On our last day on Ko Samui, we decided to walk down the beach and find a couple of local fishermen to take us out to an island called Ko Tan, about 5 kilometers off the south coast. They agreed, and for $2,000 Thai Bhat, or $57 bucks, we had a deal.
I wanted to go to Ko Tan because I heard it was off the beaten path, a place many tourists still don’t know about. In my hunt to find the “real Thailand”, I was stoked to have discovered this place.
At 8am Thursday morning, we met up with our fisherman. They pulled ashore in a ragamuffin, beat-up boat full of garbage, and anchored on the beach.
Despite the boat’s poor looks, I was thrilled. I was going on a real adventure, away from the tourist companies, the power boats packed with people, the fancy catamarans. I was going to ride on a boat the way the real Thais did every day.
We boarded, and I was surprised at how shallow the boat was. We sat on boards only 6-inches below the rim of the boat, and started motoring along. The ride was amazing. We buzzed just a couple kilometers away from Ko Samui with a warm breeze whispering over our faces, rustling our hair. I loved seeing the island from this perspective. The long beach I’d walked down. The warm water I’d swam in. The restaurants and lounge chairs where I’d sipped beers and read.
After about 40 minutes, Ko Tan came into view, along with other small islands and limestone rock formations jutting out of the sea. I thought it was so beautiful, with a Thai fisherman perched on the bow.
The island was so peaceful as we motored down a rock-lined passageway to the beach. There were no sounds but the wind in the trees and the boat slicing through water. No clubbing music, no tourists, no speeding cars and motorcycles on a nearby road. I felt like we’d reached paradise lost. Even a large bull thought so, soaking in the shallow surf nearby.
The boat anchored to shore by dropping one anchor in the back and another sticking into the sandy beach. Immediately, I was enthralled by the scene. The waving palm trees, the untouched beach, the Thai fishing boats in a row.
We wandered down the beach and stumbled upon a deserted restaurant and bar staffed by three French guys. They told us there was a coral reef 500 meters offshore. So, we lathered up with sunscreen, me with a sunshirt, and headed out armed with goggles.
The water stayed waist-deep for many, many meters, and eventually we decided to duck our heads and swim. In the shallow waters, I saw waving seaweed and small fish darting through the rocks. I saw coral that looked white, and when we raised our heads above the surface my friend Neera said, “See all this white coral? It’s bleached!” It was true, especially after she pointed out the difference between bleached coral and living. Bleached coral looks like bones, dead. Healthy coral is colorful, and I saw purples and blues and oranges and yellows. Coral bleaching has been happening around the world, when oceans become too warm. It broke my heard to see such devastation on this small island off the coast of Ko Samui.
We got deeper and reached the edge of the coral reef. The bottom plunged nearly 8 feet and we were able to swim along the edge. I saw the most beautiful coral of my life. Huge, colorful coral peppered with Nemo fish, yellow-and-black fish, spotted fish, schools of iridescent fish. I felt so alive, so happy in that moment, that I nearly forgot I was getting tired treading water, diving down, treading water again. Eventually, we left the beautiful coral and fish and headed back to shore.
Next was beers bought from the Frenchmen and a picnic at their empty facility. We all felt like we were in heaven, and wished we could have found islands like this to spend the majority of our trip on. We loved being away from the constant thrum of humanity. The beach was so calm, the jungle so lush here, far away from the developed feel, Koh Tao, Ko Samui and Phuket.
I wandered up the beach alone, looking at houses, saying hello to Thai women sweeping leaves in the humid, midday sun. I took pictures of a beautiful Thai boat anchored alone, and found another restaurant, this one humming with tourists who’d come out here to snorkel in the reef.
After lunch the Thai fishermen found us, and offered to boat us out to another snorkeling spot. We parked near the tourist boats, and this time, jumped in with life jackets so we could float and look at the teeming schools of fish.
Once again, I was astounded by the beauty in the deep beneath me, this universe of life that’s typically far away from the human eye. But then, I saw something that mortified me. Tourists were standing on the coral, adjusting their snorkels and masks, chatting with one another. STANDING ON CORAL. They were too far for me to swim to and tell them to get off the coral, but I couldn’t believe the guides were allowing this. The guides were also giving tourists bread to feed the fish, another huge no-no. I felt so saddened by this, that even the Thais weren’t respecting the natural beauty of their land. And its all because of tourists, money, greed, and lack of public education.
I left Koh Tan that day with a sense that we need to work harder to save our oceans. We are losing coral and fish at an astounding rate. We are killing marine mammals with loads of floating plastic. We are destroying Mother Earth. I wish there was something that can be done on a global scale to reduce trash, educate people, and decrease global warming and ocean acidification. I truly hope its not too late. The world depends on us.