Nowhere on this trip to Thailand—at least not so far—has brought me the traumatic nostalgia I felt upon arriving in Koh Samui on the second Wednesday of 2022, which makes sense. The last time I was making my way through the breezy, outdoor arrival area of Samui Airport and along the confusingly long path to the designated meeting point, the world was just days from shutting down.
I’d been none the wiser, of course. After meeting my driver, who’d been arranged for me by the corporation sponsoring my trip to the island, I became nothing short of a VIP for 96 hours. I’d felt particularly elite once I finished gathering the data needed to complete the corporate white paper I was writing. Koh Samui became my oyster; unfortunately for me, it was an oyster on the verge of rotting.
This time, a sad-looking man (well, as much as you can ascertain emotions through a face mask) was one of only a few standing in the arrivals area. Mr./Mrs. Robert Schrader, the flimsy paper sign read. They couldn’t even be bothered to denote my damned gender.
Which was fine enough: This time, Samui was a waypoint, not a destination. “Yes, just one night,” I confirmed to the extremely attractive receptionist at the shockingly chic Bang Rak hotel where I’d be spending the night before boating off the next morning. “I’m headed to Koh Tao tomorrow, and then Koh Pha Ngan after that.”
The two of us exchanged pleasantries on our way past the pool toward my villa, which was effectively a two-bedroom landed house (three, if you take the private rooftop terrace into account, as I did) literally 45 seconds from the beach, albeit not Samui’s finest one. From said beach I could see the Big Buddha, admittedly from a somewhat unflattering angle.
Setting aside the ambiguously stale smell and the occasional roar of jets and propeller planes overhead, it was far more than I expected for the 1,000 Baht I paid for it, let alone as a stopover made necessary only because of anemic pandemic-era ferry schedules.
Of course, I didn’t take a ferry to Koh Tao. On account of anemic demand (itself a function of Thailand’s ever-changing border rules), the Lomphraya company has down-gauged most of its vessels to speedboats. Aboard mine, which was packed, I sat next to a German couple clad in KN95s and generally looking horrified.
Well, as much as you can tell how someone looks when their entire face (they were also wearing sunglasses) is covered. When I took my own mask off after we reached full velocity, the couple clutched each other as if Death itself was sitting across from them; I could feel the disdain of their glare.
Thankfully, the young man sitting next to me was sane—he, too, realized that going maskless while speeding across the open sea was not only safe but sensible—and friendly, even if he was too shy to say hi directly. Instead, he played footsie with me for several minutes, before breaking the ice by asking me about an unsightly scar on my left calf.
“I got it from a motorcycle,” I explained matter-of-factly.
I shook my head. “In Texas. I walked too close to one that was parked and was still red hot—I guess it had just been turned off.”
“So you’re from Texas?” He pivoted, pulling down his shades to look me in the eye.
I laughed. “Kind of, but also kind of not. It’s complicated. Where are you from?”
“It’s also complicated. I’m from Indonesia, but have also lived in Italy and Germany.”
“Where in Indonesia?” I asked, guessing that he would answer “near Jakarta” as globetrotting Indonesians almost always do.
Instead, he surprised me: He originally came from Sumatra. And I surprised him, having rattled off the the name “Banda Aceh” when he told me he hailed from one of the most conservative Islamic places in Indonesia, in spite of not being Muslim himself.
“You are definitely the most impressive American I’ve met,” he caught himself, and qualified his hyperbole. “For geography.”
The bad news is that Michael, as I learned he was named, would only be visiting Koh Tao on a day trip. The good news? We were both ultimately bound for Koh Nang Yuan, an island (well, a trio of islets) just off the northeast coast of Tao itself.
Michael was on a diving excursion, and planned to be on dry land around noon for lunch. As a result, when I finally got to Nang Yuan—it took longer than I expected, on account of a shitty long tail boat taxi and a driver who stopped often too take personal phone calls—I raced up to the famous viewpoint, which offers a bird’s eye view of the pair of sand bars connecting the three more permanent landmasses.
I was disappointed, to be sure, when I received his message just upon reaching the top. “We’re eating on the boat,” he said. “Maybe meet around 3?”
Thankfully, while photographing myself (and the scene below) with wild abandon, I made the acquaintance of an extremely attractive Thai man, who apparently knew who I was.
“We have several mutual Facebook friends,” he said, as if it wasn’t totally strange (and awesome, since he was hot) to have crossed paths on a random island during a pandemic. He opened his phone to confirm. “Robert, right? I sent you a friend request—you didn’t accept.”
I pulled out my own phone and righted the wrong. “Now I did. We should stay in touch. Want me to send you a message when I’m back to Tao?”
He nodded. “Please do.”
I didn’t end up having to write him. Precisely as I arrived to the more northerly sandbar (and received a message from Michael that he would not, in fact, be setting foot on Koh Nang Yuan at all), I ran into Facebook guy (whose name was Prus) by the only restaurant on the island.
I won’t go into the gory details of what we got up to, other than to say we walked to the end of said sandbar, where some very…concealing boulders are assembled. When in Rome, do as the Romans do; when in Koh Tao, do other things the Romans did in Rome.
Prus, who was on a day tour, left shortly thereafter. I hunkered down at the restaurant, whose pregnant cook took seriously the “phet dai” insistence I made upon ordered Pad Grapaw Gai: They added so much chili pepper a burning, choking aroma filled the air, causing a passing Frenchman to shout “Putain!” as he sauntered in front of me.
I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting chest-deep in the water of the lagoon, which was like a swimming pool both in clarity and warmth. As I sat there, another Frenchman back on land blathering on (in English) about how rich he expected to get from NFTs this year, zebra fish circled around my feet like half-evolved sharks.
The sun began sinking toward the horizon and my 4 PM long tail taxi time loomed, and I pondered my luck. To have had playful swimming partners instead of predatory ones; to have made an intimate connection with a not-so-total stranger in a place hardly known for such encounters.
Some people will make a fortune on the blockchain this year—I just want to regain my sense of control.
No one wears masks on Koh Tao, to the chagrin (I imagine) of the frumpy Germans. I’m not sure why I didn’t think to mention this until now; it’s probably because I was too distracted enjoying Thailand as I used to when you could see people’s faces.
I suppose it’s good this is now the most notable thing about Koh Tao, given the island’s somewhat short-lived reputation as Thailand’s “murder island.” (Then again, if you ask the frumpy German from my speedboat yesterday, the lack of masks on Koh Tao might be tantamount to homicide.)
Indeed, the only thing “dead” here are the bars, restaurants and most hotels; this is by far the most blighted place I’ve been in post-pandemic Thailand. As I dined Thursday evening in an eatry where I was the only customer, I drank my second beer in as many years (the first was earlier that day on Koh Nang Yuan). I couldn’t find a single open place that sold mixed drinks, or even Thai whisky.
I met up with Prus again and, when he left, told him to message me when he got back to his hotel knowing full well I’d be asleep by the time he arrived. I was shocked, upon waking at 5 on Friday as I always do, to see that he was up and stirring.
I’m trying to become a morning person, he wrote, without explaining why.
Somehow, even as I ate breakfast alonem genuinely curious as to whether I would join an organized tour around the island, I knew I’d spend the day with Prus, as dangerous as that could prove to be. (I don’t mean “danger” in the sense that I doubted his driving skills, and certainly not with any murderous connotation.)
You see, it was that as we sped south toward Freedom Beach, me on the back of the blue bike and Prus driving it, a bedrock of wisdom undergirded the exhilaration I might otherwise have felt. Or that I really did feel.
It was exhilarating, the feeling of wild abandon speeding up and down hills with only my hands around his body keeping mine from flying off, the butterflies fluttering around the darkness of my stomach like moths without a bulb to fly toward.
I’d be lying to you if I said there wasn’t a romance about it; I’d have been lying to myself if I had fully lost myself in it. It’s flattering to still be able to get it at almost 37; it would be tragic to allow myself to get gotten by it.
As we reached the top of two viewpoints, first the aptly-named “360º” and second the “John Suwon” one, I tried to focus on the beauty of Koh Tao itself, to distract me from the disarmingness of his. I looked out on a pair of beaches—Shark Bay to my east and Chalok Bay to my west—and the quality that elevated Koh Tao above its neighbors became apparent: It was the most Andaman-like of Thailand’s Gulf islands, what with its massive boulders and the fluorescence of its waters.
Down on Freedom Beach, atop one of said rocks like the Little Mermaid statue, I saw myself reflected in the onyx of his pupil, which bled into the mahogany of his iris. It was as if we were two characters in an alternate version of “Call Me By Your Name” (but without the creepy age difference) or if I was one of Jack’s French girls referenced in “Titanic.”
And yet there was sadness, and not just because I knew nothing would ever come of our little tryst. How many such roving romances never came to be in 2020 and 2021 (and may never come to be in 2022 or beyond) due to restrictions that never should have been?
As we sped north toward Sairee Beach, my arms around his waist again, I thought back to two fortunes I’d gotten the two times I made the mistake of ordering take out from the disgusting Chinese place near my apartment in St. Louis’ Dogtown neighborhood.
Traveling to the east will bring great rewards, one had said. The other, You will take a risk, it will pay off. Was having met Prus my great reward, and how would that pay off? Would it?
Having our late lunch looking out on Haad Sairee, Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” blared in the background. I’ll spare you my literal, cheesy, teen-regressive interpolation of the lyrics onto the situation I found myself in. Nor will I illustrate in too great detail our playful, effortless escapade amid the shallow surf just off the thin strip of sand that makes up the beach.
Rather, I’ll hearken back to a dog we met while dining. Well, “encountered” might be more apt a verb—he didn’t want anything to do with us. Rather than bringing his tennis ball to any human to have them throw it to him, he dug progressively deeper holes on the beach, allowing the sand to collapse back in and digging the ball out again, over and over for more times than I could count.
I knew from personal experience—every moment of my adult life that I wasn’t infatuated with someone, actually—that this canine’s seemingly lonely routine was a surer path to happiness than even the best human fetch partner.
The question swirling through my mind, following a similar but opposite trajectory to the blind butterflies in my stomach, was this: Do I want a sure thing, or do I want a good thing?
The moment I said goodbye to Prus—I got off the ferry in Pha Ngan; he was continuing on to Samui—it was like I went back in time two days. Back before I knew he existed. Because shortly after having learned he did, he became the only person in my world.
Sometimes distance makes the heart grow fonder. Other timers it makes the heart grow weak, so that the mouth can barely speak. Fate got me into this mess; I await her judgment.
My prince may be gone, but my friend Nath (a prince of a different sort), will soon arrive. I last saw him exactly two weeks ago, when we took a day trip from Bangkok to the giant Buddha of Ang Thong. I want to say something witty about “bros before hos”—certainly, I need to live that particular slogan—but I’m not feeling very funny at the moment.
As I arranged my things within the bungalow I rented so that it would be able to accommodate another person, I thought back on a video YouTube’s creepy algorithm had recommended me the night before. It was about “limerence,” a sort of obsessive, superficial love into which people whose childhood needs were not met often fall.
That was definitely the case with Ken, I conceded, thinking back to how my fixation on my brief fling with a gaslighting Taiwanese man had prevented me from being even slightly present during my last major trip with Nath, to the Koh Yao islands in late 2019. But it’s different with Prus. I’m not obsessed.
I continued waiting for Nath in the stilted hill house, whose construction meant that it shook and swayed in spite of never actually moving. When he got there, he had to do some work; I headed down to the beach to what I assumed was our hotel’s restaurant, which actually ended up belonging to the property—the exclusive, extremely private property—next door.
On the way down I’d fallen on one of the steps, which were less well-made than the bungalows themselves. In spite of this places beauty, and the stunning views it afforded, it was wholly inconvenient.
Nath and I spent the short remainder of our day at Top of the Rock, a makeshift bar built—you guessed it—atop a rocky cliff that offered stunning views off Koh Pha Ngan’s west coast. The sun began setting quickly after we got our cocktails—me a mojito, Nath a Cuba libre—behind the islands of Ang Thong Marine Park, although I initially mistook them as Koh Tao on account of their distance on the horizon.
It was difficult not to read a symbolism into the sun setting on that place, even if it ended up being another place entirely. As the light disappeared, and took the warm colors of the sky down into the sea with it, I instead tried to look toward: We had a big day coming up.
A peculiar thing happened when I made my coffee my first full day in Koh Phangan. The fancy quasi-espresso machine inside the bungalow spit it out ice cold, in spite of having the color, texture and aroma of a hot cup. I’ll never be able to explain how or why that happened, but it’s exactly what I wanted so I can’t complain.
It ended up setting the tone for the day, at least once it got going. For the first hour or so, I wasn’t quite sure what to think of Pha Ngan. There were lots of farang—in most places, there were only farang—and Indian-vegetarian restaurants called “Shanti” and baggy elephant pants and beaches with only private roads leading to them. Only foreigners would dare access them, anyway.
That was how Nath and I finally made our way to Haad Salad, after a disappointing trip to Sri Thanu and then, having arrived at Mae Haad when the tide was too high to have walked to Koh Ma, even if we’d wanted to. Nath had preferred to avoid “trespassing” to reach the beach (Salad Beach, this is), but I refused to believe that one of the island’s most popular beaches was anything but public.
“I’m glad we ended up coming—it’s gorgeous,” Nath said as he looked out at the emerald water from our table, where we’d both ordered iced Americanos, but where Burmese staff (everyone who works in Pha. Ngan—and most who work in Koh Tao, for that matter—is Burmese) tried to push us into green smoothies topped with goji berries.
“You know they’re from Myanmar,” Nath explained, “because the lack the Thai smile.” In Pha Ngan as in Tao, almost no one wears masks.
Behind us, a British woman was telling her friend about the “most amazing person” she had apparently just met. Amazing energy, so she says. In front of us was another woman, this one doing yoga poses in the surf, her elephant pants utterly soaked by the time she walked about.
“I guess that’s why they call it ‘Salad’ beach,” I thought out loud.
“What do you mean?” Nath asked.
“I mean because the water is kind of green, like salad leaves.”
After lunch when I submerged myself in Haad Salad’s cool, spinach-colored waters, Pha Ngan starting making perfect sense. But everything else became murkier—I started thinking about Prus, and whether and how I would see him again. How was I going to make romantic time work within the frame of my very well-built trip, ostensibly a work trip, and therefore a wholly inflexible one?
As Nath and I continued our journey, first to a Thai temple falsely advertised online as having been Chinese, and then back to Mae Haad where Koh Ma was still far out of reach on account of the tide, I looked for clarity. I look for signs. I saw clouds shaped like Brazil and Iceland; at a waterless waterfall nonetheless named “Paradise,” I saw a small statue of Phayanark. None of it was concordant.
Oddly, my clearest moment of clarity came as we we nearer the southeastern part of the island. The road to Haad Rin, the famous Full Moon Party beach, was much wilder than I expected; in this ferality I found another semblance of sense.
The beach itself mirrored this—the destination took on all the best parts of the journey there. The waves were modestly sized, but they raced in and then back out so fast it was a miracle they left even the long-tail boats moored on shore in their wake. I didn’t dare walk out into the surf.
Later back on the west coast, trying to find the right seafood restaurant for my last (for now) supper with Nath, it dawned on me as the sun set that this experience—taking a long, unbroken Thailand trip—has allowed me to see the country like never before, after 12 years
Would staying with Prus a while—and thereby breaking it up—ruin this? And would it be a worthy trade off?
As the nearly-full moon rose behind the palm forest just opposite the sea, I wasn’t sad to be missing the party. But I was sad, at a visceral level, even if there were pangs of elation speckled out like the stars appearing one by one.
Heading back to Samui early Monday morning, I recalled having seen the the ferry from Bo Phut beach in March 2020, days before the wheels fell off the bus. I pictured myself there again—on Bo Phut beach, this is—today, watching almost two years later as I took what used to be someone else’s journey.
Riding the songthaew taxi to Samui Airport, and walking the surprisingly long path to the open-air arrivals area, a similar sense of uncertainty wafted in the palms swaying overhead as it had done the last time I was here. But this time, it was hopeful instead of foreboding—and not just because it seems, at last, like Covid itself could finally be waning. I chuckled as I passed the shop selling paper made from elephant dung—I was happy it had managed to stay in business.
Could a chance encounter on Koh Tao, a place I wouldn’t have been right now were it not for the insane web of travel restrictions governing my life, end up making everything I’ve endured the past two years worth it? And would that worth come from recognizing that said encounter is best left self-contained, or in having the courage to see it through to whatever end it might have?
Other FAQ About Koh Tao vs Koh Pha Ngan
Is it worth going to Koh Tao?
Koh Tao is absolutely worth a trip, even if you don’t have a red hot love affair like I did. The island’s wild scenery is what I like to think of as the “most Andaman of the Gulf,” with dramatic boulders and water that takes on a deep, fluorescent hue. It’s honestly one of the most beautiful islands I’ve ever visited in Thailand.
Is Koh Pha Ngan or Koh Tao better?
I personally prefer Koh Tao’s scenery, its relatively small size and the unpretentiousness of its vibe compared to Koh Pha Ngan. Which is strange, because I’m sure all the motorbike-riding yoga teachers on Koh Pha Ngan think they’re totally unpretentious. Different strokes!
Can you walk around Koh Tao?
You can conceivably explore Koh Tao on foot, although having a motorbike (or a boy/girl who rides one) will make your life a lot easier. The thing about Koh Tao is that while it’s relatively small, it’s also extremely hilly. I wouldn’t want to have to walk anywhere other than along the coast of the island, and I say this is a very fit person.