Koh Tao is truly a slice of paradise even if you’re not an avid scuba diver or snorkeler, which is the primary reason for visiting. Plus you can live very comfortably for $35 USD a day! This was my final destination in Thailand and it lived up to all of my expectations, a week and a half here wasn’t nearly enough. In fact if you only have time to visit one place in the country this is where I would go!
The more frequented islands of Koh Phi Phi and Koh Samui, while indeed boasting beautiful beaches, have too much of a touristy feel and are full of partygoers with the sole intention of getting belligerently drunk and treating the island like and outdoor club. Don’t get me wrong, Koh Tao knows how to party, but the added benefit of being able to take a 15-20 minute drive to any number of deserted beaches makes it the number one island destination in all of Thailand. Located three hours from the mainland port in Trat the water here is unbeatable for lounging at the beach and the dive sites accessible from here are unmatched throughout the rest of the country. Also as it’s not too large of a landmass you can get around the entire island and explore the dozens of day trip worthy beaches with relative accessibility and just enough ruggedness to make the trip a real adventure.
Never taken the plunge? Or are you a certified diver with 100+ in their logbook? Regardless, an opportunity to dive in Koh Tao should not be missed as it’s undoubtedly among the top diving destinations in Southeast Asia and indeed the world and one of the cheapest places to become a certified diver! Of all the sites I’ve been to in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the Philippines these were some of my favorite and most memorable experiences. Click here to check out my review of Scuba Diving in Koh Tao with some awesome GoPro footage!
Still not ready to take the plunge? Lucky for you, snorkeling here is more rewarding than diving in many places with spots like Shark Bay and Nangyuan Island yielding access to underwater life just below the ocean’s surface. Rent a snorkel and fins for 150 baht a day and swim on out from the beach!
Lounge at the Beach
From deserted, calm bays in the south and west to the lively Sairee Beach on the east coast there is a sandy oasis for any and everyone’s liking. Click here for the Koh Tao Beach Guide!
Day Trip to Nangyuan Island
Located just off the northern tip of Koh Tao you can easily take a 15 minute longtail boat ride here and spend a day basking in the sun on the picturesque sand bar that connects the two tiny land masses of Nang Yuan Island. There is also an incredible viewpoint from the larger landmass, just a short hike up the hill! If you’re into snorkeling this day trip is a must do as you can wade out from the beach and into the Japanese Gardens dive site. There is accommodation available but honestly I wouldn’t stay there as the food and night time activity options are incredibly limited/expensive. If you’re looking to place yourself in the very scene of paradise this is the spot. Get there early as it’s a hotspot for tourists!
Rent a Motorbike and Drive!
If you’re a fan of two wheeled transportation, or enjoy off roading in ATV’s, you are in luck. I spent more than a full day just roaming around the island and would recommend
doing the same for at least an afternoon, incredibly fun ride and a great way to orient yourself. Once you drive away from the shores of the bigger beach villages the roads turn from pavement to dirt rather quickly and off-roading takes on a whole new meaning. Prepare yourself for a wild ride!
Sunset and Dinner at The High Bar
Looking to take in a postcard perfect sunset and connect with your inner Rastafarian? This place was under new management and actually reopened just before we arrived but it’s been on the island for several years. It’s built like a massive tree house on the top of a large cove and is packed full of travelers young and old every night at sunset. They have some excellent food options and some pretty good fruit juices and smoothies, but most orders involve a variety of offerings that serve to elevate the effect intensity of the sunset J. Pass it around and relax Bob Marley style!
I’m not a particularly huge fan of alcohol myself but there is surely no better way to meet fellow travelers and ensure yourself a good time than signing up for one of the nightly pub crawls! Koh Tao has a lively party scene and in areas like Maan Haad and Sairee the parties on the beach go long into the night. Often dives shops will host a weekly pub crawls as well, a great way to make some friends with your buddies on the boat!
Hike to Amazing Viewpoints
Work off the alcohol from the pub crawl! There are several incredible hikes on the island, most of which were not nearly as crowded or overrun as I expected them to be given their popularity! John Sewan Viewpoint is a must do and can be combined with a trip to one or two of the idyllic beaches on the southern tip of the island. Mango Viewpoint is another excellent one on the opposite end, as is the trail on Nangyuan Island. However be prepared to pay small entry fees at the trailhead and much of the land on this island is privately owned!
How Long to Stay
By all means get yourself to this paradise for even a couple days if that’s all your plans will allow! That being said I think 4-7 days is what it takes to really get a good grip on this island, despite its small size. In that amount of time you can visit 1-2 new beaches everyday, stay in 2-3 different areas of the island, and get used to the day-to-day feel of island living. We stayed for 10 nights and easily could have doubled that, no shortage of things to do and places to go!
Where to stay
Maan Haad: There is truly no shortage of accommodation options on the island and most all is truly of high quality so the only difficult decision is really which town to base yourself in. You’ll get dropped off from the ferry at Maan Haad which is the second largest beach and serves as a very central location to explore the island from with endless accommodation, food, and nightlife options. If you’d like to get in touch with nature check out Ananda Villas, gorgeous well kept bungalows 10 minutes from the pier starting at 550 baht.
Sairee: The next beach north is the largest, Sairee Beach, and is my favourite area to stay as it provides the best food options and there is plenty of nearly new accomodation to choose from. Hostels abound, but if you like a more private room I recommend finding a dive shop with accommodation as they’re typically maintained to western standards and quite. Roctopus Hotel, built by Roctopus Dive just a few months back, was an excellent choice and provided the same comfort and quality as a 4 star hotel in the US for just 600 baht a night!
Tanote Bay: If you really want to get away from it all check out accommodation at Tanote Bay, a gorgeous and remote beach on the west side of the island. There are a few excellent bungalow resorts there and the beach is one of my personal favorite (see the beach guide above). Be careful about booking a room here or at other remote beaches as unless you’re a skilled motorbike driver or prepared to shell out a few hundred baht a day for taxis you will be spending most of your time near your room as the roads are pretty rough!
If you’re capable, a motorbike is by far the best way to explore this island and can be had for as cheap as 150-200 baht a day. Nothing beats driving through the palm trees on your way to a deserted beach and being mobile will just make the island that much more accessible. That being said the roads here are HORRIBLE so be prepared. Also be prepared to either give a sizeable deposit (couldn’t find anywhere that wanted less than 6000 baht) or to leave your passport as leverage which I wouldn’t advise. Make sure to rent a motorbike (moped) with off-road tires, they should be the same price as ones without just a matter of who has what available. You can even rent larger dirt bikes and 4-wheeled ATV’s, the latter being what I would suggest for someone who isn’t confident on two wheels. Try and get the newest looking unit you can find so no existing damage can be blamed on you! Oli’s Motorbike Rental is a very honest shop and comes recommended from several locals and dive shops.
The taxis, typically newer pickup trucks with seating in the back bed, are operated by what seems to be a massive conglomerate of drivers with fixed, very high prices. We are talking 200+ baht for a 15-20 minute ride from beach to beach. Even if you have to rent an ATV for 500 baht a day it will be worth it in the end.
The Best Crepe in Thailand: If you’re a fan of crepes you must take the time to go to Sairee beach for what is undoubtedly the best crepe stand in all of Thailand. The stand is run by twin Thai sisters and is open daily around 3-4pm until late into the night. Just follow the main road to the Sairee 7-11 and they will be just next door between it and a restaurant called Su Chili. No stinginess with the fillings and crepes cooked to perfection, no soggy pancake like you’ll find in many other places. Once again I found myself consuming 2-3 a day but hey, it’s a vacation right? Sadly the rest of the street cart scene here is quite weak, likely due to the fact that the average visitor here comes with a bit deeper pockets. There were maybe a dozen or so street carts in Sairee and about the same in Maan Haad, in most of the other towns they are non-existent due to their size and population. What is available is quite good but don’t expect variety!
Su Chili: We landed here our first night due to a recommendation from a local dive instructor and averaged one meal a day there for our entire stay. If you want Thai food and don’t mind midrange pricing (80-140 baht for a dish) this is the best place on the island to eat. Their menu is massive and everything is cooked authentically, no watered down spice levels. Despite the place being packed every night food never takes more than 20 minutes to come out, a rarity for Thailand! The food was so good we literally never remembered to take a picture of the dishes despite going there over a dozen times, too busy drooling over the food when it was set on the table. Truthfully some of the best Thai food I have ever had! Must Try…Fried Pork Esan with Rice, Massaman Curry, Onion Rings, Fried Ham and Cheese Sticks, Yellow Curry Fried Rice.
Farangos: As the name implies the menu caters to farangs (foreigners) and they boast a wide variety of options. The number one reason to go there is the pizza, amazing thin crust pies for decent prices at around 220-300 baht and large enough to split between two people. Most every night they offer free alcoholic drinks with the purchase of a meal.
Lanta: One of the few truly cheap restaurants on the island with most dishes between 60-100 baht. It’s owned by a local family and the two elderly women in the kitchen serve up some delicious, albeit basic, Thai food options. No frills and open air seating but for the price it cannot be beat. A great place to eat en route to the beach! Must try the pad thai!
Fizz: One of more hip locations in Sairee, this beachfront restaurant is an excellent place to watch the sunset posted up in their incredibly comfortable beanbag chairs and your toes in the sand. They have some excellent seafood appetizers and great smoothies, the food is a bit on the expensive side (120+ baht for appetizers, 150+ for entrees) but the portions are large and the quality is excellent. I would recommend catching the sunset here with an appetizer and then heading off the beach to one of the aforementioned locations for dinner. After the sun goes it and the surrounding restaurants transform into a fantastic nightlife area with some very relaxing electronic beats going all night long.
What Does Paradise Cost?
This is one of those locations you sit at your job and drool over on Instagram for hours, most likely thinking to yourself “I could never afford to go there”. How wrong you would be! Below is my exact spending for myself and my girlfriend, we came in at under $35 per person per day and never had a dull moment! Continue reading through the article to see the amazing beaches, breathtaking viewpoints, excellent food, stunning underwater scenery, and more that can be seen for just a few dollars a day!
Note: we both did 10 scuba dives which most people would likely find a bit excessive so I am showing budgets with and without the diving. For a quick frame of reference budget $25 for every fun dive (we paid $20/dive because we bought 10-dive packs)! Even with an insane amount of diving we still came in at under $50 a day. If you opt for snorkelling over scuba you can rent fins and a mask for under 200 baht so the cost is minimal!
How to Get There
From Inside Thailand
You can easily book bus + ferry transportation directly to Koh Tao from other hotspots like Phuket, Krabi, Phi Phi, and more. I came up from Krabi and booked a bus + ferry ticket with a local operator, it made the journey hassle free and cost about $30 USD all in.
From Outside Thailand
If you’re flying into Thailand solely to get to Koh Tao look for international flights ending in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. From there you can easily catch a flight to Trat on AirAsia for $40 USD or less (or the $10 USD train from Bangkok). Take a taxi to the port and hop on any of the daily ferries running out to Koh Samui and Koh Tao! Don’t bother booking the ferry online unless you don’t mind paying 200-300% over pricing you can secure in Thailand!