Notes from a Canadian on visiting Koh Tao
We visited Koh Tao from March 18 to April 1, 2018.
Here are some notes for fellow Canadians thinking about visiting Koh Tao.
Getting There: The Flights
A wise graduate supervisor once advised that one should always break up my trip so that you’re spending no more than 8 hours a day traveling. Eight hours in an airplane is a good work day, and you want to show up refreshed and ready to go.
We didn’t do that.
For the first leg, we did Cathay Pacific 829, Toronto to Hong Kong. Flight time was 15h30 minutes. It departs Pearson at 0h130 and lands the next day at 05h00.
The way this flight works is impressive. There are stands to manage the gate lice, and people line up behind their row numbers. Seating is quick and efficient. The plane taxis for ten minutes and then it’s wheels up. It does one adjustment to orient itself due North and it pretty much stays on a heading for the duration of the flight. A supper is served quickly and wrapped up within an hour, and then it’s lights out by the time we’re over Hudson Bay. We flew just a few clicks to the east of Alert, then over the pole just before the midway point. We were served an orderly and efficient breakfast over the Yangtze.
Cathay Pacific uses a 3-3-3 configuration in Economy on its 777’s. This is essential on a 15h+ ultra long haul fight. Air Canada Flight 15, which leaves Toronto at 10h00, uses an inhumane 3-4-3 configuration on its 777. That kind of configuration on an ultra long-haul ought to be illegal.
Aside from a superior departure/arrival time, and a 3-3-3 configuration, Cathay has a codeshare with Bangkok Airlines.
Bangkok Airlines has a twice daily direct flight from Hong Kong to Koh Samui. One of those flights departs at 08h45 from Hong Kong’s outfield terminal. The transfer from the main terminal to the field terminal went smoothly. Because we got in early, the train wasn’t working. So we took a bus from a gate on the lower level. Starbucks was the only place open prior to 07h00 in the outfield terminal.
Bangkok Airlines operates some fairly old A319’s in a standard 3-3 configuration, with no in seat video. It lingered on the tarmac for quite awhile getting out of HKK. There was a hot meal served, and the total flight time was 3 hours and 20 minutes. Nothing arduous compared the the previous flight.
Getting There: Customs
When you arrive a Koh Samui, you’re taken by bus to the terminal. The terminal is roofed – there are very few walls. The line moved fairly quickly and we got some simple exit passes stapled into our passports.
Getting There: Samui to Koh Tao
It’s important to get into Koh Samui well before 15h00, as the last ferry for Koh Tao leaves around 16h30
We exchanged a small amount of US currency at the airport just so that we had some Baht for the last leg of the trip, and this could be done at a desk to your immediate right when you come out of the bag claim area.
We had booked ground transportation from the terminal to the ferry terminal in advance. The transfer desk is directly in front of the baggage claim area. It was less than a 7 minute drive to the Ferry terminal by way of closed air conditioned van. Show your ferry ticket to the agent at a kiosk you’ll get a paper ticket and a coloured sticker with your destination on it. Wear your sticker on your shirt. It’s how they know where to stack your luggage for the ferry ride.
Hydrate at the ferry terminal. There’s a restaurant down the hallway. Buy some water with the Baht you exchanged and get as much water into your system as you can.
The 13h00 ferry was packed, but became considerably less so after half the boat stopped off at Ko Pha Ngan. Waves were no higher than 50cm and we did not experience illness.
We had been traveling, by that point, for 25 hours – and were maintaining very good hydration. If you are prone to motion sickness, take your pill or a pepto pill. If you are not acclimatized to 28c heat with high humidity, hydrate extra well.
We arrived at Mae Haad pier on Koh Tao at 15h30. We were picked up by our resort and rode in the back of the truck the last leg. It’s okay to be alarmed at the road grade in some places.
We were checked in quickly and entered the room at 16h00.
The total door to door time for us was around 28 hours, done in one go.
We showered, changed, and ate at the Sunset Restaurant at 17h00. We managed to stay awake until 19h00, passed out, and awoke at 07h00 the next day for a successful reset. If you an stay awake until 19h00, do so. It’s worth the struggle for the sweet reset.
An alternate way of doing this would have been to stop in Hong Kong for 24 or 48 hours, adjust, and complete the final leg of the trip as a separate 8 hour day. If you don’t travel well and don’t respond well to culture shock while sleep deprived, I strongly recommend that you attempt a reset in Hong Kong, try to stay up until 19h00, and come back for the morning flight to Koh Samui at 08h45 the next day.
Yet another way is fly to HKK then Bangkok, then KSM. We deliberately avoided an extra transfer, so the direct HKK-KSM flight was a feature, not a bug.
Many people on Koh Tao speak solid, basic, English for the most part, and some speak advanced English.
I heard a lot of Australian, New Zealand, and British accents on the island. And I heard a lot of German, French, and Spanish. I heard very few American accents and just one Minnesotan in total. I heard just one Canadian accent.
Many services listed French as a language that was spoken. The island is language accessible to Canadians.
We brought US money. Clean bills. Kept flat in an envelope. 50’s and 100’s only. And we exchanged them at official banks. Exchange rates change a few times a day. Exchange rates are more favourable when you exchange 50’s and 100’s than 20’s or smaller bills.
While you can exchange Canadian bills, the exchange rate was far worse than doing the CAD-USD, USD-Baht conversion and the loss of rate along the way. The CAD-Baht pair isn’t very elastic.
The Dusit Buncha Resort
We stayed at an ocean view, poolside, room at the Dusit Buncha Resort. This is where the review from a Canadian may be a bit more meaningful to a Canadian.
If you’re coming to Koh Tao to party, you can stay at a resort along the beach, listen to EDM, and have a very good time. It’s way cheaper to stay down near the beach. There are several 0 and 1 star hostels all along Sairee beach.
We chose Dusit Buncha for its location because it’s quiet. It’s at the terminus of the main North-South road on the island. The only neighbours to the North is granite, mosquitoes and a few lovely birds. The neighbour to the South is a lovely man living in a very simple house. It’s quiet up here.
It’s a 2.5 km walk to the main northern intersection in the main town.
If you are not accustomed to walking 10km a day, you will find this walk a bit challenging because it features three very steep hills. We took advantage of the frequent trips into town offered by the resort, but didn’t think anything of the walk back in. There’s one leg that pushes the heart rate above 110 for a few minutes owing to its grade.
There are some reports on review sites of scary dogs along the way. We did not encounter any scary dogs. There’s an older white dog that likes to run alongside motorcycles on the middle 1km stretch. There is a pair of resident black dogs at the resort. The white dog and the twin black dogs have a bad relationship. There are two wonderful cats that wears a collar with bells on it.
Some burn their garbage in the early evening. We saw a mattress that was on fire one night, and frequent thick, white, smoke coming from another pile on other nights. Just walk quickly.
Some of the rooms are up a slope. The grades are high. Reasonably fit people ought to be able to cover short, high, grades. If you did not come here to climb, of course, I’d recommend getting a poolside room and only dealing with a few inclines. If you’ve stayed at other, geologically interesting islands like Santorini, you’ll be right at home.
The resort is well maintained, the staff is very warm and friendly (even by Canadian standards). Koh Tao isn’t Switzerland so don’t expect precision in timing.
Wifi averaged 15 mbps and Netflix streamed wonderfully. Wifi coverage at the resort is fantastic and flawless. It’s remarkable that all the way out here we get better Internet than in downtown Toronto.
Sunsets were beautiful and unobstructed from the Dusit Buncha resort.
You’ll read reviews that there isn’t much shade at the resort. There are multiple strategically placed trees where, at various points in the day, you can shelter from the sun. When the sun is at its highest point in the sky, between 13h00 and 14h00, one must retreat under a roof, use the palm tree next to the upper kiddie pool to shelter, hang out by the bar, or, use the south side of your balcony to shelter.
If you’ve eaten at Pai in Toronto, you’ll recognize much of the Thai food on Koh Tao. Only that the Thai food here retains a lot of the spice and heat that you’re usually spared from in Canada.
The food at the Sunset Restaurant is notable for its diversity and quality. The menu has sixty SKU’s on it and yet most of them are fairly good. They’re optimizing for a palette that’s somewhere between Western and Thai. Much of the Western food was not aggressively spiced. Much of the Thai food was what we estimated was real Thai food, but it’s hard to tell.
Much of the food in town was very good. We focused on seafood. What we ate tasted fresh.
We avoided establishments with food that was not native to the island – we stayed away from Mexican, Japanese and Italian themed restaurants. Many of the restaurants appear to be driven towards supporting a large number of SKU’s with variety, which produces a regression to basic Western pallets, so one should try to go for Thai.
Safety: Road Safety
It’s a nightmare.
Both experiencing the road and watching people struggle with the aftermaths.
I saw a few people both in town and at the resort that were severely bruised up from motorcycle accidents. They looked like they were in pain and I felt pain looking at them in pain.
I saw a lot of stupid tourists doing stupid things on motorcycles. Many appeared to be driving unconsciously, as though they were on an engineered road. Some were going way too fast in wet conditions. Others were going too fast in dry conditions. Some were putting pedestrians, who share the roads, in danger.
You can’t really take people out of the Matrix, where engineers put things in place to preserve life in spite of carelessness or weather factors, and drop them into an un-engineered environment and then expect good results.
If you’re going to rent a motorcycle, take it slow and ride defensively.
If you’re going to go for long walks, walk defensively.
Safety: View Safety
We climbed up a lot of hills. Some of these, like at Nang Yuan, have steps going most of the way up, and then you have to climb up some rocks to get to the summit.
These summits do not have rails. In some cases, if you slip, you’re dead because it’s a thirty meter drop onto some granite down below. And there’s often a lot of people up on top of them. So you get into these situations where you have to trust the footing of a lot of people.
Take it slow. Stay hydrated. Be mindful. Be patient.
Over 13 days, 8 were sunny, 3 were very cloudy, and 2 had on-and-off rain.
It’s usually around 27 to 28c and humid. I climbed up a rock one morning, sweated all the way through my shirt, and it didn’t dry out on the walk back. If you can’t take humidity, I’d recommend Cabo San Lucas or central Australia over Koh Tao.
I enjoyed the cloudy days as I could stay outside longer.
If you have light skin, sunscreen is essential and tricky. Remember that shirts can change shape because of heat, humidity, and sweat, so you have to cover surfaces with sunscreen that are covered by clothing.
Oh you’ll get bit.
You can try to avoid it. And you should try. But you’ll get bit.
There is no malaria on the island so really, you’re just going to suffer from a few mosquito bites.
It’s their island.
We didn’t get dengue fever.
There’s a concrete road, roughly 10cm thick, with two drainage ditch/gates along each side, which run along the west coast corridor of the island. Much of the infrastructure is there to support the tourists – in particular divers.
Rough patches in the road coincide with over-road stream drainage.
There’s a police station. There are several clinics, many of them private.
Electrical power was fairly consistent, and outages only lasted seconds at most when they did happen.
Water was clean enough to shower and brush teeth. Water pressure is very low because water is scarce. We chose to drink bottled water. There’s a supermarket at the main Northern intersection and bought much of our own.
We snorkelled at several points around the island. We don’t dive, though we saw a ton of PADI dive schools, many promising not to be factory diving schools, throughout the island.
We snorkelled at Dusit Buncha several times – and experienced clear water on most days. The water on NangYuan beach proper, both East and West sides, were clear with a decent number of fish and coral. Mango Bay was fairly clear and featured some very beautiful coral and quite a few urchins. Shark bay was a bit more cloudy, but, we did see a shark.
I could see distress in places.
Don’t stand on the rocks. Too many tourists stand on the rocks and that kills the coral on the rock.
Bring your own gear.
Full body Thai massages can be had for 300 baht an hour.
It will hurt because it’s intended to hurt. They use their full bodies and the nature of their bones to apply point pressure to muscles. If you have tightness or limited range of motion in some parts of your body, they will find it and they will open it up.
Getting back: Ferry
Ferries experience 10 to 20 minute delays around the full moon. Crowds swell and people run late.
As a Canadian, our physical geography favours North-South charter flights in 3-3 configurations on A320’s and B737 and B767’s, to package resorts, with regression-to-the-British palette food, in the Caribbean. They are safe, efficient, and wash away the winter blues. And, for vacations of 7 to 9 day duration, this is logical and there are plenty of nice places down south to do it.
If you have 14 days, want a different culture with not as much factory tourism, and you enjoy little novelties, Koh Tao is good. It was fun to fly over the North Pole. It was fun to drive around the tarmac at HKK. It was fun to take a ferry and to ride in the back of a truck. I get a kick out of Thai versions of western food and Thai versions of Thai food for Thai’s, and Western versions of Thai food for Western people.
The Gulf of Thailand is warm, the people are warm, the scenery under water was wonderful to see.
Notes for Entrepreneurial Data Scientists
Pros to Koh Tao:
- Solid places for a group of 8 meet;
- Nobody would ever see you meeting and talking;
- Excellent evening junket activities;
Cons to Koh Tao:
- Lack of conference/meeting space;