Never Say Never Again

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July 23rd 2009
Published: September 30th 2009
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Now THAT'S a Gecko! Sunshine, Koh Tao.
Thailand; The Land of Smiles.

The locals really do seem a cheery bunch round here, and for our part, we found no trouble fitting right in, as we appeared to have just stumbled on paradise.

First stop was Koh Phi Phi, a picture-perfect little islet of curving beaches and lush jungle. The view from the peak was pure travel brochure, like stepping onto the set of an escapist movie, which in fact you had as scenes from The Man with the Golden Gun were filmed here way back when.

To make it even more special, we’d arrived in low season when the place was practically deserted, having the beaches almost entirely to ourselves. Quite a few restaurants and hotels had simply shut up shop for the month, but enough remained open to ensure the locals comfortably outnumbered the tourists. Indeed such was the paucity of punters that we had to gang together with fellow travellers just to get trips to run at all.

Thus, in order to book three days of diving, I had first to drum up two other guys, who in turn signed me up for a day of Big Game Fishing.
Given my passion
Shrine at Viewpoint, Koh Tao.Shrine at Viewpoint, Koh Tao.Shrine at Viewpoint, Koh Tao.

A Good Place to Pray for that Thunderball Win!
for marine conservation I wasn’t entirely comfortable with this, but it seemed to be the only way I’d get out at all. In any case I could always catch and release, leave them to Die Another Day.

So it was that I found myself next morning bleary-eyed on the beach awaiting our Big Adventure. I have to say I’d envisioned a scene straight out of Jaws, the Orca awaiting us with a Thai Robert Shaw aboard, scraping his nails down a blackboard while giving a maniacal grin. He’d strap me into a big chair and hand me a rod the size of a lamp-post. So I was a little deflated when our Quint turned out to be nothing but a scrawny little guy who turned up late and lazily ushered us aboard his long-tail.

“Is this to take us to the big boat?” we enquired hopefully.

A Roger Moore cocked eyebrow conveyed that not only was this the big boat, but also that he couldn’t speak a single word of English.

This could be a long day.

Undaunted our little party clambered aboard and off we set, all trying to squeeze under the single tiny parasol amidships which would serve as our sole shade until dusk. Despite an extended Twister-esque reshuffle, we could only manage cover from the ankles down, and the rest of us was toast.

After an amazingly long putter out, by which time Phi Phi was just a tiny speck on the horizon, the fishing began. Our skipper proudly pulled out a tiny thread of a line with all the strength of a spider’s web, bedecked with curious mini-gold hooks spaced each foot apart. Having given us a knowing ‘This is gonna be good!’ look, he casually lobbed it over the side and went back to his cigarette. We in turn exchanged terse accusatory glances amongst ourselves while trying to remember whose idea this was in the first place, and resignedly prepared ourselves for a day of almighty disappointment.

Barely thirty seconds later, though, the Cap’n grinned once more and pulled the line back in, a little wriggling fish on every hook, and gunned the engine once more towards the horizon. This, it turned out, was just the bait.

Off we motored for several hours more, the island by now a long distant memory. Either we were going Big Game fishing off the coast of India, or we were about to rendezvous with a larger boat that would relieve us of our wallets, heads and hands. Ah well... You Only Live Twice!

Eventually we came to a halt once more, way out in the middle of nowhere, and out came the rods proper, which, while not exactly gargantuan, certainly looked as if they might just do the job. We baited up eagerly with A View To A Kill.

Before long the lines were in the water and the waiting began. One of our number was an experienced angler and knew all about patience, but the rest of us had barely ever held a rod before and had very little idea of what to expect.

It turned out that what to expect was nothing, except if you count hours of tedium and third-degree sunburn. What this fishing trip was lacking, other than the fish obviously, was beer, which, with an astonishing lack of foresight, nobody had thought to bring along. My ecological conscience was placated more and more by the minute, as despite big fish leaping from the waters all around, nobody was getting so much as a bite.

Eventually we gave up altogether, deciding to swim with the fishes rather than catch them, and stowed our lines to plunge in and cool down, suddenly feeling remarkably exposed in such a wide expanse of open ocean.

The skipper insisted we give it one more try before heading home, and, as luck would have it, that’s when it all started happening. For the first time all day, my line gave out a few desultory clicks, before falling silent once more. I shot an expectant look at our leader. No sooner had he returned a sceptical head-shake than the line began ticking once more, slow at first but then quickening steadily. The Bond-eyebrow raise returned, and just as he signalled to hold on tight than the reel went ballistic, the line flying out in an eerie whine. As my rod’s tip bent to the horizon I had visions of the whole boat being dragged off stern-first by some monster fish, my arms yanked straight out from their sockets. There were no sign of tethered barrels or harpoons aboard to tame the beast; it was just up to me and my puny little frame. Fortunately I didn’t have to contend with a dragging boat long as, moments later, another line went off at the bow, two big fish now playing a tug of war, with us as the rope.

It turned out the trick was not to bother fighting at all, but let the fish run until they exhausted themselves and then reel them back in. Trouble was, just as your arms were really starting to ache, the fish found a new lease of life and buggered off again with nothing you could do about it, the whole cycle starting over. It was close to an hour before we finally pulled our catch close enough to see, and what beauties they were, two big Sailfish, mine a five-footer and the other guy’s six. They were a majestic steely silver-blue, their flanks a pattern of stripes and swirls all colours of the rainbow, and the very sight of them made you forget your aching forearms entirely, your grimace replaced by a big fat grin. Sadly thoughts of catch and release were something of a moot point, exhaustion getting the better of them, and they’d pretty much expired by the time we got them aboard, their colours fading fast.
Sunset on Sairee, Koh Tao.Sunset on Sairee, Koh Tao.Sunset on Sairee, Koh Tao.

The Good Old Days!

So we ate them.

Not there and then, but back on shore, one of the few open restaurants more than happy to take them off our hands. We actually ended up turning a small profit on the trip, as well as enjoying three delicious free feeds over the next few nights.

The diving days were tamer by comparison, though the location at nearby Phi Phi Lei outdid even the main island. What’s more, for the last two days it was just me, along with an instructor and the skipper, on a boat which would hold fifty. All of which went no way at all to explaining why they offered me a dive-master job when we finished. ‘Dive-master to who?’ was the obvious question. Apparently the pace would pick up pretty fast in a few weeks time, once the season proper began.

I was keen to see more than just Phi Phi though, gorgeous though it was. We caught the ferry to Krabi, and on from there to Rei Leh Bay which, astonishingly, topped even Phi Phi.

I could never imagine a more idyllic spot. Huge turrets of orange limestone karst thrust vertically from the clear blue seas, each one gleaming in the sun like a huge Goldfinger, topped with lush rainforest and towering over the white-sand beaches below.

I booked to go out rock-climbing and thoroughly shat myself, vertigo rearing its ugly head! Having had The Living Daylights scared out of me, I chose to stick to ground level for the next few days, meandering around the bays, chilling in the clear waters and taking in the sunsets from the beachfront bars.

Life doesn’t get much better than this.

Rei Leh is the perfect romantic getaway, an ideal spot for a marriage proposal, honeymoon, or any other excuse to get between the sheets and prove that Diamonds Are Forever.

The only thing that’s missing is good diving, and having whetted my appetite on Phi Phi we decided to cross the country and head out into the Gulf of Thailand to the little isle of Koh Tao.

While it doesn’t have the spectacle of Phi Phi or the romance of Rei Leh Bay, what this small hilly strip of green does have is a fantastic vibe. It wasn’t inhabited at all until 1989, but ever since then dive schools have been springing up left, right and centre to service its abundant reefs.

Again the diving’s not exactly earth-shattering, but it does the job well enough, with one or two stand-outs. The real attraction is the sheer mellowness of the island and its easy-going inhabitants. Live and Let Dive, as they say round these parts. As you relax in this tropical paradise you feel instantly right at home, only without all the hassles. The reefs are close by and the weather invariably calm, with plenty of time to just take it all in. Crawl from your beach hut to breakfast by the ocean, then stroll down the palm-fringed beach and book onto a dive-boat for the afternoon. By night you can soak up the atmosphere at the beachfront bars, or else dine at a secluded hillside restaurant and watch the lights of the fishing boats twinkling far away below out to sea.

Once again after only a few days I was offered dive work, and this time there might actually be something to do, as each dive-boat carried a healthy sprinkling of punters come morning.

It has to be said I was sorely tempted. It’s easy to see yourself
King Bhumibol on Thai Baht NotesKing Bhumibol on Thai Baht NotesKing Bhumibol on Thai Baht Notes

Could Developers Be Acting For His Majesty's Secret Service?
staying a month, a year, a decade...

And why not???

Despite having all the pace of life of a slug, the time just slips away, every day the same as the last, as in pretty much perfect. The most taxing decision to make all day is where to go for dinner, whether or not to have just one more beer.

I took a long hard look in the mirror that night and weighed up my options.

Why not just go for it?

Here I was with no real commitments, no job to go back to, in short nothing standing between me and taking the best job in the world, and all while still in the prime of my life, my best years yet to come.


What are you laughing at?!!!

Twenty-eight’s still in your prime, isn’t it?

Oh, I'm sorry, did I forget to mention?

This is 1996.

Thailand in 2009?

Just horrible!!!

Phi Phi was already an over-crowded dump by the time I returned in 2001, since when it was wiped out in the tsunami and rebuilt as an enormous five-star resort, by all accounts ruining the place. The real joke is the whole place is meant to be a National Park, but whoever’s in charge has plainly got a Licence To Kill.

I was last at Rei Leh early in 2007, and found it going much the same way, a seedy Torremolinos where once had stood paradise. I’ve never felt so disenchanted in all my life. It’s difficult to conceive how you could so totally ruin a place in such a short time, buildings erected since my first visit already a crumbling mess of concrete and exposed wiring, with rubbish strewn everywhere. Far from being romantic, these days I wouldn’t take Debbie there if I was going to ask for a divorce!

And what of Koh Tao, my favourite of them all?

I did return in 2001, lived and worked there for almost a year on and off, and it was all that I’d hoped it would be. The week I left, though, they opened the first 7-11, and on the day of departure up went the mobile phone tower. Times were a-changin’. The writing was on the wall.

It was thus with some trepidation that I boarded the ferry at Chumpon to return at decade’s end.

So how was the old girl looking?

Well, in short, like an old girl.

The beautiful maiden of yesteryear had been thoroughly through the wringer in the last decade and the cracks were beginning to show.

Having said that, the main port at Mae Haad had actually improved. It used to be a scruffy mess, but a shot of Botox had been given to smooth out the wrinkles, and it seemed much cleaner, tidier and more ordered town with all the building work complete.

Down the main beach at Sairee though, it was a different story entirely, things having gone in the opposite direction.

And how!

In days of old I would stroll twenty minutes down this gorgeous strip of sand on my way to work, stopping off at one of the beachside cafes for a breakfast of coffee, fruit , and perhaps a pancake.

Eight years of unrestrained development had transformed it into an ugly overcrowded dump, home to the dreaded package tourist and the kind of clientele previously confined to the likes of Corfu and Ayia Napa, for whom, it seems, the World
Could That Be a Moonraker?Could That Be a Moonraker?Could That Be a Moonraker?

The End of Another Gorgeous View
Is Not Enough. Overweight sunburnt Brits now staggered this way and that down the very same sands, searching for the perfect hangover cure in the form of a Bacon Butty and Singha or two. ‘That Vodka Red Bull, eh? Really does my nut in! I tell ya, this ed-aches From Russia Wiv Love!’

The island’s undoubted allure has led a fair number of my ex-colleagues to stay on all this time. Now, though, they’re taking their leave one-by-one, a sure sign of the times, as huge holes appear in the landscape one after another, marking out the borders of the next mega-resort or Casino Royale, an island-wide chase for the bountiful cash cow for whom Tomorrow Never Comes.

Sure, there are still some quality laid-back spots if you know where to look, which does provide a Quantum of Solace, but they’re getting few and far between. I’m not about to tell you where they are, though. Maybe face-to-face, but this being a travel-blog it’s hardly For Your Eyes Only.

In any case even without me they won’t last long. The cat is well and truly out of the bag, the genie released from the bottle and there’s no stopping it. One year, maybe two, three at the most and the old Koh Tao will be gone forever, just another overblown tourist dump.

The writing’s on the wall. I’ll not be back.

Then again, you know what they say.

Never Say Never Again!

But d’you know what the worst thing is, the very worst thing that really gets my goat?

I did this.

It’s all my fault.

Okay, so I had a little help from a few thousand other kindred souls, as well as a handful of local Branson’s, intent on taking their chunk of the Land of Smiles and laughing all the way to the bank. But at the end of the day, if it wasn’t for me or others very like me, none of this would have happened and the island would still be pristine.

I’m going straight to hell for sure.

The only question is, when I get there, will it look like Koh Tao?


30th September 2009

Great Blog! Ian Flemming would be proud :)
So true, I wish I'd seen some of the Thai islands pre-2005- will I have the same feelings in 2015? going back and reminiscing about the days where there was only one 7/11 and only a couple of mega-resorts...

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