KO TAO IN BRIEF
WHY GO: This small island is a backpacker favorite and Thailand’s most popular place to do the diving license. You cannot find cheaper scuba diving lessons anywhere else in the world.
WHY NOT: If diving or snorkeling is not your thing, and you are just looking for nice beaches, you can find even prettier beaches elsewhere in Thailand.
BACKPACKERS: Ko Tao has become a key milestone on the backpackers’ trail in Southeast Asia. After completing the diving certificate in Koh Tao most travelers move on to the neighboring island of Koh Phangan for the Full Moon Party.
DIVING & SNORKELING: Ko Tao is famous for its inexpensive diving schools. The reefs themselves offer nice and easy diving, but not really world-class. Diving can be done almost year-around; only November has pretty bad weather.
World’s biggest dive shop. Ko Tao’s nickname has a point; more than 50 dive centers are crammed to this small island far offshore on the Gulf of Thailand, and Koh Tao has become one of the most popular places in the word to do a diving certificate.
The coral reefs surrounding the island are not the main reason for the popularity but the low prices: PADI Open Water diving certificate costs only about 250 euros in Ko Tao, cheaper than almost anywhere else in the world.
Koh Tao manages to be at the same time both lively and relaxed. It gets lively in the evenings when countless new recruits celebrate their recently acquired diving certificates, but the days are quiet since almost everybody is out in the sea diving or in the classrooms studying for their diving certificates.
Ko Tao is not only for backpackers, though. In recent years new boutique style hotels have mushroomed in the island to satisfy also the more demanding travelers.
Orientation: Ko Tao’s Best Beaches
Ko Tao’s administrative center is the small Mae Haad village next to the island’s dock. Mae Haad is the home to the island’s minuscule police force, the post office and the banks. There are also restaurants and inexpensive guesthouses. ATMs can be found in Ko Tao in Mae Maad and the island’s most popular beaches.
Haad Sairee – Ko Tao’s Most Popular Beach
Ko Tao’s busiest beach is two-kilometers long Haad Sairee, which is packed with guesthouses and restaurants. Haad Sairee Beach is at its widest and quietest in its northern and southern ends.
During the day, when most travelers are out diving or snorkeling, even Haad Sairee can feel sleepy, but comes the evenings and the beach becomes very much alive. Beach parties take place nightly.
Haad Sairee is Ko Tao’s best bet to stay in: the smaller beaches can get eerily quiet outside of the busiest tourist season.
Ao Chalok Ban Kao – Ko Tao’s Best Beach for Families
Ko Tao’s second most popular beach is Ao Chalok Ban Kao on the south side of the island. The strongly curved beach is very shallow, what makes it child-friendly but not so optimal for serious swimmers.
Ao Chalok Ban Kao is connected to Haad Sairee by a good road so it is easy to move between the two.
Ko Tao’s Quieter Beaches
The east side of Ko Tao has several beautiful little beaches, but the roads leading to them are often in a bad condition, which makes them quite isolated from Haad Sairee’s restaurants and nightlife.
Ao Leuk has corals gleaming beneath the surface. Ao Tanote’s sand is coarse, but the beach is otherwise atmospheric. A rock rises from the sea, from where you can jump into the water.
One of Ko Tao’s most beautiful beaches is Haad Thien. Another stunning, and one of the hardest to reach beach is Ao Thian Ok also known as Shark Bay. As it’s name suggests, one has chances of seeing reef sharks in Shark Bay, once swimming far enough from the shore.
Hin Wong is a bay surrounded by handsome granite cliffs. There is no sandy beach, but the snorkeling is decent, and the road to Hin Wong has been in reasonably good condition, which makes it a good option to stay compared to the other quieter beaches.
In general, Ko Tao’s smaller beaches are better options for day trips than actually to stay in. Take a snorkeling gear with you, as the beaches have nice reefs in front of them.
Koh Nangyan – the Postcard Island
Next to Koh Tao is a natural wonder called Koh Nangyan. The island is famous for the fact that it is the world’s only triple island, interconnected by two sand isthmuses. Pictures of the island are familiar from countless tourist brochures.
Ko Nangyan Island has one guesthouse, but most people prefer to visit it daytime by longtailboats from Ko Tao.
Ko Tao’s Sights and Activities
Ko Tao’s most popular activities happen underwater. Ko Tao offers memorable experiences both for divers and snorkelers.
But Ko Tao has enough activities to keep one busy on the surface too. One can practice Thai boxing, yoga, bouldering and cross-fit in Ko Tao for instance.
Ko Tao’s Hotels and Guesthouses
For long time Ko Tao was a mainly backpacker island, but nowadays Ko Tao has accommodations for the more demanding tastes too.
If you plan to dive in Ko Tao, you should ask for a place to stay from your preferred diving center – they usually give divers hefty discounts from their own guesthouses, sometimes even rooms for free.
If you want to stay in the more isolated beaches, a great option is romantic and stylish Haad Tien Beach Resort on its stunning namesake beach.
Check out discounts for hotels in Ko Tao.
Ko Tao’s Restaurants and Nightlife
Ko Tao’s restaurants and nightlife are concentrated in Haad Sairee Beach. Ko Tao’s best restaurant is propbaly the small and intimate Barracuda, which serves perfectly executed, Thai inspired fusion food.
Another good place for restaurants is Mae Haad village, which is home to some long-lived favorites such as Ko Tao’s best Italian restaurant Dolce Vita and the stylish Whitening.
Haad Sairee has beach parties every night in alternating bars. Nightlife in other beaches are pretty non-existent.
Is Ko Tao Dangerous?
Ko Tao was featured prominently in the world news in September 2014, when two young British tourists were brutally murdered in Ko Tao. Two migrant laborers were convicted for the murder, but many have remained doubtful if they were the real culprits. The murder was very unfortunate, but it has been an isolated case, and in general Ko Tao is as safe travel destination as any in Thailand.
Transportation in Ko Tao
The most convenient way to move from beach to beach is a rented motorbike, if you are not afraid of the steep and often dilapitated roads. Songthaew taxis are expensive. You can also get a longtail-boat to take you to the more isolated beaches.
Travel to Ko Tao
Koh Tao is located on the Gulf of Thailand 40 kilometers offshore. Ferries to Ko Tao leave from Chumphon, which can be reached from Bangkok either by bus or train. Ko Tao can also be reached by boat from the nearby islands of Koh Phangan and Koh Samui.
The nearest airports are in Suratthani on the mainland and in Koh Samui Island. From Suratthani you can take a ferry passing through Ko Samui and Ko Phangan to reach Ko Tao.
All the ferries stop at Mae Haad’s quay. From there you can get to the beaches by shared songthaew taxis or walking to Had Sairee in fifteen minutes.
Next Destination from Ko Tao
Most people traveling to Ko Tao continue their journey at least to one of its neighboring islands, Ko Phangan or Ko Samui. There are frequent boats going from island to island. The three islands are very different to each other, and together they make a classic island-hopping destination in Thailand.