Have you ever been to a place where everything just clicks, where time stops and you feel a strong urge to remain there forever?
That’s how we felt on Koh Tao, the smallest of Thailand’s three famous gulf islands (the other two are Koh Samui and Koh Phangan). It’s a little slice of paradise full of dive schools, scooters, tasty food, and friendly people from all around the world. This time of year, the tide is so high the beaches barely exist, but to be honest that hardly mattered to us because everything else about this island is perfect. We loved it so much we actually visited twice - our route in Southern Thailand wound up being Bankgok-Koh Tao-Koh Samui-Koh Tao instead of our original plan, which was to head to Krabi after leaving Samui. No regrets.
We’re not the only ones to fall under Tao’s spell - it seems like everyone who lives here has the same story: they came here on vacation or during a gap year and just never left. Many expats here scuba dive, as it’s the cheapest place in the world to do a dive certification and there are dozens of (mostly great) dive schools all around the islands, so plenty of people come here to get their Open Water cert and end up becoming divemasters and instructors.
To get to Koh Tao, you have to take a ferry - there’s really no other option. We flew from Bangkok to Surat Thani, on the very southern edge of mainland Thailand, for about $40. Upon landing, we booked our ferry right at the airport through Lomprayah - there are stands for all the ferry companies right by the arrivals exit. There are other companies, but Lomprayah is the best and most organized. Be aware that during certain times of the year, like December when we went, the weather can be quite unpredictable and if the seas are too rough the ferry may be cancelled. We got very lucky - the seas were angry that day (please, someone, get this reference!) but we ended up making it to Koh Tao. If you get easily seasick, be sure to take meds before the boat leaves because it is a rough journey even on clear days.
Once you arrive on Koh Tao, a shared pickup truck taxi from the pier to the Sairee Beach area should cost 100 Baht per person with bags. Many guesthouses also offer pier pickup if you notify them in advance.
We stayed a total of twelve nights on the island and used the same guesthouse, Summer Hostel, both times. I can’t say enough good things about this place! We had a private room, and it was huge and very clean. The common areas are great (lots of beanbags and a big table) and the vibe is very social without being overwhelmingly party-focused. There are also dorms, and our friends who stayed in them said they were clean and comfortable. The staff is absolutely lovely and so helpful. It’s in a good location just up the hill from Sairee Beach, far away from the action that it’s quiet at night but it’s still possible to walk to the beach if you don’t have a scooter.
Speaking of scooters, we rented one through Oli’s Motorbikes as they were recommended by our hostel. Be aware that scooter scams are very widespread on the island. Most places require you to either pay a huge deposit or offer your passport as collateral for the rental (at Oli’s you can just use your driver’s license). If you go to a less-reputable place, be sure to take TONS of photos of the bike and be extremely cautious when riding your bike because many places will charge you for pre-existing or extremely minor damage, and they will illegally hold your passport and basically extort you for money. Contacting the tourist police might help you get out of that situation, though you’ll probably still have to pay a pretty penny.
Plus, driving a scooter on Koh Tao is pretty dangerous due to poor road quality, drunk drivers, and inexperienced riders. It seems like half the people on the island have nasty scooter-related injuries or scars. As you might recall, Alex has a lot of experience driving scooters so he felt OK, but by far the scariest aspect of driving here is dealing with everyone else on the road. Use caution! Oli’s (and some other shops) offers scratch insurance for an extra fee and we felt it was worth the cost.
Also be aware that during the busiest times of year, many bike shops sell out quickly. On our second visit, right after the New Year, we were unable to find a bike because the honest shops were all completely sold out! We had zero issues getting a bike just two weeks earlier, but January is peak season and the crowd levels increase during season drastically. You definitely don’t need a bike if you stay here, but we like having the freedom so it was a bit of a letdown.
The most popular (and crowded) beach on Koh Tao is Sairee Beach. This is where most of the dive shops, restaurants, bars and backpacker accommodations are located, and it’s where we spent the bulk of our time. Mae Haad, just to the south, is also popular with more dive shops and cute cafes. That’s also where the ferry pier is.
Alex and I actually spent a lot of time on Tao doing our own things, largely because I decided at the last minute to sign up for an Open Water scuba certification course, so I spent my days doing that while he explored other parts of the island.
Chances are if you’re thinking about coming to Koh Tao, diving has crossed your mind. Tao is one of the best spots in the world to earn your open water certification and there are more dive shops than you could possibly imagine scattered across the island, from huge factory schools to smaller, more intimate shops. You can literally walk up to any dive shop on the island and sign up for a class starting the next day, or if you’re already certified the same goes for fun dives. I prefer to research the shit out of everything (you may have noticed…), so I picked out a school in advance and had my course booked before I got to Tao. Some people poo-poo the dive schools here, but if you stay away from the really huge operations you can find quality at a reasonable cost.
I went with Sairee Cottage Diving and would highly recommend them to anyone. I actually wound up doing both my Open Water and Advanced Open Water with them (one for each time I visited the island!). It’s a medium-sized school, so there’s always something going on but classes are pretty small - in my Open Water course I was one of two students, and for AOW I was by myself, which I loved. The Open Water course lasts three days and AOW takes two, and of course more advanced classes are also available. All of the instructors I met or worked with are talented, passionate, and make safety a priority. Their enthusiasm is infectious and I rapidly became obsessed with diving during my time here, which has been pretty annoying for both Alex and for my bank account.
If you’re already certified and just looking for fun dives, some of the best sites are Chumphon and Sail Rock. There are so many dive sites it’s hard to choose, so your best bet is just to inquire at various dive shops to see where their boats are going on any given day. I was lucky enough to visit Chumphon during my AOW cert and we actually saw a whale! Not a whale shark (though it’s possible to see those, too), but a real actual Bryde’s whale! Definitely one of the coolest things I have ever seen.
While I was diving, Alex spent the days cruising around the island on his bike, exploring some beaches outside of the Sairee/Mae Haad hub. In winter, the tides on the western (Sairee) side of the island are pretty high, making the beaches almost nonexistent, but on the eastern side this isn’t as much of an issue. In particular, Ao Tanote and Ao Leuk are worth a visit. It's quite windy over here though, making sunbathing a little rough.
There are some great viewpoints on the island for getting a birds-eye view of Tao and taking lots of pretty photos. We went to the John Suwan lookout on Paradise Beach, on the far southern end of the island. You have to pay 50 baht to two different people to enter which is a bit ridiculous, but I digress. Once you’ve paid both entrance fees, you scramble your way up a sketchy path lined with old ropes for pulling yourself along. To reach the very top you have to squeeze your way along some huge boulders that eventually open up to a beautiful, but very windy, rocky ledge with panoramic views of the whole island. The lookout allegedly closes at 5pm, but we got there around 4:30 and saw plenty of people climbing up after we left, and the oncoming sunset bathed everything in a beautiful golden light. Just make sure to allow yourself enough time to climb down while it’s still light out.
One of the things that makes Koh Tao so great is the huge variety of amazing food options. Because there are so many expats here, you can find pretty much anything from Italian to German, from tacos to cheeseburgers, done with varying levels of quality. Our favorite restaurant on the island was a little Italian joint called Thaita, which was just down the street from our hostel. It’s run by an Italian couple, the menu is in Italian…it’s super authentic. We recommend making reservations as it’s tiny and gets crowded. VegetaBowl is another gem, with huge and wonderfully flavorful vegan/veggie bowls that make you feel good after eating them. The all-day breakfast at Indie Cafe is great - try the croque madame, it's incredible.
But of course, this is Thailand, and luckily the island has no shortage of amazing Thai food and it is by far the most budget-friendly option. Su Chilli, which is right on the corner by the 7-Eleven at Sairee Beach, is tasty and conveniently located, though not as cheap as some of the others listed here. During my Open Water class lunch breaks, I’d visit Coffee Boat which is just down the brick road from Sairee Cottage for amazing spicy basil chicken. On the main highway (not the walking road), Lanta is a delicious, authentic and very cheap option, and further down the highway in the plaza by the other 7-Eleven, there’s a place with no name (we think it might be called Best of Koh Tao but no one really knows) with a huge menu. It’s extremely budget-friendly and easy to find despite the lack of a name - if you’re facing the 7-Eleven it’s just to the left. And of course, you’d have to be crazy to go to Koh Tao and not visit the infamous 995 Roasted Duck for huge, cheap bowls of duck noodles or spicy soup.
There are also several lovely cafes where you can post up all morning and soak in the atmosphere with some yummy coffee and breakfast. On Mae Haad beach by the pier, there’s a little place called Coconut Monkey that has a huge, healthy, delicious menu of breakfast and brunch items like egg wraps, buddha bowls, and pancakes, plus homemade snacks and cookies. On Sairee Beach, our absolute favorite spot was the two-level Blue Water, which has tables right on the beach. In addition to healthy bowls, smoothies and good coffee, they also do cocktails at night.
For nightlife, there’s really just a handful of bars that everyone frequents. We highly recommend doing the Koh Tao Pub Crawl which runs four nights a week, to orient yourself to the island’s nightlife if you’re into going out. It includes an incredible ladyboy cabaret as well as a fire show on the beach. It’s 450 baht and comes with a shirt, drink specials and a free bucket and shots. We’ve been on several pub crawls during our travels and usually end up feeling too old or awkward, but this one is good, promise!
Koh Tao is paradise, period. It’s tiny and compact and easy to get around, the tropical setting can’t be beat, and despite its small size it packs a real punch in terms of activities, food, and nightlife. After just a couple days here, we began to see why so many people seem to just say ‘screw it’ and stay here long-term.
We definitely fell victim to the island’s allure - our original plan for Thailand was to go from Tao to Samui to Krabi or the Phi Phi islands, but we loved Tao so much we just came back after spending the holidays in Samui. Koh Tao is a truly special place and if you’re not careful it will grab onto your heart and never let go.