My number one favorite activity in Koh Tao is taking a longtail trip around the circumference of the island, beach hopping and snorkeling along the way. I would recommendation the trip to anyone as Koh Tao’s number one activity. (After diving, of course!) Unfortunately, a longtail boat isn’t the most hearty means of transportation, and at the time Koh Tao was experiencing some uncooperative weather. On the day after Christmas we were met with cloudy weather, high tides, and rough seas.
Without many bad weather alternatives, we decided to go ahead with our longtail plans anyway. No boatman would take us to the East side of the island, so we were restricted to the South and to the West, from where we started.
Our spirits lifted by a quick appearance of sunshine, Mark and I devised a quick plan to hit up our favorite southern-facing beach, Freedom Beach. Unfortunately when we arrived we found not the scene below (a photo taken on a different day) but instead a completely washed out beach- high tides were striking here as well as the rest of the island. On this day the water level was high above the trees. Undeterred, we went to Plan B- hike to the Freedom Beach viewpoint.
Mark and I had hiked to this viewpoint once before and knew the vistas were spectacular. While the trail isn’t particularly well-marked or maintained, it’s a fairly easy walk, exertion-wise. The majority of Koh Tao is covered in dense jungle and this is a rare opportunity to get a chance to walk through an untouched portion of it without serious hiking and navigational gear. It is deliciously rustic, and leaves me feeling like I’m walking into a scene from Lost.
You will know you are at the end of the trail when you reach a massive boulder- John Suwan Rock. By scrambling up that rock (sans safety rails and stairs, of course) you have reached the viewpoint. To your left in Chalok Bay, and to your right, Thain Og Bay and Shark Island. In all directions: unbelievable beauty.
One of my favorite things about this spot is all three times I have been here, I have had the rock to myself for at least a portion of the time. Even in Thailand, with its 20 million visitors per year, it’s possible to have moments of solitude, if you’re willing to do a bit of exploring.
Even on a cloudy and gray day, I felt proud standing up there and showing off the beauty of my adopted home island to my family and friends.
If you are in Koh Tao and interested in finding this viewpoint for yourself reference the map found here, or consult the Koh Tao Info booklet found all over the island. I’ve been to about half the viewpoints marked on the map. I’d love to see them all someday!
After we made our way back to the flooded beach, we hopped back into the longtail to attempt some snorkeling. We asked to go to Tah Toh Rock, a shallow nearby dive site, hopping it would provide some colorful coral and fish.
Unfortunately the kind of weather we were experiencing tends to bring poor visibility and diving/snorkeling conditions as well. We weren’t that impressed when we jumped in to check the site, but we doubted there were better alternatives. I convinced myself that yet another aspect of our day was ruined.
As usual I was fretting unnecessarily. Everyone relaxed and enjoyed being out at sea. And as it was their first dip in the Gulf of Thailand, Steffi and Anton didn’t seem to bothered by the bad conditions- they were too busy throwing sea cucumbers at one another.
When our skin was pruned and wrinkled we made for our last stop of the day- Banana Bar. Banana Bar is located between Sai Nuan Beach and Sai Nuan Bay on Koh Tao’s Southwest coast and is accessible either by boat or by a long, unpaved, steep and treacherous motorbike ride. That is to say, it’s fairly isolated.
You would think that would mean small crowds and speedy service, but you’d be wrong on both fronts. Banana Bar still manages to draw (relative) crowds thanks to its scenic location, unique construction, and most prominently its ganja-friendly, eyeliner-wearing, dreadlocked Thai hippie owner. I know what you’re thinking: that sounds like an excellent place to bring one’s parents! Luckily it takes a lot to scandalize my folks.
Aside from don’t-bring-super-conservative-relatives-here, I have one more tip: don’t order food. We waited hours for dishes that never showed up. Our tummies beyond rumbling, we eventually made a run for it after leaving the money for our drinks, ensuring that I can never go to Banana Bar ever again. So if you go, forgo food and stick to Changs and Singhas instead.
Despite Mother Nature’s best efforts, we managed to have a lovely day on the water in Koh Tao. As I’m learning every day, travel is less about checking things off my Excel-organized to-do list and more about making the most of the hand your dealt when it comes to weather, luck, and a whole host of other factors. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a great group by your side, figuring it out with you.