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. 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…
And after just returning from spending another two months there, I have not only confirmed some good old faithful but also find a few new options that swiftly made my list.
It was the best of times
It seems that every month has its 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. The only month that is really not recommended 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 or Phuket. A great and easy option too and obviously a lot cheaper than flying to Samui. The Lomprayah crew will pick you up at your hotel or you start directly from the airport. A few hours on the bus and then you will need to take the ferry again – 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. And by expert I mean expert – roads are not the best and I saw quite a few people getting nasty injuries.
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 argument’s 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 New Heaven Dive School and let them 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.
As I was staying for longer than a few days I opted for one of the many monthly rentals you can find this time around. I stayed for a month at The Greenery and then at the more basic Tropicana Resort, both options I was happy with.
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
It’s obviously only called such by me and my friend. It is called Asia Mood and is 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 kittens. Definitely, try the Agadashi Tofu and the Tofu Don rice.
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.
I <3 Salad
After a few days (or weeks) of Thai curries & Co. you might be craving something fresh and that is when I <3 Salad comes into play. Choose either from one of their salads on the menu or make your own from the salad bar – fresh and delicious!
South Beach Cafe
Admittedly that place had to grow on me. The hostess was a bit too pushy for my liking and the Ceasar’s Salad was basically deep-fried. But eventually, I realized that they make a great burger, a good pizza and have a decent red wine at a decent price.
It doesn’t get more hipster on Koh Tao – Ananas is run by a lovely French guy and his Thai girlfriend/wife and while still island-y it has a definite Euro feel to it. The Thai food choices are great as is the pasta and the pineapple mojitos make for an excellent Singha alternative. Do use the mosquito spray they provide as you are sort of sitting in the jungle there.
While I was there a new BBQ pork place opened up and man, do I wish I would have discovered it sooner. The pork over rice is to die for and best of all really inexpensive!
It is located right in a little jungle stretch next to Ananas.
Sairee is full of typical beach bars and restaurants and honestly, none of them stood out food wise. I reckon you come here for a beer during sunset and eat at any of the other places. There are however to glorious exceptions…
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.
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.
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 or diving, and yoga. Repeat in random order and as often as necessary.
There is plenty of great little massage places around but my favorite was the place right opposite 7Eleven in Chalok as well the little wooden parlor between New Heaven and the Tropicana Resort. 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!
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.
I have a hard time being objective about the diving in Koh Tao right now. As I spent a) a lot of time diving the same dive sites and b) I just got back from the Maldives so I am spoilt. I still think it is a good and easy spot to get certified but those who like a challenge might get bored.
If you are a diver already ask when they do trips to places like Chumphon Pinnacle and Sail Rock.
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. If bigger trips are on the agenda you may even get lucky and snorkel with a whale shark.
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. Also, the street vendors seem to offer same same, but different of everything that you get all over Thailand, only more expensive.
The things I like to take for presents are local snacks like watermelon seeds, seaweed chips and dried squid to freak out my nephew. You can get all of that from 7Eleven as well as curry pastes and Thai tea powder from a little roadside shop.
If you are there for a longer stay like me and you are missing your wine head to Chez Albert at the beginning of Sairee. They sell amazing European wine here (at premium prices of course but at least you know you are getting some good stuff) as well as cheeses, charcuterie and a line of soaps and lotions.
Another great little shop is May + Co right down the road. Sleek, hip and understated is the decor and what they sell: beautiful china, handmade dresses and beauty products all incredibly curated.
There has been a lot of rumors about Koh Tao and the island’s safety. I cannot possibly comment on it and what is true and what isn’t, I do not know. All I will say is that I have always felt really safe there and have heard the same from many others who lived there for a while. Obviously each place has its issues, however, I always felt safe with the usual of common sense applied.
The one issue I had was my health. There was something about being in the water all the time and the humidity that was really hard on my body. Even small mosquito bites got infected and wouldn’t heal, I had tonsillitis and then for some unknown reason my joints started swelling. Not fun!
In addition, a lot of the nurse’s stations you can find everywhere are a bit too liberal with the antibiotics and according to my friend the only real clinic couldn’t even diagnose a broken toe. If you have an issue, I suggest heading to Sawasdee right next to the Chalok Bay 7Eleven. Fai, the nurse there, is amazing and takes a more holistic approach to health and well-being.