Koh Tao, the smaller, slightly more rustic cousin of Full Moon Party destination Koh Pha Ngan, has long been a fixture in the scuba diving world. Koh Tao, meaning ‘Turtle Island’ in Thai, very much resembles its namesake with a hilly, rugged interior giving way to several beautiful beaches along its periphery. With over sixty dive schools and over a dozen dive sites it’s one of the most popular and least expensive destinations in the world for scuba diving.
Getting to Koh Tao is relatively straight forward. The island is small, only about six kilometres in length, and can only be reached by boat. From Bangkok one of the least expensive options is taking the Lomprayah Coach/Ferry combination which takes around nine hours and costs 1100 baht (31 USD) per person at the time of writing. The quickest but priciest way is flying to Koh Samui airport and then taking a high speed ferry to Koh Tao. Pricing for this route varies but expect to pay well over $100 per person.
All Koh Tao ferries arrive to and depart from Mae Haad pier which is conveniently located right next to the centre of activity, Sairee Beach. Sairee Beach, the largest and most popular beach on the island is where you will find the vast majority of the island’s accommodations, dive shops, restaurants and bars. This soft, sandy beach offers breath-taking views of the turquoise waters surrounding the island and abundant swimming opportunities.
Moving around Koh Tao can be a little chaotic. The busiest road, referred to as the ‘main road’, runs north-south along Sairee Beach. Closer to the beach running parallel to the main road is a walking path that is far more pedestrian friendly, although expect the odd motorbike to come haring past. Along the main road you’ll find a small network of branch roads that connect to the hilly interior as well as the beaches located on different parts of the island. These roads are incredibly steep, narrow and winding but the locals know them well - travelling by motorbike taxi or taxi you may be in for a hair-rising ride.
Cars cannot be rented on Koh Tao, but taxis exist, usually in the form of pick-up trucks. Taxis all charge the same fares and prices are high. The best way to see the entire island is by motorbike which are available to hire at a variety of locations. Ask your hotel to recommend a reputable place to hire from.
Divers will have no difficulty finding ways to occupy themselves on Koh Tao. Most dive shops offer four dives per day; a two dive morning trip usually departing at 6am or 7am and a two dive afternoon trip departing at 11am or 12 noon. Generally most dive shops go to the more advanced dive sites during their morning trips (sites with depths of 20+ metres) and the more basic sites (less than 18 metre depth) during their afternoon runs. Fortunately, between the more than sixty dive shops on the island you can usually find one going to any specific dive site any day of the week. Chumphon Pinnacle, a dive site with a maximum depth of around 30m, is an absolute treat when visibility is good. As the name suggests the site is home to a massive pinnacle starting at around 15m depth and going down to below 30m. The pinnacle is enshrouded by huge schools of fish, colourful coral and, if you’re lucky, whale sharks and turtles.
After a long day of diving, swimming and relaxing on the beach, Koh Tao offers ample opportunity to unwind and have fun. Despite its small size, Koh Tao serves up an incredible array of food from all corners of the globe. No matter what you fancy - Indian, Italian, Persian, American, Canadian, French, German and yes, even Thai - the island’s got you covered. Shalimar, the island’s sole Indian restaurant, is a delectable feast. Modelled after a royal palace of sorts this open-air, upscale establishment offers up all manner of Indian food at very reasonable prices.
For those searching for a bit of that true local Thai street food flavour you find all over Bangkok, fear not, Koh Tao delivers, with food stalls selling all the classics for prices that can’t be beat. One stall in particular, to the right of the 7-Eleven, known locally as the ‘pork man’ offers up one of the island’s best treats: Mix 3. For a mere 100 baht ($2.80) you can feast upon three different types of pork, all cooked to perfection and piled on top of a generous bed of rice with several homemade sauces to choose from.
Turtle Island is an unspoilt gem with its soft sandy beaches, rugged interior, picture perfect turquoise waters and world-class diving and with something for everyone it truly is one of the Gulf of Thailand’s treasures.
By Sam Draginich