Koh Tao is most well-known for being the diving mecca of Thailand, if not Southeast Asia (or Asia at large). However, there’s so much more to do than just dive! There is awesome snorkeling right off the beach in most areas, small beaches located along the coast of the whole island that you can reach by boat, moto, or taxi (Shark’s Bay, anyone?), delicious cafes and restaurants to check out, small walking streets, and of course, the typical island life veg-out (swim, read, have a beer, nap, repeat). Accommodation, while more expensive than the smaller islands, is very reasonable and there is an atmosphere here for everyone, from budget backpackers to family resorts to remote getaways. I’ve been to Koh Tao twice, once to dive and once to relax, so let me share my insight with you.
There are various combinations of getting to Koh Tao. Here is the most popular route:
Bangkok – Chumphon – Koh Tao:
By Train: You can catch the overnight train in Bangkok and wake up at the crack of dawn in Chumphon. You then have to take a bus/taxi to Lomphraya (ferry port) which is about 45-60 minutes away. From there you find a ferry and book your tickets across. The ferry times/prices range widely and change constantly so its up to you to do your research! I would recommend the speed boat ferry which takes about 1.5 hours and costs around 600 baht.
By Air: Apparently the cheapest way to get to Koh Tao by air is to fly into Chumphon. You can also fly into Koh Samui but I’ve read that it’s more expensive. Some airlines also offer a package deal that includes your flight, transfer to Lomphraya pier, and your ferry ticket across.
***NEVER EVER take the overnight ferry. Let me repeat that. NEVER EVER EVER TAKE THE OVERNIGHT FERRY. We stupidly took the overnighter thinking we would save money on accommodation (HA!) and get there at the same time. It cost only 200 baht less (6$), took 4 times as long (more than 7 hours), and the conditions were terrible. We were all laid on mats on the floor literally touching arms with the person next to us. The boat was hot and sticky in the night (no windows, just squares in the side of the boat) and I was hit with sea spray at regular intervals. It was freezing around 3am and we had only a thin little blanket to keep us warm (and in my case, the body heat of the person next to me all up on my mat). After sharing our horror story, we were told by others that there is a ‘nicer’ ferry with actual bunk-beds and that we just got unlucky. So what did we do? We booked an overnight ferry back and asked explicitly for the ‘good’ one with the bunk beds. The travel agent assured us we were getting the bunk beds. Nope. We ended up in the exact same conditions, only this time there were about 300 of us instead of 100. Fool me once…anyways, the moral is, don’t take this overnight ferry.
Ferry Pro Tip: When taking any ferry in Thailand, if you have anything breakable in your backpack, keep it with you. They often throw all the bags into a pile, meaning if yours is on the bottom it has the weight of all the other bags getting lobbed on top of it. It’s also a pain in the ass digging through luggage to find it before getting off. Your best option is to pack light and keep your bag on your person so you can exit quickly and skip the luggage headache.
Where to Stay
There are a multitude of options for staying on Koh Tao, and I’ve only seen a sprinkle here and there. If you are a backpacker looking for exciting nightlife and other young people, or are a diver looking for accommodation near the dive shops, I would recommend staying on the Southern end of Sairee Beach. There is very affordable accommodation there and great bars and restaurants all along the walking path.
If you want something a little more upscale and quiet, head to the Northern end of Sairee Beach. Here there are many resorts at the end of the walking street, as well as small shops and restaurants. I stayed with my mom and my aunt and uncle at Sensi Paradise in this area which was awesome. At the time it was about 120$ a night (which included an extra bed in for the boyfriend and breakfast for all 3 of us). The bungalows were huge with a lovely balcony and great furniture, a sari to wear to the multi-level pool, a great restaurant going right over the ocean, and amazing wreck snorkeling right off the beach out front (literally 15 meters out). There’s also an amazing path that leads around the island from that resort, passing through other resorts and also straight jungle that I highly recommend as you end up at a tiny, empty cove with one restaurant and awesome snorkeling. I wasn’t paying so the price was right for me (thanks Mom!), but if you want something very relaxing and easy, Sensi fits the bill nicely.
There are also resorts on smaller beaches around the back end of the island that we saw with out motorbike, but I have no idea how much they cost or what they’re like. Some are absolutely breathtaking, built amongst granite boulders right into the hillside. I’d imagine those are quite expensive, but if that’s what you’re looking for then check it out!
What to Do
Most people come to Koh Tao to dive. It’s one of (if not the most) popular place to get certified in Asia. There are amazing packages that include accommodation, certification, equipment and some meals from a myriad of dive centers. This is where my boyfriend and I were certified and we had a great time and met some long-term travel buddies (I’m looking at you, Brian and Melly!). If you’re already certified, you can dive for extremely cheap at great sites like Chumpon Pinnacle and Japanese Gardens (my personal favorite). Visibility is good almost year round and can reach up to 40m, according to Wikitravels anyways. There are also opportunities for free-diving with accompanying courses, but I don’t know much about it, as it’s a little too badass for me.
The island also offers roads and trails going off in various directions. You can explore new beaches, lookout points, and find excellent off-the-beach snorkeling.
With great visibility, Koh Tao is an awesome place to snorkel. If you happen to be staying at the end of Sairee Beach, near Sensi Paradise, there is a great small wreck that you can snorkel around just 10 or 15 m from the shore. We also took a motorbike over to Ao Leuk, a little beach at the bottom of zig-zagging steps passing through little bungalows and resorts. It was an awesome place to snorkel with a lot of large colorful fish and coral. We also made a little friend.
Restaurants and shops
Another great aspect of Koh Tao are the assortment of restaurants, cafes, and small shops. We loved stopping into our nearby eatery for some delicious vegetarian breakfast, like burritos or a croissant and coffee, and to check and send e-mails (“Yes mother, we are still alive.”). For lunch and dinner, when we weren’t diving, we had delicious Thai food at the outdoor style restaurants or splurged on one of the many western options – pizza and beer, yum. We also popped into a few shops where I checked out snorkeling gear, swimsuits, sunglasses, dresses, postcards, etc. Along the Southern end of Sairee beach, along the walking path, there is a great strip of small shops and restaurants. There’s also a ton of cafes and restaurants at the Northern end of the walking path.
There are a ton of other activities available like sailing classes, Muay Thai classes, rock climbing, mountain biking, even bowling and mini golf. There is never a lack of activities on this bustling island!
At the end of the day, Koh Tao is a solid choice for divers and sunbathers alike as it offers something for everyone. It’s more developed than other islands which can be a drawback, but it still maintains its small-island charm. Just remember, if you do choose to spend time on this lovely island, be aware of how you are affecting the local environment. Don’t litter, don’t flush your TP, and don’t touch the sea-life.