According to the 2005 version of Lonely Planet, Koh Tao is a gem precisely because locals don’t spend their time catering to tourists, and even electricity hasn’t reached the island. It’s amazing how much a place can change in just four years: now, I’d say 95% of the island’s economy is tourism-based, the place is covered in resorts, restaurants, and adventure sports outfitters. And as for the electricity – it’s everywhere.
The scuba course was four days long, and began with a number of boring instructional videos. The first two days we also did foolish bubble-blowing activities in shallow water. So when it came to day three, I was numbed into expecting very little from diving, and it came as a pleasant surprise when all of a sudden I found myself at the bottom of a beautiful coral reef, freed from gravity’s constraint, and able to navigate a National Geographic setting myself. We made it on four dives, each about forty minutes, to a maximum of fifteen meters. What I never realized about diving is that you have to pretty consciously control your buoyancy – each inhalation and exhalation changes the volume of your lungs, and sends you up or down. After a couple of minutes with the bizarre sensation, you get used to it and buoyancy maneuvering becomes second-nature. It truly was the coolest experience – we got up-close and personal with the most bizarre neon fish, did back-flips on the sandy bottom, and had an underwater dance party. We saw stingrays and barracudas, not to mention sea cucumbers galore.
In transit we spent a night on a larger island, Koh Samui, where I had a pretty striking experience walking back to our hotel through the red light district (safely, with Sandy). Tiny little open-air bars lined the main street, competing music blaring from the speakers, and prostitutes blatantly promoting their bars. Thailand had a large stake in the sex-tourism industry, and though it’s illegal, it’s also largely overlooked. I looked up the issue online, and learned that in Koh Samui, a small little beach town, there are more than 10,000 prostitutes. Having just read a book on modern-day slavery (A Crime So Monstrous, by Benjamin Skinner) the walk through the bar neighborhood was particularly unsettling. I have no idea what proportion of those girls were coerced into their positions, but I also sense that women with economic options choose to go into the business. So far we’ve also seen a couple of lady-men, whose presence is proportionally high in Thailand because it’s culturally acceptable for men to transform themselves into women.
We’ve been pretty cloistered away on a touristy island, so it makes sense that I haven’t seen any indication of the recent political unrest. I wonder how much evidence of it we’ll see later on in the trip, when we go north to study sustainable agriculture in rural homestays.