All too soon we were moving on again, but the early start was more than offset by the prospect of sitting on a tropical island in a few hours time. A minivan, a bus, a ferry and a ride in the back of a pick up truck found us on the island of Koh Tao. The island is beautiful, despite the hordes of tourists that flock there to dive in the immaculate surrounding waters. It was here that it struck us how much of our trip so far had been relatively tourist-free. We found the number of holidaymakers to be overwhelming, particularly for a town as small as Sairee.
The money machine that comprises of the restaurants, bars, shops and dive centres was raking it in, everything was expensive without any option to go elsewhere. But that's the price of seeing these islands. Between towns, the island looks how it must have always looked, dense jungle covering a rugged and mountainous landscape, it was largely undeveloped and the the roads quickly petered out into dirt tracks. Thankfully, there were very few signs of wear and tear from the thousands of people that were flocking here on a weekly basis.
The beach nearest to our hotel was a long and narrow stretch of golden powder that barely sloped into the crystal clear sea. Palm trees lined the coast and as they strained for the sunlight the angles of their pitch became lower and lower so that every so often, a trunk would all but lay along the floor like another one of the bathers.
Small shacks and wooden bungalows were interspersed with the coconut palms and on the whole, it looked pretty fabulous.
We had a few hours lounging on the beach, soaking up the atmosphere and the rays and actually, it was very quiet, very tranquil.
Again, the nightlife was equally chilled, we weren't sure where everyone else was, a couple of the beach bars were moderately busy but the masses seen earlier in the day just weren't around. The bars wound up around 11pm, then again, the first dive boats left at 6am so maybe it's not so surprising.
We decided that the following day instead of chilling by our local beach, where the snorkelling was so-so, we'd take a short trek across the island to Hin Wong bay where the sea life was more varied. The road looked mainly paved, straight and the incline over the ridge wasn't going to be too strenuous.
We reckoned we should be soaking up the rays within an hour and a half.
The first 15 minutes of the walk was pretty steep, the tarmac quickly gave way to a loose gravel trail and then to a muddy track that was showing signs of water erosion. Deep gouges split the path into precarious ankle-twisting ruts and we had to choose our route a little carefully.
At about the halfway mark the road split, straight on would take us to our planned destination Hin Wong bay, but to our left a sign pointed to a view point. We knew we were fairly high and the opportunity to see the neighbouring island Koh Nang Yuan from this vantage point was a no brainer. It was still early and a short diversion wouldn't make a big difference to our day. We decided to go off exploring.
The trail to the view point wound its way steeply upward but we envisioned the spectacular vista that awaited us over the brow and upward we went.
The diversion turned out to be much longer than we anticipated and the incline was fierce. On more than a few occasions the gradient was so steep that we were almost on all fours climbing up the trail and having to rest for a couple of minutes having only gone 20 metres or so.
Every once in a while someone would come past on a moped or quad bike, if their momentum wasn't sufficient, the machine spluttered and strained and the rider had to 'giddy up' the bike like they were on an obstinate horse.
As they left us wafting away their dust and fumes, we steeled ourselves for another push upward.
The viewpoint ended up being a good 4km along an ever steepening and degrading track. When we finally got there, the entry was being monitored by what looked like a group of drug lords. They sat round a table and they looked edgy. They wanted us to pay to see the view even though the track was on public land. We asked why we had to pay and said that we didn't have much money on us, one of them just laughed and said he made 4 million baht last year.
So after all that effort, we didn't get to see the view, we were also miles away from our original destination. We had a backup plan, we would keep going north to Mango Bay where we had read there was some great snorkelling to be had. We figured we were about an hour's walk away and we would just get a taxi back. WRONG!
The trail was appalling, steep inclines and declines and was so slippery with loose rubble, the day had gotten hot and our water supply was diminishing. We were starting to feel the efforts of the day taking its toll on our bodies and good humour (me particularly).
After a further hour of climbing, slipping, puffing , panting and gasping, we arrived at the cliff top that would lead down to Mango Bay.
About a quarter of the way down the final 500 or so steep, uneven steps Jan's flip flop broke. This was a game changer as we were at least 3 hours away from the nearest shop
in town and she couldn't walk back barefoot. She insisted we carry on to the bay so that we could have the rest of the day on the beach and we'd get a taxi back as planned. No problem.
We carried on downwards, even slower now as forest debris covered every step and the sharp twigs and stones made it uncomfortable even with both flip flops let alone just one. We weren't going to make it, Jan was soldiering on but it wasn't worth getting injured for. Then a brainwave struck, I managed to wedge the broken part of the thong with a stick so that if she was careful, she may at least be able to keep the shoe on her foot to get her to the bay. I knew watching Macgyver was going to come in handy.
We finally reached the bottom of the stairs and the word disappointed doesn't come close to how we felt. There were no mangos, there was no bay. There was a small opening to the crystal clear blue sea that was covered with huge boulders, to climb over them after the walk we'd done and with Jan with one good shoe was just too big an ask (we found out later that Mango Bay is best visited by boat).
This still left us with the massive problem of getting back. We had no hope of any kind of ride back, we'd have to go back the way we came. Back up the steps, back on the trail. And that we did. Jan was amazing, she rationed our water, and kept the conversation going. I was so dejected and was sulking she was walking with a stick between her toes, a burn on her arm from an unknown plant sting and was a chirpy as she always is.
We occasionally saw more bikers who having got most of the way now, gave us a nod of recognition for making the journey on foot.
We were able to top up our water back at the drug lords place and with this no longer a serious problem for us, the second hour and a half passed much easier.
We reached town, dead on our feet. We stopped and as we slaked our thirst, we stood silent. We watched the hordes we initially resented and we both now felt different, to be in crowd wasn't so bad, in fact it was sometimes quite comforting.
A mixture of aching muscles and an adversity to early mornings decided that we would not go on the 6am dive but the midday one. It was just us and the dive master Aude. She was a surly French lady who gave the distinct impression she had better things to do than take us diving.
Oh we'll, underwater we wouldn't be able to see her sulky face. So our first fun dive was to the Japanese garden, we jumped off the boat and descended down to 18 metres with no problems. The visibility was good at around 15 metres and it was mind blowing.
Fish were all around us and in such clarity nothing like the milky sea that we learnt in. It was nothing short of spectacular, a miriad of colours and shapes darted in an out of our view as the flighty small fish took cover as we passed. As we moved away from the drop off the fish got bigger and far less timid, a shoal of yellow snappers lazily swam by us, unconcerned, the blue from the sunny sky was gone, we were in their realm.
To get from our entry point to the Japanese Gardens we had to cross a short patch of open sea and then we reached the mouth of the cave.
Neither of us was overly keen about the prospect of going through the cave on our first fun dive.
Aude had already entered, we were left with no other choice. Immediately, the water temperature dropped as the light from the sun faded, we wanted to be out of there as quick as possible, but this wasn't a place to be rushing about. In places the the tunnel was only just bigger than we were and Jan got snagged a couple of times on the roof of the cave but she quickly mastered the surroundings and got herself free. Every so often a shaft of light would pierce the gloom to the left or right of us, these highlighted the numerous entrances to the cave system but from our vantage point, looked like an ethereal Calling. For me, the cave was both beautiful and alarming in equal measures, Jan wasn't overly impressed with this part of the dive.
The exit to the cave lay just ahead of us and as we swam to the light ( swim to the light Carol-Anne) the water temperature climbed again, the walls got wider and our breathing slowed as we relaxed once again.
We came at the Japanese Gardens, a beautiful coral system that was covered in red, yellow and blue Christmas tree worms. Fish of all shapes, sizes and colours were here in abundance. Highlights were the huge blue-spotted rays that hid under crags or lightly dusted in fine sand on the seabed, a rather impressive Filefish that pecked away at the morsels on the rocks an two huge 6 banded angelfish.
We had a second dive at a location called Twins, two huge pinnacles that supported an equal number of different species of aquatic life, this too was an incredible experience and we saw shrimps, clown fish and a distant Moray eel that was unusually crossing open water.
We came to Koh Tao expecting so much, we expected perfect beaches, great diving and stunning scenery and for us it delivered the goods. It's a beautiful little island and we hope it stays that way.
We're headed back to the mainland for a long leisurely run up to Christmas by the beach.