Your perfect trip to Koh Tao…
Koh Phangan, Koh Samui and Koh Tao are 3 islands dotted relatively close together in the Gulf of Thailand, roughly 2 hours by ferry off of the coast. The thing these islands all have in common is that, to some people, they mean 24 hour parties and buckets of cheap booze. Hopefully this article will show you that there is more involved in a trip to Koh Tao then just that.
What if you expected an island paradise, white sandy beaches, plenty of exploring followed by relaxing evenings with your new found friends? Then you haven’t chosen the wrong destination, you just need to look in a different direction.
In this guide I’ll use my experience of living on the smallest of these 3 islands, Koh Tao, for 6 months to help you avoid the crazy backpacker bar crawls and see this stunning island for what it really is. When I say small though I really mean SMALL. In total the island is 21 km2 (8 mi2) and only has a permanent population of about 1,382.
Don’t get me wrong, you might want to join the Koh Tao Pub Crawl for a night, great, but you could easily think that there’s not much else going on here if you get caught up in the typical backpacker traps.
So here’s my guide on the perfect trip to Koh Tao.
Getting to Koh Tao
The only way to get there is by taking a ferry to Koh Tao. The island is small so there are no airports at all. If you are traveling from Bangkok there are two main options, both include an overnight bus from Bangkok to Chumphon (the town on the mainland where the ferry departs), and then a ferry that stops at all 3 islands I mentioned before.
The difference between the two options is the ferry. One is the high speed Lomprayah service which is a little more expensive. The other is the slower Songserm service. You can also take a government run bus which is even cheaper but you will then have to buy the ferry ticket independently, and you may have to wait a long time between arriving in Chumphon and getting on the ferry.
Although to be fair there is a bit of a wait for the ferry with whatever service you decide to take. I’ve taken all 3 in the past back and forth from Bangkok and none of them are completely painless, but it’s totally worth it in the end.
Which part of the island to stay in?
Most people who just turn up on Koh Tao tend to head towards Sairee Beach. It’s the stomping ground for backpackers looking to party and is where most of the bars can be found.
For me though, the best part of the island to stay in is called Chalok Bay.
Found on the other side of the island to Sairee, it is a lot calmer and not as busy. Keep in mind that the island is so small that even though it’s on the other side, if you did want to hit the bars you’re only about 5 minutes drive on a scooter away from Sairee. Maybe not a good idea to drive back after a few beers though unless you want to end up with an unwanted Koh Tao tattoo. More on that one at the bottom of this post, it’s actually not as funny as it sounds so it’s probably a good idea to read the last part of this post.
There are some really cool places hidden away in Chalok which many people who take a trip to Koh Tao don’t get to see. I’ll get onto them shortly. Firstly though, where should you stay in Chalok?
Koh Tao Accommodation
Where to stay on Koh Tao comes down to budget and how long you plan on staying on the island. You can find very highly priced luxury resorts or the cheap fan-only rooms that are so common all over Thailand. If you are going to stay for a long period of time (over a month), if you’re doing an advanced scuba diving course for example, then you can get a bungalow for about 130€/$ for the whole month.
These long term bungalows in Chalok are set in beautiful surroundings, almost in semi jungle-like gardens. Most people however won’t be spending such a long time on the island so my recommendation for short term stays is Sunshine Resort.
Sunshine Resort has a load of bungalow right on the beach front, both fan-only and air conditioned. You walk out of your front door in the morning and you are 20-30 meters from the sandy beach. If you’re lucky enough to get one of the bungalows right on the beach, you literally walk out onto the sand. It’s absolutely stunning. And the best part, a fan-only room right on the beach costs a bit less than 10€/$ a night!
They have a restaurant and scuba diving school in the resort as well, so it makes for an all round great place to base yourself. I know I said there were some great long-term deals on bungalows but I just couldn’t bring myself to move away from the beach, I stayed in Sunshine for 6 months. That says it all really.
Now you probably already know, and if you don’t you’ll figure it out as soon as you get there, that Koh Tao is Scuba heaven. The island is basically built on the diving industry. This tiny little island produces more PADI scuba diving certifications than any other destination on earth. Around every corner is a diving school. It’s also one of the cheapest places to get your qualifications, it can cost twice as much in Europe for example.
I’m actually a scuba diving instructor, I did my PADI instructor course and the courses leading up to it on Koh Tao, which is why I was there for so long. There is only one way to describe the scenes you see under the water in the Gulf of Thailand. Mind blowing.
Even if you have never dived before you should at least try a discover scuba diving (DSD) session. It’s basically a ‘tester’, you go down with an instructor and get a feel for it. If you want to take it further, or if you already know you want to get certified as a diver, then there is no better place to do your entry level qualification which is the PADI Open Water Course. Once you complete the 3 day course you will be a qualified diver and you can dive anywhere in the world.
Also if you are already a certified diver and want to get the next, more advanced qualification, I highly recommend doing it on Koh Tao.
I personally did my courses at Budda View diving centre which is directly next door to Sunshine Resort. A great place to do it, they have a lot of resources and equipment including 3 big boats so there is always a choice of dive sites to go to. They also offer night dives which you should definitely do!
If you don’t feel like scuba diving (which would be a shame if you went to one of the best places in the world for diving and didn’t go) but are still feeling adventurous, snorkelling in shark bay is your next option. Maybe you’re on a budget or you have medical reasons why you can’t go scuba diving which is fair enough but renting snorkelling gear is super cheap and you can get it from pretty much anywhere. There is a bar on the walk down to shark bay from the road which rents out all the gear you’ll need.
Can you guess how Shark Bay got its name?
Yeah it’s not hard to figure it out. These days you’ll actually be lucky to see a shark as they are moving to other parts of the island however one day I saw 4-5 sharks in 20 minutes. Don’t be put off, they are Black Tip Reef Sharks. They are small and are more afraid of you than you are of them.
You have to stay very still for one to even get close enough to see it, as soon as you move too fast they disappear as quickly as they appeared.
Visiting Shark Bay is quite popular so I’m not suggesting you do something out of the ordinary that will put you in danger. Black Tip Sharks are amazing creatures, the way they cruse underneath you so gracefully is something you have to see. No need to book a tour or anything like that, just rent some snorkelling gear and go exploring!
Koh Nangyuan is another, even smaller, island next to Koh Tao. The island forms 2 peaks at either end and they are connected by a stretch of white sandy beach.
There are long tail taxi boats that can take you on the very short journey to Koh Nangyuan from Koh Tao but if you are looking for a more exciting way to get there you can rent a kayak from Sairee Beach and paddle there yourself which is what I did. Sairee Beach is the closest point to Koh Nangyuan so it’s best to get a kayak from there.
Once your there you can hike up to the top of one of the peaks to the viewpoint. You might have seen the view from up there before, pictures from there always make the “World’s Most Beautiful Islands” lists you see all over the internet. You can see why:
3 Bars that I DO recommend
Eazy Bar – Part of Sunshine Resort and right on its doorstep. Eazy Bar is a small wooden hut right on the beach and is staffed by some of the nicest guys you could ever ask to meet. The perfect place for a beer or smoothy after a day of exploring. They have a rope swing hanging from a tree looking out to sea. Great place to watch the sun set.
High Bar – This bar is a real chill-out bar that sits up high on top of a very steep hill. It has a rasta vibe to it with hammocks swinging from post to post and beanbags scattered around low tables. It has one of the best views of the whole island. It overlooks Chalok Bay and again is a great place to watch the sun set with a beer.
Babaloo Bar – This one is a bit of a hidden gem. You’ll have to find it first, it’s hidden in a bay around a corner but once you find it you’ll be glad you did. The bar has a decked seating area with beanbags for seats. It also has tables, beanbags and hammocks out on the beach itself. In the evening they have music and fire dancers for entertainment.
The Koh Tao Tattoo
As there aren’t many proper roads on Koh Tao the most popular form of transport is driving a scooter. Most people rent them for the time they are there so they can get around. The problem is accidents are unfortunately quite common. People skid out and fall off on the dirt roads which will not only cost you a lot of money to get the bike repaired, but will also leave you grazed and cut up from sliding along the rough ground. The resulting scars are known on the island as ‘Koh Tao Tattoos’.
I saw so many people there who had fallen off scooters and cut themselves quite badly. On top of that, if you go in the warm tropical sea whilst you have open cuts they WILL get infected. Bacteria love the warm water so unfortunately a scooter accident will put an end to you swimming or diving until it’s fully healed.
So be careful, and be extra careful coming down from high bar. It’s called high bar for 2 reasons, the first is that it’s up high on a super steep hill and the second, well I’m sure you can figure the second reason out yourself. Together they make a bad combination, I saw 3 people fall off their scooters coming down from high bar so take care!
Enjoy your time on the island
That’s it for my guide on the perfect trip to Koh Tao. I hope I’ve showed you there is more to it than getting stuck in the typical backpacker bars and that the island really is a tropical paradise waiting to be explored.
Here’s a video I made back in 2013, so excuse the quality and the fact I hadn’t properly learnt how to use a camera yet. I filmed it over a few days on Koh Tao as well as in Krabi, with a stop off in Myanmar (Burma) on the way so I could get a new re-entry visa back to Thailand. A lot of the places I’ve talked about here are featured in it, can you spot them?
Thanks for reading!
(Featured Image Source: flic.kr/p/7H9s6Q)
Since 2016 I’ve travelled full-time working as a travel photographer and writer remotely. I move around at my own pace (I hate fast-paced travel) and like to spend a few months getting to know each place I base myself in. Currently in the north of España 🇪🇸 and loving it.