Nangyuan, Ko Tao, three islands connected by a thin strip of beach // (c) 2010 Victoria Peckham
There are certain places where once-in-a-lifetime experiences come easy. Ko Tao, an island near the eastern shore of the Gulf of Thailand, is one of those places. Here, within the span of a day, I soaked in a stunning sunset; courageously — albeit reluctantly — jumped through a ring of fire; and attended a spectacular “ladyboy” show, a cabaret performance aptly named for featuring some of Thailand’s most famed denizens of style.
It’s hard to imagine that in the last century, Ko Tao was used as a base for political prisons. Today, the island’s beauty exudes a radiant nature far removed from its harrowing history. Translated as Turtle Island, Ko Tao offers an impressive array of leisure activities against breathtaking backdrops. On Hai Sai Ri beach, I indulged in an afternoon that followed an itinerary consisting of swimming in warm waters, lounging on white sands and enjoying some of the most aesthetically pleasing sights I have ever laid eyes on.
I only had a limited amount of time on Ko Tao. Given the chance to stay longer, I would have engaged in what is perhaps the island’s most famous draw: scuba diving. As a mecca for divers, Ko Tao is hailed for its turquoise waters, abundant marine life and vibrant coral reefs. What’s more, the island is known to be one of the cheapest places in the world to receive an open-water diving certification. As a result, various shops can be found just about everywhere on the island, allowing for flexibility when travelers look to choose a dive operator.
Although I would have loved to linger on the island, I left Ko Tao elated with the memories of my unique experiences. I then continued on a mission to check out another one of Thailand’s legendary islands, heading south to Ko Pha-ngan on a roughly three-hour boat ride.
Ko Pha-ngan is most famous for its massive full-moon parties, held on Hat Rin beach on the night of every full moon. I happened to be on the island during the period of a full moon and decided my island-hopping experience wouldn’t be complete without attending the fete.
It wasn’t long before it became obvious why the island lays claim to a party reputation (think loud music and an unending line of alcohol vendors). However, soon after the festivity subsided, I discovered there was much more to the destination than what its notoriety had to offer.
The day after the full-moon party, I traveled to the northern tip of the island to Hat Mae Hat beach. Here, I encountered an atmosphere that seemed worlds away from the site of the full moon party. At times, I felt as if I were on the most secluded island in the world, as I only encountered about two dozen fellow travelers — nothing compared to the thousands I had seen on Hat Rin.
With plenty of time on Hat Mae Hat beach, there were many opportunities to explore the area. While walking to my cabana from a lunch meal along a main road, I spotted a tattered sign that read, “Elephant Tours Here.” A red arrow, pointing to a desolate path, accompanied these alluring words. Having seen the sign, I instantly jumped at the chance to meet Thailand’s friendliest inhabitant.
When I reached my destination, I encountered what seemed more like a three-man troupe than a tour guide company. However, after speaking with the guides and sensing their experience, any skepticism I had about going through with my adventure dispersed. So, for about an hour, I excitedly spent my time feeding and getting to know my colossal friend as she gave me a tour through parts of the island’s beautiful, lush forests.
A little while later, I stumbled upon a wooden canopy that housed inviting massage beds right alongside the beach. Here, I didn’t hesitate to indulge in an impromptu full-body massage while nearly falling asleep to the sound of the waves before me.
It wasn’t hard to discover that there is much to do on Hat Mae Hat beach. However, visitors looking to pack in even more voyages can actually walk from the beach to another island. When the tide is low enough, a sandbar emerges and leads to Ko Ma, a remote island also known for its white-sand beaches and coconut trees.
The relaxing nature of Hat Mae Hat was a wonderful way to end my island-hopping journey. And the best thing about my adventure, besides the experiences, was the fact that everything was relatively cheap. Full meals on both islands cost around $3 and the said massage was just $7. For moderately priced, once-in-a-lifetime experiences, these Thai islands can’t be beat.
Tourism Authority of Thailand