About halfway through our year of living and working in the Florida Keys, my partner and I decided it wasn’t the right place for us and that we would relocate to Southeast Asia at the end of 2022. I had been considering being a dive instructor — and hopefully one day a dive shop owner or operator — as a second career for years, intending to end up in SE Asia, a part of the world I had enjoyed traveling through years before. COVID had delayed and altered those plans — as it did for many people — and after I completed my dive instructor training in 2021 it didn’t feel like the right time to move to SE Asia, so we ended up in the Keys. We liked our jobs and the friends we made there, but the Florida Keys is still, well, Florida, and Florida is just not for us. Having decided to pack up our lives and move halfway across the world in search of a new home, the big question was: “Where?”
There is no shortage of great places to dive in SE Asia as it is home to some of the best diving spots in the world; there are so many places it seemed overwhelming trying to decide. Many of the best diving spots are pretty remote and, call us spoiled, but we like having access to “things” and stuff to do outside of diving and drinking. This helped us narrow down our options, but we quickly realized it didn’t actually leave us all that many options that fit what we were looking for: good diving, a nice community, decent access to goods and services, a variety of food options, non-water-related activities…and hopefully no Trump bumper stickers.
We decided to spend about three months traveling around Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, checking out a variety of locations in the quest to find our new home. Some of them were less likely to be places we ended up, but we wanted to see what was out there, and, in truth, we just wanted to dive some of them! Nusa Lembongan/Nusa Penida, Gili Trawangan, Amed, Kuta Lombok, Komodo, Phuket, Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao, Koh Lanta, Cebu/Mactan, Moalboal, Malapascua, El Nido, Coron. It was a whirlwind and we didn’t even end up diving in all of them. The diving was incredible — manta rays, nudibranchs, pygmy seahorses, thresher sharks, tiger sharks, millions of sardines, WWII wrecks! — particularly Komodo, Malapascua, Coron, Nusa Penida, and Amed but, as we expected, our favorite diving locations did not line up with places we saw ourselves living for any extended period of time. Compromises would have to be made and, being the former finance exec that I am, I built a spreadsheet.
In truth, by the time we left Thailand for the Philippines, we pretty much knew we were gonna end up back in Thailand somewhere, it was just a question of which location. Our totally subjective point-scoring system spat out Phuket and Koh Tao as the top two options (Koh Tao actually tied with Koh Phangan and Koh Samui, for different reasons, but the tiebreaker went to Koh Tao given the much larger dive community). As it happened, we were making our decision on where to head after escaping the Philippines (incredibly beautiful, great diving, terrible food and infrastructure) near the end of June and that meant monsoon season in Phuket. So, somewhat by default, we headed to Koh Tao, with the obligatory stopover in Bangkok. (Side note: if Bangkok was on the ocean and had decent diving, we would be living in Bangkok. What a glorious mess of a city. We loved it.)
If you had asked me before we started our travels about Koh Tao as a possible destination, I likely would have rolled my eyes and said “Absolutely not” or “Only if there are no other options.” From what I had heard, Koh Tao was the land of drunk 18-to-20-something backpackers, bad diving, and worse dive shops; a certification factory turning out cheap, counterfeit divers. It didn’t sound like a place I wanted to live and work. The reality turned out to be far different.
We had first arrived on Koh Tao, during our travels through Thailand, after an underwhelming visit to Koh Samui (very livable, just not very interesting) and an overwhelming visit to Koh Phangan (very, very “interesting” and far too easy to get into “trouble”), expecting to find lots of cheap hostels and thatched roof beach bars offering happy hour buckets and dollar beers. Instead, our first walk along the beach road in Sairee offered up fancy restaurants and bars with prices that would have been at home at a Samui beachfront resort. We were shocked. It looked like Koh Tao had gone from backpacker to “flashpacker”!
Koh Tao has changed a lot and the perception hasn’t quite caught up with the reality. (I wrote a whole post about how Koh Tao is appealing to a broader range of travelers now.) It still has its backpackers and backpacker hostels, bars, and pub crawls, but the range of things on offer in Koh Tao far surpassed what we were expecting. There is an excellent variety of food and drink, things to do that don’t involve swimwear (plus lots that do), decent access to good and services, and the diving was substantially better than anticipated. (You can read about Koh Tao’s Best Dive Sites here.) We arrived in Koh Tao expecting to tick it off our list and move on. We left Koh Tao with a distinct feeling that we would be back. And we were right.
Of course, visiting a place for five days and living there are not the same thing. We still worried, as we left Bangkok on an overnight bus to Chumphon to catch a morning ferry to Koh Tao, that it would feel too small, we would get bored, we’d wish we were in Phuket. But, five months later and Koh Tao has continued to exceed our expectations at almost every turn. Whether it’s coffee or lunch at hilltop Natural High overlooking the island, lazy days at the rooftop pool at Savage Hostel, snorkeling in Tanote Bay in search of the resident octopus, hanging out with friends playing volleyball on the beach or at a sports bar watching a game, taking in a beautiful sunset with a cold beer in hand, eating at one of our many favorite restaurants, or just relaxing in the beautiful apartment we were lucky enough to secure, Koh Tao has shown itself to be (almost) everything we were looking for. (If only it wasn’t 8-10 hours to get a decent airport.)
We have occasionally kicked around the idea of heading to Phuket, but we can’t bring ourselves to leave. Life is too good here. We are definitely in danger of becoming one of the many people who come to Koh Tao for a short period of time and X years later are still living there. That wouldn’t be the worst thing.
By Misha Nadel
November 24th, 2023