Koh Tao, visible on clear days from the north coast of Koh Samui, is a small island on the horizon. It’s just under 2hours away from Samui by Lomprayah ferry, although there are slower boats too. This gem of an island has a completely different vibe to either Koh Samui or Koh Phangan.
Its size makes it a lot easier to get to grips with. Home to just 5,000 people, it’s got a magic of its own. It used to be more obscure than it is now. Historically, it was a place of harbor for pirates and then became a penal colony for political prisoners and was generally seen as a place that was hard to get to. All that has changed and it’s now an integral part of Thailand’s tourist boom.
Many who visit come for a diving certificate of one kind or another – this is the world record holder for the most diving certificates issued in any one place. The waters here are crystal clear and are packed with reefs, along with a vast number of fish. The underwater beauty matches what’s above the surface: the kidney-shaped island is an instagrammer’s dream; there are mountains, jungle, incredibly beautiful little bays and always the crystalline seas.
The island has no airport and everyone arrives at the port of Mae Haad on the west coast. The small town here is abuzz with people coming and going and is the island’s hub. It basically consists of two streets that run down to the coast, there to meet a narrower beach road. Yet this small town has practically everything that you could want from food and drink to clothes to souvenirs. The town can get very packed and is quite commercial yet still retains its charm.
It segues into the much larger and more disperse town of Sairee Beach, just to the north. Here you’ll find more cafes and restaurants, along with the bulk of the island’s accommodation. The beach itself is a long, beautiful swathe of sand, ideal for a leisurely time in the sun. The island’s nightlife is also focused in Sairee Beach.
In the south of the island, there’s a third town, Chalok Ban Kao, that clusters around a small but scenic bay. There’s plenty of accommodation here too, along with cafes and restaurants.
These three towns can feel quite crowded at times, but the rest of the island is relatively undeveloped and it’s easy to escape to quite bays and beaches which just have a few resorts apiece. If it’s tropical seclusion you want, then simply walk through the jungle to the east and northern coasts (although you can usually find a taxi to take you via dirt tracks) and you’ll come across the kind of beaches you have dreamed of. Check out the cove at Hin Wong, or the inlet at Tanote Bay or the impressive Ao Leuk.
Koh Tao’s off-island of Koh Nang Yuan is equally famous, with its three hills connected by a sandbar. Swimmable waters – again crystal clear – and the sheer beauty of the place make this an instant memory that will stay with you forever. It’s one of the most scenic spots in Thailand. You can get here via boat from either Mae Haad or Sairee Beach. You can also go directly from Koh Samui.
Accommodation on Koh Tao comes in all shapes and sizes. From simple backpacker rooms on Sairee Beach to teak villas that overlook the sea. The choice of where to stay is a wide and satisfying one.
Koh Tao is definitely not the place to learn to ride a motorcycle. The dirt tracks, hilly roads and driving conditions make this extremely dangerous. Even if you have decades of experience on bikes, you’re still well-advised to take a taxi or simply walk to where you’d like to go. The island has limited medical facilities being small.
Eating out on Koh Tao is a wonderful experience – all kinds of cuisine are to be found here. International and Thai food predominate and you can find great places to eat simply by walking around wherever you’re staying. In Mae Haad the Café del Sol has stood the test of time and is dependably good. For Thai food, head along the beach road south from the port and you’ll be able to sit on a terrace and look out over the ocean.
Thanks to fast connections, you can visit Koh Tao just for the day but it’s a much better idea to come for a few days – it’ll feel like a holiday within a holiday, or if you live on Koh Samui, it’ll be a complete break from your usual life.