Ko Tao

NOTE: Since September 2014, six tourists have died while visiting Ko Tao. At least three of those deaths are attributed to foul play or suspected foul play. Those planning a visit to the island in the near future should exercise caution.

Ko Tao (เกาะเต่า), literally "Turtle Island", is an island on the Central Gulf Coast of Southern Thailand.

Understand

Sairee Beach, Ko Tao

Ko Tao was once a detention place for political prisoners. Today it's a great place for divers or persons who want to get away from the hustle and bustle of Ko Samui or the chaos of the Full Moon Party on Ko Pha Ngan. The island is geared more towards relatively affluent divers than backpackers on a budget. Thus, you won't find cheap food stalls here. There are hardly any ocean currents and there is a wide selection of dive sites and dive shops, dive schools, and resorts. Activities other than diving are on the increase and the food and nightlife options are some of the best in the Gulf of Thailand.

Ko Tao is a small island of approximately 21 km² and receives over 100,000 visitors per year. This is a heavy tourist load for a small island with rudimentary sanitation infrastructure. Everything that can't be burned has to be taken away to the mainland. There is no sanitation department to clean the roads or other public areas, so don't dump your waste thoughtlessly. Avoid the unnecessary plastic bags that are given out mindlessly for virtually every purchase. Water is scarce and electricity expensive, so don't waste them.

Peak seasons in Ko Tao are from Dec-Mar and Jul-Aug. It is a quite popular destination among Thais also, so it can be nearly fully booked on Thai holidays.

Get in

Map of Ko Tao

By plane

The nearest airports are in Chumphon, Ko Samui and Surat Thani. Ko Tao is then reached by numerous ferry and high-speed catamaran services.


Ko Tao by Nok Air & Lomprayah Catamaran Fly’n’Ferry Service

Nok Air sells a Bangkok to Ko Tao, Combi Air-Sea ticket online. It operates a 2 daily flights with Q400 NextGen aircraft seating 86 passengers between Bangkok (Don Muang, DMK) and Chumphon Airport (CJM), Pathio District, Chumphon. Lomprayah has an counter at the Chumphon Airport offering direct connections to the pier for High Speed Catamaran transfer services to Koh Tao and onwards to Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, The sea sector of the trip can also be purchased as a single ticket at the airport.

Flight Options from Bangkok

By boat


From Chumphon

The closest port from Bangkok for the island ferry service is Chumphon. Numerous agents sell tickets for a variety of boats of varying size and speed travelling in from the north. The fastest takes about 90 min, the slowest almost 5 hr. The Lomprayah Company has a pickup service from your hotel to the pier which will cost 100 baht. The ticket itself is 600 baht wherever you book it.

These ferries only depart Chumphon at 07:00, 13:30, 23:00 and 24:00. The ferries at 07:00 and 13:30 are the normal passenger ferries offered by Lomprayah, Seatran, and Songserm

The late night ferries are normally vehicle or cargo ferries, making for a slower (5-6 hr trip, arriving at 05:00) and are less comfortable. If you are arriving via bus or train, be sure to arrive well before the ferry times, as the ferry terminal is around 1 hr travel time from the train station, and a missed connection either results in a late night trip on the vehicle/cargo ferry or an overnight stay and a 05:30 start to catch the bus to the ferry terminal for the first ferry the next day.

Sangserm offer VIP combined coach and boat tickets from Bangkok, claiming to take 6 hr by bus and 1.5 hr by boat. In fact, it takes closer to 9 hr by bus and 3 hr by boat, neither of which are particularly comfortable. Also, Songserm does not go when there are high waves and they do not inform their customers about it upon arrival. Furthermore, they deny refunds and are extremely rude about it. This agency should be avoided.

A good solution if coming from Bangkok is to book Sleeper Train #85; leaving Bangkok around 17:30 and arriving in Chumphon at 03:57 and then have a ticket booked for the 07:00 ferry. Most ferry operators can pick you up from the station where you can while away the 3 hr connection gap. You can also buy your ferry ticket at the station when you get off the train at 04:00. Lomprayah have a ticket office and a ticket on a waiting comfortable large bus is included in the price.

From Surat Thani

If you're coming from the south, you can take a ferry from Surat Thani on the mainland with a travel time of around 3 hr for the morning ferry, or from Ko Samui, 1.5 hr, or Ko Pha Ngan 1 hr. If you're taking a boat from Surat Thani, one possibility might be an overnight ferry. These depart around 23:00 and arrive in the morning, about 06:00 (subject to changes). It's advisable to arrive early to grab a mattress. As most of the boats are formerly cargo boats the passenger facilities are basic.

From the other islands

You can also day trip on diving charters from Ko Samui. Many have high-speed boats that can make the trip to Ko Tao in about 1 hr.

Lomprayah High Speed Catamaran or Seatran are the fastest and most comfortable way to get to Ko Tao. They run twice a day from Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan, Surat Thani, and Chumphon. They also have online booking, seful for checking availability at peak times and all their boats have air conditioning and movies for passengers.

Get around

Sai Nuan Beach, Ko Tao

There is one main road running north to south on the island with many smaller roads branching off from it. Some roads lead over the spine of small mountains that run along the middle of the island and are all dirt, can become impassable after rain, and can be challenging even to a skilled driver. If you are looking for an adventure, the dirt roads are a good place to find it. Also be aware that distances can be quite deceiving due to the quality and elevation changes of the trail. There are usually plenty of taxis available in both Sairee Village and Mae Haad, however they tend to be expensive given the actual distance you travel. The best way to travel is by renting a small scooter or motorcycle. This gives you the freedom to explore all of the treasures of the island without paying the large taxi costs.

You can rent bicycles and motorcycles at a few places on Sairee Beach, Mae Haad, and Chalok. Be careful if you rent a motorbike as the dirt roads can get dangerous. ATVs (all terrain vehicles) are dangerous (ask any medical clinic) and expensive (500+ baht/day) and should be avoided in favour of Honda Dreams (150-200 baht/day) or Clicks (200-250 baht/day).

It is normal practice for motorcycle rental places to ask for a passport as deposit. This is due to the fear of drunken tourists crashing their bike and not returning it. You should be wary of handing over your passport unless you are positive of the legitimacy of the operation.

An increasing number of rental shops are charging large amounts of money for non-existent scratches on bikes when returning them, notably the shop next to 7-Eleven in Sairee Village (Save Way Travel). Make sure you note and photograph all scratches and dents when you take delivery of a rental bike. Your best bet is to hire a bike at your accommodation.

Longtail boats offer rides to and from hard-to-get-to beaches on the island. They are a more comfortable way of getting to isolated beaches than attempting to ride over the mountains, however they are noisy. A round-island longtail can be as much as 2,000 baht, whereas some short trips will only be 100-200 baht.

See

Sunset view from Mae Haad

Take a bike around the island. Shark Bay is a good place to go snorkelling for the day (don't worry too much about sharks, they are only small black-tip reef sharks). Ko Nang Yuan, Freedom Beach, Laem Thian, Mango Bay, Hin Wong Bay and Tanote Bay are good day excursions, accessible by road or boat. If you rent a scooter, be prepared to turn around or continue by foot since some roads (e.g., to Mango Bay) may be in such condition that you need a dirt bike or a car to travel them. While there are no private beaches in Thailand, some are relatively inaccessible by land, making a longtail boat a necessity.

However, to see the best places, go by foot or longtail as some places are inaccessible to motorists. There are a number of good viewpoints around the island such as John Suwan mountain viewpoint in the south of the island, Two View in the centre and Fraggle Rock in the north.

Do

Freediving

Freedive training and education worldwide is generally done through AIDA, SSI and Apnea Academy freediving courses.

Scuba diving

Scuba diving is the biggest attraction on Ko Tao. Diving in Ko Tao is easy, fun, and you can see turtles, stingrays, barracudas, lots of small fish, and reef sharks. There is a small chance you'll see a whale shark.

At Chumphon Pinnacle you are likely to see juvenile bull sharks which have, until recently, been misidentified as grey reef sharks. Be careful as the bulls are curious and very aggressive, though for many years thousands of people have dived this site without a single shark-related incident.

Nearly any time of the year except Nov is good diving weather in Ko Tao and visibility can exceed 40 m. Average visibility is around 15-20 m. In Nov visibility is reduced to 5 m and the seas are choppy.

It is possible and perfectly comfortable to swim and dive without a wetsuit year-round. However, as with most diving, a wetsuit is recommended to help reduce the risk of cuts or injury. Avoid contact with coral reefs.

Various dive locations around Ko Tao are:

Dive training

There are a huge number of dive operators on the island, many offering budget accommodation (sometimes described as "free accommodation", but this is not really true as you will usually get a discount if you stay elsewhere). The price for PADI open water certification including the new PADI training manual, professional instruction, rental equipment, boat dives, and certification is around 9,800 baht. For SSI open water certification including professional instruction, rental equipment, boat dives, and certification is around 9,000 baht. Insurance and basic accommodation may also be included. Shop around as not all shops teach the course in the same way. Look for experienced dive instructors rather than a low price.

A common method for teaching new divers is to train in a pool first to be taught about 20 basic skills before being taken out into the open water. Others will instead take you to a secluded beach so you will see fish and coral from the start and you might be able to squeeze in a short extra dive in this way, depending on your group and instructor. Some shops have a private pier, some shops depart with a longtail from the beach, and some use the public pier, where you will have to climb across some other boats. Ask, if this matters to you. Most important: find out the maximum number of dive students in a group. Make sure you get an instructor who speaks your language if you are not absolutely sure about your English. These are the little things that will make the difference between an OK course and a great one.

For those interested in becoming divemasters or instructors, here is a link to a videoguide about the island life Koh Tao: Thailand's Divestyle Island.

PADI dive centres and resorts
SSI dive centres

Liveaboard sailing and diving

Marine conservation

Other activities

Over the last couple of years more and more non-divers have discovered the beauty of this island with its secluded little bays and unspoiled mountain ridges. Due to this, and the increasing number of small upmarket resorts and villas nestled in the hillsides there are now a lot more activities available, including sailing, rock climbing (trad routes, sport routes, top rope routes, and bouldering), abseiling, cliff jumping, wake boarding, mini golf, or bowling in Mae Haad, massage and yoga courses, and cooking courses.

Eat

A huge selection of Thai food is available, including lots of seafood. Barbecued fish is one of the local favourites. As a large portion of the population are expats, you will find plenty of other cuisines too. 2011 prices ranging from 60 baht for stuff-on-rice (still possible in 2015, especially if you have a look around the gas station on the main road, about a kilometre south-east from the piers) through to 250 baht for a nice hunk of fresh barbecued fish at a decent restaurant. 30 baht would get you a fresh banana pancake, and 60 baht a bowl of porridge with honey at a budget resort's restaurant. 200-300 baht would get you a bowl of freshly made Italian pasta, and 160-200 baht for pizza. Fresh fruit juices are available at many stalls for 30-40 baht.

Drink

When you get a break from diving, there are a few bars on the island. The bars on the island rotate nights, so the best bet is to ask someone working at dive shop which bar will be crowded that night or check the posters. Many start off the evening at the bars located at the northern end of Sairee, and after they close at 01:00, go onto whichever club is open for the rest of the evening at the south end of Sairee.

Sleep

You can usually find accommodation at the pier when you arrive. However, during peak times it is worth booking ahead unless you want to sleep on the beach or spend the night in one of the more expensive lodgings. If you are planning on taking a scuba diving course whilst on the island, most dive schools have an attached resort and will either discount the accommodation or throw it in for free when you book a course. During busy periods, most resorts with dive outfits will not want you to stay unless you are diving at least every second day with them. If you don't want to stay with your dive operator and use their free accommodation, you may want to ask for a discount.

The majority of the accommodation on Ko Tao are centred around three main areas: Sairee Beach, Mae Haad, and Chalok Ban Khao.

Sairee Beach

This is the largest beach on Ko Tao. On the west side of the island from the ferry terminal on the southwest corner of the island and running almost the length of the island. All along this beach you will find dive schools, resorts, restaurants and bars. The southern and central sections of the beach are well known for their nightlife, and the northern end has a large number of shops and restaurants which lends it to be a bit quieter at night (but with the bars only a short walk down the "Yellow Brick Road".

Sairee Beach Huts

Mae Haad

All ferries arrive here making access to and from the island easy. Sairee Beach is to the north and Chalok Ban Kao is to the south. Banks and government offices as well as many dive centres, restaurants, and many guesthouses are here.

Chalok Baan Kao

Chalok Baan Kao is a much more chilled, relaxed environment than Sairee Beach, while still giving access to a great range of restaurants, beach bars and BBQs plus a wide range of accommodation from luxury resorts to budget rustic, beach side bungalows.

Tanote Bay

More populated than other east coast beaches however this doesn't mean it's busy. There is no town or village here and only 4 resorts, each with an attached restaurant and one really tiny shop which is up the hill behind the resorts. There are no ATM machines. There are no really cheap places to eat as there are in Mae Haad.

The sand on the beach is coarse and there is an unbelievable amount of broken glass in it. Likely because of people drinking while sitting on the rocks. Careful where you step and do your bit to pick up some of the glass. The shore is rocky and there is plenty of corral right off the beach. You can rent snorkel equipment for 100 baht per day. There is a large rock just out to sea for those interested in cliff diving.

There are regular trucks that go back and forth 3-4 times per day at 100 baht per person. Ask at you resort for taxi times. Alternatively you can charter your own truck for 400 baht min or 100 baht per person.

Other

Stay safe

The number one way to stay safe on Ko Tao is to not drink and drive. Motorbike accidents are very common, especially when driven under the influence, on the wrong side of the road, in the dark. All terrain vehicles (ATV) are becoming numerous on the island. They are considered a menace by many as they are expensive, slow, noisy and more people injure themselves on them under the mistaken belief that they are safer. They are not. Walk or hire a smaller motorbike instead. Be aware that vehicle hire shops are cheap but can become very expensive if you so much scratch the vehicle, try to hire an older bike than a brand new one.

Be careful when renting bikes. You must give them the passport as a deposit, and even though you may take photos and return the bike in perfect condition, they may find small "scratches" and demand an exorbitant amount. If you do get in such trouble, at least in Ko Tao the police should be on your side. There's a friendly police officer named Chet who speaks very good English who might encourage you to file a report, saying that this happens several times a day on Ko Tao. Even if you don't file a report, the police can help you negotiate a lesser amount. If you do file a report, contact your embassy and eventually the company will have to release your passport, because it doesn't belong to you but your country's government.

Additionally, when renting bikes, insist on a receipt when you have paid the rental fee, or for every subsequent payment per rental day. Do not trust the shops to write accurate information in their own books. If you do not want to provide your passport as a deposit, some shops will ask for 2,000-8,000 baht as a one-off deposit instead. Again, take many detailed photos of the bike. Be careful about renting from CJ Guesthouse & Supermarket (13/1 Moo 1, Sairee Beach), on the same street as New Way Divers. They will not issue receipts if you do not ask, and later demand that you have not paid the cumulative rental fee when you return the bike. Without a receipt, it will be frustrating and difficult to argue your case. Do not trust CJ Guesthouse and be very careful on this matter even with other shops. Most bike shops on the island rent bikes for 200-250 baht per day.

Should you be unfortunate enough to need minor medical attention there are numerous clinics on the island. These are only clinics and the closest hospitals are in Ko Samui and Chumphon. Any medical condition not treatable locally will require a minimum of two hours ferry travel to reach a hospital. If the weather is bad the physical rigours of such a trip can complicate medical treatment significantly.

The island of Ko Tao has no sewage processing and water contamination far exceeds Western standards at nearly all times. This includes both ocean waters and tap waters. Sewer water drains across the beach and even the roads in several areas, and are easily encountered by unwitting tourists. Beware of wet spots on the roads that persist during dry weather and avoid the mist that arises from vehicles passing over them.

Small scratches or mosquito bites can become seriously infected if swimming, and ear/eye infections are extremely common among divers, more than many equivalent resort locations. Susceptible individuals and especially parents of young children should be aware of these dangers and exercise great caution.

Tap water quality supplied by shallow well pumps should be held suspect even during showering. Low-lying areas in Sairee and especially in Ban Chalok are the most polluted. The eastern areas far from the population centres are the cleanest.

Be also aware of the safety of your hotel room. There are many reports of stolen money, especially at the resorts on Sairee Beach. Normally the thieves, sometimes even hotel staff, sneak into the room while you are out diving and take your cash from your wallet or from your bags.

As always, watch out for the sun. It seems to be particularly strong on the island due to the bright sand and surroundings, especially when slightly clouded.

Watch out for the petrol stations, they like to let the meter start at more than zero: the red petrol station on the road that goes up to the turtle is particularly known for this.

Watch out for dive instructors teaching you the nitrox-course without telling you that they charge for it when you check out: Ban´s is known for this.

Go next

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Tuesday, March 15, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.