Koh Tao is small; 21 sq km and half of that too steep to access. Initially the island was not inhabited, frequented only by fisherman from near by islands when seeking shelter during storms or when in need of fresh water and supplies. It seems strange that such a tourist paradise should have been originally earmarked as a prison. Strange, but true. From 1933 until 1947 the island housed political prisoners. Being 70 km from the mainland meant it was fairly escape proof! Alcatraz...piece of cake. Koh Tao is surrounded by sharks too. Nice friendly ones fortunately.
On June the 18th 1899, His Majesty the King Chulalongkorn (Rama V 1868-1910) visited Koh Tao and left his monogram as evidence on a huge boulder at Jor Por Ror Bay next to Sairee Beach. This place is worshipped even today and should be treated with great respect.
The name Koh Tao means Turtle Island; some say that the name is due to the islands shape which is meant to look like an upside down turtle whilst others claim its from the days when the water surrounding the island were rich with turtles and the island was their breeding ground.
In 1947, then Khun A-Paiwong, Thailandâs Prime Minister at the time, asked for and received a royal pardon for the island prisoners thanks to a gracious act by His Majesty the King. They were repatriated and transported to Suratthani on the mainland and the island was deserted yet again. This was the same year that the first settlers laid claim to a large portion of land on what is now known as Sairee Beach. These were the twin brothers Khun Ueam and Khun Oh who reached Koh Tao by boat from the neighboring island of Koh Phangan. The island was still under Royal Patronage in those days but it did not prevent these fortune seekers from staking their claim. The first generation of today's community started settling when they brought their families over and began to cultivate and harvest the rich soil and natural resources on offer. Despite still being under Royal Patronage, plots of land were claimed, and cleared for coconut plantations. You will still see plenty of evidence of the huge plantations all over the island.
Their lives consisted of harvesting coconuts, growing vegetables & fruit and of course sustaining themselves through fishing. In those days getting to Koh Tao required a treacherous boat journey from near by islands or the main land, if and when the seas and weather permitted but the population continued to grow steadily all the same, even when simple life was hard without much reward.
The early 80âs brought to Koh Tao some of the first travellers from Koh Phangan who were looking for some thing new away from the masses and crowds who were going mad for the full moon parties on Koh Phangan. Here they discovered something more then just a new island to explore and soon the back-packer network was buzzing about the wonderful newly found island paradise. Mesmerised by the beautiful beaches, the back of beyond aura, and of course the cheap living, backpackers soon arrived in droves. Arrivals and departures were on the local coconut boats, and even then delays of several days were common place. Back to the hammock and a world of dreams; âBoat come another dayâ. Consequently, as its reputation for gorgeous nature, unique marine life and amazing landscapes grew, easier access was made available when better and safer boats were brought in to handle the number of visitors being attracted to the island.
Koh Taoâs reputation spread and rapidly increased as it widely became known all over world through international travelers and adventurous visitors.
During the last 12 odd years the island has changed in many ways as it developed to become one of the major dive destinations in Thailand, attracting all levels of divers and water lovers alike. Local fishermen and farmers realised that business people from other places were developing their island to accommodate the needs of all these new customers and they too immediately started to open businesses to fulfill all the clienteles' demands. From the original A-Frame huts on the beach for 20 Baht a night, to simple thatched bungalows, the local Thai families reacted quickly to this influx of strangers other wise known as 'farangs. Attracted by the coral reefs surrounding Koh Tao, and the growth in recreational scuba diving, a number of companies set up diving businesses on the island. These companies in turn developed resorts for their clientele, and over the years several of these resorts have become quite plush.Now a days, you can find everything from cheap simple wooden huts with thatched roofs to elegant up-market villas with their own private swimming pool.
In the late 1990's the islands first, and until recently, only road was constructed. Hand laid concrete, the road runs North to South from the far side of Sairee to the southern settlement of Chalok Baan Kao. A new road is under construction towards Tanote Bay, and once completed will open up the far side of the island for greater development. Immediately following the terrible events of the December 2004 Tsunami, the caliber of tourist visiting Koh Tao changed. Previously it had been a Mecca for backpackers, year out students, and young travelers along their way down south to Malaysia, or North to Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and beyond. Suddenly the island ferries were disgorging people with suitcases, not backpacks, laptops not guitars, and what is this; trainers not flip flops?! And some had children too. A culture shock to many, but generally the island reacted with a passion to these new visitors. Over the following months much change has taken place. New resorts, with more facilities, a new array of restaurants offering cuisine from around the world, and even things for families to do during the day, when the beach becomes too much. We now have 24 hour electricity on the island too and finally have a water reservoir being built to ensure that even in the dry season there is enough water for all. Occasionally progress can be a wonderful thing. Fortunately the island has maintained its relaxed atmosphere, it's still nigh on impossible to find a crowded beach. And yes, you can still snorkel with sharks, and perhaps the odd turtle too. Just ask for directions at the local dive shop.......