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The island of Koh Tao – What you need to know
Without a doubt, for any intrepid traveller spending any substantial time in Thailand a little island hopping is pretty much mandatory. Especially after you’ve been up north to Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai and Pai, like me you’ll be ready for a little beach action. But which islands? Koh Lanta, Koh Samui, Koh Phangan? What about the island of Koh Tao?
A little information about Koh Tao
Koh Tao was named by local fishermen, the name Koh Tao translates to “Turtle Island” as the view of the island from their fishing boats resembled a turtle. There are also plenty of Hawksbill and green turtles living not to far off the shores of the island. So yeah, a pretty apt name.
Back in the day, from 1933 to 1947 to be exact, Koh Tao island was used as a political prison until the prime minister at the time campaigned for all the inmates to be given a royal pardon.
These days Koh Tao is well and truly on the Thailand backpacker circuit, so it should be! It was even rated the number 1 island in South East Asia and number 5 in the world by trip advisor. Although there are some fancy expensive resorts dotted around the island, it’s still much less developed than the neighbouring islands of Koh Samui (72km away) and Koh Phangan (47km away). It still has a bit of a local vibe about the place.
Koh Tao has some of the best diving conditions in the world and more PADI open water qualifications granted here than any where else on the planet.
When to go
To an extent that depends what you’re looking for, heaving bars and wild parties or a more chilled out vibe and cheaper prices?
One thing with Koh Tao, as well as the other islands is that there are two prices for a lot of things. One price for low season and an inflated one for high season. You’ll be looking at roughly a 25% price hike in the high-season, but the weather will be better.
High season co-insides with the best weather and runs from December – March and July – August.
I was there at the end of May, only for a few days and it rained every day for at least 2-3 hours. The rest of the time it was sunshine and blue skies. Speaking to the people on the island, the weeks before were sunny all day every day. The beginning of wet season I guess!?
Getting to Koh Tao
Seen as there is no airport on the island there is pretty much only one mode of transport for getting to Koh Tao. Either from the main land or from one of the neighbouring islands you’ll find yourself on a boat! Depending on the weather, it can get a little “choppy”. Me, personally, I was fine both ways even though on my trip out to the island it was a little stormy. However, speaking to people on the island and just generally other backpackers, if you suffer from sea sickness you better pack that brown paper bag….
From the mainland there are two main ports that go to Koh Tao – Surat Thani and Chumpton.
I took the night boat from Surat Thani on my way out. The ticket cost me 600 Bhat from the slightly angry looking man sat on the ticket stand right next to the boat. The night boat leaves at 10pm but you can board the boat a couple of hours early if you want and the boat arrives around 6am. Also, the Surat Thani port at night is something to experience in its self! Soo much street food, music, even local people doing street “aerobics”.
Inside there are just rows of bunkbeds, some of them 3 beds wide with nothing more than a 12-inch wooden divider between them. A bit shit if you’re in the middle of two strangers… Each bed has a power outlet, blanket and pillow.
There was a day boat from Surat Thani that was a little quicker. The day boat, with transfer to the jetty (was a long way out of town) costs from 950 Bhat but arrived at 10pm. No good if, like me you haven’t booked any accommodation in advance. Plus, its more expensive and then you have to pay for a night’s accommodation on top of the extra ticket price.
NIGHT BOAT FOR THE WIN!!!
On the way back, I used the fast catamaran from Koh Tao to Chumpton. Took around 2 hours and cost 500 Bhat.
Where to stay?
Again, I guess that all depends on what you’re looking for. Are you the budget conscious, sleep anywhere as long as its cheap and clean backpacker? Or are you the “I’m not staying here it’s only got 3 swimming pools” kind of travel queen?
The main strip right of the ferry is dominated buy affordable backpacker hostels, guest houses and cheap eateries (I recommend Yang’s restaurant). Travel a few miles up the road to the freedom beach area and you’ll find some more up market apartments and sea view bungalows for rent, obviously for a fair old premium mind.
Cheaper end: Living Inn hostel – Cheap and cheerful, clean and good location. Low season: 280 Baht per night. High season: 380 Baht per night.
Higher end: Mango Bay Boutique resort – Pretty damn swanky to be fair. Low season: 2000 Baht per night. High season: 3000 Baht per night.
Things to do on the island of Koh Tao
Koa Tao is definitely about the diving, there are a few other things to do but no where near as many as it’s close relative Koh Samui. Anyways here’s a few things to do:
Spend a day on Koh Nang Yuan island
Koh Nang Yuan island, although, actually classed as one island, is the only place in the world that has “3 small islands” close together and all connected by one coral sand beach. Take a day tour from Koh Tao to Koh Nang Yuan island for around 2000 BHT including speedboat to and from the island, lunch and snorkelling gear. There is also another 100 BHT fee to enter the island.
Without a doubt, Koh Tao is all about the diving. Boasting some of the best diving spots in South East Asia along with some of the cheapest dive prices anywhere in the world, it’s not hard to see why Diving is so prominent on Koh Tao.
Once you arrive on the island Koh Tao, the choice for quality diving schools is endless!! With so many to choose from, which do you go for? Now that’s the question!
As I stated earlier, unfortunately, I only had a few days left on my Thai visa and the weather was pretty bad. Suppose it was to be expected with it being the end of May. Maybe not the best time to visit Koh Tao. But I did meet many people doing their dive courses, over all, most people recommended Crystal Dive Koh Tao as their prices were among the cheapest on the island:
PADI open water costing 9,800 THB
PADI divemaster costing 30,000 THB
Book online with only a 10% deposit and you can get free accommodation for the course duration. For people wanting to get their instructor qualification, it can take up to 5 months of intensive diving, but this leaves you with the problem of the 1-month Thai visa…. Many of the dive shops along with offering everything from fun dives all the way through to instructor courses also offer a “visa run” for a set price. It seems this is what most of the long-term divers do.
To keep costs down while doing their dive instructor courses many people of to rent a small apartment on the island for the duration. These start at roughly 5000 TBH per month and run up to well… How deep are your pockets?
Check out some beaches…
Thai island and beautiful beach fit together like Tony Montana and a bag of white powder. While Koh Tao is not really all that known for its beaches there are still a few nice ones around. One of the most popular being Freedom Beach. In all honesty, I’m not a fan. It cost’s 100 TBH to enter the beach and you’re not allowed to bring your own food or drinks onto the beach. The bar is not cheap…
It’s also very shallow, 50m out and it’s still not far above your knees. After that you hit corral. Crap for swimming and ok for snorkelling. So, all in all I wouldn’t bother. Maybe check out Shark Bay.
Explore on a motorbike
For 250 THB per day you can rent a little 125cc scooter or for 400 THB per day you can get a 150cc dirt bike from an abundance of bike rental shops. With so many scam artists knocking around its hard to choose the right one. I recommend Oil’s Motorbike Rentals. They have a good reputation on the island and for an extra 200 TBH per day you can get full insurance for the bike.
The roads on Koh Tao are pretty smooth and aren’t too busy to ride on. The only thing I did notice is that there are a lot of patches of sand on the road, not great if you’re a bit of a novice but overall not too bad and as there is no public transport on the island, by far the cheapest way to get around.
Go for a view at the viewpoint
In all fairness the North viewpoint on Koh Tao ain’t half bad! If you’ve rented a scooter it’s worth the 50c in fuel to get there. Oh, I nearly forgot about the entrance fee to the view point, 40 TBH or buy a refreshing drink for 80 THB and get free entry.
One thing to note about the viewpoint is that if your travelling there by scooter, when the tarmac ends I suggest you leave the scooter at the side of the road as it gets pretty steep and rocky. Not the easiest ride and only a 20-minute walk… You decide!
Is Koa Tao safe?
For some people, the words “Koh Tao” conjures up scenes out of a Hollywood horror film. To be fair for a damn good reason. In the last 5 years there have been 5 backpackers found dead on the island, while 2 of them were definite murder the other 3 were of very dubious circumstances.
It is thought that the island has a dark underground network of mafia families that “run the island” from many years ago, even before the first police presence on the island. Claims of corruption within the authorities is rife.
So, back to the question, is the island of Koh Tao safe!? I can only speak of my very limited experience but there wasn’t any one point that I felt in the slightest way threated, nor did I hear of any bad stories from all the people that I had met some of which had been there 3+ months.
How safe is anywhere? Pretty much everywhere you go they’ll be murders every year. A lot of the time you won’t hear about them, but they still happen. Personally, I wouldn’t say you should go and I wouldn’t say you shouldn’t.
One way of getting around this “safety issue” is to travel to one of the nearby islands and do a day trip to Koh Tao.
My final thoughts on Koh Tao.
There is no doubt that the island of Koh Tao is a stunningly beautiful place. Sun, sea, sand and some of the best diving around but do you really need to go? If you’re hellbent on getting your divemaster certification for cheap, all the time having some good parties then yes. If your not too interested in diving and more about the party lifestyle than maybe Koh Samui is for you?
If you still want to go to the island Koh Tao just to see what its like but not really indulge in anymore than a fun dive or 2 then I’d say 3 nights is more than enough.