In all the years of coming to Thailand, I never had the island of Koh Tao in mind as a place to go. Everyone who talked about it always mentioned that it was just a diving island and there was not much else to do. However, in the time that I was there, I realized that that is far from the truth.
History Of Koh Tao
Nicknamed 'Turtle Island", Koh Tao is the smallest of the three islands in its vicinity. Before being settled the island was frequented by fishermen from neighboring islands looking for shelter from storms or to just rest. It would appear on old maps and descriptions and known by European cartographers and mariners as "Pulo Bardia". Historically, it has been mentioned in multiple publications in the 1800s including The Edinburgh Gazetteer in 1827 and "Narrative of a Residence in Siam" in 1852. Additionally, the island was used as a political prison in 1933 until prime minister at the time, Khuang Abhaiwongse pleaded and received royal pardon from the prisoners on the island in 1947. After this, the island was abandoned until the 1980s when travelers started visiting the island and from there, it became known as a well-known dive site.
How To Get To Koh Tao
In terms of getting onto the island, it depends on where you are coming from. If you are coming from Bangkok or anywhere on the mainland, you would need to take a night train or bus to Chumphon or Surat Thani which would cost you around 1300 Thai Baht (about 39 USD). It may seem a bit pricey, but that is because the train/bus ticket, the van pick up, and ferry is all included. The night train usually leaves Bangkok around 4-5 pm and you will arrive around 4-5 AM depending on how slow the train is going. The van will pick you up from the train station around 6-7 AM, so you might have to sit and wait for a bit if you get there a bit early. From there, the van will drive you to the pier and you take a 2 hour ferry ride to get to Koh Tao.
If you are coming from Koh Samui or Koh Phangan, the only option would be to take a ferry, with price ranging from 450-650 Baht depending on which island you are coming from. It would take around 2 hours from Koh Samui and 1 and a half from Koh Phangan.
Once you arrive on the island, you will have to go through an immigration checkpoint and taxis will be waiting for you on the other side. It is advisable to book a taxi beforehand through your accommodation since it would most likely be free or part of your "package". Otherwise, you will have to pay around 400 Baht (about 12 USD) to get where you need to be.
Accommodation On Koh Tao
In terms of accommodation on the island, there is a variety to choose from. From backpacker hostels and hotels to bungalows and high-end resorts. If you are a backpacker on a budget, there are plenty of hostels to choose from on the island. My personal recommendation would be Summer Guesthouse & Hostel. Their dorms range from around 150-200 Baht depending on whether you choose to stay in a fan or airconditioned dorm. They also have private rooms that range in price depending on the type of room you choose. However, because of its popularity and high reviews, you should definitely book in advance. The reason for their high reviews is because of the amazing owner and staff that work there. They treat every guest like family and people always keep coming back. If Summer is fully booked, there are of course other options to choose from which include; Moovin Hostel, Blackwood, White Jail, AVA Guesthouse, P&P Guesthouse, and Taco Shack. For those out there that need a bit of luxury, but are still on a relative budget, The Dearly is a great option for you.
Things To Do In Koh Tao
In my opinion, Koh Tao is probably the most active island in Thailand. If you are into hiking, diving, rock climbing, muay thai, or pretty much anything that involves some sort of movement, Koh Tao is the place to be.
Of course, because the island is quite literally known for diving, there are multiple dive schools that you can choose from. It all depends on the type of vibe you are looking for. All schools teach the same course, but it is all up to the class size, the language, and the expertise of the instructors. While I am not a diver myself, I know plenty of people that have either gone through the whole process of becoming a Dive Instructor or just got their Open Water certification. As mentioned, there are multiple dive schools, but from my conversations and people I know, the top schools that most people dive with are Roctopus, Big Blue, Crystal Dive, Ban's, and Pura Vida (for those looking for Spanish speaking instructors). Other thing to note is that Koh Tao is also the cheapest place in the world to get certfied, it may not be the prettiest, but definitely the cheapest.
If you feel like you need some time to think about whether you actually want to dive, you can also go snorkeling at the many beaches that exist on the island. My favorite beach would be Freedom Beach where you are able to access two beaches and John Suwan Viewpoint if you plan on going for a hike and then jumping in the water after. You will need to pay 50 Baht to gain entry, but you can spend as much time as you want there.
Other beaches that are great for snorkeling include Sharks Bay and Mango Bay. If you are just looking to chill for the day, Tanote Bay is great to just lay out a blanket and soak in some rays.
Now, if you are a person that needs to get rid of some anger through punching and kicking things, there are also multple Muay Thai gyms on the island. The most well-known one is Monsoon Muay Thai. They have 3 sessions a day at 8 AM, 10AM, and 4 PM. In addition to having sessions, they also have a sports masseuse in case you get injured or need to fix your alignment. If you are just looking to work out, Koh Tao Gym & Fitness is an airconditioned gym that is open from 9 AM to 5 PM and is between 150 - 200 Baht a session.
Where To Eat & Drink In Koh Tao
Koh Tao has a variety of food options depending on what you are in the mood for. If you are a brunch/breakfast person, I highly recommend Cafe Culture. In my opinion, they have the best coffee on the island. The restaurant is located right on the beach so you can enjoy your morning coffee while overlooking the water. While they have plenty of options to choose from, they are most well-known for their Eggs Benedict. If you are vegetarian/vegan, Coconut Monkey is the best for that. Also on the beach, their breakfast options are extensive and they have a plethora of vegetarian/vegan options. Other restaurants that should have an honorable mention include Koppee, Zest, The Factory Cafe, and Blue Water.
For local Thai food, the ones that I have frequented are Mama Tam's, Bingo's, 995 Duck, Chu Chu's, and Bam Bam. They serve traditional Thai food and all are pretty inexpensive. If you are in the mood for Western food, there are also plenty of options. For pizza, the best I have tried on the island is La Pizzeria. For burgers, my two favorite have to be Hippo Burger and Juicy Burger.
Let us now talk about the nightlife. Of course with COVID relatively still happening, bars do have to close earlier than pre-COVID times, but with restrictions relatively lifting all over the country, the hours have lengthened to past midnight. The two most common bars that everyone goes to are Fishbowl and Leo. They are both great places to watch the sunset and have a good night altogether. There are definitely other bars on the island if you are thinking of going off the beaten path. My personal favorite would be Baby Rasta. The best way to describe the bar would be the child's dream treehouse. Other bars worth mentioning would be Sunset Beach Club, Maya Bar, The Local, and Lotus Bar.
All in all, Koh Tao is one of my favorite islands in Thailand and I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a more chill vibe, yet still want to have a good time.