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How to Find Paradise (in Thailand)

Keep Searching, Do It Now, Stay a While

I’m writing in hopes of persuading you of three things. First, why any traveler should always turn one more corner. Second, why it’s better to travel now than wait until later. Third, why it’s better to settle in a single place for a while. To make my case, let’s visit a tropical paradise.

Turn One More Corner

Having heard for years about Bangkok, Buddhism, temples, temptations, and graceful, high-spirited people, I couldn’t wait to see Thailand for myself. After a few days of enjoying Bangkok and racing up and down the Chao Phraya River in long-tail speedboat taxis, I decided to leave the crowds behind.

First I went trekking in northern Thailand among villages of the poppy-tending tribes hidden in the hills of the Golden Triangle. After riding elephants through the forest and building a bamboo raft to float a river, I could have stopped.

But instead I headed south, to Thailand’s beaches. Sadly, I found that coveted destinations once whispered about on the traveler’s grapevine have become standard stops recommended in guidebooks. In Phuket, Krabi, and Phi Phi thatched-roof cottages and restaurants with sand floors and candles in coconut shells have been replaced by chain hotels and chefs in white coats.

Searching for a more distant place, I kept turning corners. I considered Ko Samui, an island located 50 miles out in the Gulf of Thailand, until I noticed that a lot of others had the same idea.

I kept asking. Finally, a friendly grocer mentioned a tiny island called “Ko Tao,” which he translated as Turtle Island. He’d met a fisherman from there who claimed it was paradise. He said it was about an hour north of Ko Samui by motorboat. I started in that direction the next morning.

A Tropical Paradise

Three miles long and less than a mile across, Ko Tao has a spine of rugged hills covered with coconut palm trees. Black granite boulders accent long stretches of radiant white-sand beaches. Luminescent blue-green water is a tell-tale sign of shallow coral reefs. As we drew near the port village of Mae Haad a dozen or so people walked out on the wharf, smiling and calling to friends on board. Several welcomed me in English.

Because Ko Tao is famed for scuba diving, I jumped into the routine. A Danish dive-master took three of us out to explore rock pinnacles that rose thousands of feet from the floor of the Gulf to within a few feet of the surface. We dove through caves and tunnels and along vertical cliffs, trailed by streams of curious marine life. At Sail Rock we descended through a 25-foot chimney and emerged into schools of mackerel, jack, and snapper. Moray eels and whiptail rays provided even more excitement.

A Slower Pace

After five days of scuba diving, I slowed down. I rolled out of bed when I felt like it, filled up on pancakes, papaya, and a banana shake for breakfast, then went snorkeling for hours in one or another of the many secluded bays. Swimming through unspoiled reefs with thousands of tropical fish was like being inside an underwater kaleidoscope.

One day the current carried me above a ship whose last voyage had ended abruptly in the grasp of submerged boulders. An old fishermen later told me that a drunken captain had confused port with starboard, creating a world-class aquarium. I dove into the open compartments and discovered fantastic coral and swirling clouds of angelfish, butterfly fish, and wrasse.

During peaceful afternoons I sometimes worked on the book I was writing or stretched out in a hammock to read about adventurers who’d sailed these waters over the centuries or just sat on the beach and contemplated the universe.

Most evenings I’d drop into one of the beach restaurants to enjoy my favorite meal of spiced fish, fried potatoes, mangos, and bananas with honey (about $4). Then cold beer and trading stories with local people and other travelers. Soon after the glow of the sun had faded, dozens of masthead lights of the fishing fleet winked on.

The Pace Quickens

We all know the world is changing at an increasing pace, and what is lost is often irretrievable. Our entire planet is more authentic and compelling today than it will be even a few years from now. Ko Tao illustrates this point. The expatriate owner of a scuba dive shop gave me a glimpse of what it was like 10 years ago. The village then consisted of a couple of open-front general stores, a few small seaside restaurants, a few clusters of bungalows, and seven dive shops. There was no real road, since there were no cars.

A quarter-mile up the beach from the village, an A-frame bungalow—with a big, comfortable bed, attached bathroom, electricity for a few hours each evening to power an overhead fan and lights for reading and writing, and a deck overlooking the beach—cost $7 a day. A traveler could live on a remote tropical island for less than the cost of spending two hours in a crowded movie theater at home.

Today roads run almost the length of the island. Whereas access to points around the island used to require a boat.

There is still lodging for budget travelers at $5 and up (check out Rocky Bay with its crescent-shaped secluded beach) and many more choices between $15 and $40. In addition, there are now resorts that range between $25 and $175 per night. At the top end you get fabulous views, satellite TV, a living room, AC, kitchen, pool, beach bar, Internet in the office, and room service. In other words, all the comforts of home.

The best deals on hotels come when you sign up for a scuba diving course, say a 4-day certification course for $190. With the course you receive free lodging at one of the resort hotels during the course and very low rates afterwards.

With so much good affordable lodging, hesitate before choosing the cheapest or staying near the town center.

Ideal for Divers

Imagine experienced instruct- ors, good equipment, peaceful warm waters, fabulous hard coral, soft coral gardens, abundant marine life, and visibility commonly 60 feet or more. Ko Tao is an ideal place for both beginners and expert divers. Prices, too, are ideal: one dive costs $17; 10 dives at $13; basic scuba certification for $110; open water PADI certification for $190. Sea turtles, manta rays, and swordfish swim with you at no extra charge.

When ready for a change of pace, hire a small boat with an outboard motor and cruise the many bays, snorkeling until you’ve worked up an appetite for a picnic. Then there’s sea kayaking, enjoying Thai food, watching sunsets, and generally kicking back and recharging your batteries.

When to Leave

As the end of my week in Ko Tao approached I had an insight: I should stay longer. And so I did. Our world is so diverse that it’s tempting to travel fast and experience as much as we can. Nothing wrong with that. It’s just different from settling into one place for a while. I became more than a visitor as I connected with local people. We sat together and talked about fish and weather and life.

The first week I had focused on the logistics of finding lodging and choosing restaurants, planning the day’s activities, and assembling gear. By staying longer I relaxed into the rhythm of the place and stopped scheduling every minute. The divemasters were no longer just guys from Belgium or Bangkok or Bermuda. They were also graduate students or artists or travelers. The cook at the beach restaurant appreciated my compliments and invited me for a meal with her family.

Ko Tao remains the crown jewel of scuba diving and snorkeling in the Gulf of Thailand. It remains one of the most relaxing, least expensive destinations in all of Asia. Will it stay that way? History says no. To experience the world at its best, now is the time to travel, not just to Ko Tao but to all the places calling to you. And when you find paradise, try to stay and blend in for a while.

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