It takes a long time to reach the Island of Ko Tao from the moment you first sight it sitting on the deck of a ferry, inching towards you slowly and slowly. The distant turtle shaped hills, which give this island its name, covered in green from their base to brow, grow bit by bit amid tens of voices on the deck which have become excited to see the tantalizing display. Every first timer is drawn to this small island paradise with fables of purple waves and indigo sunsets, clear blue water, white sand beaches and perfect conditions for underwater diving.
The first thing that hits you when you finally reach this sparsely populated island of around two thousand odd indigenous inhabitants and about ten thousand tourists at any given time is the absolute absence of Indians. I can’t imagine an Indian family ever reaching there. It is at least a seven hour journey from either Bangkok or Phuket through a combination of bus and ferry rides. The nearest international airport is five hours away and the domestic one is two hours away with tickets to both exorbitantly priced. It is no mean feat getting here, but get here once you do and your perception of Thailand changes. It is not less than a statistical miracle to have landed on a shore completely devoid of any Indians when we make up about twenty percent of the world population and can be found anywhere from the Great Barrier Reef to the summits of the Swiss Alps. The phrase “freedom of expression” gets a new meaning all together when you realize that nobody for miles out can understand or even remotely comprehend what your group of four people is talking about. Of course we learnt that the opposite of this is also true when we got into a hilarious situation with a couple of ‘localites’ at the airport, the memory of which is still enough to make me start laughing uncontrollably. The atmosphere and culture on this island is absolutely different from any place either of us has ever been before. There is no mistrust among the locals about the tourists and vice versa. The people of this island paradise which has been inhabited now for less than seventy-five years still preserve an innocence from an age before borders existed and which has long since passed away from most of the parts of the world. Here the value of one’s word still weighs more than a piece of signed paper and every guest house owner welcomes you like a guest in his own home.
This was the feeling which inspired us to take our journey to the beautiful hill town of Chiang Mai when suggested to us by a travelling local in Ko Tao. Those who have been to Vietnam would describe it as a cross between Hội An and Hanoi, it is a truly beautiful little town which though having been commercialized to feed off the backpacking tourist still retains an old world charm all around it’s streets. For the person who has not been to Vietnam though, it is a city one could describe as being the Dublin of Thailand because of the beautiful moat which surrounds the old inner city on all four sides and whose roads and bridges make paint a picture of unparalleled beauty when bathing in the soft glowing yellow light of thousands of lamps lining the streets.
When you enter from the east gate, the whole town spreads out in front of you against a backdrop of the tallest mountain in all of Thailand. It is a town which has accepted, idealized and monetized the slow form of life which teaches us to take time to enjoy every breath of air and regale in every morsel of food. It is as if this town can travel in time, one could spend an evening here and feel like it’s an year, or spend an year here and see it passing away as an evening does. The secret to enjoy the time steeped vintage of Chiang Mai is to ignore the omnipresent “Ting Tong” of the seven-eleven stores which inhabit every nook and corner of not only this town but the complete country. After you begin to filter the crowds of people visiting the tens of temples clustered in this Mathura-esque place, you see scores of primary school children directing traffic in the city streets and then you realize how these people have mastered the art of driving and managing traffic on the roads.
It is Chiang Mai that you can finally let your taste buds go wild with local flavor as Ko Tao being a relatively new settlement boasted of mostly foreign cuisines. You cannot proudly proclaim yourself to be a Thai traveler unless you have tasted unimaginable rodents fried to the crisp or meatballs of seven different types of meats or for the sweet at heart, oodles of fresh fruit shakes and mango sticky rice. Of course one must not forget the national food mascot, Pad Thai Noodles – with shrimps – the mere mention of which will make you drool once you have tasted them in your life. The vegetarians out there unfortunately have to content themselves with only the best Samosas in the world.
One of our prime reasons to choose the island paradise of Ko Tao over it’s more popular, ever partying island of Ko Pha Ngan – which has made full moons famous all over the world – was scuba diving.
The great under-water adventure which makes your ears drum with silences and makes your heart pump oxygen faster. The excitement of the trip does not begin to grip you till you board the ferry. And then, as the last minute instructions regarding boat etiquette and visiting the upper are hollered out, your heart begins to beat faster, and you feel a wobbling at the bottom of your stomach which has got nothing to do with your morning breakfast – or the lack of it thereof. The boat swims in choppy water with each side going down and coming up alternately, leaving behind a white froth of air bubbles over a clear deep blue.
The first instance when you look below the surface of water, it is hard to believe what the eye shows. There exists below a whole new world, of which, before that instance, one has no proof of. The heart quickens, this is REAL; not a TV show or a movie, but a real world exists below the water which covers a massive seventy one percent of the total Earth’s surface. Though the water may be murky and the corals and sea bed -which look so new and mysterious to you – but are as common for the ocean as the stone and gravel path is for the majority on land, the mere unraveling of its existence makes one feel like an explorer no less than Columbus and eggs you on to go further and discover what else nature has preserved from the ubiquitous human eye. As you go further into the deeper blue waters – beside one of the only sand bars in the world connecting three teardrop shaped islands – you set your eyes on a wide variety of corals who have made these colorful reefs and the skill, beauty and grace these humblest of nature’s creatures show in creating their homes is like a facepalm moment for all humans. The occasional bannerfish, along with the more common damsel and chromis make for a splendid first journey of the ocean world which makes you wish that fabled underwater cit of Atlantis was real and there existed an Ariel to take you there.