Thailand has been a popular destination for budget travellers for decades. Tales of adventures in Khao San Road, the Golden Triangle and meandering along the Mekhong River in the north have always complemented stories of white sandy beaches, swaying palm trees and coral reefs brimming with vibrant colours and magical experiences in the south.
Nestled on the east coast in the south of Thailand, Koh Tao was the epitome of a backwater some 50 years ago. More recently, the island has grown in popularity to become a must-visit destination for any journey through southeast Asia.
This small island was once used as a political prison by the government of Thailand in the 1940’s. Coconut farmers arrived in the mid 1950’s before the truly adventurous travellers made their way to Koh Tao’s undeveloped shores in the 1970’s.
As tourism developed, word of the magic and colour that existed underwater began to trickle down to subsequent travellers, and more and more people began arriving for underwater experiences, as much as the beach and palm trees.
In the ensuing year’s Koh Tao has become a centre of excellence as a dive destination. The expansion of dive centres and high quality snorkel and dive experiences has resulted in Koh Tao becoming the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) number one certifying location in the world.
Despite this the snorkelling and diving are just one of a multitude of activities to entertain and enthrall the adventurous traveller.
Travel to Koh Tao
Located 65kms east from the town of Chumphon on Thailand’s south coast, and 65kms north of Koh Samui to its south, the small 21km sq island remains relatively isolated. However the increase in visitors has seen a complementary increase in the number of ferry services from all directions.
How to get to Koh Tao from Koh Samui
The closest airport is in Koh Samui that can be accessed internationally from Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, or domestically from Bangkok, Phuket and Krabi. Many of the ferry companies, such as Seatran or Lomprayah have offices at the airport and provide transfers to the ferry.
Koh Tao has a reliable and trusted travel agent with a free App available to book both inbound and outbound travel tickets.
Most also offer online booking for journeys if you want to book in advance. Ferries depart from Koh Samui 2-3 times per day depending on the season. In the past, due to the weather and the small size of the ferries, cancellations were common. However these days the derries can accommodate most seas so you can pretty much guarantee a transfer.
How to get to Koh Tao from Bangkok
If you aren’t flying to Koh Samui, the easiest way from Bangkok to Koh Tao is to catch a bus to Chumphon, and take the ferry across to Koh Tao. The aforementioned companies offer all inclusive services (bus and boat) to Koh Tao.
Alternatively you can take a taxi to the Southern Bus Terminal (Thai: Sai Thai Mai) in Bangkok and take the bus to Chumphon. Depending on what time you arrive in Chumphon there are also ferries that travel overnight departing at around 11pm. Tickets can usually be bought from one of the tourist cafes in Chumphon (Farang Bar, Fame Travel) and includes a bed for the journey.
Again modern vessels and amenities make this an economical and comfortable choice, and can also save you a nights accommodation!
How to get to Koh Tao from the South of Thailand
If you are travelling overland from Malaysia, regular day and night ferries run from the southern city of Suratthani. Day ferries run directly to Koh Tao (operated by Songserm) or you can take an overnight ferry which departs at 9pm. This trip takes about 8 hours and, depending on the day of the week, could be very comfortable or a bit rustic. (Different companies operate on different days).
Best places to eat on Koh Tao
A blessed combination of adventure and relaxation, Koh Tao has something to offer to everyone. Holidays can often be defined by the quality of the cuisine and the culinary delights enjoyed.
Finding the best places to eat and drink can be a little challenging in a short period of time, but I find that if you ask around, some real gems appear that aren’t in the guidebooks or websites.
From primitive beginnings the food and accommodation offerings are second to none in the region. An amazing fusion of Asian and western cuisine ensures all palates are catered for.
It is a great place to enjoy some high quality street food at local markets and food carts by day, before enjoying a beer or a glass of wine at one of the many beachside bars as the sun sets over the Gulf of Thailand. It is highly likely you’ll be entertained by one of the many amazing fire shows that are performed nightly along the beach bars of Sairee.
Some of the best Thai food (and great value) restaurants include Pranee’s Kitchen and Pim’s in Mae Haad, Tukta on the way to Chalok Ban Khao and Blue Chair in Sairee. For the more discerning traveler the variety of luxury fine dining is a real surprise with some of the finest chefs preparing exquisite meals at one of the many candlelit beachside restaurants.
My favourites are the high quality fare offered by Breeze Koh Tao in Mae Haad and Barracuda restaurant in Sairee. The Indian delights of Shalimar also in Sairee are hard to go by. These are but a few of the many great eating houses on Koh Tao.
Find Accommodation on Koh Tao
The thatch huts and wooden shacks of yesteryear are hard to find on Koh Tao these days. While power and other such amenities were, until recently, a sought after luxury, the standard of accommodation has changed significantly in the past few years.
Catering to all types of visitors, backpackers are starting to compete for space with more well heeled travellers while families have become a big part of the itinerant community on Koh Tao.
There is a wide selection of accommodation from budget bungalows to 4 and 5 star resorts with all the amenities. And if you are planning to dive. Many dive schools, like Crystal Dive Koh Tao, offer substantial discounts to those seeking to undertake their PADI dive certification, or just undertake a recreational fun dive.
Mae Haad is super convenient being near the arrival port, close to good restaurants and dive operators and provides easy walking to renown Sairee Beach in the north. Sairee has a plethora of accommodation options or if you are looking to escape the crowds, head to Chalok Baan Khao in the south of Koh Tao.
For the truly adventurous a number of accommodation options exist on the east of the island, but access remains a challenge, so be prepared to feel a little isolated. Maybe that’s what you are after.
What to do on Koh Tao when you get there
Scuba Diving and snorkelling are top of the pops when it comes to recreational activities in this island paradise. As the number one PADI training location on the planet, Koh Tao must offer something special to entice many people to undertake their scuba diving training on Koh Tao.
Some of the advantages include the warm water, year round good visibility, some high quality diving and of course, the relatively low cost.
If you’ve never dived before you can undertake a half day PADI discover scuba diving experience (DSD). This introduction to scuba provides an opportunity to experience the underwater world without the commitment of a full four day PADI Open Water Diver course.
Some people just aren’t sure if diving is for them. Discover Scuba Diving allows those skeptical about diving to ‘try-before-you-buy’ allowing a taste of diving that might be the clincher in deciding whether or not to get certified.
Dive schools like Crystal Dive Koh Tao often provide a discount on your open water course if you have already done a DSD. This effectively renders the introduction as a free trial, which is pretty cool.
Some of the best snorkelling in Koh Tao can be had independently either off the beach in front of your resort, or by hiking to some of the more remote diving locations like Hin Wong and Laem Thian. Coral reefs grow all the way up to the surface and are most prolific in the first 10 metres. So you could argue whether you need to dive at all. That said, the range of experiences and opportunities changes with diving, but it is not necessary. There’s plenty to be seen from the surface.
For a more comprehensive snorkel experience a number of snorkel operators conduct day tours around the island, leaving from their office in Mae Haad around 9.30 or 10am. They provide transport, lunch and stop off at a number of bays where you can enjoy fantastic marine life and coral reefs, with the opportunity to swim with reef sharks at some places.
The small island off Koh Tao’s north west coast, Koh Nangyuan, offers great snorkelling experiences and short walks to amazing viewpoints. You can charter a longtail boat from Koh Tao to Koh Nangyuan any time of day. Be warned, the island gets pretty busy with day tourists from Koh Samui between 10am and 3pm. Try and avoid these times if you can.
Additionally, for the more adventurous there’s rock climbing, hiking and cliff jumping and for those looking for more relaxation, the pool bar and inhouse massage may be the best place to while away the lazy hours of the day.
For a small island, Koh Tao has an amazing array of things to do, places to stay and foods to enjoy. The number of transport options available to access the island means that getting there is the easy part, deciding how to spend your time becomes the challenge because you’ll want to do everything! Good luck and we’ll see you on the ‘The Rock’.
Nathan Cook M.Sc
PADI MI #479720