Koh Tao, Thailand (Turtle Island in Thai) 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.
But even if you prefer life above the surface, Koh Tao is a pleasant, compact choice in the Gulf of Thailand. You'll find far less development, infrastructure, and package tourism on Koh Tao than on nearby Koh Samui.
Although Koh Tao was once famous for attracting mainly divers who didn't party too late before early morning dives, that has changed. The party culture has 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.
Shaped like a kidney, Koh Tao is relatively small compared to other islands in Thailand. Koh Tao is located in the Gulf of Thailand, not too far from Koh Samui and Koh Phangan. Mae Haad and Sairee, the two busiest beaches, are oriented to the west; sunsets are often spectacular!
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.
Other smaller bays with isolated bungalow operations and small resorts are dotted around the island; many are practically shut down during the low season. Chalok Bay is a quieter, relaxed alternative to the party scene in Sairee.
For access to money, ATMs are available in Mae Haad and at Sairee Beach.
Getting to Koh Tao, Thailand
- 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. Local carrier NokAir offers budget flights from 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 a ferry ride in the early morning to the island. Combined bus/train/boat tickets are readily available from travel agents along Khao San Road and throughout Bangkok.
Tip: 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 even take knives, chargers, and pricey toiletry items such as razor blades! The drivers' assistants are infamous for crawling into the luggage hold while the bus is moving to help themselves from stored bags. See more famous scams in Thailand.
Koh Tao Seasons
Koh Tao is relatively busy throughout the year, however, the island roughly follows Thailand's busy season with peak months between December and April. November 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.
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 the islands and back to Bangkok can fill up, depending upon the direction that the tens of thousands of revelers are heading. See a list of Full Moon Party dates to plan your visit to Koh Tao accordingly.
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). While it's easy enough to walk between Sairee Beach and Mae Haad, many travelers choose to rent motorbikes — and ultimately crash them — while trying to explore more remote parts of the island. Koh Tao's hills and gravelly roads can cause even the most expert of drivers to end up sacrificing skin and paying for expensive repairs on a rental.
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!