CONTRIBUTED BY DAN KELSO (via personal interview in Thailand)
What’s it like to live on a tiny Thai island that is famous the world over for diving? What’s the cost of living? What are the frustrations? Dan has been living on Koh Tao for the past 14 months and can answer these questions…
I live on a tiny tropical island in Thailand called Koh Tao. I arrived here 14 months ago after my working holiday in Sydney (see story) to spend two months studying to be a Divemaster (story coming soon). I fell in love with the island and I’m happy to now call Koh Tao my current home for the foreseeable future!
About Koh Tao
Koh Tao is a tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand, situated near the other popular tourist islands of Koh Phangan (home to the Full Moon Party) and Koh Samui. I found myself on this island initially to do some casual diving and then chose to come back for further training because it has Thailand’s best diving. There are over twenty dive sites a short boat ride from the island and they all offer something different, so I never find myself bored.
The island is very small! On a scooter, it takes about 15 minutes to scoot from the Northern most point to the Southern most point. Despite this, we never seem to lack anything we need or want. I think this is part of the island’s charm.
Best Parts of Koh Tao
I love being on a small tropical island! It’s sunny 90% of the time and I love my job as a Divemaster, and now soon to be a Dive Instructor!
Thanks to my job, I meet new people every day and have new experiences every day that, in the morning, I never imagined I’d be having. This is a very small island and life here is casual and relaxed. That means that people become more casual and sociable when they arrive here, making life on this little island a pleasure to enjoy every single day.
Despite what you might think, I don’t get itchy feet. Sometimes it feels like a routine, but when you step back and look at it, you realize where you are. You realize that you’re at the beach and diving every day. I’m being paid to do what other people pay to do! So I’d have to say that one of the best bits of Koh Tao is my job.
In my opinion, the Eastern side of Koh Tao, which is the least developed side, is the most beautiful. This is where the nicer resorts are located. Because backpackers generally can’t afford to go to the nicer resorts, it means the Eastern side is quieter and more natural. Hin Wong is a small, seclude bay on the North East side of the island and I think it’s probably the nicest bay on the island.
I think it’s also very special when you get high up in the hills here. When you look down, it’s amazing! If you’re planning to visit then you should check out Goodtime Adventures. Their job is to take people to the special places on the island and I think they do a great job delivering on that promise.
However, with that said, I truly think that the best bits of this island are under water. If you’re not into diving then you can still enjoy the fish and the corals because we have lots of snorkeling sites with wonderfully preserved coral and an abundance of fish!
In terms of diving, almost all of the dives sites are very close to the island, meaning it takes very little boat time to get to any of the dive sites. We also have lots of shallow dive sites so it’s perfect for people learning to dive. I would have to say that my favourite dive sites are Shark Island, Chumpon Pinnacle, and the shipwreck.
Frustrations with Koh Tao
Ultimately, I live here because I love it and there’s nowhere else I would rather be right now. Whilst there are lots of aspects of Koh Tao that I think make it a little paradise, there are certain things that frustrate me about living here. For anyone considering making a move here, or to a similar Thai island, I think it’s important to be aware of these.
First of all, whilst this island is Thailand, it’s not run like the rest of Thailand. It’s still run by a lot of families, sort of like powerful mafia families who own and control segments of the island. It’s slowly changing into a more government-run island and they are now talking about adopting more official procedures for water, power, and waste management. Presently though, there are not many laws on the island for anything. For instance, Koh Tao only just got a ban on polystyrene!
We have a lot of tourists arriving here every day and the island has been growing at a rate that I don’t think the island can sustain. I’ve seen five or six new dive shops open up just in the past 14 months, despite the many that are already here! Likewise for resorts. The power goes out. Water runs out. But they still keep putting up new resorts!
The way the locals deal with rubbish is also something that I will never come to accept or understand. They throw rubbish anywhere and everywhere and it invariably ends up in the sea. Our dive shop tries to mitigate the damage of this by participating in mass clean-ups every month or so, but we always feel like we’re fighting a losing battle.
We did a clean-up in the same place four times in a row over six months. The first time we loaded the whole boat full of rubbish. The second time, it was half the boat. The third time, not so much. But the fourth time, we filled half the boat again! You pick up ten things under water and another 40 things are being dropped on the beach again. It’s maddening!
I truly worry that the island is on a decline. The tourism boom has been huge and I don’t personally think that the locals know how to manage this. They don’t understand that people are here to dive and we’ll leave, taking our tourism dollars with us, if the diving experience declines.
I think the best way that I can describe what I’ve witnessed over the past 14 months is that the Thai and Burmese locals have no concept of the day after tomorrow. They understand today. They understand tomorrow. But the day after tomorrow doesn’t exist for them. They simply can’t comprehend the impact of their current actions on the long-term health of themselves or their little island.
There are even frustrations under water! We operate a no-touch diving policy, but not everyone does and it is harming the underwater environments.
I see many reckless people under water crashing into coral and touching the ecosystems they should simply be observing. They are entirely oblivious to and undisturbed by the damage they’re causing! It’s lack of education and that needs to change. At Master Divers, we regularly hold conservation talks to help with this education, but it needs to be a collective effort in which everyone participates.
It’s not just the tourist divers I see who are disrespecting the underwater environment; it’s the dive schools themselves! There are so many dive centres on the island and the quality varies drastically! It’s easy to be a diver, but it’s not easy to be a good diver.
Cost of Living
What I earn now in one month, I used to earn in four days working in Australia (see story). I don’t do this or live here for the money. I do this and live here because I like it. In fact, I love it! If my laptop breaks, my equipment needs repair, or I have to go home, I really would be scraping the bottom of the bucket to pay for it. But it’s definitely worth it; without a doubt!
As a Divemaster and recently qualified Dive Instructor, I make enough money to live but I don’t really make enough money for a holiday. I’ve actually only had three weeks off the island in the last 14 months! But, when every day feels like holiday, I just don’t really ever feel the need to leave.
My salary has ranged between 15,000 BAHT (convert) and 18,000 BAHT, increasing soon to about 20,000 BAHT now that I’m an Instructor. That’s not a lot of money, but I live in a bungalow on the beach that costs me 5000 BAHT per month. It’s a basic lad’s pad, but it has everything I need, including Wifi, fridge, massive bed, TV – and it gets cleaned once a week!
Other guys I know pay about 8000 BAHT for a similar sort of place. Another guy I know pays 10,000 BAHT for a two-bed house in the mountains. One of his bedrooms has its own en-suite, plus he’s got a full kitchen and balcony.
If you want to live in a really top end place with great views, the top range modern conveniences and leather furniture, you’ll need to pay as much as 25,000 BAHT per month. You won’t be able to afford this if you’re a Divemaster or Dive Instructor!
If you live here, you’ll not only need a home, but you’ll also need to get around because the cost of taxis adds up really quickly. You’ll therefore need to buy yourself a motorbike. For a bike that I call an ‘island bike,’ you’ll need 8,000 – 12,000 BAHT. It won’t look pretty, the lights probably won’t work, and you’ll have to do some work on it – but it will still get you from point A to point B.
Because I earn enough to live, but not really to pay for unforeseen emergencies, medical insurance is a consideration that anyone living here really needs to think about. I pay for an expensive professional level insurance because I dive daily. It costs a small fortune but I need it and I wouldn’t live here without it.
I made a big effort to get rid of everything I own when I left the UK. I sold it all and I now only own a couple boxes of tools and some football shoes back home. I could literally pack everything I own in the space of an hour and be gone if I needed to be. It’s the here and now for me. I’ve got ambition to continually improve as a person and as a diver, but I have no interest in owning anything substantial right now. Owning something would just be a tie that I don’t want at this point in my life.
I’m happy, free, and fully liberated. This is my job and I love it! Look at the scenery I enjoy every day. Look at what I do. I could do this for the rest of my life and probably be perfectly happy. I wouldn’t say that I’d one day like to own a dive shop, but perhaps I’d like to be a manager. The offer of being an Instructor is the only reason I became one; I wasn’t seeking it out. You’ll have to come back in five years and see if I’m still here…
At this point in my life, at age 25, this is what it all boils down to: I’m living near and working with some pretty great people, and I’m doing something I love. I’m still young, but I’ve already realized that, with the right people, anything is good!
ALSO SHARED BY DAN