Public spotlight shines on Koh Tao, Thailand’s mysterious ‘Death Island’

Koh Tao hides a dark truth beyond its blue waters. Source: Shutterstock

JUST four years ago, Koh Tao was known for being a paradisiacal isle in the south of “Amazing Thailand”.

Fast forward to 2017 and it has a new moniker: “Death Island”. The reason for Koh Tao’s spectacular fall from grace? The deaths of seven young tourists on the island from 2014 onwards, many in suspicious or unexplained circumstances.

The first of these deaths happened in 2014. Only now, after Belgian national Elise Dallemagne, 30, was named as the seventh visitor to die in unexplained circumstances on Koh Tao, the media is finally starting to pay attention to the full grisly portfolio.

Koh Tao originally became newsworthy when British tourists David Miller and Hannah Witheridge were killed on the island in 2014. The double murder hit global headlines, in part because they were both in their early twenties, attractive, and white.

Their murders also sent shockwaves around the world due to the violent and bloody details that followed. Miller had been bludgeoned with a garden hoe and left in the surf to drown, while Witheridge had been raped and beaten to death.

But Miller and Witheridge were not the first British nationals to lose their lives on the island in 2014. On Jan 1, 2014, another British traveler, Nick Pearson, 25, was found dead in the sea off the coast of Koh Tao. The official explanation was that he had drowned, although his family continues to believe foul play was involved.

In his mother’s own words, “In view of what’s happened to David Miller, Hannah Witheridge and various other people I’ve read about, it just all leads to the same thing.”

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As Miller and Witheridge’s case staggered on, two foreign nationals died in Koh Tao in January 2015. The first was French holidaymaker Dimitri Povse, 29. On New Year’s Day in 2015, he was found hanged in a bungalow and his death was quickly put down to suicide. Unusually for a hanging case, his hands were tied behind his back.

Following Povse’s death, British tourist Christina Annesley, 23, also died on Koh Tao the same month. The Thai authorities’ handling of the case was criticized by her father:

“We don’t know how or why she died. She had medication for a chest infection and was drinking, but the Thai police failed to investigate if the combination was sufficient to kill her.”

Annesley’s death was also complicated by the fact CCTV footage showed a man leaving her room just a few hours before her body was found. The police made no effort to interview him, despite the fact he was the last person to see the young woman alive.

In January 2016, Luke Miller (no relation to David Miller) was found floating in a swimming pool. This was also ruled as suicide although his family expressed concern they had been given “different versions” of the events that lead to his death.

In an interview with the BBC, his sister Maria expressed concern over the investigation into the fatal drowning: “There are different answers everywhere, there is nothing set in stone, no actual facts have been displayed… I do have concerns about how it has been dealt with.”

In June 2017, Dallemagne was the seventh young tourist to die in Koh Tao in the past three years. She was found dead on a rock wrapped in t-shirts. Like Dimitri Povse, her death was ruled a suicide by hanging.

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In addition to the seven deaths, Russian visitor Valentina Novozhenova, 23, vanished in February 2017 and has yet to be found. Her mobile phone, passport and camera were all left in her hotel room.

When you look at the cases in order, you would be forgiven for thinking Koh Tao is, if not dangerous, a decidedly unlucky place to visit. But then again, 32 million foreign nationals visited Thailand in 2016 and half a million visit Koh Tao every year. When you analyze the numbers in those terms, this part of the country doesn’t seem particularly unsafe.

It is notoriously difficult to get official statistics of how many foreigners die in Thailand every year. There is no official central database and the information that is publicly available is patchy.

Tourists walk along shops in the town of Koh Tao. Source: Faiz Zaki/Shutterstock

One independent website that tries to manage the data quotes a figure of 570 foreign deaths since 2008 whereas Thailand’s Bureau of Prevention and Assistance in Tourist Fraud claims 83 foreign travelers died in 2015.

Conversely, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) cites 109 deaths of Australian nationals in Thailand from 2014-2015, which doesn’t account for other nationalities.

So how dangerous is Koh Tao? Not very, according to many foreign governments.

To take one example, despite the fact two British nationals were brutally murdered on Koh Tao and further three died in suspicious circumstances, the official travel advice from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) doesn’t even mention the island – only Koh Samui, Pattaya and Koh Phangan are singled out in the “Crime” section.

Perhaps more relevant when it comes to safety in Thailand, is the FCO’s advice on motorbike accidents: “With motorcycles so widely used in Thailand, most road traffic accidents involve motorcycles. The WHO rates Thailand as world’s deadliest country for fatalities on motorcycles, citing an average of 5,500 motorcyclist deaths annually.”

The severity of road accidents in Thailand is also evidenced by the number of crowd funding appeals online that pop up on an almost daily basis, usually involving yet another young tourist who has suffered a devastating motorbike crash without insurance.

For most visitors to Thailand, some kind of road-related incident, petty crime like snatch theft, or accidents related to “misadventure” (read: drugs and alcohol) seem far more relevant than the chances of being murdered on Koh Tao.

But the island still seems to invoke fear and continues to be plagued by unanswered questions of why young nationals have died there and why so many of these deaths are considered “suspicious”. The island’s reputation also took another hit in 2016 when a documentary by Channel 4 aired, sensationally entitled “Murder in Paradise”.

Despite no compelling evidence Koh Tao is more dangerous than many other places in Southeast Asia, the media is now at great pains to cultivate an image of fear and suspicion. After ignoring most of the deaths in favor of round-the-clock coverage of Miller and Witheridge’s murders, opinion pieces are now mushrooming all over the Internet.

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Even expats are getting in on the act and telling us to stay away from “Death Island”. To quote Elaine Dickinson, a former long-term resident of Thailand writing in The Independent in July 2017:

“The recent discovery of the body of Elise Dallemange, the seventh young backpacker to have died in suspicious circumstances in just three years, has only strengthened my belief Koh Tao is a place to be avoided at all costs.”

Whatever the truth about the statistical likelihood of being murdered on Koh Tao, the media is finally catching up with the island and the message is clear. In PR terms at least, rather than being a tropical idyll, Koh Tao is now a case of paradise severely lost.