Ko Tao, Thailand: Travel/Tourist Information Guide
Ko Tao is a small island in the Gulf of Thailand located at the southern part of the country. Its name means "Turtle Island" because of the island's turtle-like shape. It is also an important breeding ground for species like hawks bill and green turtles. Ko Tao is a part of the Samui Archipelago that includes the islands of Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Samui. It is the smallest island in the archipelago that approximately has an area of only 21 square kilometers. The economy of the island is centered in tourism especially in scuba diving. Ko Tao offers the best scuba diving in the Gulf of Thailand. Since the main attraction is diving, the beaches remain tranquil and uncrowded. It has become a magnet for tourists who want to get away with the bustling Ko Samui and the Full Moon Party in Ko Pha Ngan. It's a great place to relax. Peak seasons in Ko Tao are from months of December to March and months of July to August. The island is a bit touristy during these months and the rest of the Thai holidays because of its popularity to the locals as well.
Beaches & Attractions
Ko Tao is blessed with some of the country's most beautiful beaches and bays. Although the island is a well-known place for divers and visitors, the beaches remain crystal clear and ideal for swimming and snorkeling. The most beautiful beaches are the Mae Haad Beach, the Sairee Beach, the Chalok Ban Kao, the Haad Thien, the Ao Leuk, the Sai Daeng Beach, and the Thian Og Beach.
Mae Haad Beach
Mae Haad is the capital of Ko Tao and it is also the most developed area on the island with a great number of shops, restaurants, bars, and resorts. It is also the main port of the island. Although it is well-developed, it still managed to keep some of its old fishing village charm. The Mae Haad Beach is long with soft white sand. It is also a local dive site with tour companies that offer snorkeling and scuba diving trips to nearby islands like Ko Ma, which has a beautiful coral reef. Mae Haad is also housing the Ko Tao Temple. The temple offers a peaceful and tranquil atmosphere that is set in a quiet garden.
Sairee Beach is the longest and the most popular beach in Ko Tao. The white sandy beach is about 1.7 kilometers long over most of the west coast. It also offers a wide range of accommodation, resorts, dive centers, and shops. The beach is a home to several beach bars and restaurants making it busy and bustling at night. After a day of diving, snorkeling, and other activities, Sairee Beach is where most of the nightlife happens with most of the dance spots are located on the beach. Some of the most popular spots include the Touch Bar, The Deck, the Dry Bar, the Dragon Bar, and the Maya Bar. Down the beach is where the fire dancers and jugglers can be found. Sairee is also the home of some remarkable attractions. The King Rama V Statue is a highly respected place for the Thai people because it serves as a proof that King Chulalongkorn Rama V, one of the greatest and beloved king of Thailand, had set foot on Ko Tao. Another intriguing sight is the 6 meter long whale shark skeleton in the Sairee View. The story says that the skeleton was found in a very large cave located up the hill. One of the most visited viewpoint in Ko Tao is the Sairee Viewpoint. It is located on a beautiful hilltop at the north end of Ko Tao. Nearby is the mysterious diamond caves.
Chalok Baan Kao
Chalok Baan Kao is the third largest beach in Ko Tao that is situated at the southern coast facing Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Samui. It is smaller than Sairee Beach with a length of 500 meters. Although it's less touristy than the Sairee Beach, it offers a similar range of accommodation, restaurants, and nightlife. The beach is surrounded by rock and cliff making it protected from wind and tides and it has a shallow water and less slope that is suitable for guests with kids. There are also two viewpoints in the beach; the John-Suwan Mountain Viewpoint and the Chalok Baan Kao Viewpoint. The John-Suwan Mountain Viewpoint was named after two friends, Mr. John and Mr. Suwan, who had discovered the viewpoint that overlooks two beaches curving to each other. The Chalok Baan Kao Viewpoint is one of the best viewpoints to observe the sunset on Ko Tao. There is a party happening here every Saturday night. At this viewpoint, you can see an amazing view of mountains embracing the ocean.
The Haad Tien is one of Ko Tao's best beaches. It is commonly known as the Rocky Bay that has an absolutely clear water and lined with coconut palms. The beach is uncrowded and less touristy because of the location that is far from the main town.
Ao Leuk is located on the eastern side of Ko Tao. It is a perfect place to relax and enjoy the peaceful and tranquil beach. The beach is very beautiful with crystal clear water ideal for snorkeling, but not too good for swimming. Located at the north of Ao Leuk is the Tanote Bay. It is lined with huge boulders making it a unique spot compared to the other beaches.
The Sai Daeng Beach is also a place to relax and enjoy the uncrowded location that is situated at the southern tip of Ko Tao. It has beauty that is similar to Ao Leuk and its location is pretty near to the dive sites at Shark Island.
One of the most beautiful beaches in Ko Tao is the Thian Og Beach. It is also a quiet spot that rarely gets busy. Although it is a short beach measuring only 300 meters, it is a diving site with beautiful coral reefs.
Diving in Ko Tao
Ko Tao is Thailand's best diving destinations with some of Asia's most famous diving sites located all around the island. It is also Asia's premier Instructor Development Center (IDC) for all pro-level qualifications to full Diving Instructor. Scuba diving is the biggest attraction in Ko Tao featuring sea turtles, stingrays, barracudas, reef sharks, and other species of fish. There are dive training courses that international diving agencies like PADI, SSI IANTD, BSAC, and NAUI are offering in partnership with the dive centers and resorts. All course levels are available from beginner to professional. It also includes special courses like Underwater Photography and Technical Diving. One of the best dive center and resort is the Crystal Dive Resort, a multi-award winning PADI dive center.
Koh Tao is the home of loads of beach dive sites. Two major dive sites are the Shark Island and the Southwest Pinnacle. Both are loaded with a great variety of reef fish and rock formations.
The Shark Island is located about 300 meters southeast of Ao Leuk. There is a small granite peak that rises out of the water at about 20-14 meters. There is a variety of corals, sea whips and Gorgonian Sea Fans that cover the pinnacles. Some of the most spotted marine life underwater are the Blue Spotted Stingrays, the Scribbled Filefish, the Harlequin Sweetlips, the Starry Pufferfish, the Groupers, and the Titan Triggerfish. Shark Island is suitable for divers of all levels, but strong currents may sometimes be encountered, especially during the full moon.
The Southwest Pinnacle is located 13 kilometers southwest with a depth that ranges from 30 meters upward. It features a series of seven pinnacles form an underwater mountain range that is covered with anemones. Some of the most spotted marine life in this dive site are the Barracudas that are a meter long, the Groupers, the black spotted Snappers, the Emperors, the Sweetlips, and the Batfish.
There are 18 dive sites in Ko Tao. The Chumphon Pinnacle is also one of the best dive sites in the region. It has a main huge granite pinnacle and a series of smaller ones that are covered with anemones and their attendant Pink Clown Fish. One of the reasons why this is considered as one of the best dive sites are the juvenile Bull Sharks, the Whale Sharks, and the Manta Rays that can be spotted here. There are other marine life that are commonly seen in this dive site like the Great and Cheveron Barracuda, the Trevally, the Batfish, and the Groupers.
Other dive sites are the Ao Leuk Bay, the Green Rock, the Hin Ngam Bay, the Hin Wong Bay, the Japanese Garden, the Laem Thian Pinnacle, the Light House, the Mango Bay, the Nang Yuan Pinnacle, the Sail Rock, the Samran Pinnacle, the Tanote Bay, the Three Rocks, the Twin Peaks, and the White Rock.
Aside from diving, there are other fun activities that can be enjoyed in Ko Tao like water sports and outdoor activities that can boost adrenaline.
There are water sports that are offered other than diving and snorkeling. Kayaking and canoeing is also a popular thing to do in the island. There are kayaks that can be hired from operators at most beaches. There are also trips that gives the opportunity to explore the areas and the nearby islands that can only be reached by sea. Water skiing and wake boarding are also enjoyed in the island. This is an interesting and exciting water sports that also includes knee boarding and a tube ride. Fishing is a relaxing activity to do in the island. Tourists can either rent a long tail boat with a local captain and complete equipment or take the organized trip with other tourists.
There are also fun activities that can be enjoyed out of the water like hiking and rock climbing. There are lots of small paths around the island. Tourists can walk to Ko Tao's highest peak,"Two Views", in the center of Sairee and Tanote that offers breathtaking views. Other viewpoints are the Mango Viewpoint, the West Coast Viewpoint, the Chalok Baan Kao Viewpoint and the John-Suwan Viewpoint. Rock climbing is also a popular thing to do in Ko Tao since the island is basically a pile of large granite boulders. Other things to do are trying the off-road ATV, watching the Muay Thai at the Sairee Boxing Stadium, attending some Thai cooking course and yoga class, and indulging into the traditional Thai massage.
The only way to get to Koh Tao is by boat. There are three boats that operate between the two neighboring islands, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Samui, and Ko Tao. These are the Lomprayah Catamaran, the Seatran Discovery, and the Songserm Express. Another option is the services that run from the mainland. Chumphon is the closest part of the mainland to Ko Tao making it has the shorter travel time than Surat Thani. Travel time from Chumphon is 6 hours, while travel time from Surat Thani is 9 hours. Only two boats offer services between the mainland and Ko Tao; the Lomprayah Catamaran and the Songserm Express.
From the other parts of Thailand like Bangkok, there are planes, bus, and trains that service to the mainland. If planning to arrive by plane, there are direct flights from Bangkok to Chumphon, Surat Thani, and Ko Samui. On the other hand, the cheapest and the most popular way to get to the mainland is by bus. The air-conditioned buses depart from Khao San Road in Bangkok and arrive in the piers of the Lomprayah Catamaran and the Songserm Express at Chumphon. The last option is by train that has first and second class, seat or sleeper, and air-conditioned or fan. From Bangkok, the most convenient way is to take the night train and buy the combination ticket that includes bus transfer from Surat Thani or Chumphon railway stations to the pier and an express boat ticket.
There is no car rental in Ko Tao. The only options are motorbike and ATV rental, and taxi and boat hires. Almost 70% of the island is meant to be accessible only by the most skilled off-road motorbike riders. Strict precautions must be followed in renting a motorbike and ATV. It is a common sight to see people bandaged up in Ko Tao because the roads are extremely steep and deformed by intense rainfall with deep cuts that has carved the road in slices. There is an agreement in renting a motorbike that dictates that damaged motorbike parts are to be replaced and not repaired. Public transport only includes taxis. There are usually a great number of taxis in Sairee and Mae haad, however, the prices are expensive given the distances traveled. There is a minimum price for the journey, which is 300 baht or 100 baht per person if negotiated with the driver. There are also long tail boats for hire that service to and from certain beaches on the island. This is a more comfortable way of getting to isolated beaches than attempting to ride over the mountains. Round island trips can cost 2,000 baht and some short trips are 100-200 baht. In getting around Ko Tao, one must follow rules in order to avoid unwanted circumstances that could cause inconveniences during the stay in the island.