It’s been an eye-opening couple of weeks and I have the sunburned backside and cuts to prove it. We arrived in Thailand at the same time monsoon season came swooping in to start drenching the beautiful beaches for the next… Six months. We had a little more than half of our 30-day visa left and time was of the essence. We were itching for good swimming and beaching. Thanks to knowledgeable friends, we achieved just that on Koh Tao, a tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand.
Ina and Daniel — a German couple we had met in Vietnam — had been spending two weeks on Koh Tao learning how to dive, so we decided to join them for the last few days they had left on the island. In typical German fashion, they managed to breeze through their studies and snag their Open Water dive certifications while also watching the late-night/early-morning World Cup soccer matches. ‘Schland!
The first day on the island, Ina and Daniel told us about the best snorkeling bay they discovered and we were game. We rented goggles and snorkels for 50 baht (almost $2) and got ourselves a pickup truck taxi to bring us across the island to Tanote Bay. After barely surviving the insanely steep, windy and bumpy roads, we arrived on a quieter beach, which was a stark contrast to the thumping dance music that plays on the Sairee side all day and all night long.
This unassuming little bay holds a hidden treasure of marine life beneath the turquoise water, and it would be an understatement to say I was blown away by it all. I realized just how much I’ve been missing all of my life. One of the only times I’ve been snorkeling was in Cancun when I was about nine years-old and my sister and I swam out to deeper waters and discovered a severed giant fish head rolling about in the otherwise fish-less water. That ended my desire to explore, and I sat on the beach for the rest of the day, disturbed and wondering how such a huge head ended up in the water without a body. Looking back, it was a minor incident, but it’s one of the only vivid memories I have of Cancun.
A few years later, my mother, sister and I were in the Cayman Islands stashing our millions. We went on a snorkeling trip, where a nice guy named Paddy took us out on his boat and dropped us off in a quiet area. Soon, stingrays were swarming around us, and I don’t mean like three of them. In my memory, there were at least a dozen all around us, and Paddy told us to be careful not to touch their backs. My mother was having the time of her life cuddling with stingrays. My sister was clinging to the side of the boat in terror. I was wavering between the two emotions my family members were experiencing, and I remember desperately treading water while rays brushed against my legs and arms with their soft fins.
Snorkeling in Koh Tao was nothing like my childhood experiences. Fish were everywhere, doing stuff I’ve only seen on the Discovery Channel. When a school of yellow rabbitfish swam in front of me nibbling loudly at the dead coral, I lost my cool. Within the yellow blur of fish, larger parrotfish and smaller fish got in on the feast as they glided from one coral to another. I glanced up and was shocked to see a crocodile needlefish floating close to the surface, almost invisible except for its silvery side glimmering in the sun. I looked down and saw tiny little fish popping in and out of the holes in the coral, the reef a quiet but intense battlefield of each fish fiercely protecting its territory. It was amazing, and this was the beginning of two weeks of returning again and again to the world under the water.
After our German friends left for Bangkok a couple of days later to watch Germany win the World Cup, we moved to a “quiet” part of Sairee in a bungalow overlooking the water and consoled ourselves by exploring among the dead corals in the shallow water and stuffing our faces with mangosteen.
During low tide, we had to carefully maneuver ourselves around the unbelievably razor-sharp coral, and I banged up my knees and shins more than once. It wasn’t comparable to Tanote but in this shallower water, you can get up close and personal to the little fish, and you never know what you’ll encounter. I spent an afternoon stalking a titan triggerfish as he made his way around the reef crunching on coral in his big buck teeth. He watched me with his weird orange milky eyes but allowed me to follow him around. The afternoon after that was particularly beautiful, with the dramatic sunlight streaming down into the clear water.
During that same Cancun trip, my parents, sister and I took a trip to a deep lagoon where we snorkeled and watched colorful little fish swimming along the rocks and coral. It was the first time I swam with fish, and as a memory of that time, my parents bought me a waterproof illustrated book on the types of marine life. I loved that book. I also remember how much my father loved swimming around that lagoon, almost unable to tear himself away from the magical underwater world. I guess it’s in my blood.