The Native | Rebekah Debono shows us around Koh Tao

Travelling is always risky business – get stuck in a touristy area and your meals are terrible, as is the rest of your holiday. Rebekah Debono shows us how to hang out in Koh Tao like a native. 

Koh Tao, Thailand
Koh Tao, Thailand

Travelling is always risky business – get stuck in a touristy area and your meals are terrible. The same can be said of sightseeing, hotels and nightspots. Travelling to a place where you know people to recommend the right places makes your stay all the more enjoyable.

Rebekah Debono, (37), was born in Malta, and lived in Thailand for a year whilst doing a yoga teacher training course. If you’re visiting the Gulf Isles of Thailand, these are the places she recommends to hang out like a native.

Thailand is a magical place and the Gulf islands, especially Koh Tao and Koh Phangan offer something to suit everyone. I was there for a year teaching English to the staff at the Viewpoint Resort on Koh Tao. I taught yoga there too, to residents and travellers, while also doing a yoga teacher training course in Koh Phangan.

Living like a local in Thailand has its ups and downs but once you find your feet and learn how to move the Thai way, the experience is heightened, allowing you to marvel at its incredible natural environment, interesting culture and important traditions that are part of the Thai life. These notes are good tips to assist you to ease into Thai life and the Thai way. I credit my good friends Jacqueline Fernando and Siriluk Turasakul for the heads up when I was still a Thai native novice.

The most popular islands in the Gulf offer something for everyone, from fully facilitated and all encompassing tours to adventure treks and diving, quiet experiences in nature and holistic self development courses like yoga, kalari training and healthy living and wellbeing retreats and retreat centres, scattered all over Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao.

Full moon parties, street food, open-air markets, luxury hotels, wellness, spa centres and golf courses are available to those seeking the full on taste of Thailand, all the year round. 

All the Gulf islands are addressed as districts of Surathani, and were my base for a year but I spent most of my Thai life living on Koh Tao.

Divers from all over the world come to Koh Tao in the hope of catching a glimpse of the majestic whale sharks that live in these waters
Divers from all over the world come to Koh Tao in the hope of catching a glimpse of the majestic whale sharks that live in these waters

Best adventure activities

Koh Tao is a very small island teeming with interesting nature, small and large lizards, reptiles, bats and butterflies among other inconspicuous but present insects and creatures. Because of the rich marine life and famous dive spots like Shark Island and Chumphon Pinnacle, many whale shark enthusiasts come here to catch a glimpse of these majestic sea animals. Expect to find numerous dive centres and all the facilities keen divers and travellers would require, including food stalls, restaurants, bars and nightclubs, resorts and hotels, luxury and traditional spas, yoga and retreat centres and Muay Thai boxing.

Chalok Baan is a quiet location that is home to a number of quality dive centres, that offer dive courses as well as dive tours. Ocean Sound Dive centre also offers fantastic Hatha Yoga and Vinyasa flow sessions twice daily in. It is always packed with locals and expats, highlighting that it has the Thai stamp of approval for quality.

Viewpoint Resort is located at the top of coconut-capped hills in the heart of a jungle of its own
Viewpoint Resort is located at the top of coconut-capped hills in the heart of a jungle of its own

Best place to stay

The nicest point to visit is the scenic view point at the ViewPoint Resort which, aside from being my home for a year, has the best restaurant on the island and is always a treat when craving both a Western food experience or a traditional Thai dish like Tom kha gai or Tom khati pla (spicy coconut chicken or fish soup) Viewpoint Resort is located at the top of coconut capped hills in the heart of a jungle of its own. This location overlooks Chalok Baan Bay and has a spectacular view of Buddha rock, which the people of Koh Tao regard with very high respects.

An elderly woman of around 70 years old known as 'mama', prepares authentic Thai cuisine at Babaloo and has a reputation for being very friendly and generous, especially her portions
An elderly woman of around 70 years old known as 'mama', prepares authentic Thai cuisine at Babaloo and has a reputation for being very friendly and generous, especially her portions

Best place to eat

Another favourite restaurant, which is highly recommended by locals and expats who go there for a casual breakfast, lunch, snacks and/or dinner, is called Babaloo. An elderly woman of around 70 years old known as 'mama', prepares authentic Thai cuisine and has a reputation for being very friendly and kind (especially her portions). This hot spot is hidden away in the coconut hills, above Chalok Baan Bay on the road that leads to Mae Haad. It really stands out because of a huge statue of Lord Ganesha a Hindu God, which stands at the entrance of the wooden restaurant nestled within trees almost looking like a tree house.  

Sairee is the place to go if you are looking for a night out. Bars and restaurants line the beach and you can also catch a Muay Thai boxing match
Sairee is the place to go if you are looking for a night out. Bars and restaurants line the beach and you can also catch a Muay Thai boxing match

Best place for a night out

Sairee is a popular place with the tourists on Koh Tao with many restaurants like Baracuda and a Taste of Home (also known as Ushi's, the German expat who opened the restaurant), trendy beach clubs like Maya beach and full moon, half moon, and all kinds of moon parties on the beach. Though the world-famous full moon parties happen on sister island Koh Phagnan.

Muay Thai boxing matches are popular and a regular event on the island, where both locals, tourists and expats get in on that action, either training, participating or simply watching, it's something that definitely gets alot of attention as a traditional sport in Thailand.

Living like a local meant I was never around those locations that I could only compare to Paceville and are not my cup of tea.

The best way to enjoy nature on Koh Toa is to lie back in a hammock and take in the scenery
The best way to enjoy nature on Koh Toa is to lie back in a hammock and take in the scenery

Best place to wind down and enjoy nature

As a local, I did what most people seek to do in their free time on Koh Tao in Thailand - relax in hammocks on the bays, do yoga, walk in nature, trek, read, walk along the beaches or across them when the tide is low, get lots of massage which is very much part of the Thai people's culture and they are always very eager to share, of course talk to the locals and share food. Food in general is an intrinsic part of the Thai culture and though culinary courses and schools are found all over Thailand there aren't any on Koh Tao. However so, food is always ever present and offered to you if you are curious. As a standard food breaks in Thailand are a time to rest and restore.

How to get there

It's very easy to get to Bangkok, Thailand from Malta with airlines like Emirates and Turkish offering regular flights with stop overs in Dubai or Istanbul respectively.

To get to the Gulf of Thailand, you can take a one-hour light with Nok Air, a popular national Thai airline, or take an eight-hour sleeper train to Chumphon, Surathani.

Lomprayah Ferry and Catamaran Services is a very reliable sea ferrying services from Chumphon to all the surrounding islands in the Gulf such as Koh Phangan, Koh Samui and Koh Tao.

No train tickets or sea ferrying service tickets can be bought online and there are many scams, so due diligence should be paid when organising your logistics to the isles.

Best time to visit

From my experience in Thailand, it's always the best time to visit, though if travelling to experience the full touristic show, one would visit between January and Songkran (Thai new year), which happens on 16 April.

After Songkran, Thailand experiences a period of low season when the locals are a little bit more relaxed and friendly, a little like the Maltese after the summer season is over. Prices come down during low season, particularly for room rates, though between July and October the rainy season hits and brings with it an infestation of mosquitoes. 

Getting around

There are around three or four licensed cars on the island. Bicycles, motorbikes and resort taxis are the main way of getting around. Though the roads are very inadequate and it is suggested to drive with caution especially, during rainy season. One could also choose to walk as nowhere is too far and there will always be something interesting to notice along the way.

Currency

The currency used in Thailand is the Thai baht. You can use your credit card mostly everywhere (charges apply check with your banks before travelling) and Thai banks offer the better rates to change your currency. Exchange facilities can sometimes not be very reliable. Always ask for the rates before handing over cash.

One could also use US dollars, Sterling and Euro, though I’m not too sure whether this is wise, as the exchange rates may not be favourable at local shops.

Visas

The Tourist Visa for Thailand for Maltese citizens is quite easy to obtain and is also quite affordable. There are some new laws in Thailand. Travellers can get a three-month visa but would be required to go on what the expats call a visa run should they decide to stay any longer. Visa runs simply involve leaving the Thai borders. It is always best to check at the local Thai consulate in Sliema to be updated on any changes on visa laws since these change often. 

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