Ko Tao is a classic Goldilocks island – close to the beaten track and relatively easy to get to, but far enough from Bangkok and the busy heart of central Thailand that you can (pretend) you’re in remote tropical island bliss, which of course you sort of are – coconut palms and white sand, but with added wall-to-wall free wifi and a ladyboy cabaret – Tom Hanks in Castaway we are not. The trip down from the big city is the typical low-stress Thai tourist experience – just get yourself to the Khao San Road, part with a fistful of Baht, switch off your mind and a well-oiled machine means the next time you’ll be required to make an actual decision will be when you’re Feet Dry on Ko Tao itself.
My babysitters for this trip were Lomprayah – a quiet 6am start from their office on Soi Rambuttri, then into comfy reclining seats on the VIP coach and South down the rapidly narrowing peninsula between the Gulf coast and the Andaman Sea. Five and a half surprisingly quick hours take you through Thailand’s first try at a seaside resort town, Hua Hin, and onto the end of the road (for us anyway) – Chumphon.
There’s a perfectly adequate cafe at the pierhead there, plus an air-con mini-mart which, despite being the only show in town, doesn’t play silly games with prices, so time to stock up on cold Chang and hot Ramen before a long walk down a very rickety pier out to a modern catamaran, then away to sea. The twice-daily schedule goes first to Koh Tao, then Koh Pha-ngan and finally to Koh Samui and the no-doubt frequent wrong-person-wrong-suitcase-wrong-island experiences have led to a foolproof system – like cattle we’re (temporarily) branded with school-trip style colour coded stickers which the crew use to kick you out on the correct lump of trees and sand.
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Onshore, Mae Haad is a standard issue tourism-driven concrete mess, with lots of smiles to make up for its limited charm. The baseline in September is 400THB-ish for a grotty, dark, noisy fan bungalow, so pick your price point from this up. 750THB a night got me a perfectly OK big room at Kallapangha Bungalows, with the holy trinity of aircon, Thai TV and fridge. Free wifi only in their cafe on the beach, but a quick chat with one of the long-term residents should snag you a password for the next-door resort without too much effort. Kallapangha is fronted by a outdoor beach bar and a high-ceilinged, open fronted cafe restaurant. The bar can get noisy in high season, so pick a bungalow further back if you want to sleep, but during my time, the bar was quiet and chilled – some great music and the slightly over-loquacious but utterly charming English Barmaid Samantha kept Dive buddy Gabi and I entertained when we stopped off for a nightcap.
If you're here to dive and not too fussed about deserted romantic hideaways, then there are worst places to base yourself than Mae Haad - plenty of shops and ATMs, a 7-eleven (say no to plastic people) and all the restaurant choices you need, from fab fifty baht Thai main courses in strip-lit, plastic-table local eateries, all the way up to 200THB Western comfort food in luxury surroundings. A cute little one way system (one road up, one road down) links the village with the “main road” at the top of the hill, whilst a steep, hilly track also hugs the coast and runs a mile or so North to Sairee Beach.
Visiting Sairee for the first time made me realise that Mae Haad is actually an unspoiled bucolic paradise. Even in the early evening, large chunks of North Sairee Beach had already slipped into party central mode, and bumping into a quartet of impeccably dressed ladyboys handing out fliers for the nightly cabaret was a little unexpected – this place has something for everyone. But shoulder season quiet and reasonably chilled at the Southern end, beachfront restaurants sported low tables, lots of cushions and great service – Ko Tao’s target market is affluent, European tourists and it shows with every other table lit by both candle and iPad screen.
A heady cocktail of post-dive lethargy, the availability of cheap Chang and Master Divers' lunchtime dive schedule meant I only made it over to the South side and Chalok Baan Kao once – another bay and another string of restaurants and bars, so plenty more to explore if I ever make it back.
Koh Tao is no deserted paradise then, but great fun for a week or so of diving and relaxing.
More from this trip
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