Koh Tao is the third island that’s north of Samui, about 30 kilometres to the north-west of Koh Pha-Ngan, and about the same distance away from the mainland city of Chumphon as it is from Samui. It’s small, only around 21 square kilometres in all. It’s easy to wonder just how such a tiny island could have become probably more popular than the much larger Koh Chang (which has in excess of 250 hotels and resorts). But then all becomes clear when you realise that Koh Tao (in association with Chumpon) has now developed into one of the most popular diving centres in Thailand.
And also, interestingly, Koh Tao has a more colourful history than either of its two neighbouring, and larger, islands. It seems that European explorers mapped this part of the Gulf of Siam as far back as the late 17th century, with cartographer John Thornton dubbing the island ‘Pulo Bardia’. In 1852, the explorer Frederick Arthur Neale, describes the people and wildlife of ‘Bardia’. According to the account there were farms and even cows (!) in a village on the bay on the west side of the island. And he includes a somewhat imaginative illustration of showing huts and palm trees (although no signs of a dairy industry!).
It wasn’t all that much later when Thailand’s most beloved monarch, HRH King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, visited Koh Tao. He was an enterprising and forward-looking ruler, and the first of the Thai Kings to seek trade and diplomatic ties with western nations. He often went abroad for long periods and, on his return and prior to taking up his duties again in Bangkok, would take a two or three week break on Koh Pha-Ngan. On June 18th, 1899, it appears that he sailed over to inspect Koh Tao. Already the island had become sparsely populated by nomadic Chinese trader-pirates and the name had changed, becoming locally known as ‘Turtle Island’ – in the Thai language, ‘Koh Tao’. Whether to mark the territory as Thai, or simply as a gesture – the reason is unknown – he left his monogram on a huge boulder at Jor Por Ror Bay, next to the island’s main beach, Sairee Beach. This has since become a holy place and is still worshiped today.
In 1933 the island was used as a political prison. Conditions were harsh, as there was no natural water and nothing growing there apart from coconuts and fruit. And so, in 1947, Thailand’s prime minister ordered a stop to the use of Koh Tao as a prison and received a royal pardon for all prisoners there. They were returned to their families on the mainland, and Koh Tao became once again uninhabited. But as soon as this happened, two brothers from Koh Pha-Ngan, Khun Uaem and Khun Oh, sailed out and claimed the most fertile part of the island for their own, even though it was still under Royal Patronage. They brought their families over and began to cultivate their patch, thus forming the first generation of the present-day community.
It was in the 1980’s not long after Samui was ‘discovered’, that the first travellers came across Koh Tao – “a gorgeous, untouched island paradise”. There was no ferry service (certainly no airport, not even on Samui) and the journey was an adventure in itself, haggling to negotiate a trip in one of the ‘long-tail’ boats from the neighbouring islands to get there. And, over the years, Koh Tao’s reputation as a diving, snorkelling and beach destination continued to grow steadily. Initially everyone went purely for the diving: even all the dive schools on Samui took their customers there,A look at one of the nicest little getaways anywhere; Koh Tao. and still do. The area around Tao in particular, and in-between there and Pha-Ngan in general, was not only teeming in every sort of marine life but there were also numerous wrecks to explore. Today it has emerged as one of Thailand’s prime island destinations and has become one of the top diving location for PADI scuba certification in South East Asia.
And, as the island grew in popularity, so the associated amenities of guest houses, resorts, restaurants, bars and shops appeared. Dive packages which included accommodation abounded. Only a few years ago, there was little in the way of night-life. Divers take their activities seriously, and an early night was the order of the day! But today more and more people are now venturing there simply to enjoy a quiet and comparatively unspoiled beach holiday. The number of bars and restaurants have increased, and some notably-up-market resorts have sprung up. Although there as yet no 5-star names (and that’s possibly one of the attractions for many visitors) there are several dozen which are rated in the 4-star bracket. Plus, of course, there’s everything in-between, from budget family accommodation through to huts on the beach.
Some say that Koh Pha-Ngan today is like Samui used to be 20 years ago. If that’s the case, then Koh Tao can’t be following all that far behind. It hasn’t sprouted ATMs and 7-11s on every corner, that’s for sure. Yet it probably has all the amenities that most people could ever want. All-in-all, Koh Tao has developed into one of the nicest little getaways anywhere!
Rob De Wet