There’s no denying
that Koh Tao
is incredibly touristic.
Backpackers flock from across the globe
to call the underwater world their home.
Every palm shaded turquoise bay
boasts resorts restaurants reggae.
Italian and French, green juice and English tea
American BBQ lines the beach in Sairee.
Happy hour mai tais and sex on the beach
fire dancers display their skills
for drunk tourists seeking thrills.
But sometimes even a wanderlust nomad
needs to take a vacation
from her life that looks like an endless one.
So after questioning my future
and considering flying home from Koh Phangan
on little Koh Tao
ironically a former prison
I let myself feel free to run.
Realizing that in the coming days
my time in Thailand would end
I made the most of every moment
I let myself have fun.
I escaped the world on land
for the one down under the sea
where worries flee my mind
it’s just the fish and me.
I hiked along unmarked trails
through the jungle in the cliffs
climbed over massive rocks
looked out at the ocean in the distance.
I dined on Western food
I allowed myself to splurge.
I broke my budget but decided
treating myself is what I deserved.
I spent most of my time
with friends old and new
on excursions to beaches and bars
I felt safe and loved with this crew.
On Koh Tao letting myself
be young and wild and free
I remembered my adventurous spirit
and that I was exactly where I should be.
I felt a stronger will than ever
to continue traveling the world
so I’d like to thank you Koh Tao
for giving me exactly what I need.
How to Get to Koh Tao
Koh Tao is an island with no airport so the only way in is via boat. High speed boats depart Koh Phangan, Koh Samui, Surat Thani, and Chumphon twice daily and take a few hours. Lomprayah High Speed Catamaran and Seatran are the fastest and have air conditioning. International flights service Koh Samui and Surat Thani, which is the fastest way to arrive. Buses and minibuses depart Surat Thani for the Andaman side as well as buses and trains up to Bangkok. You can purchase basically any combination of travel you need for Bangkok, Siem Reap, even Langkawi, at a tour office on Koh Tao when you leave.
How to Get Around Koh Tao
The most inexpensive and efficient form of travel on most Thai islands is renting a scooter… unless you crash. Unlike Koh Phangan and Koh Samui, many of Koh Tao’s beaches are only accessible by a steep sandy road. People crash often, so I recommend asking about the road conditions before you drive anywhere. The main paved road that runs from Sairee beach down south to Chalok Bay is a breeze and you can easily travel it by moped. Unfortunately taxis and taxi boats can be quite expensive, so a moped at only 200 baht per day may be your best bet. With some energy and adventure you can hike or kayak to many places on the island, read more about this below.
Where to Sleep on Koh Tao
If you plan to take a dive course while on Koh Tao your dive outfit will likely provide your accommodation. Dive resorts do offer bungalows and rooms for those not diving, and options usually range from very simple and rustic to luxury all at the same resort. There are many options all over the island, but these are the ones I can firmly recommend.
400 – 3000 baht for rooms
Buddha View is the perfect place to relax on quiet Chalok Bay. It’s right on the beach with a cute café and beach bar and the rooms are clean, bright, and well decorated. I stayed here during my time on the island in a room for 900 baht per night, which I shared with a friend. It had two beds, a balcony with a sea view, and a huge bathroom with a hot water shower. Every morning I had a delicious, strong juice at the restaurant downstairs for only 60 baht! My favorite combinations were carrot, pineapple, ginger and beet, apple, celery. The only downside is that you have to pay for wifi, which I found a bit absurd, for 100 baht for the day. However many restaurants and cafes nearby have free wifi so I took advantage of being able to “unplug” while in my hotel room.
350 for a dorm bed – 3000 for luxury air con bungalow
If you want to be closer to the action Big Blue is a great option. Their dive courses are well reviewed and the rooms sit slightly back on the beach in a grassy field away from the bars on the beach. Independent travelers can stay in the dorm, a rarity in dive resorts on Koh Tao. The restaurant and bar has a lively atmosphere and beach BBQs nightly.
Where to Eat on Koh Tao
100 – 200 baht
The name says it all. I think I ate here at least once per day all five days I spent on Koh Tao. With a huge menu, healthy options, and delicious execution I can easily say it was my favorite dining option on Koh Tao. They serve a Western breakfast all day with dishes like banana oatmeal pancakes with homemade compote, vegetable omelets with whole grain toast, and my favorite “The Smash” which has two pieces of dark grain bread topped with sliced avocado, feta cheese, and poached eggs served with a side of fried tomato and sautéed mushrooms. They also have design your own salads with many healthy options including raw spinach, pumpkin seeds, and broccoli. For dinner I loved the homemade chickpea burger topped with mango salsa, but they also have meat dishes like lasagna and chicken avocado pasta. For a healthy yet decadent treat try the raw vegan berry cheesecake.
80 – 120 baht
Get here early, the place is always packed. The big portions, lots of flavor, and a lively atmosphere make this the perfect dinner spot down in Chalok Bay. The signature dish is the massaman curry, which they cook all day long with lots of spices. I hear the chicken is so tender it falls it apart but being meat free I opted for veggies. My favorite dish here was the curry noodles with lots of vegetables, rice noodles, flavorful curry sauce, and a boiled egg. Probably my favorite Thai restaurant in all of Thailand, don’t miss it!
60 – 200 baht
You must spend at least one evening eating beach BBQ, it’s an island after all, and Sairee Cottage BBQ has the best and least expensive options. For 200 baht you can have a big piece of grilled fish with salad and potatoes. If you’re on a budget the Thai dishes are among the cheapest on the islands, with Phad Thai for 60 baht. The setting is phenomenal and they often have live fire shows right in front on the beach.
60 – 200 baht
I try to find at least one truly healthy place wherever I travel to ensure I have proper nutrition. Living Juices was exactly that for me on Koh Tao. I believe everything on their menu is both raw and vegan and they sell a vast array of superfoods you can take home including bee pollen, goji berries, chia seeds, and spirulina. The bulk of the menu consists of super healthy juices made from spinach, broccoli, carrots, and more or satisfying smoothies with banana and cacao. Any juice or smoothie can be made “super” with probiotics, bee pollen, etc. They also have some delicious snacks you can take to go. I went with the raw spirulina granola bar which was heaven on a day hike.
30 – 150 baht
This darling bakery serves quality treats like shortbread, homemade granola, sandwiches, mince pies, and even English tea. Come by in the morning for some fruit, yogurt, and granola and take a sandwich on homemade bread or a fresh salad to go for your day of adventure. Then of course stop in again in the afternoon for some tea and their famous millionaire shortbread.
New Heaven Café
30 – 150 baht
A little oasis in busy, bar filled Sairee Beach with healthy, inexpensive, organic options. They have a wide selection of sandwiches, salads, juices, and smoothies. I sipped on a filling avocado, peanut butter, banana smoothie while I did some work in their open-air café with communal seating. It almost felt like being back in a coffee shop in Seattle!
Check out more dining recommendations from these bloggers:
Where to Drink on Koh Tao
60 – 150 baht
Just a fifteen minute walk from Chalok bay around the rocky cliffs is Freedom Bar on a gorgeous little bay with great snorkeling. This makes for a great sunset spot with a laid back, family vibe and happy hour drink specials.
60 – 150 baht
Babaloo Bar sits on its own little private beach on the north side of Chalok Bay. The place has a unique pirate shipwreck feel, chilled out reggae music, and lots of hammocks to lay in over the ocean.
60 – 150 baht
We spent a pretty epic night at Lotus Beach Bar. It all started innocently enough with 80 baht cocktails and a gorgeous view of the sunset. The live music began and a talented man sang covers with a gravelly voice. One of my travel companions said that if he were a woman he’d marry him. The night grew increasingly rowdy when the DJ came on, re mixing reggae favorites with electro beats, and the fire dancers came out. Eventually drunk tourists were jumping a rope lit on fire and when the flaming limbo stick came out I joined them. Fire dancers spun wildly in the ocean and the whole scene was unforgettable. My misstep was attempting to jump through the infamous ring of fire. If you spend only one night out on Koh Tao, make sure it’s here.
60 – 150 baht
Laze on big bean bag chairs in this ultra swank beachfront bar that seems more fitting in Bali than on little Koh Tao. I did not get the chance to eat here, but I’ve heard the Thai and Western food is delicious and cheap and you really can’t beat the location.
What to Do on Koh Tao
Koh Tao is the most popular place to learn to dive on the entire planet. Prices are rock bottom; about $300 for a 3 day PADI certified open water dive course including accommodation. The entire island has a strong dive culture and most backpackers come here to get certified. If you’re interested in diving on Koh Tao, I recommend first reading this definitive guide.
Those without the budget or the courage to dive on Koh Tao can still swim with coral, fish, and sharks by snorkeling off of one of the island’s many beautiful beaches. Most dive shops and hotels rent snorkels for just 50 baht per day. Some popular snorkeling spots include Mango Bay, Hin Wong Bay, Tanote Bay, Shark Bay and Nangyuan Island. Read more about the beaches in this guide to Koh Tao. Bear in mind getting to some of these beaches can be difficult with a scooter and expensive with a taxi. If you’re traveling with a group consider splurging on a longtail boat for a day and having them take you to all of the best spots. This post gives a great overview of a longtail boat trip.
If you’re willing to be adventurous, the island has plenty of hiking opportunities. A short fifteen-minute hike up from Freedom Beach offers stunning views of Shark Bay to the right and Chalok Bay to the left. My favorite hike I took began in Chalok Bay along the beach past Babaloo, and up the hill into a neighborhood. From there the trail took me into the woods, where I was the only person. It gets hot and sweaty but the views are gorgeous and I feel so energized when exercising in nature. My first stop was at Banana Rock, a cute little swimming and snorkeling spot with a couple of bars, some bungalows, and very few people. From there it’s possible to hike all the way to the main harbor in town. A popular hike on the island goes to the island’s highest viewpoint over Mango Bay. It’s steep with no reprieve. Read this detailed account of getting up there.
Day Trip to Nangyan Island
Many people highly recommended I spend the day on this small island off the North West coast of Koh Tao. While it’s unbelievably touristic and fairly crowded, it’s also unbelievably gorgeous. Most people come in with a taxi boat or longtail boat, but I highly recommend going the cheaper, more adventurous route and getting there from Sairee beach by kayak. The trip should take no more than an hour depending on the wind and costs 200 – 600 baht depending on how long you want the kayak and whether you rent a double or a single. On the island the water is crystal clear for snorkeling and the viewpoint is incredible.
For lots more information on Koh Tao, check out out the Wiki Travel Guide.