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If you’ve been with me here for a while, you know there are few places on Earth special to me like Koh Tao.

Koh Tao has been a home to me, the only place outside of the state of New York to ever really earn that spot in my heart. So it was inevitable, really, that it would be the first place I made a beeline for when I got back to Southeast Asia.

How could I not, with sunsets that looks like this?

And sunrises, on the rare occasion that I get to see them, that look like this?

With bars that look like this…

and restaurants with views like this one?

With modes of transportation that range from this…

to this?

How could I resist coming back to friends like these, friends I’ve missed so dearly, friends who make me feel home wherever I am?

And how could I miss ringing in 2013 with my little Koh Tao family, dancing on the beach while another year passed us by?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I had two and a half weeks back on Koh Tao, during which I watched time pass at a speed I didn’t know possible. I settled quickly back into my life there — I spent the mornings working, the afternoons at Muay Thai or yoga or getting massages or laying at the beach; the evenings spending indulgent time with friends. Here, it truly is sabai jai — the good life.

My sister was with me for her school break and while we largely did our own things, I made sure to bring her to some of my favorite places, which of course the lovely beaches ringing the island.

I got to go diving a few times as well, both for work and fun. The best part was taking Olivia diving for the first time. It was such a feeling of happiness and pride to see her dancing underwater!

I also brought her down to the Muay Thai stadium, where the trainers adore me and were the first people to ever make working out fun for me.

Of course, I can’t stop through Koh Tao and not visit my favorite ladyboys over at the Queen’s Cabaret…

And it wouldn’t be right not to stop by Sunset Bar and watch the whole island go from day to night. We certainly kept ourselves busy. In a blink, two and a half weeks passed me by.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This was an emotional trip for me. When I last said goodbye to Koh Tao, I was in pieces. Through the fog of pain that I was in I felt confident that I would someday return to this blip in the Gulf of Thailand, and eight months later there I was — stronger, happier, more at peace. I even came prepared with the idea of restarting my life here again, and armed with a business plan that I was considering returning in the fall to implement.

That’s not going to happen.

Those two and a half weeks were a rollercoaster. The first few days I had a hard rock of anxiety in my chest that followed me everywhere, even to my favorite bar where I was laughing with friends who I adore, and even to my favorite restaurant where I was eating massaman curry I had dreamed about back home. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by that — this is the place on earth where I have felt not only my greatest happiness but also my most shocking and devastating sadness. This is ground zero for some of the most emotion filled moments of my life.

Yet each day, the island charmed and coaxed me back to it. Each day, I remembered the reasons I loved my life here so much that I stayed in a bad situation just to preserve it. Each day, I felt myself melt back to island time, remember the rhythms of life in Thailand, and ease back into my Koh Tao smile. By the time I had to book my ticket up North, my eyes were filled with tears and I was flipping through my calendar trying to decide if I really needed to go to The Philippines on this trip.

But with time comes clarity, and as I write this a month later I know that I am making the right decision, and that I won’t be returning to Koh Tao to start a business, or probably even to visit again on this trip. The island is changing — many of my best friends are moving on, a hospital and a TESCO are under construction (hospital good, TESCO bad), and it is slowly morphing it it’s next iteration on the Thai paradise island scale, just one tiny step closer to being another Phuket or Koh Samui. But more than any of those things, I think it’s time for me to move forward. Koh Tao is a messy and beautiful part of my past, and maybe, just maybe it needs to stay there. Perhaps its time for me to find my next piece of paradise. It’s a big world out there.

So I said goodbye again, and this one — it was the saddest. I’m not saying goodbye forever — I’ll always pop in to visit when I’m in this part of the world — but I’m saying goodbye to the idea that this could be my forever. I know that someday I’ll look back on my life, and Koh Tao will be one of many places that made me — the good times and the bad.

This little island will always have my heart.

I have many more posts coming up about my time back on Koh Tao. In the meantime, have you ever said goodbye to a place that meant so much to you? How did you deal?

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70 Comments...
  • Rob
    February 12 2013

    Ah yes… You too have discovered what I and a vast assortment of friends have discovered. You can never go back. You can, of course, return. But things are never the same and the changes are never what you want.

    Better to embrace the memories for what they were, the places for what they are becoming and life for what it is – constant change.

    • Meihoukai
      February 12 2013

      Beautifully written, Rob. I agree, the island has changed every time I’ve visited since 2009… but then I have to recognize, so have I.

      • Rob
        February 12 2013

        It used to make me sad, this sort of thing, but now it just intrigues and excites me. Change is an opportunity to embrace, no matter how it feels at the time.

        As a new friend recently said: “Today, I am in Paris”.

        And life is good…

  • Caty
    February 12 2013

    This made me cry…it’s so beautifully written, Meihoukai!You know what country I had to leave behind and why, so I won’t go into detail here but let’s just say I am not quite ready to go back. But you rock!So proud of you for this! <3

    • Meihoukai
      February 12 2013

      Thanks Caty. I hope that if it is what you want, that you too can return to the place that is special to you! And then maybe you’ll come to the same cathartic realization that I did πŸ™‚

  • Nadia
    February 12 2013

    And it hasnt even been a year… It is always humbling to look back and realize that happiness emerged from limitless sorrow. You have done a brilliant job of sharing a story we have all experienced. But this is why goodbyes are so sad. We know, deep down, that there is no going back.

    • Meihoukai
      February 12 2013

      Thanks Nadia, I’ll always be grateful for the words of wisdom you and many other friends shared to help get me through that time. I hope I can pass them on to someone else in the future…

  • Rika | Cubicle Throwdown
    February 12 2013

    This was a beautiful tribute to a place that clearly has such a big place in your heart! Sad to hear its turning into the next Phuket though. Thailand is on my next live/work place and I don’t want to live somewhere like that. Any suggestions about dive towns that would fit the bill?
    Rika | Cubicle Throwdown recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 12 2013

      Hey Rika, maybe I was a bit dramatic in saying that. Koh Tao is YEARS away from becoming Phuket, though Tesco doesn’t help πŸ™‚ I’ve been going there since 2009 though so it’s inevitable I will see some changes. As for other good places to work I’ve heard great stuff about Koh Lanta from my instructor friends but it really dries up in low season.

  • meghan
    February 12 2013

    such a beautiful post, alex. i truly hope (and know) that you will find your next piece of paradise. i can’t wait to read while your search continues.

    • Meihoukai
      February 12 2013

      Thank you so much Meghan! Means a lot to me…

  • Karen a Opalka
    February 12 2013

    what a beautiful tribute to your home…….

  • Ashley of Ashley Abroad
    February 12 2013

    Wow, this post was absolutely beautiful and I have to say I relate to it a lot. I don’t think I’ll ever return to the Cono Sur of South America (Argentina and Chile) because my ex was Chilean and I just can’t imagine going back to Patagonia without him. I’m over the relationship but I think going back would resurface a lot of old feelings… which is a shame because Patagonia is absolutely stunning and I miss it so much! You’re brave for returning.
    Ashley of Ashley Abroad recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 12 2013

      Ashley, I won’t lie, a lot of feelings resurfaced that I thought were long gone! But I think it may have been a big healing step for me, I’m glad I did it πŸ™‚ I might not have done so had it not been for the friends I have on the island, though.

  • Sarah Somewhere
    February 12 2013

    Beautifully written, Meihoukai. I look forward to reading about your next piece of Paradise, and think the Philipines (from what I’ve heard) may be exactly where you find it πŸ™‚
    Sarah Somewhere recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 12 2013

      I really hope so! I also have pretty high hopes for Bali and Lombok after… we’ll see what I find!

  • Kristen Noelle
    February 12 2013

    This post was filled with such gorgeous, heartfelt, and breathtaking photographs and poetic prose. You are talented in so many ways! Incredible, incredible stuff here… keep up doing what you’re doing! Experiencing life’s beauty, the smiles, the tears, and inspiring people like me!

    • Meihoukai
      February 12 2013

      Thank you so so much for this comment Kristen, it really warmed my heart! Thank you!

  • Michelle
    February 12 2013

    Hi there – I live in BKK but would love love love to move to Koh Tao. How did you get a job/stay there for so long?

    Also, saying goodbye to a place I loved: “Athens, you’re breaking my heart”
    Michelle recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 12 2013

      Hi Michelle… I did a lot of visa runs and side trips to other countries πŸ™‚ It is possible to find work, but it is pretty much all in diving or bartending. Email me if you want more details πŸ™‚

  • Breanna Mansell
    February 12 2013

    Wow Meihoukai! You had me teared up there. I can’t say i have 100% felt the same way about a place but leaving Brazil after 2 weeks devastated me and I still have dreams 6 months later about a little city named Rio and a group of friends from Brazil.

    • Meihoukai
      February 14 2013

      Thank you Breanna, what a compliment for a writer to inspire a reaction like that πŸ™‚ Funny enough Rio is on my short list of places that I think could be my future home. I’ve been dreaming of it for many many years…

      • Breanna Mansell
        February 14 2013

        If you can at all get there before the Olympics in 2016, While they are doing much needed clean up it will be altered from how it is now.

        • Meihoukai
          February 14 2013

          I think 2014 will be my year πŸ™‚

  • Kristin
    February 12 2013

    <3 So proud of you! Although this post gives me hope that your forever home will be a little closer to me! Miss you.

    • Meihoukai
      February 14 2013

      Love you Kiki. Hope I get to see you soon…

  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
    February 12 2013

    What a beautiful post! I know a little bit about how you feel, because although I never loved Nashville in the way you loved Koh Tao (sometimes I didn’t even think I liked it at all), I spent 7 years living there, which is certainly long enough to grow attached in ways I didn’t expect. Saying goodbye, even though it was to travel, ended up being surprisingly hard. But like you, I had to face the fact that it was time to move on and that no matter what, Nashville would always be a part of me and nothing I did from here on out would change that. Looking back now, I can see that Nashville has done much to make me who I am and I will always carry a bit of it around with me wherever I go.
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 14 2013

      Funny enough for someone who is fully nomadic, I find change really hard to swallow! I can’t imagine leaving a place after 7 years (well, I guess I did when I left my hometown for college). I have similar feelings about Cayman though. I only spent a summer there and definitely didn’t get googly eyed about it, but I still look back with nostalgia and there were some sad goodbyes!

  • Keith B
    February 12 2013

    It is easy to see that the region has a lot of memories for you and will always be close to your heart.

    I hope that is not blood from someone you ran over in the photo of you on the bike you are riding. !!!!
    Keith B recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 14 2013

      Ha! I didn’t even notice that before. I’m going to claim it is spilled paint πŸ™‚

  • TammyOnTheMove
    February 13 2013

    What a beautiful post Meihoukai. This literally bought tears to my eyes. I know exactly what you were going through. The same thing happened to me with England about 12 years ago-a country I returned to after university after being heart broken in it 4 years prior. It was very hard at first and I felt as anxious to go back, just as you did, but it also gave me some kind of closure. Weird isn’t it? Of course I ended up staying much longer than anticipated (8 years) as I met my now husband on my second trip there. But I think you made the right desicion. You have the freedom to move on and it will be great for you to experience a new part of the world. You can always go back to Koh Tao one day…
    TammyOnTheMove recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 14 2013

      I agree Tammy, I felt like I went another layer deeper into closure when I was able to go back and survive and thrive for a little visit!

  • Matthew Karsten
    February 13 2013

    This was so well written. Leaving Honolulu after a year was like this for me. So many great people & memories. It’s tough.

    PS. Love the sunrise/flag shot!
    Matthew Karsten recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 14 2013

      Thanks Matt! Wow, I loved Honolulu after just ten days, can’t imagine how tough of a goodbye that would be after a year!

  • The Guy
    February 13 2013

    Wonderful post Meihoukai. I try not to think of saying goodbye, but maybe until next time. I often get chance to revisit but the memories are always unique.

    Your article has me sold, when can I go?
    The Guy recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 14 2013

      Koh Tao is definitely open for business and accepting new visitors πŸ™‚

  • Savvy Scot
    February 13 2013

    Thailand in general will always hold a special place in my heart (I got married there afterall) – My younger brother (18) enjoyed it so much for our wedding last year that he is going to Koh Tao this summer to do his Divemaster qualification! I can’t wait to return. It saddens me to think it is becoming so comercialised πŸ™

    • Meihoukai
      February 14 2013

      As I said elsewhere in the comments, I am probably exaggerating. Of course after four years I am noticing changes and especially on this last visit a friend who’s been on the island for 12 years told me it was the busiest it had ever been. So things are changing, though I guess slowly?

  • Daniel
    February 13 2013

    Hi Meihoukai,

    what should I say but “Wow”.
    This was one of my Top 10 Blog entries of all blogs I have ever read.

    For me “this place” is Beijing. I studied there in 2003 and went back in 2010. During my 2nd visit everything seemed smaller, and had changed. The place I was looking for was no longer there, but in my heart it will stay forever.

    I was on Koh Tao in 2008 and 2011, first time there, you were still allowed to do snorkeling with fins on the organized island roundtrips… One of my favourite places I have ever stayed. Love this tiny island and the relaxed atmosphere…

    Embrace the Change!

    • Meihoukai
      February 14 2013

      Daniel, thank you so much for that enormous compliment! I am truly flattered. I will try to let the change come πŸ™‚

  • Camels & Chocolate
    February 14 2013

    This is how I feel every time I’m back in Edinburgh, even though only two close friends remain. I teared up a bit just reading this, as I can FEEL how you felt in the moment. I know it all too well.
    Camels & Chocolate recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 14 2013

      I think that’s the saddest part, knowing that one day everyone will move on and the family will be gone! Glad you got to return this summer to at least say hi to your old stomping grounds πŸ™‚

  • Federico
    February 14 2013

    Very well written and superb pics Meihoukai! Sharp and precise…were you carrying a headlamp for those underwater shots?
    Federico recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 14 2013

      Nope! But most of those we taken in very shallow water with the sun to my back, so there was plenty of natural light πŸ™‚

  • Elaine Burr - Gram E
    February 14 2013

    Never having been, and not planning to go, I really can’t contribute anything. But, believe me, Meihoukai, I do enjoy reading you blogs. So, please keep me on the mailin list. Gram E

    • Meihoukai
      February 14 2013

      Thanks Gram…. they’ll keep coming πŸ™‚ By the way, I sent you a birthday card from Thailand! Did it arrive yet?

  • Erica
    February 14 2013

    Medellin, Colombia

    We somehow made a life there without knowing it. I miss it terribly but I know our future is not there. πŸ™
    Erica recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 14 2013

      Ah, the places that break our hearts! I’m hoping to get to Colombia in 2014, I’ll have to ask you guys for tips πŸ™‚

  • Kent @ NVR
    February 14 2013

    I think you’re gonna look back in a few years and be very proud of yourself and the decisions you’re making. Gravity can tend to pull people from one bad situation/decision to another to another, until it becomes simply a lifestyle. Congrats on not letting that happen!

    It’s places / people / things that have an emotional pull that really test us and show us what we’re made of.
    Kent @ NVR recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 14 2013

      Sigh, you and your infinite wisdom win again! Here’s to new beginnings.

  • Frank
    February 14 2013

    What part of the island do you recommend staying on? I’ll probably rent a scooter but being walking distance to things would be nice.

    I plan to spend a month there training at Island Muay Thai as well as getting dive certified. Do you have a favorite part of the island that you could recommend for someone spending a month on Koh Thao?

    • Meihoukai
      February 14 2013

      Sairee is definitely where you want to live! That’s a big area, but I think you’ll be happiest closest to restaurants, nightlife, other people, etc. I prefer living off the beach where its a bit quieter… that’s where all the locals and expats live πŸ™‚

  • Chris Shaw
    February 15 2013

    Wow! You’re so on the money. Confusing, compelling, disappointing, elating,…but ever changing. That’s what travel has been to me, but I’ve never seen it expressed so well! Bon chance!

    • Meihoukai
      February 16 2013

      Thanks Chris, what a compliment! I appreciate it!

  • Alana - Paper Planes
    February 16 2013

    Oh my word – I hear you on this. Even though I have no plans to leave Chiang Mai, I know at some point I will and can already feel my heart breaking just thinking about it…

    Good luck!
    Alana – Paper Planes recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 16 2013

      Thanks Alana… lovely to meet you the other night πŸ™‚

  • Juno
    February 16 2013

    We have places like that. The second home in heart. It is east coast America and New Zealand for me, for different reasons. Beautiful piece Meihoukai!
    Juno recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 16 2013

      Thank you Juno. Glad to hear you love the east coast so much… that’s where I’m from πŸ™‚

  • Emily in Chile
    February 16 2013

    I think it makes total sense that you’re ready to move on, but I’m also SO glad you were able to go back and kind of reclaim Koh Tao for yourself after everything you went through there, both good and bad. Here’s to the next home base!
    Emily in Chile recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 16 2013

      Thanks Emily πŸ™‚ I’m glad I got to go back as well. Now I’ll never say “What if…”

  • Pete
    February 20 2013

    The best thing is that you are moving forward. If you don’t feel it’s right, then move on.

    Best of luck with whatever comes in your path, to me that’s the best part, not knowing what lies ahead but knowing it has the potential to be amazing.
    Pete recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 21 2013

      I always try to remind myself of the fantastic times I’ve had in the past and know that there are so many more that lie ahead πŸ™‚

  • Anton
    February 23 2013

    Lovely post. I’ve been on Koh Tao for the last 5 weeks, I’ve met a beautiful Danish girl (who follows you as well) and have fallen for her and the island. We’re both completely inspired by you and your blog, thank you for bring us together

    • Meihoukai
      February 23 2013

      Anton, what a lovely comment! I’m so happy for you. Actually (surprise!) I’m back on Koh Tao at this moment and am looking around as I read this comment wondering if you’re in the same restaurant as me! Keep an eye out for me πŸ™‚

  • Stefanie
    February 9 2014

    Hello,
    I read many of your post and i need your advice to choose where to do my divemaster. I was fist planning to do it in the Gili as yoi recommend but it woild be more convenient for me to do it in Koh Tao. The problem is that I got many answers on different forums that the diving the is not worth it and that the fish and corals are nearly nexistant. I dive in many diving paradise befire such as Bunaken, Fiji, Red Sea, Cozumel and Belize. Do you think that I woild be disapointed of the diving in Koh Tao? I chose this place because there seems to have a very interesting life outside diving there but the diving is still my priority so if it is really bad, should I consider going somewhere else? I plan to do my divemaster in 2 momths so that is a lot of dives. Please…help! πŸ™‚

    • Meihoukai
      February 10 2014

      Hey Stefanie, it is so hard to say what one diver will be impressed by and what another will be disappointed by. I sometimes got bored with Koh Tao after being there a while but they do have some impressive sites there that I still dream about (Sail Rock and Shark Island are my favorite!) But those are rarely visited and the usual daily divesites can get a bit boring for an extremely experienced and well traveled diver. In my opinion the lifestyle on Koh Tao cannot be beat. I highly recommend checking it out for a few days before you sign up and decide if it is for you! Hope that helps!

  • Stefanie
    February 10 2014

    Hello again!
    Thank so much for your answer, it was really helpful. We will definately check out the island for few days before signing up for our divemaster. I do underwater photography and what interests me the is simply seing a colorful underwater scenery. I recently read that Koh Tao is not particurlarly known for being bery colorful but I guess there are still beautiful corals? As for the site that you recommend, are they more interesting for the corals or is it that we can see more “big things”? I read on a forum that seing either big fish, sharks or special big species is something that happens rarely on Koh Tao. Would say that this is true? Thanks again for your help!

    • Meihoukai
      February 11 2014

      Shark Island has some beautiful coral, though Sail Rock is more about seeing big schools of fish and interesting topography. While much of the coral in Koh Tao is threatened, there is a lot of it!

  • Maddy
    June 12 2014

    So beautifully said! You’re right though, it’s a big world out there – and you’re so good at exploring it!
    Maddy recently posted..