Koh Tao (part 1)


I’m suspended in a hammock outside my bungalow above a canopy of fruit trees and shallow pastel waters, a stray cat snuggled in my lap and giant butterflies passing through the breeze. The air is warm and dense—a soft wind travels off the ocean, delivering a dose of Thailand’s intoxicating air with every breath.

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There’s something in the air, the water, the food, the land and people here that change the chemistry of your brain. It’s a natural high that leaves you in a state of mental and physical euphoria. If only I could bottle this drug and feel this way forever…

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Everything is intensified here. The energy, the climate, the feeling of joy and happiness and love and elation—I could never recreate this at home. Only now am I realizing that the past 30 years of my life I’ve simply been existing… now for the first time I am truly alive.

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Thailand has me under a spell that I never want to come out of. Each day I reflect and write and capture photographs and video so that when I’m 80 I can close my eyes, go back to this moment and feel it all over again… and know that I didn’t just exist, I lived.

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There’s so much to say about Koh Tao but it’s difficult to put into words. I’m living in a fantasy world, straight out of a book or movie and it doesn’t feel real.

IMG_7801I arrived on the island by ferry Saturday evening with my American friend I met in Koh Samui a few days earlier. After disembarking I knew immediately that this place was more my speed. The streets were much calmer and atmosphere more laid back—the perfect place to relax and recover from the first island.

IMG_7685We dined on tacos and beer before unwinding with an oil massage then heading to bed. Our new hostel made the last one look like a five star resort—one toilet/shower for the entire dorm, outlets that didn’t work, lights that didn’t turn off, beds that felt like concrete and no wi-fi.

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I have no problem roughing it but the no wi-fi part is non negotiable, so I checked out first thing Sunday morning and found a coffee shop to get some work done. There I met a German who told me about a bungalow he had booked for a month for $15/night down the island. I hopped a cab there and after laying my eyes on the most beautiful beach I’d ever seen plus the idea of privacy for the first time in days, I booked three nights without hesitation.

IMG_7802The ocean was calling so I walked to a beach called Shark Bay which was recommended for snorkeling, rented a mask and fins for $6 and spent the afternoon under the surface of clear blue waters admiring coral and neon rainbow fish.

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I found a rock to catch my breath, napped there under the sun and sipped my first (delicious) coconut shake before heading back to my bungalow.

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IMG_7700IMG_7694Koh Tao is world renowned for diving, which I discovered my first night there. I really had no desire to try—I’d never even been snorkeling before that day—but my bungalow was right outside of a dive shop where everyone hung out so I spent some time there getting acquainted with new faces.

IMG_7825IMG_7794While the scenery is breathtaking, it’s the people who have made the biggest impression. There are tourists that rotate through the dive shop each day, and then there’s the crew and regulars—the people that came here on vacation and never left. One girl from Spain was visiting two years ago after a breakup… she fell in love with the head dive master and now lives on the island. Another came to dive on a whim and decided to become an instructor, living here for nearly a year with no plans to return. Most of the dive instructors have been here for months—they live and work in Europe, save up to come here, stay until their money runs out then return home and repeat the cycle.

IMG_7799There are around 70 diving schools on this island… you can’t walk down the beach without passing one. It’s so interesting to hear everyone’s stories and witness the dynamics within this group of strangers who’ve come together from around the world and formed a family, all because of a shared passion. While I’m not part of their diving circle, they’ve been kind enough to let me in and I feel a connection with them as kindred spirits, as we’ve all abandoned our society’s normal path and ended up here together.

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Each day I wake up at sunrise to the first rays shining through my window, gecko lizards chattering in the trees, and the puttering of the first fishing boats exiting the harbor. The bungalow is rustic and weathered from years of salty air—built with wood and nails and resting on a boulder above the water.

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It is paradise but not by western society’s standards. There’s no air conditioning, hot water or flushing toilet. The bed is nothing more than stiff springs wrapped in cloth and a mosquito net. Most people go barefoot everywhere so sand makes it’s way into every surface… the floor, the bed, your clothing and body… I got used to it fast after my first bathroom experience in Bangkok. Most of the toilets here are nothing but bowls on the ground, no toilet paper, and if you’re lucky there’s a hose nearby. If you’re unlucky there’s a large bucket of water which I’m still not really sure what you’re supposed to use it for. Fortunately I remembered to bring hand sanitizer.

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It’s basically camping in paradise, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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I’ve been lucky enough to avoid any major illness so far, but infections are another story. The hot and humid climate teaming with foreign organisms and bacteria will wreak havoc on your body. The smallest cut, scrape, bite or open skin of any kind can easily and quickly become inflamed. I’ve met people with infected mosquito and bug bites who look like they have chicken pox and even the natives are often covered in bandages and scabs. Yesterday I woke up with half of my tongue swollen and tender (thankfully it’s better now) and areas of my feet are and legs are red and itchy. Lest you think I’m living it up like royalty… these are the realities of backpacker life in Southeast Asia.

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IMG_7828I’m hoping my body will adapt to the environment, but on the flip side, after just one day in the water in Koh Samui I emerged with golden bronze skin and I’m loving my new island glow.

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Back home I had to blow dry and/or hot iron my hair to look presentable but I’ve embraced my crazy wavy locks—the ocean water and salty air are my new beauty routine. Going au natural is just another part of eliminating my first world possessions and I’m slowly learning to let go.

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I’ve been on this island for five days now and each morning I open my eyes feeling as if I’m still dreaming. I actually haven’t had or remembered a single dream since I left home… perhaps because my awakened state is better than any experience my subconscious can imagine, so I no longer need them to escape. I’m actually living my dreams now.

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On the second day while wandering around looking for a good wi-fi signal (not easy to come by here), I wandered into of the many bamboo tattoo shops, fell in love with thai writing and figured out a translation for one of my favorite quotes. An hour and $6 later I had my first henna tattoo… Not all who wander are lost…

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I call it my practice tattoo. I don’t have any real tattoos and never had the desire to get one, but now I’m a little obsessed and wouldn’t be surprised if I had permanent ink somewhere on my body before I leave (sorry Mom…)

IMG_7822There are many more stories to tell but the day is wasting and it’s time for an afternoon swim… I think I’ll be on this island for a couple more days before finding my next adventure, so there will have to be a Part 2. Soon. La kon and pob kan mai from paradise…

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19 thoughts on “Koh Tao (part 1)

  1. What a beautiful place, Jenna – your pictures together with your words are weaving such a wonderful story! You are drawing us in little by little :):)

  2. I’m glad you are enjoying Koh Tao, I loved it too, years ago. If you go north, make sure you hit up Chang Mai. I did a Thai cooking class there and it was so fun. We ventured to Laos and didn’t regret it either. Luang Prabang was another place we didn’t want to leave.

  3. I’m glad you’re finding yourself and enjoying your time Jenna. 🙂 I just got back from my own solo international trip (my first) – in Iceland, and it was nowhere near as long as yours, but I know how you feel: bold, serene, happy. I am loving your adventures and your blog was the only one I checked while I was gone.

  4. Wow! Stepping out of reality and making your own reality. You paint the beauty of the place but keep it real. (No toilet tissue, bug bites and a swollen tongue.) I am a bit pampered in that department. I never have liked camping, and while my sister makes a medical mission trip to Haiti every 6 months, I have no desire to do so. But by experiencing your journey through the internet, I feel that I am expanding my own horizons in some strange way. So thank you for taking us along for the ride. I check Instagram often just to see and hear your latest happenings. You are embracing this experience with all of your heart and spirit, just like you did when you did projects on your homes. Jenna Sue does nothing half-heartedly, so I am happy you are finding such peace, joy, and tranquility. Living the dream-or should I say- living your dream. Amen, girl!! Keep reaching for the stars!

  5. Just stunning! I am loving reading every step of your journey! I have to ask since your images are so gorgeous, what camera do you use? Looking forward to more of your global adventures!

  6. Second thoughts on that permanent tattoo…….someday you will be 60, 70, 80……and those tattoos won’t look so great.

    1. I believe that by the time we are old and withered our bodies should help to tell our stories. Scars, stretch marks , laugh lines and wrinkles, and yes even tattoos. And if we are so fortunate, the stories will begin by “I remember when…”

  7. Tricia Nelson thought I might have some tips for you.
    The first is: the bucket in the bathroom is either for a) if there’s no hose, there’s usually a bucket and a small scooper, which you use to wash your butt not that dissimilar from the hose and/or b) if it’s not a flush toilet, you need to throw a few scoops of water to get it, um, clean(er)
    The second is: don’t scratch those bites! Tiger Balm (or, even better IMHO, White Monkey Holding Peach Balm) is great on bites…just don’t get it near any sensitive mucus membranes like eyes or nose. And yes, don’t let things get infected. And: swimming in the water does NOT clean your wounds, like it would at home. Keep ’em dry and away from the sea. If you brought liquid bandaid stuff from the States, that’s a good way to compromise.
    East coasts of all those islands are beautiful. Ko Samui is too built up for me too. November will be the worst weather on those islands, typically, but after that it should get nicer, though the east coasts are wavy then til March, which I prefer myself.
    I’ll be on a beautiful beach on the east coast of Pha Ngan for most of December through March, so if you’re still in Thailand let me know. Of if there’s something (preferably small) you want me to bring from the States…
    i’m on Tricia’s FB friends, if you want to find me….

  8. I’ve been a follower for a while but haven’t checked in recently. When I did today I was so intrigued and in awe of your new adventure, your photos, your discoveries. Keep it coming and enjoy every minute!

  9. I love Eckhart Tolle!!! Enjoy your journey!!! I live in the U.S. and my hair air dries on most days; sometimes I’ve even had it begin to freeze when I’ve run out the door while it was still wet on extra cold days in the winter. I don’t think other people are as judgmental about our appearance as we are on ourselves ~ Be Well ~ :0)

  10. Hi Jenna! I’ve read through your blog and Im actually visiting Koh Tao in two weeks, I was hoping you could get back to me about what bungalows you stayed at? Thank you!

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