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While I’ve written dozens of posts about life in Koh Tao… diving, learning to drive, finding an apartment, I never feel like I wrote a post that summed up what it feels like to live there. In Koh Tao I often experienced moments that stayed with me, rolling around in my consciousness a day or a week later. I started making notes and writing about them, though I didn’t see how they went together or what they meant. Today I realize that those moments were me looking at my life through a lens and realizing the things that had become my normal. Those moments stand out to me because they had become normal little moments, my reality. This isn’t a traditional travel blog post, but I want to share it with you.

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I’m standing in 7-ll, Koh Tao’s one and only corporate presence and guaranteed source of air conditioning, waiting to by my weekly $3 of phone credit. 100 Baht 1-2 Call please, I ask. Kappun Ka. I start filming tomorrow before dawn so I’m headed home but as I type the code into my phone I feel the island’s pulse rising. Popular backpacker anthems pour out of the bars, cheap street food dinners sizzle on hot grills, and happy people fill the road.

Across the street from 7-11 is a local warm-up bar where I used to play Connect Four with the manager and take advantage of the 50 baht mixed drinks for locals. My friendly relationship with said manager deteriorated one night when our roles were reversed- I was behind the bar at another popular late night spot and he was a customer spitting mad about the pricing structure. In retribution, the next time I came in he denied me local prices in front of a crowd of expats. It wasn’t about the money. It was a power play, and he won.

I used to think of him as the neighborhood funny guy as he chased my motorbike down the street, trying to grab on to the back. We’ve replaced that playful exchange with steely glances ever since, and I now see him a little differently: as a bully.

Tonight I look over and see him standing still and quiet through the raucous crowded street, hands raised to his head in a wai, praying over a small shrine tucked next to an ATM. Eyes shut tight, hands wrapped around smoking incense, he leans down, forehead to the ground, and is still.

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It’s only 8am but a heavy heat is already settling into the valley where the Island Muay Thai gym sits. The trainers call when they see me: “Alek, Alek!” It’s a bastardized version of my name that I have come very much to enjoy.  None of them take me seriously but I don’t mind, I’m here to shed some of the rice-padding I’ve put on, not to master technique and fight. Thais always seem to think that I’m a) Scandinavian and b) 15 years old. They constantly demand to know where my family is, and delight in asking me over and over how old I am; dissolving in laughter as if it is the greatest joke they have ever heard.

This morning they are sitting around a plastic card table, reticent to start training. Its fight night, and piles of colorful baht resting on the table reveal that the bet taking has already begun. I notice two small black handguns laying casually next to the money. For a moment I wonder if they are fake.

I start my usual warm up: 300 skips with a skipping rope followed by stretching on the concrete around the ring. When I’m done I look at the group expectantly, willing one of my preferred trainers to come over. Today it works, and Pi Toon, the boss, walks over. He is easily bored yet fascinated by how high I can kick- he has me do it over and over, wide-eyed and laughing.

He starts to wrap my hands in the smelly wraps and I tell him that I’m leaving soon for a visit home. Where is home, he asks. New York, I answer, and for a brief moment I wonder if I’m being presumptuous in naming a city instead of the country.

He laughs but then turns serious. But New York is so big, and you are so small.

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I’m still dripping with seawater when I peel myself off the sand. “Time to go to work,” I announce, and by work I mean edit a few blog posts and answer some emails before dinner. I hop on my bike, buzzed on life and the banana daiquiri I was sipping on.

Driving has always been a quiet, reflective time for me. Today is no different. I look around at the mountains pushed up beside me to the right and to the left, the glittering ocean. A girl on a dirt bike glides past with a dog as her front passenger, paws on the handlebar, ears flapping in the wind. A family of four passes on one bright red scooter. I soak up the sun, and the bizarre scenes unfolding in front of me.

Soon I reach the most bizarre of all. Every Saturday the Thai men of Koh Tao gather in an open field with what looks like some jungle gym bars. They arrive from all over the tiny island, each with one hand on their motorbike handles and one hand holding a delicate bamboo bird cage.

When the cages are perfectly aligned, side-by-side, the men stand back a few feet in a line and they watch. They watch and they listen to tiny caged birds sing quiet little songs. I’ve been told it’s a kind of contest, or competition. I always wonder how they pick the winner.

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I don’t know the time, but I know that I’ve been dancing on the beach for hours and we are nearer to sunrise than we are from sunset. This night came from nowhere. One minute I was heading home early and the next I was barhopping, watching a ladyboy cabaret and doing laughing gas balloons in bean bag chairs on the sand. This night, a random Tuesday in which my friend Kat and I were the only two interested in getting into trouble, has so much to it. But there is so much more that is noticeable absent: expensive cab fares, painful stilettos, bouncers with attitude. We walk up the mountain back to our bungalows, sharing banana pancakes and laughter.

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Each and every morning that I film for this particular dive school, I wake up cursing. The boat leaves at 6am and that means drunk, happy people are walking home as I sleepily drive to work. I wonder how I ended up on the less-fun end of this equation. It is completely dark, save for the lights from my bike, the dive shop, and the 7-11.

An hour later I am on a boat headed to Chumphon, Koh Tao’s premiere dive site. I’ve filmed the journey to the boat, the equipment set up, and the dive briefing. I make my way to the top deck and am pleasantly surprised to find that I am alone. The only sound is the hum of the engine and the churning of the water below. I watch the cloudy sunrise over the island’s distinct humps, and I think to myself that maybe this isn’t such a bad gig after all.

The silence in soon broken as we arrive at the dive site and attempt to get a literal boatload of people into dive gear and into the ocean in a timely fashion. The current is strong and I feel winded by the time I’ve swam across the surface to the buoy line. I breathe a sigh of relief as I purge the air from my BCD and descend into the deep, with one quick glance back at the island… my island. I flip on my camera. Another day at the office.

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Thank you for everything, Koh Tao…

3-devide-lines
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69 Comments...
  • Fidel
    April 26 2012

    I was about to go to bed when I noticed this post. Needless to say, glad I stayed up to read it. Unfortunately, you have now inspired me to write and I might not get to bed as early as I should (I have to be up at 2am to stand a 5-hour watch aboard the ship, ugh).
    Loved your writing here. Certainly different than any writing I’ve read of yours since I first became aware your page a few months ago.
    You certainly leave me as a reader wanting to learn more. What are the guns for? Why did the bar manager become upset with you? But these are questions sometimes best life for me to answer myself. Great writing, Alek! lol
    You certainly know how to fill your days.
    Fidel recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 26 2012

      Thanks so much Fidel- its fun to experiment with a new style of writing. As for your questions…. I don’t know what the guns were for, but I’ve been surprised to learn over time how many Thais on the island have them! The bar manager was upset because there were no “local prices” for shots in the bar that I was working at. I guess he wanted me to bend the rules but I was the new girl and had management breathing down my neck! So he took it out on me. Its a shame because his bar has some of the best local prices on the island!

  • Sam
    April 26 2012

    This is amazing Meihoukai! You summed it up perfectly and made me homesick xx

    • Meihoukai
      April 26 2012

      Thanks Sam! I should have known that you would like it…

  • Annie
    April 26 2012

    nice blog. good to hear stories from expat life!
    Annie recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 26 2012

      Thank you Annie! I really loved my life on that little island.

  • Gram
    April 26 2012

    Wow !!! What a life! and well put.

    • Meihoukai
      April 26 2012

      Thanks Gram! It is a great way of living…

  • wes
    April 26 2012

    best post yet. rock on.

    • Meihoukai
      April 26 2012

      Thanks Wes, I appreciate it coming from another citizen of the cult of Koh Tao…

  • Toni
    April 26 2012

    In the nicest possible way hun, I really wish you hadn’t written this post. I’ve always wanted to get back to the island but now I want to hop on a plane right now!
    I remember the Connect 4 at Diva’s, the wandering around 7-11 just to steal their air con and the pancake man outside late at night. It is such a beautiful place despite all the tourists and despite it being a very basic place in many senses, I really think that one day I could call it home =) x
    Toni recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 26 2012

      Thanks Toni! I don’t think I realized you had spent time there. It’s a special place, isn’t it?

  • erica
    April 26 2012

    Long-time reader.
    First-time poster.
    Actually, first time posting on any blog ever. I am just compelled..
    Beautiful writing. Amazing really. Please keep it up!
    I hope your travels find you well, stay strong.
    Please know you are a huge inspiration 🙂

    • Meihoukai
      April 26 2012

      Erica, thank you so much for reading and for breaking “the silence” to leave this lovely comment 🙂 I really appreciate every word.

  • Diane C
    April 26 2012

    This might be the preface to your book:) Keep Writing!

    • Meihoukai
      April 26 2012

      Thank you Diane! No book in the works any time soon… I love my short format writing! But who knows, maybe someday…

  • anju
    April 26 2012

    Felt every word while watching the palm trees and the sea of this Rock from my balcony as I am reading your post. The island misses you too, hun. Me too. Big spanish kiss.

    • Meihoukai
      April 27 2012

      Thank you so much my dear. You of all people certainly understand the beauty of that place…

  • Rachel
    April 26 2012

    I love this post! It’s fantastic. Really great glimpse into a day to day life.
    Rachel recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 27 2012

      Thanks Rachel! Sometimes the little things don’t seem like they can be a blog but I guess there is always a post in there somewhere…

  • Sarahsomewhere
    April 27 2012

    Beautiful! A lovely sneek peak into your life there. I wish you many more… Great to meet you, enjoy the rest of your journey and take care 🙂
    Sarahsomewhere recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 27 2012

      Thank you Sarah! So great to meet you today. Crazy to think that we had breakfast in Chiang Mai this morning and now I am in Luang Prabang…

  • Eugene
    April 27 2012

    That was a great post! Felt like we got to spend the day with you. I’m in Koh Phangan after spending 5 days in Koh Tao and its not hard to see why you’d decide to make it your home. I was a little sad to leave but it’s inevitable that I’ll be back.
    Eugene recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 27 2012

      Thanks Eugene! Yes, I’ve been to many Thai islands but there are none quite like Koh Tao, at least in my eyes. Enjoy Koh Phangan, the west coast is stunning!

  • Jo
    April 27 2012

    well done Meihoukai, when people at home ask me how it is to live here i will tell them to read this! Enjoy Laos. x

    • Meihoukai
      April 27 2012

      Thank you so much Jo! Glad it rings true to you… hope all is well x

  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
    April 27 2012

    After spending so much time in one place, it is nearly impossible to find the words to capture not just a location, but also a moment in time. And yet you did so brilliant. What a great tribute to the place you called home!
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 27 2012

      I agree Steph…. I guess that’s why it took me 8 months to write this! Thank you for the kind words.

  • Lauren
    May 4 2012

    This is my favorite post, great job.

  • Dad
    May 5 2012

    I am just reading this a week later. Don’t how I missed but it is a keeper. Well done daughter

  • Lena
    May 7 2012

    Meihoukai, I found you through Kristin and so glad I did. I liked your post there and it inspired me and made my whole day. Thank you!!

    • Meihoukai
      May 7 2012

      Hi Lena, thank you so much! So glad to have you here, hope you’ll stick around and read some more!

  • Kavi
    May 8 2012

    I came across your blog via Camels&Chocolate. Well written post! As a fellow traveler, I’m inspired by your journey!
    Kavi recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 9 2012

      Hi Kavi, thanks for stopping by and for your compliments! I hope you’ll stick around!

  • Aaron
    August 18 2012

    Hi alex,
    Great writing, every line brought back memories, I felt like I could have been writing it all myself! From Paul at diza bar to the bird singing at Mae haad, the muay thai up near big yellow and mint – it all rang so true for me. I was there for a year, and although I’m no longer there physically, I know a part of me will never that place. Special memories I’ll never lose, it’s nice to know other people like yourself feel the same way.

    • Meihoukai
      August 19 2012

      Hey Aaron, glad you found this! We definitely were in a special place — it does change you!

  • riocarlo
    August 22 2012

    It is a very beautiful paradise. Thank you for letting us experience the beauty of the place through your post.

    • Meihoukai
      August 22 2012

      Thanks Riocarlo! I really love Koh Tao, it has such an unbelievably special place in my heart.

  • Matt
    October 29 2012

    I love this! I work on Koh Tao as a videographer too, although at the moment I’m taking an ‘extended holiday’ back in the UK. After reading that I’m itching to get back to island life!

    • Meihoukai
      October 29 2012

      Hey Matt! What company were you working for? I’m missing the rock right now too, can’t wait to get back.

      • Matt
        October 29 2012

        I was working for Oceans Below, how about you? Same here! English weather just doesn’t cut it!

        • Meihoukai
          October 31 2012

          I was working for Fat Fish… we filmed for Sairee Hut, Asia Divers, and New Way. Going back in December, can’t wait.

          • Matt
            November 1 2012

            Awesome, I should be back out there by then too. Might see you around!

  • Eugene
    January 10 2013

    Hi, Meihoukai,

    I’ve just arrive to this tiny island after 8 months spent on Samui. I have only 30 days to understand Koh Tao and here I found your post.

    Not sure if you are on the island now, but would you, please, tell me where on sunday I could find those bird sing contest meeting =)

    I already saw maybe hundred shades of Thialand, but this look so new I just can’t miss it.

    Just ignore me if you feel uncomfortable =)

    • Meihoukai
      January 10 2013

      Hi Eugene! I am here and leaving in a few short days! The bird singing contests happen all over, but one that is almost guaranteed to be there is in the field across from the banks in Mae Haad. Good luck finding it 🙂

  • libby
    January 21 2013

    I’ve just quit my job and am moving to Koh Tao to discover island life! So glad I came across your blog, can’t wait to hear more x

    • Meihoukai
      January 22 2013

      Congrats Libby! In my very biased opinions, it’s one of the greatest places on Earth 🙂 You’ll love it!

  • Joe
    May 9 2013

    Ko Tao is absolutely lovely. I’v been there two years ago but unfortunately i didn’t had the opportunity to make an immersion, just to dive with my monofin.. it was great!
    leave there must be fantastic
    Good post, you make me thinking about leave everything and head to o Tao!

    • Meihoukai
      May 9 2013

      It’s not a bad place to drop everything and escape to 🙂 What an amazing island!

  • Rachael C
    February 3 2014

    I am planning a Thailand/Laos trip for this August and as I was planning to figure out my flight home to Toronto, a thought crossed my mind like “hey, what if instead of coming home, I just…..don’t”
    Cue an array of google searches like “JOB IN THAILAND” and, more specifically, “JOBS IN KOH TAO” (caps lock necessary to demonstrate my frantic and excitable train of thought)
    My introduction to Koh Tao a result of your blog, actually! So I was pleasantly surprised when Meihoukai in Wanderland was the 2nd google result for that search. I actually swelled with pride. “That is MY blog” (apparently just being a devoted reader of a particular travel blog for over a year, automatically makes it “my “blog.)
    Long story not-at-all short, that search led me to this post. Which, judging from the date, I would have already read before. But I guess I didn’t appreciate it as much as I do now. As I do the necessary research and planning for a backpacking trip, I am finding it easy to find out practical information, but impossible to find something that captures the spirit of a place. I don’t know want to know the best hostel to stay in, I want to know what the in-between moments feel like. The vibe. What goes on during the days off.
    You are a remarkable writer, this I already knew. But I would LOVE and recommend that you do more creative pieces like this one.
    Can’t express my thanks enough.

    • Meihoukai
      February 4 2014

      Love this, Rachael! Love that you love this post, love that you are trying to make it work in Thailand and love that you think of this as your blog too 🙂 I would love to do more creative writing like this and I feel sad that lately my brain has been so fried by stress and other things that I don’t have the capacity to. I’d like to get back into it and this was great motivation. Thank you x

  • Adventurous Andrea
    May 9 2014

    This is getting me so excited to spend time here!!!
    Adventurous Andrea recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 11 2014

      Prepare to fall in love, Andrea! It’s a magical place.

  • Steven
    January 16 2015

    I’m planning my trip to Koh Tao for 3 months as I write this. I can’t wait.

    • Meihoukai
      January 18 2015

      That’s awesome, Steven! It’s the perfect place to post up for a few months.

  • Beth
    February 5 2015

    This is absolutely my favorite post so far! I love how you crafted each small section into a story of its own. My favorite is definitely the first one, about the bar manager. It is a story about human connection; something that can be seen anywhere in the world. That is what travel is about.
    Beth recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 6 2015

      Thanks Beth! I love this old post. I should write more like it.

  • Nicholas Demski
    December 30 2017

    I loved living on Koh Tao. Reading this post made me miss it so much! I loved your snippet about the manager who stopped giving you local prices: it’s a small island and faces are easily remembered! I’m linking this to my blog 😀
    Nicholas Demski recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      January 2 2018

      Thanks Nicholas! I’ll take a look at your Koh Tao posts — I always love hearing others’ take on the island 🙂