When I read about Koh Tao in the international media – a statement that has only been possible in the last two years or so – I literally feel like I’m reading about a place I’ve never been before. What is this terrible seedy island, full of sinister gangsters, riled up murderers and ominous threats? (Every article I just linked to is bullshit, by the way.) Surely they can’t be referring to my Koh Tao, the island where happy backpackers stare back wistfully back from the pier the pier as they leave, already planning their next return? Where expats from around the world create one of the most loving communities I’ve ever been a part of? Where Thai and Burmese locals live a simple life and earn an honest living?
Koh Tao is not perfect. Yes, there was and is corruption. Yes, it can be a complicated and sometimes frustrating place to live. And yes, there was a devastating, high profile, double murder on the island in September of 2014. I will never, ever try to downplay the horror of what happened. Those events have haunted me. Perhaps someday I’ll feel ready to write about my experience living on the island on that terrible day two years ago, but as of now I’m just wishing for peace for the grieving families, and hoping for true justice to be served.
And perhaps someday I’ll feel comfortable discussing the intimate and intricate joys and heartbreaks of living in Thailand more freely. I’ve been criticized for not providing a balanced view of what it really means to call Koh Tao home, even part time, and it’s a valid concern. But while I remain a humble guest of the Kingdom, a country where free speech is considered a liability, I need to choose my words carefully.
The reason that murder case rocked the world are complex and nuance; the reason it rocked tiny, thirteen square mile Koh Tao is simple: it was unheard of. I regular emails from young women (and men) who are nervous about visiting to Koh Tao as a result of the wildly inaccurate media coverage of the island in the aftermath — nothing has shaken my faith in journalism by seeing the blatant lies published by news outlets I once respected following this tragedy.
Here’s the truth. Experiencing Thailand as an expatriate and as a tourist are two very different things. Part of the reason it has taken me two years to write this post and respond to those emails publicly is that I’ve had a hard time separating out those realities. But it boils down to this. Living in Koh Tao is complicated. Visiting is not.
All that was a long wind up to my very clear, very effusive point: Yes, Koh Tao is safe for travelers.
Koh Tao is an island where I happily live alone as a single young woman, where I leave my thousand dollar camera on the beach and swim freely without ever looking back on the shore, where I run alone through the back streets and palm forests in the early evening and I where I occasionally stumble home alone in the very early morning. I smile as I write this, imagining how risky and reckless that all probably sounds to those living in places where crime is a constant source of concern. But here on peaceful Koh Tao, it’s just par for the course. I have traveled the world, and there are few places in which I worry so little about my personal safety.
I grew up in an idyllic suburban neighborhood where we rarely locked our doors – I don’t remember having a key to the front door until I went away to college – and I love that I found an island with the same sense of tranquility. Are there precautions travelers should take when traveling here, like anywhere? Yes. But they aren’t the ones that clickbait headlines are warning you about. Here’s are a few things you actually need to keep in mind on Koh Tao.
Drive and Rent Responsibly
Koh Tao is small island with extremely poor driving conditions. Steep hills, spectacularly poor paving and a fleet of less-than-ideal rental motorbikes equals almost daily accidents. If you are not an extremely confident motorbike driver, I urge you to explore the island by foot (the hiking is amazing), by boat taxi (the best beaches are down the worst roads), or by push bike (there are some for rent in Mae Haad and Chalok, ask at your accommodation), and by occasional land taxi (though they are a certified rip off). You will save yourself a lot of heartache this way. Every time I go hiking I see terrified looking tourists driving up roads I would never consider taking my bike up, and I just send off a little prayer to the universe to keep them safe.
Motorbike rental scams — in which you are forced to pay a ridiculous sum for very small cosmetic issues with the bike — are pretty much the only ones that plague Koh Tao, and they’ve actually become far less common thanks to the newly instated tourist police.
If you do decide to rent, I recommend the following shops: Ollie’s, Island Travel, or Pong’s. Before riding off into the sunset, program the number for Koh Tao Rescue at +66 0879790191 into your phone and call immediately if you witness or are part of an accident. Be aware that there is no hospital on Koh Tao, and medical care for anything more than stitches is a long, painful and expensive emergency speedboat ride away on Koh Samui.
If it’s your bike that needs mending, don’t bother trying to take it to one of the island mechanics; they won’t fix any bike with a rental sticker on it. Bring it back to the shop and stay calm — nothing is worse than losing your temper in Thai culture. If you run into issues, call the Tourist Police at +66 0909975192 (local) or +66 1155 (national) — but avoid needing to call them in the first place by renting from a responsible operator and driving with extreme caution. Or, even better, not renting in the first place!
Be Aware of Aggressive Dogs
When I run, hike, or walk on Koh Tao, I’m not in fear of those on two legs – just four. While the island’s dog population is well controlled thanks to the tireless work of the Koh Tao Animal Clinic, you may occasionally encounter aggressive dogs, and they do very occasionally bite. The best tactic I have found is to avoid eye contact and keep walking steadily. If the aggression continues, take the opposite approach and try to make yourself appear larger my waving your arms, stomping your feet, yelling loudly, and pantomiming throwing a rock.
If you are bit, contact the Koh Tao Animal Clinic at +66 0810905372 immediately. The vet Jae is familiar with most dogs on the island and can let you know exactly what medical treatment to seek.
Scuba diving accidents are rare on Koh Tao because operators hold themselves to generally high standards and the dive community is pretty vigilant about calling out those who aren’t. That said, in the end you take final responsibility for yourself — consider getting dive insurance, remember that the nearest decompression chamber is on Koh Samui, sign on with a dive center you trust, and dive a conservative profile.
Koh Tao is one of my favorite places in the world to party. Cheap drinks? Flip flops on my feet? Ocean breezes? Open air beach bars with no bouncers, no dress codes, and a walkable commute? Yes please!
Frankly, on the global scale of “being concerned about one’s personal safety after dark,” with zero being a perfect utopia of non-violence that doesn’t exist and ten being a hellscape of risk around every corner, I think Koh Tao ranks around a one or two.
Should you avoid getting blind drunk and remain aware of your new surroundings? Yes, like anywhere in the world. Should you stay in groups and not walk alone in an unfamiliar area? Yes, like anywhere in the world.
If you’re traveling solo and want to go out and have the comfort of a crew and some guides, consider the Koh Tao Pub Crawl. The groups are large and ultimately you are responsible for yourself, of course, but it’s always safer – and more fun! – to go out in a group.
And a note about illegal drugs. Drug use is relatively rare among travelers on Koh Tao, but the police have seriously stepped up their attention to it since I first began traveling to the island six years ago. Be aware that road stops, bar searches and arrest are all very real possibilities. Be prepared to seriously pay up – literally – if you are caught with drugs.
Use Your Intuition
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it a million more times in my blogging career. That same intuition that guides you and keeps you safe at home? You take it with you wherever you go. Reading The Gift of Fear was a great turning point for me in helping me distinguish between anxiety rooted in the mind and intuition rooted in reality.
“Heavens, we’ll laugh again. It’s just that we’ll never be young again.”
I think of that quote, made famous in America after the assassination of John F Kennedy, often when it comes to Koh Tao. I can’t let a place I love be defined by its greatest tragedy. It’s true, Koh Tao will never be young again. But on an island with so much love and life and beauty, an island that so many good and resilient people call home, it’s hard not to smile.
Conclusion? You’re going to love Koh Tao. If you decide to go, I wish you all the love, happiness and laughs I’ve found there.
Note: Late in 2015, I was approached by a filmmaker who introduced himself as a documentarian and told me he wanted to tell a balanced tale of Koh Tao’s most infamous case and the controversial trial that followed. Anxious about the pending verdict and still grappling with what happened, I said no. He pursued the interview, claiming it wouldn’t be an objective piece without the voice of someone who loved the island, and emphasizing that without my input the piece would be overly negative. When it aired months later, I was horrified to find that the wildly misleading special was called “Murder in Paradise” and insinuated that the tragic deaths of other British citizens on Koh Tao due to overindulgence in drugs and alcohol might also have involved foul play. Suffice it to say, I regret my participation in the program, though it did finally push me to write this post, which I’ve been writing, deleting, and rewriting for two years.