Some people need to have seen it all, in order to make a recommendation. I do want to see it all, but till I get there I have no problem to say: Marrakech, Cape Town and Bangkok are awesome – go visit, now! So you could rightfully call me biased when I tell you that Koh Tao is the island on the Gulf coast to be, but I don’t care. And again – go visit, now! After all Koh Tao means Turtle Island and what more do you really need in a holiday destination?
I’m admitting that I’m very much a creature of habit when I tell you that most of my Koh Tao holiday took place in Chalok Bay and I didn’t move very much nor miss much. Why mess with a good thing? Sometimes you just want to find a place and settle down for a week or two and call it a day.
So while this won’t be the most comprehensive guide to Koh Tao you will find, I promise you all places are tried, tested and loved to a degree that I think if they had Buy 5, Get 1 Free deals, I would have saved a lot of money already…
It was the best of times
It seems that every month has it perks on Koh Tao depending on what you are looking for: hottest weather between March and May, but also best for Whale Shark spotting, more quiet time with balmy temperatures in June through early September, vibey busy season Christmas, January and February. They only month that is really not recommend is November for that is monsoon time. Also do check the Ko Phangan full moon party schedule as a lot of party goers stay Koh Tao and just hop over for the night, so accommodations and ferries tend to get rather crowded for big party dates.
Find the turtle
The easiest way is to board a flight from either Bangkok or Phuket and fly to Koh Samui. From the airport, you can easily get a ferry ticket with a transfer to the pier and either take the Lomprayah or Seatran ferry. I have only ever taken the Lomprayah, but from what I gather the only real difference are the departure times and that they leave from different piers. In case you are an anxious traveler like me, you can book your tickets online before, but in most cases you should be fine just getting them once you land. Just give yourself enough time to get off the plane, get your luggage and an hour to get from the airport to the pier. Samui really has the prettiest airport, orchids and cute boutiques included, so if you need to spend some time there until your ferry leaves, don’t despair. The ferry takes about two hours and stops in Koh Phangan on the way. Once you need to go back, allocate enough time and then some, because ferries do run late at times. Alternatively you can take a bus/ferry combo with Lomprayah from Bangkok. I have no personal experience with that, but it sounds like a great option if you have a day to spare, but no money. You can also get there from Surat Thani, but again you will need to take a ferry – after all you are going to an island so there really is no way around it. Unless, of course, there is a helicopter pad I didn’t know about?!
How to get from A to Z
Once you have arrived there are a few options to get around:
a) You are an expert on a Vespa.
b) You want to ride your bicycle.
c) Take a taxi boat.
d) You are like me and have a New York stride and love your taxis.
Taxis on Koh Tao are usually 4x4 bakkies and if you see some of the roads you will understand why. Unlike other places, they are also quite expensive for Thailand standards. Negotiate your fare before and be prepared to be windswept – you will most likely sit on a bench in the open back.
Sleep like a baby
I’m here to shamelessly advertize the places I love. Or maybe, I shouldn’t, because I want them all to myself. But then again, sharing is caring, so here we go… If you are on Koh Tao to dive, and just for arguments sake, let’s presume you are, you will pick a dive school and stay there, because that’s how it goes and also it is a lot cheaper. Some people like to be in the thick of the action and those people will stay at Sairee Beach, chose one of its dive schools and that’s fine. If you are a little…different, I recommend you contact Devrim from New Heaven Dive School and let him hook you up.
You have the choice of three kinds of accommodation, depending on your budget and comfort levels. Right in Chalok Bay you can stay next to the dive school – a room, a bathroom, AC and a view over the pool and if you get lucky some scared newbie divers, doing their first underwater steps.
For less money, you can climb a little hill across the road and stay in a diver’s hut – bathroom, fan and a balcony/porch/hammock. Pretty awesome for very little money.
Or you can hitch a ride and stay at Baan Talay, their beautiful resort up in the hills. You will either need these excellent motorcycle skills, really good walking shoes or take the 4x4 shuttle taxi to get there. But all of the efforts of getting there are so worth it. THE view, THE outdoor shower, THE utmost tranquility. It is just so very beautiful. The only word of caution – there is some wildlife to consider. If you are a complete princess or have an animal phobia, it may not be for you, for everything else there are mosquito coils.
Eat, pray, love
Koh Tao, while small, is not short of great choices of places to eat and so it was heaven to me because you know I like to worship at the altar of food. Here are my favorites and if you visit, you will understand why you won’t need any others.
The little Japanese place. Is obviously only called thus by me and my friend. It is called Asia Mood and right opposite New Heaven. Japanese food at its best – great sushi, udon noodles, fried chicken and everything in between. Comes with the loveliest service, old Singer sewing machines turned to tables and a house cat that is super friendly. They also offer really awesome maps of the island which are updated monthly, have a really cool design and are – best of all – free!
Yin Yang. If you are staying in Chalok Bay this is the perfect little Thai place around the corner, just past the 7 Eleven. Get here early, because this place seems always full. Have a Singha, some no names and Panang curry or Pad Thai and don’t burn your feet on the mosquito coils underneath the tables.
995 Roasted Duck. If you want to venture to Sairee Beach I recommend a trip to the Roasted Duck, a big eatery just up the road from the Sairee Beach 7 Eleven (yes, that is a real landmark). Get a big portion of – what else? – roasted, but succulent duck over rice or a bowl of noodles with fish bowls in broth. Cheap, easy, and so very yummy.
Gallery. Fancy a fancy night out? Gallery is your place to be. Right next to the Roasted Duck so you could potentially do lunch at the one and dinner at the other, it offers Thai cuisine with a twist. Have their signature curry served in a whole coconut with some pineapple basil martinis and relish in the fact that this must be the one place in Thailand where they will actually appreciate your Louboutins. Or at least let you wear them.
In Touch Beach Bar. While it is your typical Sairee Beach beach bar, there is something I really love about In Touch. The staff is exceptionally nice, the no names and fried bananas are awesome and the tourist crowds are not as bad as in many other locations. Only during sunset does the place get quite crowded by cameras and selfie-sticks, but with that view – who can blame them? All in all, a lovely spot to waste a few hours doing nothing at all, but be happy that your Singha is cold and the wi-fi is fast.
Blue Heaven. If you end up taking my advice and stay at Baan Talay your dinner options are somewhat limited. You must either beg a taxi to take you home later, which is possible, but not cheap or stay there for dinner. Again, not a bad choice, but maybe a bit repetitive for more than two nights in a row. I recommend you take your iPhone torch and venture up the steep hill just a little bit until you get to Blue Heaven, a new resort and restaurant that belongs to New Heaven. You will feel like you have stepped into Williamsburg hipster heaven: exposed brick walls, industrial light fittings and, of course, a bicycle. I wish I could show you pictures of everything, but alas I was too busy stuffing my face with Panang curry with fried (!) chicken and really awesome margaritas. In a country where I have been asked whether I would like alcohol in my G&T that was a real blessing.
7 Eleven. Yes, shake your head if you must that I’m including our beloved supermarket chain in here. But if you are in need of a quick, cheap snack or crave the home comfort of a grilled cheese sandwich, there is nothing better than 7 Eleven. THB 25 will buy you a ham & cheese (or seafood pizza sandwich if you are more adventurous) and they even grill it for you. Needless to say, they don’t only offer that on Koh Tao, but there is something about cheap grilled cheese that makes it perfect island snack food.
Relax, don’t do it
In case you do want to do something and relax at the same time, I recommend the all time island favorites: massage, swimming, snorkeling and yoga. Repeat in random order and as often as necessary. I have purposely not listed diving as I get the feeling that some friends are getting a bit annoyed with my newfound addiction. But Koh Tao really is great if you do want to go diving, so if you are keen I recommend you check out this post about my first underwater adventures.
Massage. There is never a shortage of massages anywhere in Thailand and Koh Tao is no exception. But my favorite is by far the little wooden parlor between New Heaven and the Tropicana Resort. It is open air and so it always has some background entertainment from the adjacent beach bar. It is also really tiny with only three spaces so come early or make an appointment by writing your name and time on the white board outdoors. Prices are island prices, but so is everything on Koh Tao. For the perfect massage remember your Thai: nàk-nàk if you like it harder and bao-bao if you are, ahem, sensitive like me and prefer it softer. Go for an aloe massage if you got too much sun!
Swim. Chalok Bay is turquoise, warm and shallow especially when the tide is low. Even better as it is usually quite empty except for a few stranded significant others of divers who have gone under for the day. Just avoid the coconut palms and find a place next to the swing or lounge by the pool of Koppee Cafe if you are not a beach person. *Wait, not a beach person – who the heck are you?? * The afternoons tend to get busier so move to Bubble Bar early enough for a prime spot on the sand in time for sundowners and fire-dancers.
Snorkel. Even if you are not a diver, you can still enjoy the crystal clear waters and Koh Tao’s amazing underwater world. Many companies offer snorkel boat trips around the island, usually visiting 4 – 5 sites in a day. I did it once and must honestly say that it wasn’t my cup of tea – too many people scattered around in life vests, scaring the Nemos. I’d recommend you check with the dive schools instead as they sometimes take snorkelers at a fraction of the price. Just make sure that the dive sites of the day, usually depending on weather conditions, are also suitable for snorkeling so you will have enough to see. Great options are Japanese Garden and Shark Bay where I got lucky and saw baby reef sharks while snorkeling. Alternatively if you are staying at Baan Talay you can brave the looooong* way down to the resort’s own little snorkel spot in Aow Leuk.
*Just kidding, it actually is just looooong on the way up.
Yoga. I counted three yoga studios alone from Chalok Bay to the 7 Eleven and heard only good things. I, however, can only vouch for New Heaven’s yoga studio and as it is open air and with that view I doubt you can find better.
To shop or not to shop
And now you will ask me where to buy stuff, your souvenirs, your elephant pants and your Banana Boat. Quite frankly I didn’t shop much on Koh Tao as I spent most of my time underwater. However, I did see a few cute looking boutiques around Sairee Beach, but always felt too bad to go in as my usual island look is sandy and sunscreen-sticky. The street vendors seem to offer same same, but different of everything that you get all over Thailand, only more expensive. So I kept any shopping here to the bare necessities and a few local foods which I always like to take for presents: watermelon seeds, seaweed chips and dried squid to freak out my nephew all from 7Eleven as well as curry pastes and Thai tea powder from a little roadside shop.
I did, however, find an awesome kiosk on Sairee Road who sells little bucket kits. I outgrew drinking buckets
a long time ago two years ago in Bangkok when I woke up with the worst hangover of my life, but still, I can appreciate a clever idea when I see it.
As this was my first Elephant’s travel guide (or any travel guide for this matter) I’m sure I have forgotten many things one shouldn’t forget when writing a travel guide. Sorry. Feel free to ask away in the comments then go visit, now and say hello to the turtles from me!
Disclaimer: No, this post was not sponsored by New Heaven, but I do love those guys and their places dearly and can simply not recommend them enough.