Stop number one on the stereotypical backpacker trail of Southeast Asia is Thailand’s infamous full moon party. They’re kind of like a rite of passage for the multiple-bracelet-wearing, baggy-elephant-print-pants-clad 20-somethings you see lugging around backpacks twice their size. What began as a low-key island get-together among a small group of travelers has since turned into an all-night MTV Spring Break style party, funneling tons of tourists to Thailand’s original full moon party island Koh Phangan every month.
I was tempted to go through this rite of passage during a recent five-day break (thank you, Buddhist holidays!), but I opted to forgo the craziness and head to a more relaxed island: the small scuba divers’ paradise of Ko Tao. I’m really glad I did. Ultimately, I replaced one subculture (the full moon backpacker partier crowd) with another—Thailand’s scuba divers. Ko Tao (Tao means Turtle) is the second most popular place in the world for obtaining PADI scuba certificates, so it’s crawling with divers.
Being semi-broke teachers, my friends and I opted to take the 7-hour overnight bus and 2-hour ferry from Bangkok to the island. I’m pretty sure I was the happiest I’ve ever been at 5am when I stumbled off the bus, delirious from trying to sleep through an action flick, to find myself at a pier as the sun rose over the rock-studded beach.
After a two-hour ferry ride, we were picked up by Thailand’s version of Jack Sparrow and shuttled off to Taraporn Bungalows/ Alvaro Diving in the back of a pickup truck. The Bungalows and dive center are tucked away on a cove just off the the third-largest beach on the island– Chalok Baan Kao.
During the day, the small diving building and Babaloo Beach Bar serve as classrooms for divers. At night, Babaloo Beach Bar turns into a chill but popular spot for local divers and tourists to sprawl on lounge pillows, have a drink, and watch one of the best fire shows I’ve seen on any island. (I could have done without the fire baton twirling near my head, though…)
The first two nights, we stayed in a comically high bungalow perched on the rocks. You almost needed a harness and repelling line to reach the top, but we managed to lug ourselves up the rocky “stairs” without getting any scrapes or bruises. The thatched bungalows were sparse but had a lot of island character, down to the hammock and built-in bench on each porch. Almost all of them had ocean views.
Our first day was spent lounging on the beach near our bungalows, eating far too much food and smoothies, and having some drinks and watching the fire show at the Babaloo Beach Bar. After visiting the largest beach on the island, I was really glad we chose to stay on Chalok Baan Kao. It was really beautiful and relaxed, but had just enough restaurants and bars to keep us entertained.
Due to sinus issues (ok let’s be real– mainly last-minute nerves), I ended up not doing any diving. So the next day two other non-divers and myself decided to hire a long tail boat so we could see more of the island and do some snorkeling. Even though Koh Tao is small, its rocky landscape makes it difficult to see the different coves and beaches, so this was the perfect way to explore.
As soon as we got in our long tail boat, the sky turned dark, and I felt like we were on the verge of reenacting a scene from the Life of Pi. At one point we asked to go back, but our captain just laughed at the ridiculous foreigners and assured us the water would calm down. It did. And for the next few hours, we floated around almost the entire island and took in the stunning beaches and coves carved into the mountainous landscape.
The highlight of the long tail boat tour were our stops at a few of the best snorkeling/diving spots around the island. We saw some beautiful reefs and colorful fish that led to a lot of Finding Nemo references.
We stopped for lunch at Hin Wong Bay, a small, beautiful beach with a giant rock just off the coast. People were jumping from the top, but we decided to watch and sip on smoothies instead.
I’d managed to get another day off school, so I spent the last day on the island by myself. I’d remembered seeing a sign off the main road that it was only a few kilometers to Ao Leuk– a small, secluded beach I read about on one of my favorite travel websites. Little did I know, almost all of that 2km was uphill. I also greatly underestimated the length of a kilometer, so it was an less-than-relaxing morning. But the scenery and more smoothie drinking made up for it.
I opted to take a really expensive songthaew back to the bungalows for the sake of my legs, and spent the rest of the day on a tiny beach near my bungalow. Aside from a stray dog that decided to join me, it was essentially my own private beach. It was the perfect way to end the trip.