The Girl I Was on Koh Tao

Without a doubt, Koh Tao is one of my favorite places in Southeast Asia.

Last fall I spent three weeks there and this spring I returned for two and a half. On both visits I only intended to stay a week, but well, Koh Tao is tough to quit.

Koh Tao is heaven for young people. A palm tree-fringed paradise where hour-long massages cost $6, where you can scuba-dive and fight muay thai and motorbike at your leisure, where partying is practically an art-form.

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My memories of Koh Tao are equally distant and fond, so hazy it’s as if they belong to someone else.

Even though I was there only six months ago, I was a different girl. Back then I flitted around the world, unsure of myself or what I wanted to do. I was rootless. I vacillated between seeking adventure and food and travel and craving community and career growth and lasting friendship.

Similar to an addiction, travel evolved from a love to an escape to an obsession to a lifestyle. After nine years of obsessive travel, I traveled because it was all I knew how to do. I was equally scared for the future and determined to savor the present. When the dreaded question “What will I do when I get home?” arose, I cast it from my mind.

I lived simply and cheaply, my only shoes a pair of black flip flops, my hair usually wet and plaited to the side. I was a girl who felt wildly indulgent paying $40 a night for an air-conditioned bungalow, who considered staying out until two an early night. I worried a lot. I partied a lot. I had metric tons of free time but carried a deep guilt for not feeling constantly happy. After all, who was I to feel lonely in paradise? How dare I?

I was a girl I recognize but can’t remember being.

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But I do remember some things about my time on Koh Tao. I remember the bathwater sea, the banana pancake truck parked in front of Ban’s, the bright long tail boats bobbing in the surf. I remember drinking frothy pineapple juice as the tourmaline sea glittered. I remember swaying in a hammock listening to Manu Chao, sniffling and feverish from too many nights out.

And needless to say, I miss that lifestyle at times. I miss blissing out under Tiger Balm massages while listening to the soft pulsing of the sea. I miss sipping lukewarm Changs on the beach at night, watching the fire dancers spin, the flames bright as stars.

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But mostly, I feel time has given me clarity. I forgive the girl I was back then for being anxious and guilty once in a while, because of course I had rough days on the road. Of course I felt insecure about my future and longed for deeper friendships. One can only live untethered for so long without yearning for security.

In retrospect I see that I was far too hard on myself.

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I doubt I will ever go back to Koh Tao- actually, I don’t want to. For me, it’s so intertwined with youth, both the uncertainty and the frivolity of it. I want the island to remain fixed in my mind just as it was when I was 23. Because I will never again be the girl I was on Koh Tao, for better or worse.

Koh Tao- what a special little piece of paradise.

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About Ashley Fleckenstein

Ashley is a travel and lifestyle blogger who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Since college she has au paired in Paris, backpacked the world solo, and lived in Uganda. Her work has been featured by Buzzfeed, Forbes, TripAdvisor, and Glamour Magazine.

37 thoughts on “The Girl I Was on Koh Tao”

  1. Koh Tao is one of my favorite islands in Thailand, too! But it sounds like you’ve had some time for self reflection and growth, and I think you’re smart to keep Koh Tao as a stepping stone in memory only, one that helped you get to where you are today. To recognize that you can never be that girl again equally portrays how much you’ve learned about yourself.

    Have you been to Koh Kood (Kut)? It’s my number one, and it’s much more grown up. It’s very relaxed and quiet, but the most beautiful island I’ve been to. I think you’d like it now!

  2. This is one of my favorite things you’ve ever written. That last paragraph! I feel the exact same way about China at 18, Singapore at 20, and even in some ways, Paris… I look back on our email chains and laugh at how much we used to worry! Silly us…

  3. It’s crazy how just a few months of reflexion can change someone. Happy to hear you have found a channel that allows you to drop the worrying! Great story.

    • I seriously worry so much less now, and I think it’s because I have a much more stable life. It’s nice to have a job and an apartment and know I’ll be in one place for the next year- such a relief.

  4. I can totally relate to wanting to keep some places preserved in your memory as they were forever. There’s no need to revisit or update them — sometimes they serve us best as little pieces of the past that we can still taste and touch, even when we’ve moved on to a different stage. Really enjoyed this.

  5. This is such a terrific post, thank you for sharing! I certainly feel that way about some places I have traveled as well. Although, I must say- your pictures of Koh Tao are stunning! My husband and I are looking at going there in March/April this year- last year we were in Koh Samui for the month of April!

  6. Lovely post. It’s great that you can look back on it with clarity. “One can only live untethered for so long without yearning for security.” That’s already one of my biggest concerns before I’ve even left on my RTW trip…. I’m wondering if I’ll be able to soak up the moment of freedom or if I’ll secretly be longing for stability. Guess I’ll find out soon! :)

    • My only advice is that really, really try to embrace the good things about nomadic life- freedom, spontaneity, adventure. And try not to get attached to people- that’s something I struggled with a bit. Everyone is so transient that when people start to mean too much to you it can be really hard.

  7. So lovely, Ashley! I think it’s something a lot of travelers can relate to as well. I barely recognize the person I was while living in Chiang Mai a year and a half ago. I’m back in Chiang Mai now, but after having backpacked for several months and now in a serious relationship, and my life here could not be more different. It’s so crazy to think about what my life here used to be like!

  8. It’s so interesting how a single place can bring back so many memories and emotions. It’s all a part of the journey I suppose. Nice post! I look forward to going to Koh Tao next spring.

  9. Such a good post. I feel the same way about everywhere I’ve lived I think – you grow as much when you say goodbye to somewhere as you do while you’re there. You can look back with fresh eyes and see what you couldn’t see when you were in the midst of it all. I hope you’re finding what you were missing now that you’ve settled in Denver.

  10. Such a lovely post! It’s funny how we often want to preserve the memories we’ve made. Sometimes I look back at the places I’ve been and certain events in my life, and I don’t want to change a thing or do something that would spoil that memory.

    I’m yet to visit Koh Tao, but would love to go after reading this post (and I’m really craving that $6 massage :P) x

  11. Beautiful. I really enjoy reading your stuff because it’s so rare for a travel blog to show any kind of personal growth or… anything really, beyond travel tips. Bravo.

  12. I love this post and feel like I can relate to it well. I’ve also shared many of those feelings while traveling. Sometimes it is best to leave the memory as it is, and to go on to make new memories. We can’t ever get back to the exact same place and time that we’ve been, but we can still hold it as part of ourselves, part of the person we are today. Thank you for sharing!

  13. This beautifully written. I have to imagine that most people go through anxiety about their chosen paths once in a while. I have five more months of traveling to do and I am already having stress dreams about getting back to work. Hopefully I’ll chill out once I’m actually settled.

    Love the pictures too. I can’t wait to visit Koh Tao next year.

  14. A really beautiful piece Ashley. It’s hit me and I completely understand every word you have written. I’m so glad you learnt so much there and it’s helped you get to the happy place you’re at today :)

  15. Word, Ashley, Word. I was nodding along with everything because I feel that way too sometimes. I should enjoy the present, irresponsible moment, and I often do, but those down times are very hard because it feels wrong not to love everything going on around me. So well written and I completely feel this from time to time as well!

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