Koh Tao – Could Thailand ever live up to the backpacker memories? – Day 212 -228

Have I mentioned that I love Thailand? Secretly, I worried that I would find a very different Thailand than the one I remember from when I was a 22-year-old. I knew that I could find a Singha beer, a plate of pad thai and a banana chocolate crepe, but I was going as a middle-aged person with kids…. What was it going to be like? To be honest, the first day had me worried.

Picking an island was the first step. I decided that we wanted a place where we could get accommodation right on the beach and there was some action (but not too much action, i.e. drunken backpackers). I also wanted somewhere with scuba diving and snorkelling (preferably right off the beach).

Koh Tao seemed to fit the bill perfectly. It’s a tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand famous for Scuba Diving and a calmer vibe. However, it is pretty isolated and getting there takes effort. We took a high-speed ferry from Don Sak, which stopped first at Koh Samui, then Koh Phangan (letting me see the islands I had passed over) and then finally, after 3 hours, we arrived in Koh Tao.

After stepping off the boat, I was more worried. Koh Tao was full of backpackers riding scooters poorly and worrying about the night’s pub crawls. There aren’t many resort-style hotels (like the one we’d just left in Langkawi, Malaysia) and most people stay in small hotels and bungalows on the beach. But that is what I wanted … so I tried not to worry. I kept reminding myself that I did not want a big resort or a modern Airbnb without a personality. But I also knew that we needed good A/C and a nice pool which is why my heart felt so much better when we stepped inside our room at Sairee Cottage Resort. It was the most expensive room in a moderately priced beach hotel and it fit us perfectly. We could see the water from our balcony and we were actually on top of the ice cream store (not the quietest location but luckily ice cream traffic dies down a lot earlier than bar and/or restaurant traffic).

The next two weeks were a whirlwind of swimming, diving, meeting people, joyfully reminiscing about backpacker life (from an air-conditioned safe distance) as well as watching the kids fall in love with everything Thailand. We spent a lot of time at the pool but this pool experience was special because there were always dive classes going on in the deep end. Not only were the kids excited watching the scuba divers (Izzie learned all the hand signals and such) but the grown-ups were also entertained watching the new scuba divers learning.

Scuba Diving: Koh Tao is the mecca for scuba courses in Thailand. I did my advanced course in our first week there, which seemed funny after first learning to scuba dive 30 years ago (yes that’s right 30). I finally did a deep dive! Michael stuck to the “fun-diving” program, which was run by a lovely Dutch man named Perry. The diving wasn’t always easy with visibility and currents sometimes hampering our efforts, but it was an adult-only activity that made us feel young and fun again. We met lots of people (of all ages) and revelled in the camaraderie of the dive boat. We never saw the elusive whale shark but it did not matter because we saw so many other amazing sea creatures. Mike loved the boxer shrimp and I loved the spotted rays.

What about the kids you ask? Well lots of parents come to Koh Tao to dive so the local daycare accepts kids by the day. There were actually kids the same age as ours. Izzie and Julie loved it the first day. Each subsequent day, they became a little less interested in going back until they told us on day 4 that they’d had enough. But we got 4 full days of diving and were grateful.

Another highlight was snorkelling with the kids. You can actually snorkel from the beach in Koh Tao and see lots of fish. When learning, the kids lasted only 10-15 minutes at a time so it was great that you got to the fish so quickly. By the end of two weeks, Izzie would go for 25 minutes with one parent and then 25 minutes with the next parent. She saw amazing things like crabs, trigger fish, parrot fish, angel fish, needlefish and more. But the most exciting was the 5 baby white-tipped reef sharks. Both kids saw them and while Julie was happy to see them, she promptly pulled me in the direction of the shore. Izzie, on the other hand, swam over them for a long time and was so interested in following them.

We ate well, rediscovering not only our favourite Thai dishes (Tom Yum Soup, Green Curry, Pad Thai, Pad See Ew) but also finding some new favourites (Khao Soi and Burmese Tea Salad). We ate lots of banana pancakes and sticky rice. And (surprise, surprise) the ice cream store below us also got some business.

One day we decided to be brave and we rented scooters to explore the other side of the island. After 1 hour, Mike and I decided that the scooter riding could be left to the locals. Even though Koh Tao has pretty quiet roads and was a good place to try, we just did not feel safe riding with our skills and the kids. Izzie and Julie love scooters so we were happy that their babysitter used to transport them on hers from daycare each day (we trusted her driving far more than our own).

The only negative from the weeks in Koh Tao involved the explosion of ocean plastics in Thailand. The beach where we were staying was cleaned daily but the beaches on the other parts of the island were not and the plastic fragments in the water and on the shore were so depressing. Most of it comes to the islands from the mainland and washes ashore or floats in the ocean nearby. The items washed ashore included everything from toothbrushes to food wrappers to medicine bottles to juice boxes and so many plastic bottle caps. The girls have completely sworn off straws and plastic bags, reminding us daily about not buying things with plastic. I think that they are going to advocate for a plastic-reduced lifestyle back in Toronto quite vigorously after seeing the damage themselves. I think that Mike will too.

Where we stayed:

Sairee Cottage Resort: Home away from home

By the numbers:

  • Number of ice cream flavours we did not try: 4
  • Price of a scuba dive including equipment rental: $32
  • Number of times the girls ordered Cashew Chicken at local restaurants: 10 (almost every day)
  • How much the Thai tooth fairy paid Isabella for her tooth: 100 Thai Bhat ($4 CAD)
  • Number of pet cats living nearby: 3 (including one wearing a tag “Don’t touch – Aggressive Cat”)
  • Number of meals we had that cost over $50: 0 (food and drink is still cheap in Thailand)
  • Number of purple/blue braided hair extensions Isabella got: 6

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