Our first day on Koh Tao began with another early morning at the busy pier in Chumphon, an agricultural town in Southern Thailand. We arrived there that morning after a long (and sleepless, for me) overnight bus from Bangkok and tiredly awaited the arrival of our high-speed catamaran. Just over two hours later, we stepped off the boat at Mae Haad Pier and were welcomed by the warm, salty air.
Koh Tao, or Turtle Island, is an island in Thailand that forms part of the Chumphon Archipelago on the western shore of the Gulf of Thailand. It is well known as one of the most popular diving locations in the world, but it’s also great for snorkeling, hiking, rock climbing, and more. We wanted to go somewhere that wasn’t huge on the party scene, but not completely deserted either. One of the nearby islands would be hosting its monthly full moon party around the time of our trip, but we were looking for a more relaxed place to travel.
We were greeted at the pier by a taxi from our resort and gladly climbed aboard so we could head to the quieter Chalok Baan Kao. From the reviews we had read online, we knew our resort was perched up a steep hill with a breathtaking view of Chalok Bay. But it wasn’t until we were clutching onto the sides of the taxi that we realized quite how steep it really was. Luckily, the view really was just as incredible as we’d imagined—as was the rest of Chintakiri. (To quote the spunky Hannah Montana, “Life’s a climb, but the view’s great.”)
Exhausted from nearly a week of traveling, we took it easy on the first day: relaxing by the pool, checking out the beach, exploring the surrounding area, enjoying the first of many fruit shakes. Our first dinner on the island was at a small Thai restaurant only a short walk from our resort. While I enjoyed my first ever-plate of pad Thai, a Jack Johnson song played over the radio and I knew the upcoming week was about to be full of so many wonderful things.
The following morning, we enjoyed our breakfast at the resort and I indulged in my first plate of banana pancakes, accompanied by a plate of fresh pineapple and watermelon. (I cannot properly convey how incredible the banana pancakes were, except to say that I ate them every single morning of our vacation.) We ventured over to the west side of the island, where endless restaurants, bars, resorts, shops, and dive schools awaited us at Sairee Beach. We walked around town and signed up to scuba dive the next day before we went next door to rent paddleboards. The three of us headed out on the water and tried our best not to fall in (though I failed, twice) or get too far away from the shore. As we paddled around in the Gulf of Thailand, the water was incredibly clear. We could see straight down to the coral and the swimming fish. At one point, we paddled in to the shore and relaxed in the shallow, warm water—still in some disbelief that we had finally made it here, after months of dreaming and planning.
When we returned to the beach after a small detour (cough cough we got lost cough cough), we picked up our things… But my flip flops were missing! I had left them by the entrance to the deck, near the neighboring dive shop and restaurant, as it’s part of Thai tradition to remove your shoes before entering a building. I cut my losses and carried on, shoe-less, for the rest of the afternoon and into the evening. Gina played frisbee with a couple of people on the beach while Alexa and I laid out and tried to grab the attention of the local dogs running around. When the sun began to dip into the horizon, we finished our day with more Thai food and fruit shakes and trekked back to Chintakiri.
It was raining on Friday morning when we woke up—pouring, actually. It continued to rain as we ate breakfast at Chintakiri’s covered outdoor restaurant, and as we hiked down the hill to meet our taxi on the main road. It rained on our ride to Ban’s and while we sat inside for our information session. Luckily, by the time we geared up with our wet suits, weight belts, masks, and fins and headed up to the pool, the rain had ceased. Our group of ten split into two groups of five so we could practice skills with our dive instructors in the water. Gina was the first to complete her skills—which she did with ease, as she’d already nearly completed her diving certification herself a few years ago. Alexa followed soon after, completing her skills quickly too. And then there was me… Who could not, for some reason, figure out how clear my mask. So I struggled and struggled, my mask full of water, my eyes apparently bugging out of my face, trying not to panic completely. And then something clicked and I figured it out and I could (literally) see again. The dive instructor, an orca-loving Canadian named Travis, commended me for not bailing when I couldn’t clear my mask right away. He said it was a good sign that, if something went wrong on our dive, I’d be able to handle it. It was a huge relief, but I was still quite nervous to actually head out into the water later that day.
Our first dive was at Twin Peaks, a dive site off the coast of nearby Koh Nang Yuan, filled with lots of marine life and a coral conservation project. The dive groups got shuffled around, so I ended up with a different group than I had practiced with; I was a little bummed out, but once we got underwater, I was instantly at ease. My nerves washed away and my fears were calmed. I was breathing underwater! There were fish! There was coral! There was the ocean floor! I was in awe of everything. Before we had even surfaced, I knew I wanted to go back down. A smaller group of us chose to do a second dive at another site called the Junkyard; it’s one of the island’s conservation and ecology efforts that involved creating an artificial reef—out of junk like toilets and gym equipment—to support coral and ocean life. There was more time to enjoy our surroundings and keep our eyes out for clownfish, pufferfish, and juvenile harlequin sweetlips. When we surfaced the second time, I was still smiling from ear to ear—a smile that lasted through the night.
Over the next two days, we kept busy. We enjoyed more delicious breakfasts, tried to hike to a viewpoint we had seen on the map (but could not find), actually hiked to the John Suwan Viewpoint, hung out on the beach, got Thai massages for only 250 baht (about $7), and ate lots of fresh fruit and fruit shakes. We went on a snorkeling trip as well, with stops at Shark Bay and Mango Bay—though we saw neither sharks nor mangos. In the clear aqua water, we could see tiny black and white striped fish swim straight into our masks. In the afternoon, we made our last stop at Koh Nang Yuan, two parts of the same island connected by a sand bar. The day had been chilly and rough on the water, so we relaxed along the sand bar in beach chairs until the sun peeked through the clouds to warm us. It was another perfect afternoon.
There were so many things we had wanted to do on our trip, but there was never enough time for it all. There was never enough room for all of the banana, coconut, pineapple, strawberry, and kiwi shakes I wanted to drink. Each day seemed to blend seamlessly into the next. I never wanted to leave.
Before we knew it, we woke up for our last time at Chintakiri. We enjoyed one last breakfast, packed up our things, and parked ourselves poolside, soaking up every last bit of sunshine we could. I already missed the banana pancakes and incredible sunsets, the wandering dogs and the warm sea, the relaxed lifestyle and the friendly people—even the demanding hill from the road to our resort. Eventually, we had to say goodbye to our new favorite island though.
On that Monday afternoon, we boarded a shuttle back to the pier and began our long journey back to Seoul.