If you’re looking for things to do in Koh Tao –diving, places to stay, and things to see; this Koh Tao travel guide is for you.
Years ago, we’d written a short, grim outlook on Koh Tao and we decided to give it another shot.
Our views were somewhat polarised when Mike first wrote about it and it appears the news headlines have quelled long enough to take a second look at this popular Thailand diving hotspot.
This is our travel guide to Koh Tao; a mecca for diving, exploration, nature-loving, and some good ol’ fashioned debauchery.
With the Maya Bay closure looming over our visit, Koh Tao made a great Maya Bay alternative.
Why Koh Tao?
Between the pristine waters, it’s beautiful natural landscapes, lively nightlife, and the overall relaxing island vibes –it’s not hard to see why Koh Tao is well-loved by the people who’ve been to the island.
We’d be fools not cover it on Hobo with a Laptop.
The first moment we laid eyes on the crystal blue waters from the horizon, we knew we were in paradise.
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There’s been controversy about the island in recent years but that didn’t stop us from (finally) exploring what all the hype is about.
Of all our friends who convinced us to check it out, it was our experienced Koh Tao diving friends who echoed the most positivity about the island –and suggested we do a follow-up to our previous article.
Sure, Thailand is known for its laid back party islands like Phuket and Koh Pha Ngan; the latter being a place where Mike once called home for awhile before we met.
Koh Tao, however, combines the best of all worlds and allows expats to paint their Koh Tao diving trip to their own taste. It’s more developed, and has something for everyone.
In other words, it’s not just for young revellers –adulting is possible in Koh Tao, too.
Yes, expats can still get their drink on at the infamous Sairee Beach every night, but there’s also parts of the island where you can unplug and enjoy a quiet evening to yourself, with your spouse, or enjoy Koh Tao with kids.
For something more akin to the comforts of the home you left behind, there are plenty of bars where digital nomads can simply chill out and enjoy watching sports or movies when they’re not chasing the hustle.
For others, there’s family resorts and quiet spots to take in the stars at night.
Most mornings, you are greeted by the sunny view of the beach or the bay of which you have the option to swim at or just gaze into.
Explore around the island during the day and by late afternoon, grab a cold drink while enjoying the sunset.
Ah, the sunset. Koh Tao is famous for having some of the best sunsets in Thailand.
While it was tempting to take a gazillion photos of it, we took this time to appreciate it with our own eyes.
How Koh Tao is Organized
Let’s talk about the 3 central areas of Koh Tao, Thailand:
- Mae Haad
- Sairee Beach
- Chalok Bay
This is the island’s centre with the biggest concentration of hotels and guest houses. It doesn’t have a nice beach (as expected of a port town) but makes up for it with its line of restaurants, cafes, bars, and shops.
If you’d like to have easy access to everything you need, Mae Haad is the place to stay.
However, if you don’t like crowded places and would prefer somewhere quiet and maybe scenic, you may want to consider the next two areas.
Cheap Accommodation in Mae Haad
Infinity Guest House: Guests wanting to stay longer can take advantage of the apartment-type rooms. Check pricing on Agoda
Mid-Range Accommodation in Mae Haad
Luxury Resorts in Mae Haad
Sairee Beach is just a 15 minute walk away from Mae Haad, and is honestly, our favorite area in the island.
There’s still quite a crowd in this long beach but unlike Mae Haad, the view is much, much better.
And because the beach is very spacious, the crowd won’t really be that bothersome. You’ll still get to enjoy some quiet time if you find the right spot.
It’s filled with establishments so you need not worry about running out of drinks in the middle of the night.
Cheap Accommodation in Sairee Beach
Goodtime Beach Hostel: perfect location near the beach and Sairee’s nightlife. Check pricing on Agoda
Nat Resort: Dirt-cheap rooms and is just a few seconds away from the beach. Check pricing on Agoda
Mid Range Accommodation in Sairee Beach
Silver Sands: A quiet beachfront location despite being close to the party scene. Check pricing on Agoda
Luxury Resorts in Sairee Beach
AC2 Resort: Spacious rooms and villas situated in a quiet location. Check pricing on Agoda
For somewhere more peaceful, go to Chalok Bay. It’s not as crowded as Mae Haad or Sairee Beach and you can actually enjoy quiet evenings here.
As expected from less crowded areas, the beach area is also much nicer. If you’re looking for a romantic getaway or you’d like someplace away from the party crowds, Chalok Bay is the area you should stay at.
Cheap Accommodation in Chalok Bay
Mid Range Accommodation in Chalok Bay
Viewpoint Resort: Clean villas, with superior views of the Sacred Buddha Rock. Check pricing on Agoda
Luxury Resorts in Chalok Bay
Koh Tao Resort -Paradise Zone: Situated up a hill and has a great infinity pool. Check pricing on Booking
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Going Beyond Central Koh Tao
Traveling beyond the borders of Koh Tao’s central tourist areas is worth the ride.
There are other beautiful, less frequented areas —if not more pristine parts of the island that you can explore:
- Tanote Bay – Easily accessible and is not as crowded. Several restaurants are around the area where you can sit, relax, and enjoy a nice meal.
- Ao Leuk – This protected cove requires an entrance fee but that already comes with a cold drink, parking, and access to lounge chairs.
- Ko Nang Yuan – Just a 15-minute boat ride away from Koh Tao, this pristine island is perfect for snorkeling and diving. If you’re feeling a little adventurous, you can even zipline your way towards here.
- Shark Bay – No need to worry about aggressive sharks here. You might spot one and some turtles but they’re not as scary as you think.
- Sai Nuan – You can get here by hiking from Mae Haad or by boat. It’s not as developed as other beaches however, the natural surroundings and breathtaking underwater scenery makes up for it.
- Freedom Beach – Situated at the southern tip of the island is Freedom Beach. Here, you can catch a view of the Buddha Rock or snorkel in the water where you’ll see schools of fish swimming.
- Sai Daeng – For kayakers and divers, look no further than Sai Daeng. You can easily spot reef sharks and turtles here.
- Hin Wong Bay – This place is best accessed by boat as the hike towards it can be quite rocky. Relax by one of the bungalows overlooking the bay or head on to the shore for some snorkeling and diving.
Things to Do in Koh Tao
You won’t run out of fun things to do in Koh Tao. Whether it’s just for a few days or weeks, there’re always something to satisfy every person who travels here.
1. Snorkel Around the Island
Because Koh Tao is surrounded with beaches and bays, there are plenty of places to snorkel.
There are big commercial boats that take groups of people around the island and it’s more organized with most hotels and travel agencies offering this service.
Koh Tao tours like these are great for meeting new people and going to the best spots, however, tours aren’t really the best way to see the island or travel as you’ll be cut for time trying to see everything and I imagine it only gets busier during high season.
The more preferable option is to hire a longtail boat for a day (around 3,000 THB) where you will be taken anywhere for as long as you want.
Feel free to snorkel around the bays or ask the boat captain to take you to the best, yet lesser known spots.
If you get hungry, just stop by one of the beaches for a meal and a drink. What’s great about this option is that you won’t feel rushed and you’re likely to have a spot all to yourselves.
2. Learn How to Dive
It’s no surprise why Koh Tao is ranked the second best in the world for getting certified for diving.
The island is surrounded with some of the best scuba spots, and best of all, the courses offered by Koh Tao dive shops are affordable –ranging from 9,000 to 10,000 THB.
More often than not, the price puts off people from wanting to learn how to dive but if you’re here in the island, you’ll get the opportunity to learn how to without breaking the bank.
You will be spoiled by choice when it comes to Koh Tao diving instructors and shops.
I personally recommend Mojo Divers because I’m told that they don’t take more people than each instructor can handle and take each client’s safety very seriously. That’s a huge plus for beginners.
Mojo Divers come highly recommended by our friends who are experienced with Koh Tao diving and learned how to dive on the island.
If you plan on getting your SSI certification in Koh Tao, make sure you that you stay on the island long enough to finish the course and then explore on your own.
Trust me when I say that after your course, you will fall in love with Koh Tao diving and will want stay longer in the island. Book your time a little longer here; you won’t regret it.
3. Beach Hopping
Beach bumming around the island is another activity that Koh Tao is known for, so don’t be afraid to rent a bike and drive around to see where your wheels (or feet!) will take you.
I recommend not doing this alone, especially if it’s your first time visiting the island so bring a friend with you.
If you travel Koh Tao alone, you won’t have a hard time making new friends who won’t mind going on a daytrip adventure with you.
The most common way to get around to the beaches is by motorbike, but for your safety, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you are an experienced rider.
The roads in Koh Tao can be unsafe to drive on due to the beach sand that lightly covers them.
I think it’s safe to say you’ll see a lot of Koh Tao tattoos in the bars and hostels that span the island –a fresh scar from hitting the pavement after losing control of a bike on sandy roads.
So play it safe, bring a friend and make sure you’ve got a working cell phone if run into trouble.
A good alternative would renting a mountain bike from shops all over the island. You have more control especially around undeveloped roads and it gives you a little bit of exercise, best followed by a fresh dip in the water.
4. Hike the Hilltops
Koh Tao offers plenty of hiking trails for those who prefer to explore the island by foot.
No matter what hill you hike up to, you will be rewarded with beautiful views of the bay or the beach.
Some great places to hike up to include LOve @ Koh Tao Viewpoint, Mango Bay viewpoint, Highest Koh Tao viewpoint from Tanote Bay, Chalok viewpoint, and Fraggle Rock. There’s honestly so many routes to choose from.
If you know how to rock climb, even better. Koh Tao is made up of large boulders and cliffs making it a perfect haven for rock climbers. You can arrange a tour or rent climbing gear yourself. Just make sure you are with someone. Again, safety is very important.
5. Sunset Watching
If you’re a sucker for sunsets, head to Sairee Beach and catch one. As I mentioned earlier, Koh Tao has one of the most stunning sunsets you will ever see.
Just sit there and relax as the evening approaches.
6. Party on Sairee Beach
A vibrant nightlife is something that Koh Tao doesn’t run out of. Sairee Beach has plenty of bars and clubs where you can spend the night hopping from one bar to another.
If you’re not into that, there’s sports bars and pool tables just right next door. Alternatively, you can observe the fire dancers performing at the beach and enjoy its chill atmosphere.
Other activities in Koh Tao
Above I’ve highlighted a few things to do in Koh Tao that are popular however, the list does not end there.
There are still plenty of activities to do whether it’s yoga on the beach, restaurant hopping, wakeboarding, visiting baby turtles, or learning Muay Thai.
It all comes down to your interests. There’s a great chance that a tour agency or center in Koh Tao will have it on offer.
Places to Stay for Divers
As the number of Koh Tao visitors increases, so are the accommodations. If you’re here to get your SSI certification, expect to get huge discounts on accommodation.
When Mike and I stopped by Mojo Divers, we were told they offer a free dorm for almost a whole week if you’re learning to dive with them –or we could upgrade to a private room for a little extra. Not too shabby, either. The private rooms were right on the beach, and the dorms were walking distance to it.
Mojo’s diver accommodation won’t cut a hole in your pocket, considering that accommodation could potentially take up a huge chunk of your travel expenses. The free accommodation Mojo offers is definitely a bonus, and the paid option is right on the beach.
Getting to Koh Tao
Figuring out how to get to Koh Tao can be quite challenging logistically, mainly because there are no direct flights going to the island. You’ll have to get there by boat.
After getting to Koh Tao you will only arrive at one central pier and that’s the one in Mae Haad.
It’s the main village in the island where you’ll be greeted by hordes of tourists and tour companies.
Let’s take a look at the different ways you can get to Koh Tao.
Bangkok to Koh Tao
Option 1: Take a coach and a high speed catamaran to Koh Tao with a tour company from Viator.
Duration: 11 hours and 48 minutes
Option 2: Fly to mainland’s Chumphon or Surat Thani before taking a ferry boat ride to Koh Tao. If you are travelling by land from Bangkok, take a bus at the Southern Bus Terminal or book a sleeper train going to Chumphon (nearest to Bangkok) where you will be dropped off right at the jetty.
Don’t bother going to Surat Thani, if you’re travelling by land since it’s further from Bangkok and the boat ride going to Koh Tao from there will take longer.
Plane / Ferry- 3 to 6 hours
Bus / Ferry – 12 hours
Train / Ferry – 14 to 15 hours
Bus: 800 – 1,300 THB
Train: 1,200 – 2,000 THB
Option 3: Fly to Koh Samui then take a ferry ride to Koh Tao. This is the most expensive but most convenient option.
Duration: 2 hours and 30 minutes
Koh Pha Ngan to Koh Tao
If you are departing from neighboring islands Koh Pha Ngan, you can just get a boat ride going to Koh Tao. Make sure to book your tickets in advance as trips to the island tend to fill up pretty quickly.
Viator has some amazing deals, and a range of time slots.
Duration: 1 hour and 18 minutes
Chiang Mai to Koh Tao
Getting away from Burning Season? Catch a flight going to Koh Samui, Chumphon, or Surat Thani and take a ferry to Koh Tao from there.
Flying to the nearest mainland from Koh Tao is obviously the most convenient way but if you’re on a budget, you can take an overnight bus or train to. Then from there, book another bus or train at night going to Chumphon. Arrive in the morning and transfer to the jetty heading towards Koh Tao.
Plane / Ferry – 6 to 9 hours
Bus / Ferry – 20 hours
Train / Ferry – 21 hours
Train / Bus / Ferry – 21 hours
Some things to keep in mind:
- As mentioned earlier, most bus services will drop you off right at the pier in Chumphon where the boat transfer will be. This is the most convenient way to get to Koh Tao.
- If you arrive in Chumphon by plane or train, you will need to make a find a taxi that will take you to the pier where the ferry for Koh Tao leaves. If you’re good at haggling prices or convincing drivers to use the meter, you will do just fine with this option.
- If you’d like to get to Koh Tao faster by boat, opt for the Lomprayah Catamaran. But if you’re the type that gets seasick easily, the Seatran Discovery might be more suitable for you.
- Boat schedules vary by company. Weather conditions can also affect service availability.
To be honest, Mike and I were initially scared to go because of the news we’ve been hearing about it in the last few years. Which is a little hypocritical, because we often preach that travelers shouldn’t let what they see in the news deter you.
But from what we have learned ourselves and from our peers, we shouldn’t let fear be holding us back. We did our due diligence of researching the island so we can set the right expectations.
Remember, Koh Tao is a vacation island. It is in the best interest of hotels and tour operators to keep the island safe so don’t get too paranoid and let fear hold you back from discovering this magnificent island.
As a visitor to a new place, it’s your responsibility to research about the area you are going to. You might be on vacation but this is not your territory anymore so always keep your guard up. Don’t start fights with locals. Use your common sense, and remain vigilant of your surroundings.
Lastly, enjoy yourself!
Did we miss anything in this guide to Koh Tao? What are your experiences with the island? Share your thoughts in the comments.