Koh Tao is a diving island. Plain and simple. I wish I’d known that before I went. It wouldn’t have changed the destination, it would only have changed the length of my trip. Rather than staying for four days, I would have designated at least a week, gotten scuba certified in one of the most beautiful places on earth, and explored the reefs with a little more depth than my snorkel would allow (literally).
I loved this place. In fact, it’s the only Thai island that is on my “re-visit radar” for the next couple of years. I loved it when I was there and I know that I would love it even more now that I dive. If we are able to add Koh Tao to our list of destinations while we are in Japan, I fully intend to make the visit last long enough to knock out our night diving and advanced open water certs if we haven’t gotten them taken care of already.
At last count, there were 25 PADI 5 Star Resorts/Dive Centers in Koh Tao, which says something about the droves of people who come to this island to dive. We stayed at Asia Divers Resort, and were probably some of the only guests who were not working toward some type of certification. Most of the people that we met there were spending their second or even third season in Koh Tao working divemaster internships or doing their diving instructor training.
The resort is very reasonably priced (as in didn’t break our backpacker budgets), a balcony room costs a little less than 30 USD, and it not only had the two amenities that I had grown to require when at all possible: hot water and air-con, but also had a lot of nice bonuses: a pool, a bar and free wifi. The pool, although often occupied by training divers, is lovely for a quick dip after spending the day on the beach… just don’t mind the bubbles below you.
Asia Divers is less than a 5-minute walk, straight up the main street, from Sairee Beach. Sairee is the iconic beach with the horizontal palm trees that you see every time you google Koh Tao. (What you don’t google Koh Tao regularly? Shame on you. Well, just bookmark this page and feel free to come back any time you need your Koh Tao fix.)
The famous Lotus Bar is located under one of the horizontal palm trees (the one with the Lotus Bar sign hanging from it) and is a sort of the meeting point for the island. After all of the day-trips and dives, this is where everyone comes to drink and watch the sunset. Oh… and to watch the fire dancers. Let’s not forget the nightly fire dancing.
As much as I loved Koh Tao, the best day there was the day I spent away from it. We took a snorkeling cruise/day trip to Koh Nang Yuan, which is a tiny island about 15 minutes off the coast of Koh Tao. It’s actually made up of three little islands that are attached by white-sand strips of beach, and is one of the most picturesque places I have ever visited.
This privately-owned island is a popular day trip for people staying in both Koh Samui and Koh Tao, and you have to pay a toll of 100 baht ($3) just to visit it. However, unless you are just dying to rent a bungalow at Nangyuan Island Dive Resort which is the only resort, and also home to the only bar/restaurant on Koh Nang Yuan, I would recommend it as a one-day excursion rather than a vacation spot of its own. (Nangyuan bungalows start at $60 for a standard room with a fan and no hot water, and gradually increase to $440 for more luxurious accommodations-which include hot water :) )
To get from Koh Tao to Koh Nang Yuan you can “charter” a longtail taxi boat from just about anywhere on Sairee Beach for 200 baht ($6). While this is probably the most postcard-perfect way of getting anywhere in Thailand, not to mention one of the most economical, if you are lazy or like the idea of someone else planning your day, you can also do what we did and book a full-day tour on a speedboat/snorkel cruise.
We booked our Koh Nang Yuan excursion through our resort because it was easy, convenient and cheap… right around 700 baht ($21). The price included mask and snorkel rental, stops at several reefs, lunch, drinks, and a four-hour visit to Koh Nang Yuan where you could lounge, snorkel or hike to the “Viewpoint”. We did a little of the first and a lot of the second (some of the best snorkeling of my life), but my favorite part of the day, and therefore, my favorite part of my trip to Koh Tao, was our 15 minute hike to the viewpoint.
Although the hike really does take only 15-20 minutes, take those minutes seriously. It’s steep, most people are barefoot or sandal-clad, and the steps and rocks can be treacherous. While we were climbing we encountered one person who had lost a shoe, another who lost a sarong (what?), one Asian tourist who was stuck on a rock, terrified and crying because she could not get down, and a fourth who was badly injured. (In defense of the Asian lady… even I’d been a little bit nervous about lowering myself from that spot.) Our small group had no incidents, so I will just say hike it with caution, but by all means hike it! And when you get to the top: pose for dozens of touristy pictures. We all do.
After hiking back down we posed for even more photos (I will spare you) and then vegged out at the resort bar (the only bar, as I mentioned earlier) for severely over-priced margaritas that were completely worth it… but take note: they are only worth it because margaritas are always worth it in paradise… even if it those margaritas are a little watered down.
It wasn’t until after we left Koh Tao that we heard great reviews about the climbing and bouldering on the island. I hadn’t climbed a darn thing since our climbing excursion in Laos, (though I would have been climbing those horizontal palm trees had they not thought of that and taken precautions to discourage poor decision making by wrapping the trunks in barbed wire) so it would have been nice to spend a day using those muscles, but alas, I spent the days lounging on the beaches instead. If you are looking for a more active stay check out Good Time Adventures, for a pretty exhaustively spectacular list of things to do in Koh Tao.
And like just about everywhere else I’ve ever written about in SEAsia, a motor bike is the way to go in Koh Tao. Make sure you take pictures of it before you rent it, we have heard horror stories about the fees you will incur if there is the slightest scratch, but if all five of these ladies can handle it… I trust you’ll be okay.
(Side note, this is also the only picture I have of the main street of Koh Tao, headed from our hostel to the beach. Makes me all kinds of nostalgic! Just stop for an iced coffee at the little cafe on the right- about a block further down from where this picture was taken- then turn left at the 7-11 and take a right to the beach. I know these directions will be helpful. You’re welcome.)
In 2013, I quit my job and bought a one-way ticket to Thailand. After four months of backpacking I returned to the States and fell in love with a guy whose job sent us straight back to Asia. Nothing has gone according to plan... and it's been absolutely magical.