Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Koh Tao, Island Paradise

South end of Sairee Beach
From Chiang Mai, my friend Rheta and I flew to Bangkok, and then on to Koh Samui, one of three largish islands in the Gulf of Thailand. Koh Samui is not the largest, but is probably the flattest. It is covered with golf courses and has the only airport.

We took an hour and a half long ferry ride to Koh Tao. Rheta's son Darius met us at the port. He has only a motorcycle, but had borrowed a pickup for our short ride from Mae Haad to Sairee Beach where he lives. We stayed at the Asia Diver's hotel, a few blocks from his house.

Koh Tao is the smallest of the three islands, and the one farthest north. Ferries run every day to Koh Samui, Champhon, and other points on the mainland. The island is one long mountain spine with multiple peaks all at about 1000 feet above sea level. Covered with jungle and planted coconut palms, it is a popular spot for divers and snorkelers.

Hunky island scenery
We found the heat and humidity stifling compared to the temperate climate of Chiang Mai. But since it was still the rainy season, the periodic rains cooled things off, and mornings were cool and pleasant until the sun rose. After sunset, the breezes from the ocean brought the temperature down to bearable.

Sairree Beach is both a beach and a town. It's the largest beach, perhaps a mile long, with a reef just a few yards out where the waves don't smash the coral. A large rock outcropping that falls into the sea and cuts the beach in half is the separation of Sairee and Mae Haad.

There is a beach "road" that parallels the ocean with a row of restaurants, bars, and cottages between it and the beach. Not much wider than a sidewalk, it is used by motorcycles and walkers. Lined with shops and restaurants, it is a pleasant hike under shady trees from one town to the next. Further inland is the highway, a two lane road for faster vehicles. Nobody would dare walk next to it for long.

My plan had been to take scuba lessons. Darius has been in Thailand for about 15 years and is a Dive Director. That means he is qualified to teach dive instructors how to teach every level of diving including the deep sea technical stuff. He had a good teacher lined up, but I came down with a head cold. So he sent me to a dive shop where I bought an excellent snorkel and mask.

The first day out, I got a bit sunburned so skipped going the second day. By the way, I never realized what a miracle Aloe Vera is. My sunburn cleared up overnight. The third day we took a snorkel tour on a boat that went round the island stopping at various reefs and bays for some amazing underwater viewing. Our little excursions lasted only about 20 minutes, the rest of the time I could stay in the shade on the boat.

We stopped at different bays and beaches where certain experiences were promised. We would be swimming with sharks at the first stop, but in fact nobody saw one. It was a deep bay with the bottom littered with broken antler coral, as if a bulldozer had gone through. A typhoon destroyed the reef several years ago. We saw very few fish, the little ones had nowhere to hide, and though I was told there really were sand sharks, their coloring kept us from seeing them at all.

Each stop was a new experience. In one crystal clear bay there were hundreds of Sargent fish in schools that parted around us, and the boulders on the sea floor were covered with corals in beautiful condition. Many of the boulder tops were beaten down, by bad weather perhaps, but certainly by the fins of so many snorkelers and divers.
Flowers that pop up all over the island

The boat circled Koh Tao and ended at Nangyuan Island, a hump of land that eroded in the middle leaving a spit of sand connecting the two jungled mountains. On either side, turquoise water lapped onto the white beach.

Privately owned, it cost a bit to go onto the island and a bit more to rent two chairs and an umbrella. The "sand" was roughly crushed antler coral, sharp on bare feet. In the very shallow cove, the rough sand extended under the sparkling water until it reached an area of large boulders that rose up out of the white sand like beautifully placed rocks in a simple graveled garden. Each one was coated with coral and anemones, hundreds of tiny bright fish swam in and out of the miniature caves. In fact that area is called the Japanese Garden and my long time viewing it lead to the demise of my back. I stayed out much longer than I should and for the next three days could barely wear clothes over my seared back. Aloe Vera gel helped a lot but it would cause shirts to stick so painfully I had to shower them off! I so wanted to return and see the garden again, but the sunburn prevented my doing much of anything. Even with a shirt on, the power of the sun caused agony.

Scene just outside the Koh
Samui airport
After the snorkeling day I could fully understand why Koh Tao is the dream island for scuba divers and snorkelers. The island is chock full of resorts, each with its own scuba school. Long-boats with propellers on the end of a ten foot rod could also be rented. The owners were willing to take people anywhere around the island for as long as they wanted. No site was off limits to underwater sightseers.

The beach between the two mountains on Nangyuan Island

A native tree arching towards the ocean,
with a little help from human friends

Long boats (foreground) and snorkeling boats in Mae Haad