly spectacular when they douse their poi in the shallow waters at high speeds – sparks go flying!
We partake in a ceremonial releasing of a fire lantern as well. Yes, I know it’s bad for the environment and I’m sorry for that, but it is quite magical and beautiful to let go and watch your lantern disappear in the night sky.
Satisfied with the day’s activities, we head to our beds. We forget to switch our fan onto oscillating and I wake up hours later freezing from the cold directed towards me. All the while poor Debbie is cooking above the sheets!