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Koh Tao and Koh Phangan are two lovely tropical resort islands in the Gulf of Thailand. Along with the larger and more famous Koh Samui, they are located in the south of Thailand in the province of Surat Thani, and can be reached by ferry from the southern Thai cities of Surat Thani and Chumphon.
The smaller of the two islands, Koh Tao, is famous as a diving destination, while Koh Phangan is well known as a backpacker's paradise. In addition to its inexpensive accommodations, it is known for its wild full Moon parties every month.
In late July 2004, we took a trip to these two
islands, since we had never been to either before. We had visited Koh Samui
several times before, and we wanted to see something new. We had heard that both
of these islands were quieter and more laid back than Koh Samui, with more
pristine beaches, and we were not disappointed.
Our trip started with the night ferry boat from Surat Thani's riverfront to Koh Tao. This turned out to be a pleasant way to travel: leaving at 11 PM, the ferry travels leisurely all night through the peaceful waters of the Gulf of Thailand, reaching Koh Tao before 7 AM the next morning. Sleeping on the boat was relaxing, we were rocked to sleep by the gentle motion of the waves and a fresh but not too cool night sea breeze. Awakening at 4 AM, a glance out the window revealed a beautiful sky full of brilliant stars. The Summer Triangle formed by bright stars in the constellations of the Swan, the Eagle, and the Lyre never looked prettier than it did setting over Southern Thailand to our west.
Although the ferry was due in at 7 AM, we must have made good time. Before we
were properly awake, the engines slowed and peeping through the window, we were
suprised by our first close-up views of Koh Tao. The translation of "Koh Tao" in
English means "Turtle Island," and indeed the overall shape of the island
resembled a turtle with its rising hills in the center. This "turtle" was covered
by coconut trees and surrounded by beautiful coral reefs, making this island the
destination of choice in the Gulf of Thailand for many divers.
Stepping off the ferry, we found ourselves in the small town of Ban Mae Hat in
the center of the western side of the island. This is the only town of any
respectable size on the island. There were a number of dive shops, a 7-Eleven,
lots of travel agencies and a few tour companies. Kung had made friends with one
of the tour boat operators, and the young lady had offered to taxi us to a beach
where we'd be able to find accommodations. So we jumped on the back of our
"taxi" (just like the truck shown in the photo to the right) and off we went,
wind in our hair, excited to be on the island.
After finding a place to stay for the night on a beach south of town, we returned to the town. The tour operator had offered us a discount on an all-day snorkeling tour around the island, and we couldn't resist the offer. The tour boat left promptly at 9:30 AM, and the boat headed south around the island with four couples aboard. We went by many impressive bays and rocky headlands, and we spent the day snorkeling on four different and equally interesting coral formations around the island, in pretty spots like the one above. The day's excursion was quite reasonable at 500 baht per person (US $12.50) which included rental of the snorkeling equipment, lunch, and fresh pineapple.
How we wished we had an underwater camera with us! This island has fine snorkeling,
rivalling some of the waters around Phuket
and Phi Phi Island on the Andaman coast. Each spot we snorkeled around Koh Tao
was interesting and different than the others. Some were deep, some had small
canyons, and some had continuous reefs. All proved to have extremely colorful
fishes and coral formations of every conceivable appearance and color. Some
of the corals looked like brains, some like hairy hands, some like round stones, some like
spiky animals, and some like small colored bushes. We also saw so many of those tropical
fish that you usually only see in aquariums or on television. Just after noon everyone was happy to
see that the tour boat crew provided lunch for us. The other three couples on
the boat had sandwiches (foreigner food), but we had Thai jasmine rice and very spicy pork
curry (which had the same red-hot peppers we're growing in the garden back in
Tired but happy, when the tour returned us to the town at 3:30 PM we headed back to our bungalow. We were staying at the Sunshine bungalow on the beach at Ao Chalok Ban Kao on the southern side of the island (left). The prices of bungalows like this on the island are the reason Koh Phangan is so popular with backpackers: a night's stay was only 250 baht (US $6.25)! The room was clean and quite acceptable.
After a refreshing shower, we took a nice long walk on
the beach, and headed over the nearby hill for a look at another lovely bay. That evening we had a romantic dinner at a
restaurant over the water, which could only be reached by a small concrete
walkway (look to the right in the photo to the right). Dinner was rice and spicy
curry again, and was around one US dollar.
On awaking the next morning, we decided to move on to Koh Phangan. We had seen much of Koh Tao from the tour boat the previous day, as it is so small, and we wanted to spend more time exploring Koh Phangan. Before boarding the Songserm Express boat to Koh Phangan at noon, we spent the morning wandering Ban Mae Hat and checking out the shops. In the photo above, you can see passengers arriving on Koh Tao. We had to wait for them to disembark before we could board to go to Koh Phangan.
Click here to see the rest of our trip, to Koh Phangan.