I headed back to Thailand this month to start off my latest adventure through Asia and on divulging my plans to family, friends and readers one of the most common responses I heard was “Koh Tao – is that safe?”

Lets address the elephant in the room with Koh Tao right now – two backpackers were murdered there a few weeks ago. 

There I said it, it’s out in the open, so lets stop pretending it didn’t happen.

I’m sure as travellers many of you will have heard about what happened on Koh Tao, indeed it’s an unfortunate set of events and my respects go out to all their friends and family.

However, I’ll be blunt on this matter – the western media LOVE trumpeting events such as these, they love to feed off the negative. Let’s face it, the sensationalism surrounding the circumstances are nothing short of ridiculous.

When two white, middle class backpackers are murdered anywhere in the world the media has a freaking field day.

Do I think this type of event deserves media attention – yes.

Do I think it deserves this amount of media attention – no.

Of course, these things deserve to be voiced and we shouldn’t pretend that backpacking in foreign countries doesn’t come at some risk. However, everything comes with some degree of risk.

 

Perspective

At the moment the police in America have shot more innocent people in the last few months than the amount of backpackers who have been murdered in the whole of Thailand in the last year.

The media we consume these days is massively bias, sensationalised and predominately negative.

They didn’t mention the thousands of backpackers in Thailand each month who have an incredible experience, return home safely and who have a more open view of the world as a result.

Nope – because who would click on the headline “Backpacker Returns From Trip Of A Lifetime in Thailand”.

So despite everything I opted to head back to Tao, a place I’ve visited numerous times now and a location that stands out as one of my favourite backpacking spots. It’s a beautiful place and I always enjoy my stay there – even in a slightly damp monsoon season time frame like this month!

 

The Current Vibe On Tao

You’re more likely to be stabbed walking through the streets of London than on most of the Thai Islands, in fact I feel HEAPS safer on the road than I do most major cities in the UK.

backpacker koh tao thailand diving scuba freedive

Koh Tao Really Is Stunning

When I arrived on Tao I barely thought about the events that had happened there, there was no niggling part of me that thought I should change my plans or I should be a bit more careful. You simply manage the risk as a traveller and going out to dark parts of the beach at ridiculous o’clock is something I will always try to avoid.

Would you walk down a dark back alley in your local city in the early hours of the morning?

Probably not – so why would you ever think that was a sensible option in a foreign country? 

One thing that became quickly apparent though was the fact that the island was very calm and very quiet.

I know it is currently low season on Koh Tao, but this was even lower.

Having spoke to a number of local business owners who I’ve known for years through blogging and scuba diving they confirmed that since the international press blew the story up backpacker numbers on the island have plummeted.

Dive school on Koh Tao which usually certify 20+ people a day are now barely hitting 10 and hostels which are usually booked out have beds to spare.

Even more concerning for the islands economy is the fact this has all had a knock on effect for the upcoming high season and even future bookings are down.

 

Media Power

For someone heavily involved in tourism this quite frankly p*sses me off, that the pen-pushing office types in the newsroom would happily destroy the economy of a small Thai Island in their quest for consumer traffic and worst still that people are so easily lead by it.

I’ve worked in the media as a photographer, writer and blogger for a few years now and I’ve seen the power that is held by it. A power that can make or break an election campaign, that can swing economies and can have you leaving in a state of fear and it’s quite frankly ridiculous.

I know I’m going slightly off topic but hey – this whole thing gets me pretty fired up!

Yes it’s horrible what happened to those backpackers, yes I DO feel for everyone that is hurt as a result of it.

But look at the bigger picture.

Life is a numbers game  – to some extent these events are the same as the Australian shark cull.

1 person gets bitten by a great white and suddenly there’s a media outcry to kill heaps of sharks.

The facts vs media sensationalism simply makes no sense – it’s an exaggerated response to provoke sales.

A reader also commented on one of my posts asking me how I could visit given the corruption that seems to be involved in everything there too. Again it’s unfortunate but you’d be hard pushed to find a place on the planet that isn’t touched by some kind of corruption – what you can do though is spend you money at recommended, legitimate businesses as best you can.

 

My Current Thoughts

backpacker koh tao thailand diving scuba freedive

Enjoying Some Diving With Stephen On Tao

I had a brilliant time last week on Koh Tao – I enjoyed some spectacular diving and freediving, I ate amazing Thai cuisine and swam in beautiful warm waters. I took strolls on the beach and I spent some of my night partying with fellow travellers.

But most of all I felt safe.

I urge you if you’re in Thailand right now or are planning a trip there soon to question your reasons for scrapping your Koh Tao travel plans. I’m not saying you’ll be 100% safe, no one can guarantee that wherever you are in the world.

What I can guarantee though is you’ll find a welcoming island, with heaps to do, that showcases some of the beauty and excitement that Thailand has to offer.

And that’s what travel is all about, taking a calculated risk and stepping outside of your comfort zone a bit, challenging your perspectives on life and discovering that the world isn’t the big and scary place some people lead you to believe – that it’s full of fun and adventure.

If you choose not to go that’s your decision. All I ask is you don’t jump to a quick decision based on a tabloid headline.

 

Have you had second thoughts about visiting Koh Tao? Or have you visited since everything kicked of, how did you find it?

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60 Responses

  1. Tathagata

    I was really surprised and somewhat irritated to see the amount of negative media this unfortunate incident attracted. I am hundred percent on your side about this partial attitude of the media. The recent media initiated panic in the US about Ebola is also a case in point!
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  2. Alex

    I don’t think the issue is the media bringing attention to what happened because tourists were murdered. At least for many of us who live in Thailand, the issue we see has to do with the implication of human rights in the country as a whole. In Southern Thailand and in places like Koh Tao, Koh Pangan, Koh Phi Phi, and Phuket, multiple things have happened to both western tourists and migrant workers that have not been reported as much in the news. Displacement of the Moken people for tourist purposes, trafficking of Burmese and Khmer migrant workers and/or refugees, and all the social/economic issues that comes with it. Yes, most people will have a great time in Thailand, but I don’t think the only point that is being made is “is it safe or not”. I think the question more people need to be asking themselves is in places in the country where a person can get murdered and then a migrant worker is made an obvious scapegoat (if you can read Thai, Burmese and Khmer are constantly blamed for murders with no evidence in the newspaper), what does that mean in regards to all the activities in the island? You can probably have a great time in Koh Tao, but you have to be aware that your tourist dollars are funding the people responsible for the murders.
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    • Chris

      Agreed Alex, unfortunately a lot of the main issues like you mentioned aren’t hitting the mainstream at all and those are the things that really need to be addressed. I do my best to make informed decisions at where to spend my money whilst travelling and on Koh Tao it doesn’t take too much research to find out the places you should avoid spending your money. It’s crazy how overlooked the human rights issues have been in contrast to the safety fears though.

      Reply
    • Marko

      Well said Alex!

      Chris, things are slowly getting through to mainstream media but often have to start off grass roots. There are plenty of other places to have a great time in Thailand.

      Reply
      • Chris

        I know – I have visited many of them. However me avoiding places and countries that the media have kicked up a fuss about or have been implicated in unfair trials and dismissal of human rights would unfortunately severely limit where I could travel. The USA for one would be straight off the itinerary – but everyone seems pretty happy for people to visit there whilst they use exaggerated force against their own people and sentence people without fair trial.

  3. Shannon Colman

    Good points – there are so many unreported murders around the world (especially in more economically developed countries) and in one’s own country. The media hype only breeds xenophobia and leads to questionable confessions as the country’s politicians feel a pressure to find the killers immediately. A horrible crime, but I think visitor numbers will slowly start to creep up again in the next few months.
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    • Chris

      Yeah the worst thing is the fact fair trials are replaced by ‘witch hunts’ and the people in charge look to fix the issues quickly rather than properly. Fingers crossed the island recovers though.

      Reply
  4. Jimmy V

    As someone who loves scuba diving and Koh Tao, I understand the point you’re trying to make, but you’re completely misunderstanding most peoples’ reasons for avoiding Koh Tao:

    “For someone heavily involved in tourism this quite frankly p*sses me off, that the pen-pushing office types in the newsroom would happily destroy the economy of a small Thai Island in their quest for consumer traffic and worst still that people are so easily lead by it.”

    The REAL reason numbers are down is because of the terrible way the police have mishandled this case. They tried to pin it on ANYONE other than a Thai person. And if you’ve spent any time in Thailand, especially Koh Tao, then you’ve seen or experienced the protectionism against rich and/or corrupt people.

    Sure, your “odds” are in your favor of not getting murdered on the island, but why go somewhere with an active murder investigation is being mishandled by incompetent police?

    To anyone reading this article, I encourage you to follow the murder case on thaivisa.com (I have no affiliation with that side), and you’ll see just how many people are disgusted by the way the police have handled this investigation.

    I applaud your biased propogana, but you should include some realities in your pie-in-the-sky portrayal of Koh Tao.

    Reply
    • Chris

      I understand totally Jimmy – unfortunately though the main concerns people were chatting to me about weren’t the mishandling of the case or the scape goats being used, it was merely the incident that sparked it all.

      I have little misconceptions over how corrupt places like Koh Tao can be, but on a small island like that it’s always more concentrated and visible. My issue here is more the fear mongering going on rather than the corruption, which lets face it is pretty prominent in a lot of places all over the world.

      The other unfortunate thing is what does boycotting the island really achieve when it comes to the mishandling of the case? I wish it would achieve more but I doubt it’ll do anything but force legitimate local places out of business.

      Reply
  5. Betty

    I agree with you on most parts you said (especially about the perspective) but it seems a bit like you say it’s kinda their fault because they were late at night on the beach. I’m a girl and when it’s dark it doesn’t mean that I can’t walk allies anymore. and if I get robbed there it’s surely not my fault for being there but the robbers one and maybe the surroundings that drove him to this decision.

    I was on Tao as the murder happened and before that I was walking alone at nights on the beach as well, if I saw locals paying guitar I sat next to them and started talking and after partying all night i would find my way home drunk through dark streets. I always felt perfectly save and it’s sad that I shouldn’t have and that’s the real issue: why should I not feel safe on a small and friendly tourist island? The convicted murderers are from Burma, like loads of other cheap labour workers in Thailand. They flee from their country and Thais (and indirectly tourists too) take advantage of them. Nobody is taking about that but for me that’s the real issue…

    Reply
    • Chris

      In hindsight it might have come across that way but I didn’t mean it as bluntly as that Betty – it was more a general bit of safety advice rather than finger pointing, I’m sure it was a wrong place wrong time occurrence which unfortunately ended in tragedy.

      Reply
  6. Big Si

    I Loved Koh Tao when I was there, I felt safer walking about anywhere in Thailand than I would my local Town at 2 in the morning.
    To put things into perspective the media could maybe concentrate on the millions worldwide who die through obesity and diabetes every year through eating crap advertised on our TVs 24/7…… Just a thought!
    Not sure im gonna make gulf of Thailand in Feb (although I love Koh Tao and Koh Phangnan, I think 3 weeks round the Andaman Side. Maybe a week on Koh lanta and a week on Koh Jum. Most relaxing place I have ever been.
    In 2-3 years I hope to be living the dream similar to yourself……..

    Reply
    • Chris

      Glad you’re heading back this way soon Si and you’ll enjoy the west coast just as much – I’m over there now and loving it!

      Reply
  7. Pixie

    Im so glad you wrote this article as I have no intention of changing my plans to visit Koh Tao later this year and people seem to have trouble understanding that. The media is just way too powerful and has no perspective whatsoever!

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  8. Jaimee

    I’m still planning on going to Koh Tao in the next month or two to get my open water cert. I love that you included the shark cull in your piece. As a perth girl I have to agree with your comments about sensationalism. The media is so biased and they will say anything to push up their revenue. How many tourists pass through New York? And people get murdered there almost daily. Why should Koh Tao be treated differently?

    Reply
    • Chris

      Awesome Jaimee – it’s a great spot to get certified (check out my other site EpicGapYear.com if you’re still looking to book your dive courses!). Like a few people have pointed out the real issue is the corruption and lack of real trial, however the story the media are reporting is merely one of safety.

      Reply
      • Jaimee

        Yeah I’ve been looking at EpicGapYear to book it. I’m not sure which dates I’ll be there yet so I’m going to book closer to it. I’m still in Malaysian Borneo at the moment, hoping to check out some snorkelling at Sipidan. Unfortunately I left it too late to book a dive course there because it’s so popular (some of the best dive sites in the world apparently) and they only allow 120 permits per day.

    • Chris

      Me too, if it’s really that important someone will tell you about it and then you can do your research!

      Reply
  9. jay

    Go to koh Tao spend some money and later they can use the money you spent to pay for the bribes needed to get out of yet another murder on Koh Tao …. this last one is not the only one . the others were covered up better and i fear it will not be the last , 20 years i have been here and i know a lot more than im saying here …

    Reply
    • Chris

      Slight dash of irony telling backpackers to avoid spending money on and island when you living there for 20 years has surely invested way more into it than they will during their stay, nor will your silence on other issues help either Jay. You can’t tell me to make a stand against a place if you’re unwilling to do so yourself.

      Reply
  10. Luckilylost.com

    Nice article,

    We very much agree with your comments here and fully encourage people to visit the stunning island of Koh Tao.

    We have tweeted your article.

    Keep up the good writing.

    Reply
  11. Tatu

    You should avoid Koh Tao as long as corrupted Thai police let the real killer(Thai) walk free.

    Reply
    • Chris

      Surely this isn’t just an issue with Tao though, this is the fault of the national police as much as local? If you really think we liven a world where boycotting a place will mean justice is served you’re very mistaken. It’s unfortunate and I don’t like it either but its better to boycott the places and businesses that are involved than the entire island.

      Reply
    • D

      I totally agree. The Thai police are incompetent, unprofessional and corrupted. The 2 Burmese men have been given death sentence for the crime they did not commit and used as scapegoats. The murderer is still at large on Koh Tao. I travelled to Thailand a few times in the past but will not go there again.

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  12. Oliver

    Nice perspective Chris. 100% agree with you as well. As tragic as it was, it is a shame that local business owners would have the power of the international media set against them. Having said that, the subsequent response by the Thai police was shocking and has not help the situation. I don’t think the media are 100% to blame. Koh Tao is a safe destination, with millions of backpackers having enjoyed the awesome island the chances of negative things happening are so slim. It was just the graphic nature of this is really kicked up the media interest

    Reply
    • Chris

      Indeed there’s a number of issues with the whole situation that aren’t great hey Oliver – it’s a shame that the main issues aren’t really being addressed but a boycott of the island certainly isn’t the solution.

      Reply
  13. Magnense

    I am not from scary ones and such news most probably will not keep me away from visiting some place.
    What will keep me away? unfriendly locals. Off course I was there during tourism peak season and I noticed not only unfriendly locals, but even rude to tourists. I noticed friendly ones too, but this place was quite distinctive with unwelcoming attitude. I understand some reasons why it could happen, but… it’s their “daily bread” – there is nothing else, but tourism happening on the island.

    Want to add in the end – I am not the only one with such an experience.

    Reply
    • Chris

      It’s a shame you had bad experience with the locals Magnense – I’ve had nothing but pleasant interactions with the Tao and Thai residents whilst out there. I do however try to avoid peak season though as everything feels a bit more chaotic and crowded.

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  14. Dyls

    The most beautiful island ever.. nature and people alike.. I lived there for a couple years and would love to go back to live.. Simply bliss!

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  15. Jens

    Stop reading the news if you want, stick you head in the sand..
    Fact is that beside the recent murders a lot of rapes has happened on Koh Tao, local resident knows it but keep quiet do to keeping the tourist coming.
    That corruption rules is no big secret, some say it is a good thing as long as you are part of it.
    2 Myamar workers are being sacrificed so you can keep your ..oh so lovely Koh Tao…just as you like it

    Reply
    • Chris

      Hey Jens, thanks for the comment. To be honest I’m not doing it to stick my head in the sand – I simply don’t like to bombardment of negativity in my life, plus I’d rather hear the ‘news’ from people truly in the know, on the ground rather than through some big conglomerate with their own agendas.
      I totally condone the fact the trial is not fair, it’s obvious to everyone that they’re using scape goats to sweep it under the rug – however you can’t tarnish an entire island because of the few that hold power, there are heaps of genuinely nice locals and business owners who have nothing to do with it.
      Just voicing the opinion that I feel Tao is simply being picked on when there are heaps of places with the same issues or worse that aren’t being talked about.

      Reply
  16. Ali Qizilbash

    Kudos on the article I’m a regular & have been going several times a year for the last three years.
    Just got back having visited several weeks after the murders, and as tragic as it is life goes on.
    This is a beautiful Island with wonderful people, and like anywhere else in the world you have to be culturally prudent about your activities, I will be goung back again in December with my family and a group of 10.

    Reply
  17. Jake

    I was there when it happened. Of course it was horrible that it happened but I felt at the same time no less safe during my stay. Murder is commonplace in major cities and may not be anywhere near as much interest in the media.

    Reply
    • Chris

      Intersting to hear to perspective of someone that was there Jake. Glad it didn’t convince you to bail out.

      Reply
    • Chris

      Definitely get over to the island Jade – totally different side of Thailand to Phuket and you’ll love it!

      Reply
  18. Iain

    Good article Chris!

    As a diver who has spent some time on ko tao and made some great friends it saddens me that the tourism is being affected by the hideous crimes that occured with the two tragically unfortunate back backers. I for one won’t be put off returning to Ko Tao and coming back to Budda View ( on my favourite beach on the island) . I’m looking forward to returning soon and I hope a lot of old visitors and new ones do too. :)

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  19. Rosie Dunningham

    Brilliant post Chris! I’m heading over to Koh Tao in January for a 2 month dive internship, which was all booked before the tragic incident happened. It worried me that people would avoid the island because of it, but hopefully people can see that it is a terrible thing that could have happened anywhere. Fingers crossed I’m not the only visitor to the beautiful place! Rosie x
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    • Chris

      Cheers Rosie!
      You’ll love it out on Tao, such a beautiful place to explore and dive! Enjoy the underwater world too – let me know if you want to book any diving over on the Similan Islands – epic spot to check out!

      Reply
    • Chris

      Hey Hannah,
      Tao itself is a great spot to explore and do your dive course – however if Adam is already a keen diver I’d maybe suggest checking out Phi Phi or the Similan Islands for diving. It’s a bit more expensive but there’s a better variety of dive sites and marine life.

      Reply
  20. Ziplin

    Another hipster who thinks it’s “kewl” living on the edge in gritty third-world countries. The island you are instructing people to visit is controlled by corrupt, criminal bags of shit who have no qualms killing people who get in their way.

    Reply
    • Chris

      hahahaha can’t say I’ve ever been described as hipster before! I’m not instructing people to visit there, I’m just informing people who were already thinking about going there that it’s still a reasonably safe (admittedly not totally, no where is totally safe – Asia, Europe or otherwise) place to visit.

      Reply
  21. Nomadic Boys

    My partner and I have been to Koh Tao island twice : The first time in february 2012 to do our open water course and a few days ago to do our advanced open water course… We loved it the first time but I must say the second time, we left with mixed feelings.

    Yes you are right, the island is safe and you can walk freely at night. But the tourism has just exploded and the island is not what it used to be. It has become a party island unfortunately… Accomodation is expensive and it is hard to get a smile fromt he local community.
    The diving is still great and quite cheap, although we were very unlucky with the visibility thoughout our advanced open water course. Anyway, my advice to people is to go and see the island for themselves and make their own mind… Great post in anycase !
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  22. Luuk Reinalda

    Reading all these blogs (comments) confuses me!!! But the best way is to see for myself I guess, people get killed and kicked the shit out of in the netherlands as well and probably everywhere in the world. Police is kinda corrupt everywhere, in portugal you’re screwed if your not portugese, in spain the same story and in mexico as well :p… (no news to me). Did they ever found out who killed the dutch girls in panama?? (No!!) But if you just look at all the horrible things that happen everywhere you can only stay inside your home with the door locked… Its not gonna stop me. Great post by the way, I completely agree :)

    Reply
    • Chris

      Glad you’re not letting anything stop you explore the world Luuk – have an amazing adventure!

      Reply

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