Siam Island Hopper Guide to Koh Tao
Postcard-perfect white sand beaches, the occasional granite boulder and rows of spindly coconut trees. Coral reefs, a dense tropical forest and a friendly population that hails from all over the world. This is Koh Tao.
Koh Tao, or “Turtle Island” in Thai, gets its name from the island’s shape. The 21 square kilometer island is a one hour speedboat ride from Koh Phangan and it’s part of Thailand’s best island hopping routes through the Gulf of Thailand.
Sairee Beach, Koh Tao
Koh Tao is harder to get to than Koh Samui and Koh Phangan, which has allowed the island to maintain a more under-the-radar vibe. This in turn attracts a certain sort of adventurous traveler with a spirit for wanderlust and new experiences.
Tourism began on Koh Tao in the 1980’s. Before that the island was largely uninhabited and even more difficult to reach. Now, the island attracts people from every corner of the globe and all walks of life. The island life is so attractive that many visitors end up staying longer than they intended. Some came for a vacation or a dive certification or just picked up and moved here from their home country.
Whatever their reason for living on this beautiful island, the Koh Tao community has developed a unique culture of outdoor adventure and appreciation for nature.
Now, although Koh Tao still attracts mostly young independent travelers and groups of friends, you’ll also find families, sports lovers and successful city folk from New York to Tokyo who just want to get away from it all.
One thing that bonds all visitors to this island is a love of the outdoors. Scuba is the main activity on people’s itineraries but it’s not the only adventure to be had on the island. Hiking, abseiling and bouldering are just some of the ways that Koh Tao can be a natural playground for anyone with an adventurous spirit.
Get your beach on
Koh Tao is small enough that you can hire a longtail boat and circle the entire island in one day. Grab some friends, masks, fins, sunblock, snacks and beers and ask for a day rate for a longtail boat. Spend the day hopping from beach to beach, snorkeling or just lounging on the sand. See if you can find some granite rocks for cliff jumping – your longtail guide will know where to go.
Your Koh Tao experience will probably start on Sairee Beach on the west side of the island. This is the main tourist stretch. Although the beach is the most developed on the island, the water is still crystal clear and the sand powdery and white. There are a few large boulders on Sairee, one of which has a carving by King Rama V, the Thai King who visited Koh Tao in 1899.
Koh Nang Yuan
Koh Nang Yuan is on the northwest edge of the island. This mini island off the coast of Koh Tao is actually three small islands connected by sandbars. Hike up to the viewpoint and get a stunning photo with the sandbars as your backdrop. There is one resort on the island, but most people come over by speedboat or longtail from Koh Samui or Koh Phangan. Get here early in the morning or later in the afternoon to have more beach to yourself but be prepared to pay a small fee to enter the island.
Another great place for snorkeling and diving is Mango Bay or Ao Mamuang in Thai. Mango Bay is on the northern end of the island. There are just a couple resorts on a small sandy patch of beach and the rocky perimeter, coral reefs and clear water make for some interesting sea life.
Continue around the island to Ao Hin Wong, another beautiful bay with smooth granite rocks and clear waters on Koh Tao’s eastern edge. Stop and check out Laem Thien, a peninsula jutting out from the east side of Koh Tao. The beaches around this peninsula are attracting more people as Sairee gets busier.
There are also bungalows, resorts and dive schools on the southern shores of Koh Tao. Stay here if you’re keen on diving around Shark Island, which is just off the coast of Sai Daeng Beach after you round the corner of Ao Leuk.
The southern beaches of Koh Tao like the secluded Freedom Beach, are also worth a stop on your longtail journey. While you’re there, hike up to John Suwan Viewpoint, which is basically a huge boulder in the middle of the jungle. Climb up and take a moment to appreciate the view of the back to back beaches of Ao Chalok Ban Kao and Ao Thian Ok.
Where to eat
Exotic dishes and comfort food at Goodtime Adventures
Local Thai food is plentiful on Koh Tao, and so is every form of international comfort food you could imagine. We recommend taking the casual route when it comes to dining on the island. Oftentimes the food and experience of the island’s “upscale” restaurants just doesn’t match the high price. It’s expensive to bring those fresh, fancy ingredients to the island and most visitors aren’t here for expensive meals. So, cheap and cheerful is what Koh Tao does best.
If you’re on Sairee beach try the Thai street food along the winding walkways. Or if you want something more substantial take a seat on a triangle pillow at Bingo, a wooden beachfront restaurant. This restaurant has all the usual Thai favorites and then some. But don’t forget to order like a local.
Next to Bingo is Goodtime Adventures. The adventure specialists also operate a bar/restaurant that looks out onto Sairee Beach. The space is cozy and inviting, kind of like a friend’s living room or an extra comfy AirBnB. The toasted sandwiches are an amazing treat after a day on the water, but don’t leave without trying the Burmese Tea Leaf Salad.
If you crave a burger after a long day of diving then look no further than local joints Hippo Burger Bistro or Bang Burgers, both on the main road of Sairee. Pizza lovers get your fix at Farango, an Italian restaurant also on Sairee’s main stretch with wood fired pizza, decadent pastas and fresh salads.
For a meal with real ambiance check out New Heaven on Ao Chalok Baan Kao. This restaurant does great southern style Thai food and spicy curries, and the view is unbelievable.
Party on Koh Tao
There are tons of places on Koh Tao to grab beers on the beach and watch the sun go down, and this is definitely how each day on the island should end. Trek to a viewpoint or find spot on Sairee facing the ocean and enjoy a couple cold ones as the sun sets on another day in paradise.
Sairee Beach is Koh Tao’s premier party destination. But there are great sunset spots all around the island. Fishbowl Beach Bar, located at Ban’s Diving Resort is a great place to start a night on Koh Tao. Lounge on the bean bags during the day and enjoy the sunset view. Once the sun goes down there are live bands and fire shows.
Chopper’s Bar, first stop on the Koh Tao Pub Crawl
For one of the most unique nightlife experiences on the Thai islands, join the legendary Koh Tao Pub Crawl. The night starts at Chopper’s Bar with a free bucket and an energetic rallying cry by Junior, the pub crawl leader who looks like he just stepped off the set of Magic Mike XXL. The crawl takes you from Chopper’s to a pool party, to a highly interactive cabaret show at Queen’s Cabaret, back to Chopper’s for a set by a lively band then on to Bar Next 2 to finish the night.
Sleeping it off
The low-key, undeveloped feel of the island is what attracts people to Koh Tao, so most resorts and guest houses fall into the backpacker to flashpacker category. Although now there are more luxurious resorts and villas popping up.
First, decide if you want the quintessential backpacker experience to meet and mingle with other travelers or if you want something a bit more exclusive. Your own shower, perhaps?
Koh Tao Hillside
If you do decide to go the backpacker route there are several hostels on the island that promise fun times for all. Koh Tao Backpackers is located on Sairee Beach, far enough from the bars that you won’t be kept up at night, close enough that you’re still part of the action. With a newly renovated common area (expected to be done by April 2016) this hostel is great for meeting new friends.
If your stay is centered around diving it’s easy to book a package deal with a dive resort. Ban’s Diving Resort is one of the more well known spots, which also means it books up fast. Pinnacle Koh Tao Resort near Ao Chalok Baan Kao also has comfy villas and an established dive school.
Koh Tao Hillside is a large resort on a hill just a few kilometers from the main drag of Sairee. The stunning ocean view makes the trek to the lobby worth it. Be prepared to sweat, though. Choose from newer, nicer rooms on one side or somewhat decrepit bungalows on the other side. Even if you choose the latter, the resort makes up for it with a beautiful private pier where guests can jump into the ocean and swim. There you can see straight through the water to the rocks several meters beneath the surface.
If you want an exclusive experience on Koh Tao, stay at Monkey Flower Villas. These boutique, luxury villas are on the north end of Sairee Beach. With private pools and gardens, it’s one of the most beautiful properties on the island – great for families. Couples who want a luxe island hideaway should check out Haad Tien Beach Club. This chic resort on Koh Tao’s south shore is modern, minimal and stylish.
The waters around Koh Tao are still the island’s main attraction. Divers come from all over the world to dive at places like Sail Rock and Nang Yuan Pinnacle. There are so many amazing places to explore as an advanced diver or a beginner. Even if you’d rather stay close to the surface snorkeling, Koh Tao is the perfect place. Book ahead if you plan to come during high season from November to January. Otherwise it’s easy to plan your dives when you arrive on the island. There are a ton of dive shops and schools ready to organize an amazing underwater adventure.
Snorkeling and diving at Mango Bay
If you’re serious about diving then allow a few days to explore different spots. The farther you go from the island, the more chance you have of seeing huge schools of fish and catching a glimpse of an elusive Whale Shark.
Free diving is another activity that’s growing in popularity on Koh Tao. While scuba diving is about exploring underwater worlds and seeing marine life, free diving is about meditation and controlling your breath. Free divers dive without any gear or oxygen tanks and hold their breath until they resurface. Some dive schools on the island are now offering lessons for groups and individuals.
Abseiling high above Sairee Beach
Above water there are even more unique thrills to experience. Koh Tao’s rocky landscape attracts bouldering enthusiasts from all over the world. Book a guide to take you to the best spots to climb. Or if you want an amazing view of Sairee Beach head to Fraggle Rock, a huge boulder in the midde of the island, and abseil down the granite rock face.
From Fraggle Rock you can see from one end of the island to the other. It’s one of those views that makes you feel small and insignificant and it makes you realize just how much beauty and adventure is packed into this little island in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand.
Read more island guides:
Siam Island Hopper Guide to Phuket
Siam Island Hopper Guide to Koh Phi Phi
Siam Island Hopper Guide to Krabi
Siam Island Hopper Guide to Koh Chang
Siam Island Hopper Guide to Koh Samui
Siam Island Hopper Guide to Koh Phangan