Part of the Chumpon Archipelago that includes Koh Samui, Koh Tao, Thailand, is the undisputed epicenter for cheap diving and scuba culture in Southeast Asia.
Although the island can't really claim to have the best diving in Southeast Asia, more divers get certified on Koh Tao than anywhere else in the world.
A diving culture definitely permeates the air, but the island has developed other reasons to visit. Even if you prefer life above the surface, Koh Tao is a pleasant, small-sized island choice in the Gulf of Thailand. You'll find far less development, infrastructure, and packaged tourism on Koh Tao than on nearby Koh Samui.
Although Koh Tao ("Turtle Island" in Thai) was once famous for attracting mostly divers who didn't party too late before early morning dives, that has certainly changed. The party culture spilled over from nearby Koh Phangan, making Sairee Beach on Koh Tao a hotspot for backpackers in Southeast Asia and forever a part of the Banana Pancake Trail.
Getting to Koh Tao, Thailand
Koh Tao is located in the Gulf of Thailand, about two hours north of Koh Samui and one hour by boat from Koh Phangan.
- By Plane: The closest airport to Koh Tao is on the much larger island of Koh Samui (airport code: USM). Flights are somewhat overpriced for the short distance covered, however, flying will save you an overnight journey from Bangkok or a two-day, overland journey from Chiang Mai. Once in Koh Samui, you'll be able to take a short ferry ride (2 - 3 hours) over to Koh Tao.
A much cheaper alternative is to fly into either Chumpon (airport code: CJM) or Surat Thani (airport code: URT) on the mainland, then take a longer ferry ride to the island. Chumpon is the closer of the two options, however, Surat Thani is a busier transportation hub with more traveler volume. Local carrier NokAir offers budget flights from Bangkok and other parts of Thailand.
- By Bus/Train/Boat: The cheapest way to reach Koh Tao is via overnight bus or train from Bangkok to Chumpon (or Surat Thani) and then take an early morning ferry to the island. Combined bus/train/boat tickets are available from all travel agents along Khao San Road and other tourist areas in Bangkok.
Scam Warning: The cheapest overnight buses booked from Khao San Road in Bangkok to the islands have a serious history of theft. Never store money, electronics, or anything valuable in the luggage hold; thieves take knives, phone chargers, and pricey toiletry items such as razor blades! The drivers' assistants are often to blame for crawling into the luggage hold while the bus is moving. Passengers rarely notice small items missing until days later.
Koh Tao is shaped like a kidney; most of the action happens along the west coast. Mae Haad and Sairee Beach, the two busiest beaches on Koh Tao, are oriented to the west and deliver some spectacular sunsets.
Ferries arrive into Mae Haad — the main port town on the island. Just to the north, Sairee Beach offers a nicer strip of sand and a better atmosphere but becomes the party epicenter during the high season.
To reach Sairee, ignore the touts trying to sell accommodation for quieter parts of the island, then turn left and climb into one of the waiting pickup trucks offering to take travelers north. Alternatively, you can turn left from the jetty and begin walking north along the path, climb over a steep hill, and reach Sairee Beach in around 25 minutes on foot.
Other smaller bays with isolated bungalow operations and small resorts are dotted around the island. The bays in the south offer a relaxed alternative during busy season, but many are practically shut down in low season. Chalok Bay is one of the quieter, relaxed places for escaping the party scene in Sairee.
ATMs are available in Mae Haad and at Sairee Beach. If going to one of the more remote places on the island, get cash before heading out.
As usual, the local divemasters can offer a wealth of information about the island. They'll know where to find the best food, cheapest places to stay, and best points to snorkel. Simply walk into a friendly dive shop and strike up a conversation. Try to return to the same shop if you plan to dive or snorkel.
The Best Times to Visit Koh Tao
Koh Tao is relatively busy throughout the year, however, the island roughly follows Thailand's busy season with peak months between December and April.
Although November marks the start of the dry season in Bangkok, it is often the wettest month with lots of rainfall on Koh Tao. The island also has a separate summer peak season when large groups of university students on backpacking trips come to party during their summer break.
Koh Tao and the Full Moon Party
The crowds on Koh Tao ebb and flow based upon the nearby Full Moon Party in Haad Rin on the island of Koh Phangan. Transportation to other islands and back to Bangkok can fill up, depending upon the direction that the tens of thousands of revelers are heading.
During the week of buildup to the Full Moon Party, many backpackers move over to Koh Phangan. They return to Koh Tao a day or two after the party finishes.
Don't get caught by surprise: take the moon phases into account when planning your visit to Koh Tao!
Safety on Koh Tao
You will notice an unusual number of travelers hobbling around the island with bandaged appendages — these are the unlucky recipients of "Koh Tao tattoos" (motorbike accidents). Although walking between Sairee Beach and Mae Haad is easy enough, many travelers choose to rent motorbikes — and ultimately crash them — while trying to explore more remote parts of the island. Koh Tao's steep hills and gravelly roads can cause even the most expert of drivers to end up sacrificing some skin to the island.
As with neighboring Koh Phangan, drugs are easily available on Koh Tao. Keep in mind that getting busted with any type of illegal drug is an extremely serious offense with guaranteed prison time — Thai law even allows for the death penalty!