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Death Island

(Ashleigh Force is a wannabe starving artist with an insatiable thirst for travel and minimalism.  She is a vagabond by day, jiu jitsu instructor by night. Continuously and neurotically planning her next escape whilst exercising her crippling ADD. Ashleigh’s hobbies include long pauses of day dreaming, staring at lengthy, inviting highways, and changing careers and locations as soon as life becomes even slightly manageable or comfortable. Lastly, she is a bleeding heart for animals facts and the ukulele. You can follow Ashleigh on instagram and youtube at AForceProduction.)

That old phrase “ignorance is bliss” has played a role in my life maybe too many times. The time that my husband and I spent in Thailand is a perfect illustration of this expression. As someone who is a bit impulsive by nature and embodies what some might refer to as a delusional (I say positive) approach to life, it wasn’t too shocking for friends and family back home when they caught wind that I had coaxed my husband Zach into traveling to an island nicknamed “Death Island.” To be honest, we weren’t aware of the island’s reputation at the time. We came to know the island as Koh Tao Island, located in the Thailand gulf, just an hour and a half ferry ride off the coast of Chumphon. I might add that Koh Tao translates to “Turtle Island,” known for its famous snorkel and scuba areas, supposedly largely inhabited by sea turtles. (We never saw any turtles. However, don’t let this deter you if you find yourself on Death Island in search of sea turtles. In all of my travels, the sea turtle has been somewhat of an elusive character for me. Many snorkel trips I was guaranteed – nay, promised – turtle sightings that have ended in disappointment. This all changed one day, early morning under a red sky as I was paddle boarding solo in Oahu. Just out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse – for one magical second – of a bobbing turtle head. There she was, and then she was gone. But this story isn’t about turtles, it’s about Turtle Island and all of its debauchery.)

Almost five months into our travels, Zach and I awoke one morning on a very long and very bumpy train ride from Bangkok to Chumphon, Thailand. The train smelled of expat sweat. The carts were barely clinging to one another. The beds were half the size of a large dog. There was a hole in the floor for a toilet, which you could only reach by hopping train carts while simultaneously reciting a prayer you didn’t realize you still remembered from church as a child. 

Once you actually reach the “toilet” cart, it rocks back and forth violently as you struggle to wrestle your pants down while maintaining a sturdy squat over a terrifying hole that leads straight down onto fast passing railroad tracks. Just as you feel you’ve mastered this impossible balancing act, your train ticket – the one you were told to not lose in order to show to the next destination’s ticket collector – escapes from your pocket and falls in slow motion down into the “toilet,” lost forever. Maybe the collector will forget to ask you for it.

After receiving a stern lecture from Zach, we managed to successfully avoid the train station employees and soon boarded a nice, relaxing ferry ride to Koh Tao. Young European bodies dotted the outside resting area, sharing the beers that had previously occupied their bag space while they sun bathed.

I like to think of myself as an excellent people watcher. After quickly scanning the ferry, I concluded that we were among party people. Young party people. Twenty-eight years old at the time, my blackout nights were over (and with no remorse). We heard that Koh Pha-ngan, an island just south of our destination, was the big party island. After all, Koh Pha-ngan is where the full moon party is held (which I admittedly had the horrible misfortune of attending one year later). We were on a journey of self realization, of emotional or spiritual awakening, of worldly understanding. At least, those were my aspirations. We were above this behavior for the time being. If we wanted to drink, dance, and partake in bad decision-making, we could have just stayed home. We were on this path now, and we had already booked five non-refundable nights at a hostel I couldn’t quite recall the name of.

The dock, as most do, emitted a pungent rotting fish aroma. Walking with heavy bags through heavy heat, we made our way away from the ocean I had waited so long to see and headed to the closest motorbike rental. We were well aware of the degree of scams that exist in Thailand, but we also knew we needed a scooter. Why might we need a scooter, you ask? Koh Tao is a small island, approximately eight miles in size. About thirty percent of the island is flat, while the remaining seventy percent is covered in mountainous terrain. Our hostel sat on top of this mountainous ground, and unless we wanted to pay an overpriced taxi fee every time we fancied a trip down into town and then back up the mountain, we needed a scooter. We could always choose to walk the sweaty, steep miles, but we quickly determined the risk of getting run over was too high.

Sawasdee khrap!” the man working the front desk said. 

“Sawasdee kha!” I replied. 

The place was busy, like every place on Koh Tao island. This was an island crawling with thousands of tourists, who were all trying to move around an island so small that it didn’t even offer car rentals. As business flooded in behind us, the workers tried to hurry us onto a motorbike and out the door. They seemed very accustomed to the fast pace and maybe had been operating on fast forward for years now. I reluctantly handed the man a copy of our passports (which is customary for scooter rentals in Thailand) while Zach meticulously took pictures of every inch of the bike before he even laid a finger on it. I knew I brought him for a reason.

Continuing on our road to our hostel, we were forced to separate. We had three large bags and simply couldn’t operate a scooter with two people and such weight. It’s not that it’s an impossible task: I’ve seen it done before in Taiwan. I once witnessed two adults, four bags, two children and a small dog all share a scooter at forty-five miles per hour with no fear in their eyes. I digress, however. We were not seasoned scooter riders such as they. Furthermore, these were all-terrain scooters. They looked like motorcycles, which to me is less scooter-y and more reckless.

A large weathered truck, corroded by the salty air, pulled up to help me and our bags up the mountain. Zach planned to follow behind us on the scooter. Squished between two Thai men in front of the truck, I turned to look out the back window at Zach. I watched in terror as I began to comprehend what he was up against. Come on. You can do it. Please be careful, I thought to myself. The roads were steep, dusty, narrow, and crowded with large SUVs. Even an experienced biker would have a difficult time wrestling up these hills. How have so many survived this? I would later learn that many do not. Zach hardly made it to the top. We had to stop for him many times, the men in the truck next to me laughing with every pause. I wish I could have enjoyed the humorous moment, as I do like a good laugh, but I was intensely focused on my husband’s fate. Clearly we would need to remedy this problem, but only after checking in and maybe a nap.

We reached the hostel and walked to the half front desk, half kitchen area. An elderly woman and two young ladies were all rushing back and forth preparing a meal.

GUESTSS!!!” proclaimed a loud and rude voice from a lounge chair adjacent to the front desk-kitchen.

A young Thai woman came running as her eyes rolled hard into the back of her skull. She proceeded to check us in. Everything was going smoothly until we realized she had booked us for a shared room, while we had prepaid online for a private one. We politely explained the problem and waited to see if there would be an easy solution. These kinds of miscommunications were common, and we were always prepared to pay more for less. We were English speakers in a foreign country, so we didn’t mind passively keeping the peace. The woman looked confident but concerned and began to troubleshoot. She was a fluent English speaker with a faint accent, so communication was easily achieved. She began looking for a private room when we heard the voice again.

“Just! Damn it!” 

The speaker – an old Englishman – pushed himself out of the lounge chair, thrusting his large belly out to better balance himself as he stood. He wore only thin swim shorts and a pair of old glasses. He waddled behind the desk in a somewhat disoriented manner. Seeing him close up, it was clear that he must have spent the better half of the morning drinking.

What happened here? Oh God! Just give them the honeymoon suit!”  

Then he turned his attention to us, less angry but just as loud. “Would you like that? The honeymoon room? Its beautiful! No extra charge.”  

Zach and I didn’t hesitate. “Sure!” 

We had never had a honeymoon suit before. He asked to see our passports. 

Wait,” he scowled. “You’re Americans.” 

We nodded in silence waiting for a response. 

I hate America! I was best friends with Saddam Hussein. What a guy that was! If it wasn’t for the American government taking him down we would have seen great things! Great things!” 

Zach and I had no choice but to laugh. It was all so ridiculous and most likely untrue. Just then, five children ran downstairs, bickering and crying. 

No, no, no! I’m not going to hear about it! Get upstairs!” 

The children argued back with no luck. 

Get upstairs now or I’ll sell you tomorrow!”

The woman then left and tended to what we believe were their five children. We later learned the oldest was nine years old while the Englishman was seventy-two. We assumed that the woman was about thirty. It was later confirmed that the Englishman and the woman at the counter were married when, on another drunk and loud morning in the dining area, the Englishman shouted out between naps, “Yup! Came to Thailand got myself a young wife and started up this hotel on my own. She was 14 when I met her.” 

The age of consent in Thailand is fifteen and their oldest child was nine years old. Zach and I felt uneasy at his confession as we both did the math in our heads. This wasn’t the only bit of information that gave us unsettling feelings about the Englishman. Every morning of our stay, we descended to the hostel lobby for breakfast. This was where the Englishman would scream “Allahu akbar!!” at us while imitating the action of cutting our “stupid American heads” off. We later gave this man our passports in exchange for snorkeling gear. He claimed there were sea turtles.

After settling into the honeymoon suite and resting for a while, we went out in hopes of solving our scooter problem. Zach and I sat on the bike at the base of the mountain (Zach in the driver’s position) and stared blankly at the death road ahead of us, waiting for a sign. Sure, the weight of the bags was gone but we were still two inexperienced scooter drivers and Zach could barely drive on his own without my extra weight. With every lingering second, the mountain grew larger and more fierce. It seem to stretch into the clouds with no give.

Finally Zach yelled out, “Okay! Let’s do this!” 

He revved the engine, released the brakes, and we took off in a dusty cloud of heroic action. Seconds later, the scooter seized up. The tires locked. Not even halfway up the hill, we began sliding back. The scooter tipped and we hit the ground. We stood up with only a few bruises and decided one failure was not enough to give up.

We gave ourselves a little more runway room, and we attempted to ride up the hill once again. The scooter took off with great velocity and speed and continued up the hill. Just as we were rolling to the top, the brakes locked again. This time, we managed to stay upright but were forced to walk the bike up the rest of the hill. 

Once on top, we looked down at the steep descent. This was even more terrifying than the first challenge. We repositioned ourselves on the motorbike, I said another forgotten prayer, and we started downward. Zach held the brakes tight, and almost immediately the tires locked. We skidded over towards the edge of the road that abruptly dropped into the side of the mountain.

Jump off!” Zach yelled. 

I leaped off and quickly grabbed the back of the bike, desperately trying to keep it and Zach from falling off the cliff. I held on tight, threw my body weight back, and planted my heels hard into the dirt. The scooter dragged me along until Zach threw his weight to the side, tilting him, the bike, and me over before gravity could finish the job. It was time to admit defeat.

That was too close,” I told Zach. 

Yeah, let’s walk it down and only ride it around town.” 

We dusted ourselves off, picked up the scooter and began carefully walking down the hill, trying to avoid getting hit by other scooters and large trucks along the way. 

Hey!” A young man riding a scooter rolled up next to us. “You guys are staying at the hostel just up the way, huh?” 

We both nodded. 

Yeah, I saw you. That guy is crazy huh?” 

We immediately understood that he was referring to the English man. “Yeah, he’s definitely crazy,” I replied. 

I’m staying there, too. My name is John.” 

Nice to meet you. I’m Ashleigh and this is my husband, Zach.” 

So why are you walking down the mountain?” he asked. 

Well,” I explained, “we are new to scooters and my husband can’t balance with both of us on the bike on these steep hills.”

What? These hills? No, no, it easy.”

Do you do this often?”

Surrreee! I’m from Holland. I ride everywhere. I have a motorcycle at home.” 

“Are you pretty good?”

He shrugged, “I like to do wheelies, some jumps.” 

Our jaws dropped. “Wheelies?” we asked in unison. Nothing could have impressed us more. As far as we were concerned, our new Holland friend was Evil Knievel status. His credentials far surpassed ours. 

Tell ya what,” Zach suggested, “if you would help us down these hills I’ll buy you lunch and beer.” 

Johns eyes lit up. “Okay! Sounds good!

Okay. Take my wife.”

What?”

“Take my wife please.”

John looked puzzled and unsure how to respond. 

Get her down the mountain safely and I’ll follow slowly behind. I don’t trust myself to get us both down without falling again. After lunch maybe you can teach me how to really drive this thing.” 

“Ha ha, okay. If you say so. Just make sure you pump the brakes on the way down so you don’t fall.” 

Zach smiled, looked over at me and shook his head. We both laughed to ourselves because he had been tightly clenching the brakes down. Traveling requires a fair amount of trust in strangers and for Zach, it was always one of the harder challenges of being on the road.

John?”

“Yes?”

“My wife better be at the bottom of the hill when I get there.”

“Ha ha. No worries man.”

Thanks to John, Zach would spend the next few days conquering the mountains Koh Tao had to offer. Before long, we were spending every day and night together. To thank John, we kept him full of beer and offered him dating advice. We spent our days snorkeling in search of imaginary sea turtles and jumping off nearby rocks and cliffs into the ocean. Zach never partook in such activities involving adrenaline or heights, but he was always of great support as John and I stared over the edge of a rock into the dark deep water.

Why do you have to do this?” Zach asked. It wasn’t an unreasonable question. Still, I ignored him. 

You go first,” I said to John. 

If you go, I’ll go,” he replied. 

We stood quietly looking down at the ocean, imagining the extent of its depths and what could be just below the surface. The silence was broken by young man wearing dark shades and a gold chain necklace. 

It’s not that high up. Just make sure you aim for that dark circle there.” He pointed at the ocean and for the first time I noticed the different shades of blue. 

There it was. A small ring of darkness. 

You have to jump into that hole or else you’ll hit the coral, and that is not going to feel good.” 

Zach sat up and out of his relaxed posture. “Or you could just not jump at all, in that case.” 

Does everything on Koh Tao involve risking your life?, I thought. 

Its fine,” the man said. 

Just then, he jumped off the rock and splashed into the circle. He arose out of the water alive and well. 

Uuughh! okay!” John jumped next. He also arose out from the dark circle alive and uninjured. 

Unlike my husband, I too often succumb to peer pressure. I knew what I must do. I took a deep breath and I was in the air. I have jumped off of my fair share of rocks into many bodies of water, and no matter how many times I take the leap there is always a moment right before my feet leave the sturdy ground when my brain shuts off, like a glitch. I believe the mind must do this because there is no way a brain, while sane, would allow a body to perform such a reckless act. I made it out alive, but my foot brushed against some coral and bled quite a bit for such a small scratch. I only jumped two more times after that.

When the sun set on Koh Tao, the night came alive. We would ride down the mountain into town to watch Thai boxing fights, share beers and explore the trails. The bar and shop areas were congested with young adults looking for a good time. Most walked around with large, blood-soaked medical bandages. This was, of course, due to the scooter rentals giving out bikes to young, inexperienced drivers (much like ourselves). Mostly European, these young people were having the time of their lives. I always envied Europeans, as they were not afraid to see the world and travel wasn’t something impossible or frowned upon. The other part of the tourist population was made up of middle aged men, who were no longer tourists themselves and had sought to find a new, faraway home. This island seemed to give the illusion of a utopia where we could all escape reality and the hardships of life. Adulthood had come to a screeching halt and the taste of simpler, less traditional life was adopted. We watched the crowds make their way back and forth through the streets like chaotic, buzzed schools of fish. 

I said to Zach, “I’m glad we bought the tickets and made it all the way here. But this place isn’t for us.” 

I granted the island one more nickname: The Lost Boys Island. I thought it suited the crowd Koh Tao attracted.

We were soon back on the same ferry that just a week earlier brought us to Koh Tao. A strange sense of relief washed over me as we watched the island sink into the ocean and finally disappear. We had arrived, observed, conquered and left unharmed.

Two years later, in 2018, we read online that Koh Tao had an alarmingly high death count for tourists. There were a number of news article reporting murder cases on the island. European tourists had disappeared or were found dead following a visit to Koh Tao. There are reports of tourists being hanged, and of bodies found in the jungle or floating in the ocean. Mafia families likely run the island. This was knowledge we acquired from a friend in Bangkok (who informed us that the taxis were owned by the mafia as well). Sadly, the full extent of loss on Koh Tao Island may never be known. My husband and I were among the lucky ones. Had we known this prior to visiting, maybe we would have gone to another island. Maybe riding scooters up cliffside hills, jumping into waters with dark circles, and bantering with deranged hostel owners wouldn’t have left us so apathetic.

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