The island of Ko Tao in the Gulf of Thailand stuns with its white-sand beaches, turquoise waters and spectacular sea life — but it’s its cozy and laidback lifestyle that really draws travellers in.
Story Abra Atkison, Photos by Outpost/Michael Fraiman
The vibrant coral is home to a wide range of colourful fish and unique sea creatures—including hawkspell and green turtles. It’s a little piece of heaven where people come to visit for a while, and end up staying a lifetime.
Our visit to the island was short but so sweet. It was a sunny, picturesque morning on the day we arrived by ferry. We were met by balmy 42-degree weather as we collected our luggage and walked a short distance to “Main Street”—but don’t be deceived by the popular name. It’s a simple dirt road packed with diving and trinket shops, cafés and tourist activities. There are locals and expats alike, all smiling and eager to help you any way they can. Taxis, tours, tapas and Thai massages are available 24-7 in this tropical beachside strip.
Snorkelling, scuba diving, hiking, sailing, rock climbing, wakeboarding, fishing, kayaking and cliff-jumping are just some of the popular activities on the island. With this much to do in such a beautiful place, I can understand why so few expats want to leave!
For our stay, we chose diving and hiking as our activities. We wanted a hike close to our hotel, so we chose the popular John Suwan viewpoint at the southern tip of Ko Tao. Named after two friends who discovered the area while house-hunting, it offers a beautiful view of both Chalok Baan Khao Bay and Haad Tien beach.
The climb was steep, rocky and slippery, but worth every step. When you get to the top, I couldn’t believe the view was real. Once you are perched up there, you can enjoy watching the waves roll in below you where the pristine, emerald water meets the soft, sandy shoreline and the salty breeze immediately dries off any evidence from the prior climb.
Sleepy by day, bumpin’ by night. Even though the island is only 3.5 kilometres wide and 7 km long, there is no shortage of nightlife on Turtle Island. Every second building on Main Street seems like a beachside bar offering daily drink specials and nightly entertainment. Fire shows and live music are very popular at Sairee Beach, a notorious place for evening entertainment.
On our last night, we had a chance to visit the Maya Beach Bar and talk with some of the expats to find out how they became locals and why they chose Ko Tao as their home—but you’ll have to read my next blog, or watch our Beaching It In Thailand video, to find out some of their crazy stories!
Who Quits Their Life to Live on a Tiny Thai Island?
Story by Abra Atkison
Expatriate. Merriam-Webster tells us that the meaning of the word is “to withdraw (oneself) from residence in or allegiance to one’s native country.” Why would anyone want to do that?
To find out, we travelled to one of the most beautiful islands that Thailand has to offer and asked the expatriates why they came here—and why they stayed.
Linzi went on to tell us that she has lived on Ko Tao (or Turtle Island, as locals call it) for 10 years after originally coming to the island for just a quick time.
“I got to the island and stayed, and I’m not alone. There are a lot of empty plane seats on the way home from Ko Tao. I love the island, the diving and the lifestyle here. I wouldn’t say I ever made a conscious decision to choose Ko Tao; I’d say that Ko Tao chose me. I knew as soon as I left that very first time, that I would be getting home, quitting my job, selling all of my stuff and coming back to make a life here as soon as possible. Huge risk, but you never know unless you try.”
Her words gave me goosebumps, and made want to pack up my own life and head to paradise.
We spoke with a few others about their decision to make Ko Tao their final destination. A good 80 percent of the expats on Ko Tao are there because of the world-class diving. Almost all the people we chatted with are diving instructors or in the process of getting certified for something related to diving. With water as blue as a Tiffany’s earring, a sandy ocean floor and reefs the shades of rainbows, who wouldn’t want to dive in the area? Not to mention the cheap rent, plethora of beachside bars, authentic Thai restaurants and trinket shops!
Then we met Gail. Fifty-six years old and going on 20, this go-getter from England now lives in Cypress and frequently visits Bali, Thailand and other exotic, tropical destinations. She too is a diving instructor and loves the nightlife of Ko Tao. She rents a small apartment not far from the beach and drives her scooter like it’s a Porsche. It was Gail’s birthday the night we met her, and looking at her birthday cake and warm reception, I couldn’t help but feel envious of her fabulous life.
Garret and Luke from San Francisco, California, also rent a small flat off the beach for a few hundred dollars a month. Both of them were visiting Ko Tao to get their open-water diving certifications before moving onto Cambodia and Laos. Their excitement over the vibe, music and community was palpable when they spoke to us..
It seems that Linzi was right about Ko Tao. You come for a few days, then stay for a few months. We interviewed a group from Argentina who were making friends with a group from Australia while sitting with a group from Finland, proving yet again how Ko Tao was a mixing pot where all are welcome.
So why call Ko Tao home? No matter where you come from, what your interests are or where you plan to go, Ko Tao is a welcoming island full of friendly faces, inspiration and beauty. The island may be small but there’s always enough room for a few more! If it’s not on your next travel itinerary, maybe make a pit stop… just for a while. Then see how long you end up staying.