THERE IS A TINY ISLAND PARADISE IN THE GULF OF THAILAND WHERE MOST OF THE INHABITANTS SPEND THEIR DAYS WITH THEIR HEADS UNDERWATER!
For decades, Koh Tao has been analogous with world class diving at bargain prices. Travelers have been coming to this slice of scuba heaven for the abundant sea life, but there is so much more to Turtle Island above the reefs and beyond the salty sweet coastline.
JUST DON’T TELL THEM! BECAUSE WHILE THE DIVERS ARE AWAY, THE ISLAND IS ALL YOURS TO PLAY.
ABOUT KOH TAO
Don’t let its small size (21km2) fool you. Koh Tao is predominantly steep mountainous terrain with a rocky coastline concealing a dozen spectacular bays of calm, clear water and white sand beaches fringed by jungle. Tremendously tall palm trees rise above the canopy behind gradients of turquoise, aquamarine and shallow coral patches.
(More info about where to stay in Koh Tao, when to go and how to get there below).
EXTRAORDINARY KOH TAO ABOVE THE WATER OUR TOP RECOMMENDATIONS
Koh Tao is diversifying their attractions as more backpackers, families and luxury travelers discover there is more to this island paradise than the underwater gardens bordering land. It is entirely possible to spend weeks here hiking to the best view points, remote bays, lazing on the beach, staying fit on the water, day trip exploring and pushing your luck with the interactive fire dancers and bucket parties all night long.
On the heels of our two week networking extravaganza at Tbex Asia in Bangkok, we spent 7 beautiful days looking for a taste of island life, adventure, fun and of course, nothing at all <3 These are just a few of our favorite things to do in Koh Tao, Thailand.
DAY TRIP TO KOH NANG YUAN
I’ve dreamed of visiting of this tiny island trio since the travel bug infected me. Koh (meaning island) Nang Yuan has topped the many buckets lists and must-see destinations I obsessively browse through when I’m not traveling. It is easily one of the most postcard perfect places in the world.
The two larger islands are steep, jungle covered hills rising to an unforgettable highlight viewpoint of the thin blond sandbar bridge emerging from water so clear, you can make out the reefs that halo Nang Yuan. The hike up is laborious but absolutely worth each hellish step. The achievement of climbing up that last boulder, to stand in the very point that has inspired so many of my favourite photographs, was humbling beyond the view itself. I’ve dreamed of this island before and being here is a proud reminder of why I left home, to make my dreams a reality.
Travel Tip: Consider doing the hike in the afternoon as the tide recedes and widens the sandbars exposure.
Back at sea level, shifty walkways allow visitors to stroll the edges of the island that make up Nang Yuan’s only (seemingly abandoned) resort. There are large boulders that make excellent and private little hubs for enjoying the island without constant passersby on the beach strip. Lounge chairs line the sandy overpass rising between popular snorkeling attractions, especially at the Japanese gardens.
As we explored the island, the arrival of huge groups of Chinese tourists marked a sad moment. Despite the signs everywhere attempting to educate visitors and help preserve marine life, the group entered the calm, shallow waters with large fins they dragged through the corals. Some grouped around with plastic bags trying to catch fish while others threw chicken bones into the water. They seemed to come out empty handed, including leaving their baggies and trash behind. (Emotional rant!) Please don’t be this tourist.
There is a single restaurant, dive school and shop near the pier. Food prices are similar to resort prices on Koh Tao, not that you have a choice. Drinks are pricier and again, you won’t have much choice in the matter as no plastic or cans are allowed onto the island. You will be searched upon arrival to help preserve and keep Nang Yuan clean.
There is a 100Baht entry fee to Nang Yuan and it closes at 5pm.
How To Get to Nang Yuan:
Easy! And you will never be closer to this paradise than this quick 15 minute boat ride from Koh Tao.Options include hiring a longtail taxi for a private ride, 2,000Baht for up to 4 passengers, making your own way across by kayak or the most affordable option, jump on the Lompraya boat service.
Best deal alert! The Lompraya boat ended up being a fishing vessel and we got it all to ourselves! 300B roundtrip includes the entry fee. Departs Koh Tao at 10:15am and returns at 1:30 and 4:30pm.
SNORKLE KOH TAO
Love at First Snorkel – April’s First Time
I had no idea this experience would leave me so captivated; so completely incapable of restraint. Now that I spend each waking moment longing to get back to the ocean, I am contemplating surgical implants that would allow me to become a full-time mermaid. “Perhaps these measures are too extreme,” you say?
While Koh Tao is known world-wide as a diving destination, the idea stretched me a little too far out of my comfort zone, being that I am rather timid around water. With a little convincing from my partner in crime, I agreed to try my hand at snorkeling. Karina and I purchased a cheap mask and snorkel at a local shop, and reluctantly, in the ocean I went. Instantly, I was hooked. — April
Best Places To Snorkel Koh Tao Thailand
Let’s face it, some of the best attractions in Koh Tao are still under water, but you don’t need to travel to the depths to enjoy very best of shallow marine ecosystems. There are many beaches around the island where you can find natural aquariums like the ones we explored. These are our extraordinary highlight choices for the impressive marine life saturating the crystal blue coastal waters.
On the East coast of Koh Tao, Tanote Bay or Hin Wong Bay, are abundant with different species of angelfish, butterflyfish, bannerfish, and stingrays. Southern Koh Tao counts with one of the most highly revered beaches on the island: Aow Leuk. This beach is loaded with well-preserved coral, home to an abundance of magnificent sea creatures including the islands name sake favourite, turtles! Further south, is the private beach at Shark Baywhere you can find baby blacktip reef sharks that drift over from nearby Shark Island, 800 meters off the coast Koh Tao.
To access Shark Bay, follow the road from Chalok Baan Kao to the last resort, OK 2 Bungalows. There is a set of steep stairs all the way down to the boulders below where you can dive straight into the outer bay.
Tour Or No Tour, That Is The Question
There are over 40 dive schools and snorkel operators all over the island willing to take you on a guided boat tour to the reefs with the densest concentrations of marine life. If you don’t have much time on the island and you hope to maximize your opportunity of seeing your very first sea turtle, this might be the appropriate option for you. Standard tour operator range from 500-750 baht for a full day tour with a large group (normally around 8:30am until 4:30 or 5:00) with a lunch and insurance included. If you don’t want to be packed into a little boat with a ton of people, there are operators running tours with similar features in your own private long tail boat. 2800Baht for up to 4 people. Being that a short taxi rides to adjoining bays can start at 300Baht per ride, you need to consider transportation to pick the package that best suits you.
If you have the luxury of time on your hands and you would rather find your own way to that picturesque location, I would suggest purchasing your own snorkel equipment. You can always walk the island shore and hike the trails across the mountains in search of other snorkelers who will tell you where they have been successful. Also keep in mind that if you see boats in the water with snorkelers swimming near-by, they have just pointed you toward the fishy ‘sweet spot.’
The equipment we bought was the cheapest mask/snorkel set we could find on the island at 250Baht. While the mask served its purpose quite well, the snorkel leaked constantly, quickly turning us from snorkelers to free divers. Higher end products are recommended for those committed snorkelers (or if you are diving) who can travel with their gear to multiple locations.
Travel, Learn, Share Tip
Stand by the pier close to 9:30am or 3pm when the ferries leaves the bay with a sign asking travelers leaving the island if they will sell or even gift you their equipment. Many people who have purchased equipment are just finishing up their vacation and no longer have a need for it once they leave the island. Buying second hand is the best way to get quality equipment for cheap price.
KAYAK KOH TAO
Be your own captain for a fraction of the cost!
There is no better way to explore the island coast than to hop into Sea Kayak. Explore the island views from the water, be environmentally friendly, and create your adventure.
Head over to the west end Chalok Baan Kao for the best deal on the island. (Southern Coast, ask for the Laemklong Resort, IHAsia Dive Center) Fritz, an Austrian expat living in Koh Tao since 1982 (can you imagine the change he’s lived through? wow!) is your extraordinary resource on the island. Not only does he rent FeelFree kayaks at a steal, he is a wealth of information and will advise you in accordance with your skill level and current weather.
Cost: Kayaks, including 2 and 3 person ones, are only 200 baht for the entire day! Normally when renting equipment of this nature it is requested that one leave a deposit or leave a passport as insurance in case of damaged equipment, but for this particular shop, it was not required. The boats are of great quality and we were told they are unsinkable.
Safety: Included in the rental fee was the option to take a free life jacket and dry-bag for cameras and other necessities. Fritz indicated that in cases of sudden weather change, if we were unable to make it back to Feel Free Kayaks safely to return the boat, he would prefer we pull the kayak to land, then walk back to Feel Free Kayaks and tell him where he can find it. While this would be an obvious inconvenience to him, his priority was clearly our safety. Something we appreciated very much!
TRAVEL LEARN SHARE — CHOOSE KAYAKING! HELP PROTECT KOH TAO!
One of the main reasons Fritz offers equipment rentals for such a modest price is that he is hoping to encourage tourists to utilize eco-friendly methods of transportation in place of motorbike rentals!
COMBINE TWO EXTRAORDINARY THINGS TO DO IN KOH TAO – GO SNORKELING FROM A SEA KAYAK
Our man Fritz also rents mask and snorkel at the same location for only 50Baht for the day. Compared to most places charging 100B/hour and quality was not guaranteed. We rented a set ourselves as it was much more effective than the equipment we had purchased a few days before.
For those of you who are germ-a-phobes, don’t worry, the masks and snorkels are disinfected daily!
It is possible to kayak to the areas we mentioned (above) where you will find a thriving coral reef as well as reaching otherwise inaccessible areas such Shark Island and the last secluded and undeveloped, jungle bay: Mao Bay.
KOH TAO NIGHT LIFE
Koh Tao’s neighbour island of Koh Phangan often gets all the glory when it comes to the night life, largely due to the fact that it hosts the infamous Full Moon Party every month. But life on Tao picks up surprisingly after the sun sets. In fact, Koh Tao seems to get the best of both worlds for us non scuba divers.
During the day, we get to play on and around the island seemingly devoid of human activity. The beaches are private and the bays undisturbed (except for Nang Yuan it seems). When the day comes to a close and divers ascend, every one comes together on Sairee beach for evenings lounging on floppy cushions set right out on the sand. Drink deals and fire acrobatics are an every night event and by the end of the night, the cushions lay forgotten as international crowds dance on the stage, beach and even in the far reaching shallow waters. The guys put on quite an intimate show with their fire wielding skills and don’t be surprised when you are invited up for a display of trust and courage as they pull tricks inches from you. You never know, you may end up sucked into a friendly fire limbo contest. (Watch the video) And yes, free shots with each successful level, because that’s really going to help your balance 😛
GIVING BACK TO THE LOCAL COMMUNITY
Tourism and development creates an enormous load on this small islands limited resources. While their is still limited infrastructure, ongoing projects are creating huge erosion problems and producing large quantities of garbage. Without a proper disposal system on Koh Tao, most of the garbage is being piled and burned. Every evening, the smoke and stench floats across the air as a reminder of the damaging effects of an overburdened system. We create our own project to give back part of our time picking up trash that washed up on shore during our explorations.
Here’s How You Can Do Your Part To Save The Island
- This should go without saying but we are going to say it anyway, DON’T LITTER. In fact, we are going to suggest that you spend some time cleaning up the island as a show of respect for the local people and wildlife that exist on the island. Do your part to spend time picking up trash, just as we did.
- Because Koh Tao is an island surrounded by salt water, fresh water sources are limited. Conserve water as much as you can.
- Don’t touch the reefs, rocks or marine life no matter how tempted you are to do so. Also, it is recommended on marine conservation sites that you don’t wear flippers when you are snorkeling as you can damage the delicate marine life in shallow waters.
4. Don’t travel to Koh Tao during high season as the high concentration of tourists at those times places incredible strain on the ecosystem on the island.
5. Don’t rent a motorbike while you are on the island, if it can be avoided. Choose more eco-friendly methods of transportation like a bicycle, kayak or get around the old fashioned way; by walking to your destination.
6. Limit your consumption. Do not use plastic bags and carry a refillable water bottle.
Travel tip: Using water refill machines will save you a small fortune!
7. Educate yourself about your surroundings. Review the Save Koh Tao website and find out more about ways you can contribute to the Island in a positive way. Travelers should be aware of this program and always do their best to raise their own awareness of the environmental issues that threaten the island. The “Save KohTao” Environmental Protection Movement: a conservation movement developed to preserve and protect the delicate marine and land resources this beautiful island is known for.
We discovered the Pinnacle Koh Tao Resort while hiking up to a viewpoint over Sunset beach, otherwise known as June Juea Bay. The resort is built on a super steep incline which means every single room boasts the most extraordinary views over the beach. (If you are too lazy, or unable to hike the steep stairs between your room and the restaurant/pool/beach, there is complimentary golf cart service! LOL)
We stayed in a modern and shockingly spacious bungalow (27m2 plus 8m2 of balcony), the largest I’ve seen on this side of the world. There are loads of amenities to brag about beyond the view.
- Pool with sundeck and pool bar a stones throw away from the ocean. The sunset reflects right off the water for stunning postcard shot.
2. Shuttle! The resort is quite removed from the hustle and bustle of the town areas. Aside from pick up at the pier, there is also 5 times daily shuttle into Mae Haad.
3. Private beach front property. White sand, lounge chairs, a shallow reef just meters off shore and a Thai family who rents out snorkel equipment and kayaks right at the base of your bungalow.
4. The parrots 3 beautiful parrots call the reception area their home. Hang out on balcony with them while they eat their way around the furniture and watch the sweet Cambodian guy running the desk get the little one to headbang along. They also have 2 boring turtles 😛
DISCLAIMER: THANK YOU TO PINNACLE KOH TAO RESORT FOR THEIR HOSPITALITY AND HOSTING US ON THIS VISIT, ALL THOUGHTS AND OPINIONS ARE MY OWN.
HOW TO GET TO KOH TAO:
The island can only be reached by boat and several companies service routes from Thai mainland at Chumphon or Surat Thani, as well as Koh Tao’s neighbor island, Koh Samui and Koh Phangan. Koh Tao’s pier is located at Mae Haad Bay on the flatter Western coast. Plenty of taxis in the form of 4WD trucks or long tail boats are available there to get you to your destination, particularly the hard to reach Eastern and Northern coasts.
I highly recommend Lompraya High Speed Catamaran, specially for their convenient overnight bus or train package combinations from Bangkok to Koh Tao. 1,100Baht from Khao San area to the Mae Haad Pier. http://www.lomprayah.com
WHEN TO GO TO KOH TAO:
Koh Tao has something to offer each taste all year round. High tide, from October to March fills the bays with waters for spectacular shallow reef snorkeling just steps from your hotel. April to September, tides recede exposing wider beaches and sunny skies. The latter half also boasts the clearest views underwater.
Beware of the peak seasons in December to March and July/August, draws thick crowds to the beaches and underwater. Koh Tao’s small size and rising popularity during these months means sharp rise in prices, shoulder to shoulder days on the beach and loud, late nights in Sairee. It is a huge pressure on the island and its limited resources.
Best months: June and October
Avoid: Late November to early December – Koh Tao’s swift and powerful monsoon season.
For more information about Koh Tao sights, business and services check the excellent free resource at www.kohtaocompleteguide.com
We’d love to hear about your adventures in Koh Tao. Send us your travel tips for Koh Tao for a chance to be featured on our article
~ A Wisdom Guide by Karina ~
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