One of the biggest challenges I set for myself for this trip was to really step outside of my comfort zone and to venture out a little bit. I think I’ve been doing a lot of that — especially in SEA — but I never thought it would involve sharks.
A day after we moved into our beachside bungalow, we met Kamille and Angela, a Danish couple next door to us. I was feeling antisocial as usual but in friendly neighbor fashion, N chatted them up and invited them to have dinner with us. My reservations faded away as we clicked immediately, and we spent the next few days commiserating about the shitty management of the bungalows we were staying in, and who was still able to talk the family running the place to please give us a roll of toilet paper or to please swap out our pillows because their mildewy smell was overwhelming. We told them about magical Tanote Bay, which our friends Ina and Daniel had introduced us to. When the girls finally got fed up with the insufferable owners and moved to friendlier lodging in Tanote Bay, we were surprised to miss these near strangers and decided to head over to hang out with them for the day.
That afternoon of reacquainting ourselves with the beauty of Tanote sealed the deal. We moved the next day and spent the next week hanging out with them in the quieter side of Koh Tao which was more our style anyway. The staff at Tanote Family Resort were still apathetic Burmese (I don’t think there was one Thai person on the island) who didn’t know how to smile, which is weird to me because you’d think that getting out of a poor, highly corrupt country like Burma to end up on a beautiful Thai island would bring them joy but maybe they show their happiness differently.
Snorkeling was amazing even on the drizzly days, and we stuffed ourselves with mangosteens and longsats (affectionately called “potatoes” by the girls) on the beach. Tanote was perfect for us because the snorkeling was great in both the shallow and deeper parts of the bay. We climbed onto the rock jutting out from the middle of the bay and watched people courageously jumping from it into the water below.
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.