There was an excitement in the air each morning at the Big Bubble resort just after the sun had broke over the bay’s southern hills. Five of us divers would scramble to gather equipment and load it onto the small boat to carry out to the big boat where a large group of people would meet us from a neighboring resort. We’d travel out to our location, anchor up to the mooring, then jump in and descend.

After 3 days of these diving adventures, it was time to do something different. But I was not ready to leave the island yet. I ended up staying for an extra two nights. During this time, I got to experience more of the island life, connect with the local Thai people, swim and snorkel at the beaches, and celebrate a new friend’s birthday.

The people

I bonded a lot with Felipe, the Brazillian diver I met at the resort. He is also a friend of Astrid’s (the girl whom my friend Dasha connected me to at the resort) and was visiting the island for vacation. Felipe ended up being my motivation to stay the extra two days at the resort. I only had four nights of accommodation paid for, included in my dive training. When I was contemplating leaving after my fourth night, Felipe insisted I stay if for no other reason than to celebrate his birthday two days later. He offered to share his bungalow with me so I could stay at no extra cost. Well, it would not have taken much for me to stay considering how much fun I was already having, but his offer made my decision a no-brainer (thanks, Felipe!).

Felipe (left) and his dive guide, KaiNui (right)

I became a familiar face around the resort while staying there for 6 nights. The men at work next door would wave to me in the mornings when I stepped out onto the balcony of the bungalow. I was exasperated watching them work so hard each day in the humidity. They would take breaks to sit and drink some water, play guitar and sing songs in Thai. I loved to listen even though I did not know the words.

The women who cooked and served at the resort’s restaurant came to expect me there each night. After a day at the beach, I’d shower (for the second time that day) and put on a dab of eyeliner and a fresh outfit before walking down into the bar in the evenings. When the women saw me coming they would smile and point at their faces then at me and say, “Ahhhh. Look very nice!”

The bartender at the resort, Deisha, became a good friend during my time there. One of many Rastafarian Thai people in Southern Thailand, Deisha is a very outgoing guy, always welcoming tourists and passersby announcing “Happy hour!” One day he took me on his motorbike for lunch to experience an authentic Thai meal. On another occasion, he taught me how to play a card game called Monkey. Felipe and I played a few rounds with him. I don’t usually enjoy playing card games, but I have now played this game 5 other times and taught this game to at least 15 people since I left Ko Tao.

During the daytime when the bar is closed, Deisha runs a bamboo tattoo shop across the street from the resort. Bamboo tattoos or yantra tattoos are done by tapping the ink into the skin using a long, thin, sharpened piece of bamboo with needle(s) at the end rather than a machine. The technique originated in Cambodia and I learned it’s actually healthier for your skin, hurts less, and you can swim and be active with it immediately after the artist finishes. The reason is the skin is punctured rather than torn resulting in less bleeding and faster healing. Felipe decided to treat himself to a birthday bamboo tattoo—a badass hammerhead shark. Deisha did an awesome job!

The beaches

I spent most of my non-diving days on Ko Tao walking along the beaches and swimming and snorkeling in Chalok Bay just outside the resort. You would think I would decide to check out more of the island than just the Chalok Bay area, especially since Ko Tao is home to Sairee Beach—a major tourist spot. But I had no desire to go there. It was low season on the island except Sairee Beach which is always busy. I preferred to stay on the quieter southern side.

Normally, Chalok Bay has warm waters about a meter and a half deep. At night, however, Chalok Bay’s waters became very shallow. The tide goes out revealing a small island of sand 30 meters out from the beach. Boats’ anchors can be seen at the surface and I could walk out, only ankle-deep, into the middle of the bay. I walked out there one evening, water stretching out from me on all sides. I gazed up at the stars and observed the lights from the bars and resorts along the shoreline. I felt like I was walking on water!

One morning, I woke up before dawn to write on the beach and watch the sunrise over the east side of the bay. A stray cat that frequents the resort joined me. He was content to sit next to me as I wrote. Together, we watched as the bay tilted further downward revealing the sun’s rays. He eventually came up onto the table and chose the thick, plush case of my Surface as a proper bed. I named him Milk Dud. Milk Dud became my buddy during my stay, always coming around to the beach at the resort for a head scratch.

On a stroll back from grabbing some lunch to-go, Felipe and I found a location away from the resort to sit on the beach and have a picnic. Felipe was just about to begin eating, nearly mid-bite, when a young boy ran up and held out his hand. Felipe gave him a bite. Well, one bite led to another and soon the boy was chomping down the entire sandwich. I offered our bag of cut up fruit to the boy and he eagerly ate pieces of apple and banana, too.

Adorable! We found out his name is Mah and enjoyed playing on the beach with him for a while. Before long, a stray dog joined in the fun and cleverly buried the crust from Mah's sandwich beneath the sand for later.

Since this encounter with Mah, I've found Thai children to be so happy, carefree, and just plain adorable. I had some of the best interactions with Thai people's children. It's wonderful how children in general (in all the non-English speaking countries I've been to) don't need language to play and get along with foreigners.

This photo of the children playing above is from a restaurant and bar right by one of my favorite beaches in Chalok Bay. A steep walk uphill and down to the other side of the bay will bring you to Freedom Beach. With its trees right next to the water decorated with hanging shells and pieces of coral, clear aqua-blue water, and smooth rock formations, this spot feels like paradise.

Freedom Beach has excellent conditions for snorkeling. Tropical fish and coral can be seen just 20 meters out from the beach along the rocky shore. I was able to follow a school of rainbow colored fish feeding off the coral there.

If you feel like having a beer or ordering some food, you can wander up to Freedom Bar. Beautiful views of the bay can be seen from seats along the bar’s raised wooden slats built up over the water. I didn’t stay for sunset, but the spot is perfectly facing the west side of the bay for views late in the day.

The sunset can be seen from almost anywhere in Chalok Bay, including Big Bubble resort. At night, I would lounge at the bar’s seating areas on the sand, chat with the staff and other travelers, and watch the blues, yellows, and pinks stretch across the sky and reflect off the bay. With all of the unique long-tail boats parked around, the scenery was foreign and spectacular.

A celebration

My final day on Ko Tao ended with the celebration of Felipe’s birthday. The resort provided a barbeque dinner, free of charge to all who came. The women in the kitchen even made a small chocolate cake with candles for him to blow out! Truly a special group of people working there!

After cake, we walked down the beach to Next Door Bar to partake in their buckets—alcoholic concoctions for which Thailand is infamous. Also fun is their laughing gas balloons for sale. A short-lived, but hilariously good time! ;)

At Next Door Bar, we were treated to a fire twirling show on the beach. Two Canadian friends we made back at the resort were also fire twirlers, so they joined in with the local Thai man putting on the show making it an even bigger event.

One trick only the Thai man dared was dipping a ball of metal wire in kerosene, lighting it on fire, and then twirling it around real fast to make sparks fly in a great arch. It’s most definitely dangerous—but the effect is like a rainbow of golden light spraying outward.

I left one very important person out of my description of people on Ko Toa but I did so strategically because I feel like it makes for a good summing up of the island. While at the resort, I hung out with Astrid and met her German boyfriend who has been living on the island for years now, too. We spent a few evenings together where I had the chance to ask Astrid why she had chosen to live and work on Ko Toa. After visiting the island on holiday a few years before, she decided to come back. She went home to Austria and felt like something was missing there, so she packed her bag and moved to Ko Tao where she got a job at Big Bubble. Astrid said there’s just something about the island that drew her back. She couldn’t stay away.

Astrid with her (silly) boyfriend

After leaving Ko Tao, I felt the same pull. I imagine I will go back someday, too! I mean, how could I not go back when there is great diving, wonderful people, and views like this...

See you soon, Ko Tao!