Few of us get to recreate a life changing travel journey! I feel so lucky to have done just that this past week in Thailand. The love of my life swept me away on a 4-month travel adventure in Southeast Asia 26 years ago which led us to marriage and 2 kids. On the eve of celebrating our 24th wedding anniversary, I boarded a plane and traveled 18 hours to meet our daughter in Bangkok to kick off our mother-daughter Southeast Asia adventure for a month, in celebration of her 22nd birthday. The first week of this journey is a replica of the itinerary her dad and I followed, but in a much less primitive way. Hard to believe anyone could ever travel with no cell phone, no public wifi, no GPS, and no Vloggers giving you advise on the do’s and don’ts on your anticipated destinations. We were just armed with our Lonely Planet guidebook for backpackers and a sense of wanderlust. We mapped out our route on public transportation and set out to find our way to the remote islands of Koh Tao and Ko Nang Yuan. Yes – we used a paper map!
After spending 3 days in Bangkok visiting the usual tourist attractions, my daughter and I took a cheap flight, on Air Asia for $56.77US, from Bangkok to Chumpon, a fishing village which is a jumping off point to Koh Tao. The train ride we took years ago is still a popular option for backpackers these days but it really doesn’t make sense to suffer an overnight train for 8-10 hours when you can fly there in 1.5 hour for a few dollars more.
Transportation systems to these heavenly islands are more well-organized than ever before. We were able to purchase a shuttle ticket from a kiosk at the Chumpon airport and immediately jumped into a minivan scheduled to whist travelers to town. On my previous visit, finding transportation was difficult to say the least and usually at your own risk. Not able to speak Thai meant that we didn’t always know for sure if we were going to end up at our intended destination. The ride my husband and I took with the questionable “taxi” from the Chumpon train station to the pier, via a dirt road in the dark of night, still sends shivers up my spine when I think back.
After spending an overnight in Chumpon, my daughter and I boarded an early morning ferry boat headed to Koh Tao. I was so excited about the little less than 3-hour ride with toilets onboard. So glad I didn’t have to ride a little wooden fishing boat, and I mean little, with Mr. Dang’s family to the island like my last visit here. I don’t remember how long it took but it felt like a lifetime as I was throwing up the entire time.
The tourist boom on Koh Tao slapped me in the face as soon as we stepped off the ferry boat. Drivers holding name signs of guests they were picking up, tour excursion offices and restaurants lined the street in front of the Maehaad ferry dock. For a moment, I thought we were on the wrong island. Tourist transport and accommodation options are endless these days, unlike our only option back then of staying at Mr. Dang’s cottages because we were able to catch a ride with him.
My daughter and I stayed at the Sairee Beach Cottage which was reminiscent of the little tiny beach cottages owned and operated by Mr. Dang. There was also a restaurant on the beach but with one big difference – when they made a smoothie, the lights didn’t go dim like it did at Mr. Dang’s.
For better or worst, many things have changed on the islands with the passage of time. As expected, with the ease of access to the islands comes over development in hotels and resorts. There were only a few dive shops 26 years ago as compared to over 80 dive centers now. There are more spas offering cheap massages ($10 US/hour) than I can count on one hand. But the most shocking of all were the changes on the Koh Nang Yuan island, a piece of paradise I have kept in my memory bank as “heaven on earth” all these years. It still has powder white sand on a sand spit but I had to share this beach with many. The newly established fee of 100 baht (approximately $3 US) to enter the island has not deterred boatloads of tourists making the very short trip from Koh Tao to Koh Nang Yuan, nor has it helped to keep human trash from the ocean.
With the popularity of these islands bring greater variety and higher quality of food, especially the western options that we might miss while traveling. The good cup of caffe latte that I was yearning for on my previous visit is now on every restaurant menu on the island.
The old adage of “take the bad with the good” rings true for me on this second trip to Koh Tao and Koh Nang Yuan. They may not be the purist island escapes they once were but they will remain on the top of my travel list. In light of posting this blog on Thanksgiving, I want to express how thankful I am for the opportunity to revisit this paradise with my daughter, and be able to share my passion for diving and traveling with her.