Ko Tao is the smallest of the three famous islands in Surat Thani province, on the gulf coast of southern Thailand — its two larger and more-developed neighbours are Ko Pha-Ngan, and the mega-attraction Ko Samui. Like its neighbours, Ko Tao is a tropical paradise, and is every holiday-maker's dream. Over the past decade or so, the island has evolved into Thailand's premier spot for scuba diving, with about 50 dive schools operating on the island. I'm here to do the famous PADI beginner diver's certification; and after that, I'll stay here as long as I can, because I can imagine fewer places more blissful on all this Earth.
Known variously as "Thai salad", "spicy salad" or "traditional salad", "Papaya salad" is one of the few Thai foods that I'd never tried and never heard of, prior to coming to Thailand. And now I know why. Tonight in Mae Hat — just before leaving Ko Tao — I sampled a plate of this infamous dish for the first time. I'd been warned that this is "the spiciest dish in Thailand": and as such, I naturally went ahead and asked them to prepare it pet pet ("very spicy") for me. Big mistake: it really is the spiciest dish in Thailand, and perhaps in the entire world. The stuff probably isn't even legal back home. It's a delicious salad: but brace yourself before trying it, because it will blow you away.
After 10 nights here, I couldn't just leave Ko Tao empty-handed — I had to walk away with at least something to remember it by. Found these souvenir t-shirts this evening, while perusing the souvenir shops and knock-off boutique stores that line the streets of Mae Hat. Cute little reminders of this wonderful place. And no, neither of them is for me: I'm generally not a big fan of either pink or of aqua! I think they'll make good presents for the folks back home, when I return in a few weeks' time.
One last place here on Ko Tao that I've heard good things about, but that I haven't previously visited, is a place called Freedom beach. Since this was my last day on the island, today I tore myself away from yet another trip to Moondance beach, and instead ventured onto new sands. Freedom beach is in the opposite direction from Moondance: it's on the eastern side of Chalok Baan Kao, in a tiny protected bay just in from Chalok's eastern headland. Lovely place, and a great final impression of Ko Tao.
Today was my third and final day on the idyllic Moondance beach, and it was no different from the days before it. More of relaxing, more of occasionally taking a dip, and more of doing very little. I found Robert in his usual nesting-spot, sprawled on the sand next to a big rock; and in the afternoon, we were joined by a friend of Robert's, who's just arrived direct from Austria (and who's not gay — although he does run a bar in Graz), as well as by Iris and Andrea.
I'm usually not too bad at absorbing useful snippets of the local language, wherever I go. But the Thai language is a different story: it's Really Hard™ to learn. So far, I've been going at a rate of about one commonly-spoken word per week, and I'm struggling to maintain even that. I've got kop-khun khap ("thank you") down pat, as well as the famous sawadee-khap ("hello" / "goodbye"). I'm working on sabadee-mai ("how are you"), sabadee ("I'm fine"), and sabai ("good"). Also picked up a few food-related words, such as gai ("chicken"), goong ("shrimp"), khao ("rice"), and kha ("coconut"). Plus, being here on the island has helped me pick up some geographical terms, such as hat ("beach"), ao ("bay"), and of course ko ("island"). But it's slow going, and the Thai words have a habit of being awfully slippery against my memory.
In case I haven't yet had my full dose of Austrians, tonight Ko Tao delivered me yet more of them! Iris and Andrea are two lovely girls from Vienna, who are (like myself) currently on a world trip — although theirs is significantly shorter than mine. They've already been to Australia, where the only place they visited was Sydney (they reckon it was so much fun, they got stuck there for two weeks — go figure). They're currently taking their sweet time getting through Thailand's glorious south, after which they'll keep heading north, and eventually home. I bumped into them at the hippie bar next-door to my room this evening, where I shared a few drinks with them.
"No name" vegetables is a crunchy Thai appetiser, which consists of chopped-up mixed vegies, that are battered and deep-fried into little snackable pieces. Best eaten dipped in sweet 'n' sour sauce. Not sure if they have it elsewhere in Thailand — I don't recall seeing it in Bangkok or in the north — but here in Ko Tao, most restaurants list it on their menu. At the remote restaurant this afternoon (after bashing through the jungle), my friend Robert introduced me to this dish, which I've never tried before, but which I hope to sample again.
Piece of advice: never take directions from a gay Austrian. If only I'd followed it. After spending this morning once again chilling on Moondance beach, today I tagged along with my friend Robert, who wanted to show me the next beach along on the island, where he claimed there was nice swimming and a great restaurant. Only problem was, Robert thought he could take a "shortcut" up the hillside, and onto the main track that leads to this beach. And as anyone (named Murphy) can tell you, a shortcut is the longest possible distance between two points. Several steep cliffs, spiky ferns, bulging ant-nests, enveloping spiderwebs, and thick bush-clumps later, the truth of this rule was quite thoroughly proven. Although our intensive bush-bashing did eventually pay off: at long last, we finally found the road that we were looking for. Nice views along the way, too.
Today I discovered Moondance beach, and now I'm officially done exploring Ko Tao. Why keep searching for paradise, when you've already found it? Situated on the other side of the western headland of Chalok Baan Kao — just a 10-minute walk from my pad at Taraporn — this tiny beach is home to just two resorts, called Sunset and Moondance (respectively). Moondance beach (I forget its proper name) is calm, sandy and serene. Today, I spent the better part of the day chilling here: just swimming, reading, sunbaking and sleeping, all day long. Life here on Ko Tao is just getting harder and harder.
Robert is an Austrian fellow — another Austrian from the city of Graz. He is, like, sooo gay: I'm sure he's not the only gay on the island; although he could very well be the only gay on tiny, secluded moondance beach. Robert runs a company that organises large, mainly homosexual parties and functions in Graz, and he's a very friendly and interesting guy. He's here in Ko Tao for a month (he's not going anywhere else in Thailand), where he's doing absolutely nothing, aside from lying on the beach and working on his tan.