Koh Tao, the smallest of the three main island in the Gulf of Thailand is by far the best to visit. The beaches are the prettiest, the atmosphere is great and all main activities in the Thai Gulf are centered on or around this island. There have been some horrifying stories about Koh Tao in the news the last couple of years, but do not let this deter yourself from visiting. The little green gem in the azure blue waters is a tropical paradise for all who visit.
The horror stories of Koh Tao
– What to do –
By now I have probably convinced you to never set foot on the island, so let’s talk about all the sights you will never see! Yay! 😉
Diving and Snorkeling
Koh Tao is PADI paradise. There are probably over fifty dive schools and almost everyone that I met was doing their Open Water Course. As I already had mine, I did not do any research on the dive schools. So unfortunately, I cannot recommend a particular school. TripAdvisor can be of help here.
The cool thing about Koh Tao is that there are many coral reefs surrounding the shallows of the island, sometimes only a couple of meters out. You can literally just grab a snorkel and goggles, walk into the sea and start seeing the fishies straight away. No need to book a snorkelling trip.
Booking a half-day snorkelling trip can, however, be a great way to see the highlights of the island in the shortest amount of time. Make sure you haggle down the price severely though, as the hawkers selling the tours tend to up their prices quite a bit. I think 400B is about right.
Koh Nang Yuan Island
The most visited and biggest attraction of Koh Tao is the smaller neighbouring island Koh Nang Yuan. I must make a small confession. When I made my first trip to Thailand, I was fifteen and travelling with my family. For ten years I’ve been remembering that I visited Koh Tao, and how pretty and tranquil it was. At that time we stayed at Koh Samui and only visited for a day, but when I set foot on the island last February, I was astonished of all the development on the island. My first two days I boasted to everyone I met, that I had visited Koh Tao before it became such a touristy place. That was, until I took a water taxi to Koh Nang Yuan. When I set foot on the island, one of the girls in my group exclaimed in surprise ‘Oh my god, I’ve been here before, I thought THIS was Koh Tao’. I looked around me and realized that for me, it was exactly the same. I had never been to Koh Tao, only to the smaller island Koh Nang Yuan and mistakenly believed for years that that was in fact Koh Tao. Needless to say, I felt quite stupid.
Koh Nang Yuan consists of a triangle of three tiny islands connected to each other by a thin stripe of ivory-white sand. There is one resort on the island, but I don’t see the real benefit of staying here. Koh Nang Yuan is all about snorkeling and relaxing on the beach. Strange little fact is that the island is losing hundreds of kilos of its white sand because it gets trapped in visitor’s towels. Visitors are therefore discouraged to lay out their towels on the beach. On the biggest island there is a viewpoint from where, the iconic picture of the islands can be made. This is where mass-tourism once again reveals itself. I had to wait about 45 minutes in line to take my snap. Needless to say this totally takes the magic away from this otherwise beautiful place. Some people recommend getting there early in the morning but this is hardly possible because the boats will simply refuse to leave Koh Tao before 8:30 AM. Waiting for the very last moment to get off the island (around 5:30 PM) seems like a better strategy to avoid the crowds as all the tour-groups will have left by this time.
The beaches of Koh Tao
Koh Tao has many pretty beaches, the most famous one being Sairee Beach. This is the miles-long strip of sand that hugs the west-coast (yes that does mean sunset-cocktails on the beach!) all the way from the Mae Haad pier up to Koh Nang Yuan. Sairee Beach is the perfect social beach, with many beachside bars, hawkers walking around selling sunglasses and fresh fruits and massages being offered at the beach.
A more secluded beach is Mango Bay, which also has a viewpoint. You can get there by land over a bumpy unpaved path (walk or take a MTB), but the easiest way is to take a water taxi. We paid 500B with 4 people to be taken to the bay, have 2 hours on the beach and also have a ride back. We paid a little extra to rent snorkeling gear from the charterer. Mango bay also has a viewpoint which gives you good views, but the food they sell in the restaurant up there is rather crappy and overpriced.
When the sun sets the island reveals itself as a great social island as well. Many beachside bars have fire shows, shows where fire dancers put their skills on display. Even though this is far from authentic, the twirling fires can be quite mesmerizing, so its a great way to kick off any evening. Oh and it’s free. Apart from the slightly increased prices on the drinks and food that is.
– Eating and sleeping recommendations –
There are a couple of nice eateries on Koh Tao that I recommend going. For breakfast, on of the best places to go is …., located right below the … hostel. Their eggs benedicts are awesome. For lunch, try the Blue Water Café, with great seats right on the beach. If your looking for the best seafood on the island, head over to Seafood by Pawn, owned by a Thai/Australian couple. Great flavors and also not extremely expensive.
So there are many nice bars and places to go sip some cocktails either during the day or after sunset. The best plan is to head over to Sairee Beach and just walk along the shoreline until you see something you like. If you are after a little more action, try out the Koh Tao Pub Crawl, the biggest pub crawl in Thailand that starts at Choppers at 7 PM. If you need even more craziness, Fishbowl is a safe bet. Loud music and young backpackers drinking buckets on the beach. Inside they have about 30 beer pong tables that are all actively used. If you want to party the night away, it is impossible to not find likeminded people here.
This is probably one of the best accommodations in the whole of Thailand, if you don’t love it your mad. Their deluxe suites go for 2800B (EUR 70) a night, and are absolutely dreamlike. If you are traveling solo this sustainable boutique hostel also has dorms on offer which also give you access to the pristine pool and the clean and beautiful amenities. Dorms start at 700B a night, that might be pricy for Thailand, but you get a lot for it in return.
For the same price you can also book a dorm at Savage, on of the most popular hostels on the island, but the people and staff in Savage are just terrible. I stayed there for one night just to see the place and was glad to leave the next.
Looking for a place that is still pretty, but a little friendlier to your budget and which is also one of the most social and lively on the island? Check out Gecko Republic Jungle Hostel. They have dorms ‘pod-style’ starting at 400B, and a great social bar. And similar to Dearly Hostel, the place is run in a sustainable way without compromising on your comfort.
– Practical information –
Definitely avoid October and November as the monsoon around this time hits horribly. Think floods, thunderstorms and downpour lasting multiple days. Best time is late December until early April when the days are long and sunny and the humidity low. European summer months are humid, but on average, the weather isn’t too bad. Those months the Andaman Coast endures monsoon making the Thai Gulf islands an attractive alternative.
I have to bum you out. Even though Koh Tao is cheaper than its bigger brothers Koh Samui and Koh Pha Ngan, it is still one of the least budget-friendly places in the country. Accommodation and food are more expensive than elsewhere. A small beer will cost you 100B and cheap street eats start at 50B. A dorm in a boutique hostel is about 600B and expect to pay 2000B for a 3-star boutique hotel.
In & Out
Because Koh Tao is located on an island your only options are taking the boat fly in.
There are three airports that can be considered when visiting Koh Tao. The first one is located on Koh Samui, the next door neighbour island. Because of the location, this airport is the most expensive one of all the options. After you land on Koh Samui there is a shuttle that takes you to one of the piers, from where you can get to Koh Tao in about 1.5 hours (it stops on Koh Pha Ngan on the way there).
Cheaper is flying on Chumphon or Surat Thani. For about EUR 30/USD 35 you can get there from Bangkok or even Chiang Mai. Location wise Chumphon is the smarter choice as this the total transport (bus + boat) will only be about an hour and a half. On both airports and on the island you can buy a ticket for the whole transport, organised by the ferry operator. Check out their website for the schedule here.
The train from Bangkok
Instead of flying out to Chumphon, there is also the train. This is arguably the cheapest way to get to the islands but it does not beat the plane by much. You leave Bangkok sometime in the evening and arrive in Chumphon very early in the morning, from where you take the bus to the pier and from there you take the boat to Koh Tao. In total this will take about 12 hours. This is quite tiresome, but also the most adventurous way to do it. And you undoubtedly meet some friends on the way.
Koh Tao’s main pier is the Mae Haad pier. From here you can take a shared taxi to any destination on the island, but don’t let the taxi drivers fool you: most locations are within walking distance.
What to bring
The usual bounty-island kit of course: sunscreen, sunglasses, mosquito spray.
Sunscreen is really something you shouldn’t be cheap about so I recommend Sun Bum. I use this one because it doesn’t stick, you can easily spray it on your body and SPF30 protects you well enough but also doesn’t block out all the UV-rays so you can still get a little tan on.
On every backpacker trip I lose or break at least one set of sunglasses so I never take an expensive set with me. This bamboo version from Wish Club looks cool and is still very affortable. Plus its made out of sustainable materials. Bonuspoints.