Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Five Months on The Rock

By Beth Green

After 12 hours of travel, we sat on yet another bus, watching through the dirty windows as Bangkok traffic chittered and lurched in the golden afternoon sunlight.

We’d been on this public bus for 45 minutes. We were nowhere in the city we could pinpoint on a map and didn’t really know if this bus would take us somewhere we wanted to go, anyhow.

The bus was old, but going strong. It stopped every few feet, and another crowd of school kids, or office workers, or ladies coming home from the vegetable market would get on and squeeze past my sweaty legs and big backpack, politely smiling and looking away as I apologized for being in the way.

The bus stopped at yet another intersection clogged with taxis, three-wheeled trucks, and motorbikes. I watched the shadows outside lengthen. I felt bone tired, but also, suddenly inspired.

“Let’s keep going,” I said to Dan.

He craned his neck to see over the top of the backpack he was cradling on his bent knees, crammed in the plastic seat across the aisle from me.

“Where?” he asked.

“Let’s find an island,” I said.

And so, we went to Koh Tao.

As sometimes happens when you make a spur-of-the moment choice to abandon a plan, we found that road blocks were lifted, obstacles decimated, red carpets rolled out.

We’d been sweating on the bus for close to an hour, stuck in traffic as gnarled as the noodles in a plate of pad Thai. But as soon as we decided to take Bangkok off our itinerary, it all came right. We alerted the conductor, shouldered the bags, leapt off the bus, hailed a taxi, shot through the streets, snapped up a ticket and were sitting on the night train to Chumphorn in quick succession.  At Chumphorn we transferred to a bus, which took us to the ferry. By morning, we were whizzing across the Gulf of Thailand on a high-speed catamaran watching British honeymooners drink beer for breakfast and subsequently puke it up.
We did our dive training at Master Divers, in Mae Haad.

Koh Tao is a tiny speck in the blue ocean, at eight square miles a fraction the size of its famous neighbors, Koh Samui and Koh Phangan. It has three villages, a surprising number of hide-away resorts, and the largest concentration of dive shops I’ve ever seen.
I was there for the diving, and Dan, an indifferent swimmer at this point, was there for cheap beer. Or so we thought.

The three days we’d initially decided to stay on Koh Tao stretched to seven once my divemaster convinced Dan to sign on for a scuba course. We spent the mornings underwater, checking out clownfish and coral and avoiding the island’s strangely aggressive triggerfish. Afternoons we read or walked the sandy lanes that counted as “roads.” Evenings, we met new friends and, yes, drank cheap beer.

By the end of six days, the seed of a radical idea was blossoming. We left, but Koh Tao stayed with us: Palm trees. Tropical reefs. Friendly people. We continued on our Southeast Asia backpacker’s circuit. Cambodia. Malaysia. Australia for the holidays. India. Vietnam. Months passed, and we saw amazing, incredible, life-changing things. And we still kept talking about how we could get back to tiny Koh Tao.

So we did.

We signed up for divemaster courses, found a bungalow with a pet monkey living in a tree outside, and spent five months admiring the way the water shone in Thai sunlight—both above and below the surface.

Image courtesy pelkaphoto
The diving industry on Koh Tao sprang up in the 1990s. Before then, it was mostly uninhabited, with just a few houses where fishermen would overnight. In that relatively short amount of time since then, it’s grown and developed and yet still retained that “deserted island” feel. The inhabitants of the island are castaways themselves. Foreign dive professionals from a hundred countries staff the technical side of the resorts and dive shops while Burmese and Nepalese migrants mind the shops and cook and clean in the restaurants and hotels. Tourists arrive from everywhere. Even the Thai population is adrift here—it’s no-one’s home, and because of that it’s as free and easy a place to be as I have ever been.

Living on a small island is not for everyone, however. Water shortages, power outages. Cash shortages if weather keeps the ferry from running and the banks from bringing more change. Jokes about “island time” are not really jokes, just a reflection of how perceptions of urgency are diluted by the sea that surrounds us.  Bad weather is the bogeyman.  If the ferry isn’t running, you might not make your flight in Bangkok next week. Emergencies are dealt with as swiftly as possible—but may require help from another island, or the mainland, an hour or more away.

And, like in many enclaves of expatriates and long-term travelers, there are some who come and never leave—but say they’d like to. Anyone who’s spent some time on “The Rock”—as Koh Tao is affectionately called—can name-drop two, three or a dozen people who have stayed over the time they should have. People who sit in perfect paradise and only notice the mosquitoes. Some of these became inspiration for characters I’d write into a mystery novel manuscript some months later.

Scuba self-portrait.
Water gets in my mask when I laugh.
Dan and I discussed staying on Koh Tao through the low season and on into the new year. We could have dipped farther into savings—travel budget gone now—and pulled out enough to pay the tuition for dive instructor courses. We’d need updated equipment. A higher rate of insurance. Maybe a larger apartment—a one room bungalow is fine for a few months, but indefinitely?  Outside practicalities had invaded our island life.

So we left. And chased money. And closeted up our dive gear.

But every so often, at an airport, we say, “Hey, let’s keep going. Let’s go back to Koh Tao.”

And one day, we might.


  1. Beth,

    Take me with you when you go? Sounds wonderful!


  2. Any time Kelly! Just let me know when you're free. :)

  3. Beautiful place ,I will be going back there soon :)

  4. loved to read your post about the Rock (being a well trained Thai public transport user)and your island dream. Found out that I can't live on remote islands longer than 4 weeks. But enjoy heavily reading about it :-)

  5. Thanks Beatrix! Glad you enjoyed it.