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Over the past few years, I’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to take a vacation. You might be thinking ‘Aren’t you always on vacation?’, but the truth is, that no matter where in the world I am, I always find myself working. Writing articles, answering emails, working on freelance projects, pitching ideas, being active on social media, dealing with the technical side of running an online business, and so on. I am always connected, always checking my emails, and a true vacation is rare.So when I welcomed my first visitor to Thailand and her visit was 100% vacation time for her, I saw this as the perfect opportunity for me to get some R&R, too, instead of working on my laptop until I fall asleep with my head on the keyboard (happens more often than I’d like to admit). The plan was to take some time off together, to splurge on tasty food, take time to relax and to explore together, lay on the beach and enjoy sunset beers.And Koh Tao turned out to be the perfect place to do exactly that. I’d long wanted to visit Koh Tao, the smallest of the three most popular islands in the Gulf of Thailand. It is less touristy than the other two (Koh Samui and Koh Phangan), known for great snorkeling and diving spots, pristine beaches and a clientele of independent and younger travelers. While Samui largely attracts a resort clientele and Phangan is the backpackers haven with now not only a full moon party but also a half moon party, black moon party and I’m sure several other moons to celebrate, Koh Tao attracts mainly divers as it is known to be home to some of the best diving sites in South East Asia.While I still don’t feel the slightest urge to try diving, good diving usually means good snorkeling, which is what I wanted to do. Other than that, I had no plans whatsoever. I was going to experience the island just like everyone else who gets off one of the four ferries that arrive in Koh Tao every day.
And I couldn’t have chosen a better place for an island getaway. My days in Koh Tao are a blur of beaches, snorkeling, sunsets, good meals and, yes, occasionally typing away on my laptop in offices like this one:My friend Alex had recommended we’d stay in Sairee Beach, the longest stretch of sand beach on Koh Tao (1.2 miles /1.7km) long, because there, you don’t need transportation to get around, unless you want to see other beaches on the island. For that, there are taxi boats conveniently waiting in the bay for you, and you have plenty of restaurants and bars lining the beach to pick a different one each day. It’s the perfect spot if you want to be right on a beach and have something going on all the time. The only other beach that is similarly busy, but smaller, is Freedom Beach in the south of the island.
If you prefer a quieter place and don’t mind renting a scooter to get around, there are smaller beaches like Hin Wong Bay and June Juea Bay and plenty of hotels and bungalow resorts scattered across the island, most of them perched on the side of the steep hills that form Koh Tao.
As I’ve already mentioned, most people come here to dive and to take dive master courses, and there are around 40 diving schools on the island now. I saw several packages for dive courses including accommodation for around 8,000 baht (around US$224) which is a great deal – and another reason why Koh Tao attracts so many divers, in addition to its many dive sites.
For people like me who prefer to stay above water, there are plenty of snorkeling tours on offer – they usually last all day, circumnavigate the island and include 4 or 5 stops, one of which is the famous Koh Nangyuan, the sight that adorns most of Koh Tao’s postcards and is probably the most photographed spot on the island.
On my snorkeling tour, we stopped at Shark Bay where I didn’t see any sharks but a sea turtle (which would’ve compensated for not seeing a shark had I not just snorkeled with turtles in Apo Island, hence I was a bit disappointed), followed by a stop in another bay in the southwest, Mango Bay in the north and finally Koh Nangyuan.
I knew that this tiny islet which is home to only one resort would be touristy, but seeing hundred of tourists lining the pier and the small stretch of beach in between the two rocks was still a shock, especially because Koh Tao just didn’t seem all that busy.
Nonetheless, Koh Nangyan is a spectacular sight, and I am glad that I braved the heat and scrambled up the million steps and the rocks to the viewpoint overlooking it all before snorkeling in the crystal clear waters.
My favorite beach for snorkeling turned out to be something completely different though, Tanote Beach, a little bay in the southwest of the island, which we stumbled upon when we explored the island with an ATV. Within the first five minutes of being in the water I had already seen more fish than on most of the stops during the snorkeling tour (okay, I might exaggerate slightly here). But it was glorious to snorkel on a fairly empty beach without any boats in the bay and Asian tour groups following their guides in the water on long leashes. There are a couple of beach bars like Poseidon or Mountain Reef where you get drinks and food and also rent snorkeling equipment, swing in a hammock or get a Thai message.
Be warned though, the drive down the steep hills to get here was not easy on the ATV, so I can only assume that tackling this road on a scooter is even more nerve-wracking, especially on the way up (I am talking about 90 degree inclines).
Renting a scooter or an ATV is something I’d definitely recommend to see Koh Tao – if you start early, you can even see the entire island in one day, beach stops and various viewpoints included.
Our favorite stops of the day were the ‘I love Koh Tao’ viewpoint (I am not sure if it is known by another name) and the Dusat Buncha beach resort viewpoint right across from Koh Nangyan. If you have snorkeling gear, make sure to bring it, as there is a small but fantastic snorkeling area to which non-resort guests have access. (If you don’t have your own gear, you can rent it there for 100THB).
If you don’t want to rent a scooter, you can take a cab to most beaches, and taxi boats to the ones with limited road access. One day, we took a boat to Sai Nuan Beach where we snorkeled until the sun went down, followed by our daily ritual of sunset drinks, that night at Banana Rock Bar, one of the most scenic bars on the island, set on stilts above the water with perfect sunset vistas.The thing that surprised me the most was just how many restaurant there were on the island, especially in Sairee – and almost of them serving finger licking good food. From beach side restaurants that serve fresh fish straight from the BBQ every night to impressive Italian cuisine and fancy tapas dishes and authentic Indian food, there’s almost nothing you can’t get in Koh Tao.
As soon as the sun goes down, the fire dancers come out, entertaining the crowds in the beach bars with their jaw-dropping skills – I mean, just look at this:Several bars like the Sunset Bar, Next2, Fizz or The Rock have DJs playing and it never takes long until people start dancing on the beach.Koh Tao is the perfect place for an island getaway, no matter if you dive or not. Bring a book, swing in a hammock, laze at the beach and just enjoy this little bubble far off the craziness of Phuket or Phi Phi, and trust me – you’ll have a hard time leaving.
The fastest way to get to Koh Tao from Bangkok is Nok Air’s plane and ferry ticket (starting at BHT1,800 / US$50 for a return ticket). There is no airport on Koh Tao, the closest one is on Koh Samui or in Chumphon. From both places you’ll have to take a ferry, and from the airport on the mainland it takes about 90 minutes to reach the pier. Note: Nok Air leaves from Bangkok’s Don Mueang airport, not from Suvarnabhumi.
The other option would be taking the bus from Bangkok to the ferry, or the train. If you’re taking the bus, there are also ferry and bus combo tickets, especially around Kao San Road.
You can sign up for a dive course before you get there or just check out the various schools and their packages when you arrive on the island. To get an idea of just how many dive schools there are on Koh Tao, check out this comprehensive list on Wikitravel.
The cheapest snorkeling day trip I found was at AC resort in Sairee – 600 Baht per person. Most other places charge 750. All trips include water, coffee, tea, fruit and lunch.
Where to eat
If you love Thai food, you will have a hard time finding a place that serves bad food! Even the small cheapie road side stands make good Thai dishes, but most restaurants don’t charge more than 100 baht for a Thai meal. Fresh fish from the BBQ ranges from 150 to 450 baht.
Fancier restaurants with western dishes usually charge 150 – 300 baht per dish. Barracuda was a nice splurge with good non-Thai vegetarian options, and Zest was my favorite spot for breakfasts but they also make excellent salads and sandwiches.
And then there are of course all the banana roti vendors – which might have become a daily ritual during my stay on the island. To see what I mean, take a look at my Koh Tao video:
Serendipity is a great spot to watch the sunset with drinks and food (set high on a hilltop, with views over Sairee Beach), as is the Dusit Buncha restaurant (facing Koh Nangyuan). There are several other viewpoint restaurants on the road to Mae Haad.
I also liked the vibe at the InTouch restaurant at the southern end of Sairee Beach, but most of the bars along the beach are good.. Pick one and enjoy the views 🙂