After spending a few fantastic days in Bangkok, it was time for me and my friend to continue our beautiful adventure in the land of smiles. The one thing I was sure about was that my next destination had to be towards one of the many beautiful islands Thailand has to offer. So 9 hours on the night train later, 1 hour bus ride, just 3 hours on the ferry and there we were – on the amazingly beautiful Turtle Island, Koh Tao.
There are several options to travel from Bangkok to Koh Tao to suit every taste, but in any case you need to take a ferry to get there. There are plenty of agencies offering combined tickets for all the transfers, no matter whether you choose a flight, a bus or a train, to get to the town of Chumphon, where the closest pier is. We decided to go for the overnight train option from Bangkok, thinking it will be the cheapest and most convenient one, so we went to the train station to get the tickets. Once there however, we were redirected to a travel agency on the second floor where they charged us 1,700 baht each for a combined ticket for second class night train+bus to pier+ferry. I thought it was quite expensive, but as we were left under the impression that this was the only option, we paid the money.
The trip was surprisingly comfortable and well organized, but in any case, after traveling for over 15 hours you do feel knackered in the end.
Tip 1: If you don’t mind paying some extra money and you’re short in time, a flight will be the best option. If you’re traveling on a budget however, the train is what you need, just make sure you book the tickets separately from one destination to the other, as it will be cheaper from what I paid (as I found out later on). Get a train ticket from Bangkok to Chumphon, once you’re there, you can get a ticket for the bus to the pier and the ferry, avoiding the agency fees.
After the beautiful and refreshing ferry ride, we arrived to the island around 10:30am, starving, thirsty and hot, so our first mission was to find a place to chill for a bit. Taking the first street right from the pier, we ended up in the very welcoming environment of the The Coconut Monkey. The super friendly staff there gave us amazing food, tasty drinks and plenty of information and directions as to where to find accommodation.
It took only 4 hours walking in 35 degrees heat and 88% humidity in order to find accommodation, but that’s kinda part of the deal when you want to be an adventurer.
Tip 2: Going on an adventure is amazing but sometimes it’s worth doing the extra effort of a small research. Such as – when the high season is, temperatures, crazy parties that attract thousands of teens from all over the world, survival tips, etc.
After being turned down in quite a few places, eventually we managed to find a small bungalow 50m away from Sairee beach, charmingly hidden in the green gardens of SB Cabana II resort. The luxury of the wooden building with a fan and a cold water shower cost us only 6500 baht for a month, but once you get used to the flushing system of the toilet (a bucket of what we hoped to be rain water and a pan), it was an absolute gem! We could listen to the crickets singing all night, watch the bats play in the evenings and the butterflies dancing around the trees during the day, and all of that right in front of our own porch.
According to the locals you can normally find a place for a month for around 6-8,000 baht (depending on the place and your negotiation skills), but during high season, and especially the Full Moon Party in Koh Phagnan (Koh Tao’s bigger brother), things can be more complicated. Booking online is aways an option, but if you actually go there in person, there’s a high chance that you will get a cheaper deal. If you have deeper pockets though, you can always find something nice in the more luxurious resorts, but we were travelling on a budget.
Still, the location was perfect for us as Sairee beach is really beautiful, with plenty of nice restaurants and bars around, offering a bit of a night life experience and amazing fire dancers. If you’re looking for something peaceful and quiet though, I’d recommend the area around Chalok Baan, which is located at the south part of this tropical paradise. Keep in mind though that food and accommodation there tend to be a bit more expensive.
Words cannot really describe the amazing beauty and charm of the island with all the amazing beaches, picturesque bays and stunning views. Staying at one spot during our stay seemed like a rather silly thing to do, so we had to find a way to get around. The enormous Toyota Truck taxies charged around 400 baht to get you from one point to another, which seemed quite expensive, so we hired a bike from a local shop called RPM and started discovering. The shop is in Mae Haad, close to the pier and was recommended by the Coconut Monkey staff.
Tip 3: Prices in the rental places vary but it’s usually around 250-350 baht per day, depending on the type of bike you want. Beware of scam deals, make sure the place you choose doesn’t charge for dents and scratches, and take a lot of pictures of anything that might seem dodgy on the bike before setting off. We were very happy with the service at RPM.
You can get a map of the island and visit some of the beaches and bays, but honestly, if you see a road and you wonder where it goes – just take it. This is how we found some of the most amazing secluded places, for which we didn’t have to pay. Oh, yes, I forgot to mention that the Thais over there are trying to make a profit from every rock, stone and a grain of sand – literally. Be prepared to drive for some time up a steep, dusty road (in my case also walk up as the bike couldn’t get the two of us up the steeper hills), to find out in the end that somebody decided to charge you 100 baht just to see the sunset from a rock (Mango Bay View and many others), or to access the beach (Freedom Beach), or to sit on it. In some of the places you can get a soft drink included with the price, if you’re lucky. If you don’t mind paying, just disregard the above. For us however it’s more a matter of principle rather than money, and we refused to pay to access the popular view points. Thanks to that we managed to find some fantastic panoramic views off the beaten track, and enjoy incredible sunsets – for free!
Tip 4: There are two amazing places we found by chance and were free. To one of them you can see a sign “O.K. View” on the main road. I don’t know if the view there was just O.K. or great as it was closed, but there is a sign up the road to another view – go there, leave your bike, hike up for like 15 min and you’ll find it. The other view is close the popular Mango Bay View, so go towards it. At the point where the road splits in two and Mango Bay View is to the left, go straight forward. It looks like the road is going downhill towards the bay, but 50m down look for a small dusty road to your hard right going up – that’s the one you need. It looks dodgy but trust me – it’s worth it!
Koh Tao is considered one of the best diving places in the world, and there is a good reason for it – it’s simply incredible!
There are diving centers all over the island, offering courses and accommodation, try dives and fun dives, for more or less the same price. The bigger and more popular places can be a bit overcrowded with larger groups, making things less personalized or even annoying (come on, you can’t offer your students to play beer pong all night and expect them to show up in a proper diving condition the morning after). I’ve tried scuba diving before and I knew that I absolutely love it, so for me it was important to find a school that will actually teach me how to react in any given situation under water, and give me the confidence to be in full control.
A little research and asking around the island took me to a school called Master Divers, which gave me everything I wanted – small groups (I was lucky enough to have 1 on 1 with my instructor), super friendly and professional attitude, great training, amazing dives and lots of fun! Our accommodation was a bit of a walk from the school, but plenty of nearby options in Mae Haad are also available, and you can check them out on TripAdvisor. Thanks to my amazing instructor Simone, now I am a proud owner of a PADI Open Water Diver Certification – definitely one of the best things I did during my stay in Koh Tao.
The name of the island Koh Tao means “Turtle Island” as in the past a lot of sea turtles used to nest there, making an entire beach look black. Unfortunately, nowadays the turtles are quite a rare sight to see, but still there is a great variety of sea life which you can find there. All the dive spots are incredible, but my personal favorites are Sail Rock and Chumphon Pinnacle.
Even with simple shallow water snorkeling the abundance of beautiful tropical fish will leave you breathless at first, and with a burnt back and bum afterwards. Titan trigger fish, butterfly fish, parrot fish, giant grouper fish, spotted rays, sting rays, moray eels, barracudas, huge schools of smaller fish and what not – all you need to do to enjoy it is just dive in.
Tip 5: If you don’t want to end up looking like a lobster, make sure you wear sun screen or use virgin Coconut Oil as a natural sun blocker. And please don’t touch anything under water, thanks 🙂
My personal favorites for snorkeling are Aow Leuk (100 baht entry fee but you get a sun bed, an umbrella and a drink) and Tanote Bay, where we were lucky enough to swim with black tip reef sharks, but honestly, all the bays are amazing.
It is also worth going to the nearby island of Nang Yuan, but it’s gonna cost you. You need to get a taxi boat for 150 baht a person in each direction, which is ok, but remember I told you you’ll have to pay for each grain of sand? Well, that’s on Nang Yuan. You need to pay 100 baht per person entry fee to the island, and once there, you are not allowed to use your own towel as “they are losing a lot of sand being trapped in the towels each year, and every grain of sand matters” (something along those lines). So you have to either pay for the chairs and umbrellas they provide, or sit directly on the sand with no shade around you and burn – up to you. Renting a snorkeling mask will also cost you 100 baht (twice the normal price) and 1000 baht deposit. If your math is working ok, you should know by now that you need quite some cash to go for a day trip there, but hey – it’s really beautiful 🙂
Tip 6: Make sure you negotiate the price with the taxi boat drivers and keep in mind the island closes at 5pm. Bringing your own water and snorkeling mask will also save you some hassle, and remember Tip 5.
Things To Do in Koh Tao
It’s really hard to get bored on the island as there are so many things you can do. Here’s a few suggestions:
No.1 Scuba diving – for all the reasons mentioned above. Pick your diving school and enjoy the incredible beauty the sea has to offer. If you’re not that adventurous, this leads to my …
No.2: Snorkeling – on the island you can find many places which offer snorkeling day trips for around 400-800 baht. I’d personally advice you though to hire a bike, rent a snorkeling mask and do it on your own pace without the hassle of huge groups of tourists. Hiring a bike will also give you the chance to …
No.3: Explore – visit as many of the fantastic views, bays and coves as you wish. There’s a high chance that driving around will take you to beautiful remote places and hidden gems off the beaten track, where you can relax while sipping from a coconut.
No.4: Cooking Classes – almost everywhere in Thailand you can sign up for a Thai cooking class and Koh Tao is no exception. I didn’t do it over there as the prices are generally higher compared to northern Thailand (which was my next destination), but if you have some time on the island and want to try it – the option is there.
No.5: Get a Thai Massage – this one I did. There are massage studios pretty much everywhere with sweet Thai ladies saying “Masahaaaaa”. I chose one studio with a beautiful sea view right on Sairee beach, but for my surprise I didn’t get a sweet Thai lady massaging me. Instead, it was the only man in the studio who eventually turned out to be a Muay Thai boxer as well. I don’t know whether it was because of him or not, but the massage felt more like a martial art rather than the relaxation I expected. Apparently it’s supposed to be really good for your body, but be prepared for some ouchy time 🙂
No:6: A Bite and a Gulp – there are numerous nice restaurants and bars on the island, some a bit more expensive, some more reasonable, and of course, the cheaper street food stalls. A few personal favorites and highly recommended places to eat are Sairee Cottage Restaurant on Sairee beach, The Laughing Carrot in Mae Haad and Yin Yang Restaurant on the main road from Mae Haad to Chalok Baan.
If you like going for a drink at night, there are plenty of bars right on Sairee beach, where you can also enjoy the beautiful show of the fire dancers. Good fun and nice music can be found in Victor’s Bar, Fizz Beach Lounge and The Sunset Beach Bar.
Most importantly though, there are a few hidden gems around the island, a few of those special places which are not advertised and you should just discover by chance, or by word of mouth. Some of them will leave you breathless with stunning views, others will make your jaw drop while you discover an Ewok-like village, and some will charm you with their chilled atmosphere. We were very lucky to discover some of those places, dive into their atmosphere and get boost our happiness levels to the highest high. I don’t want to be the first person to spoil their wild beauty by advertising, but I can give you a few clues on how to find one of them:
Clue 1: If you find where RPM bike rental is, you’ll be very close to one of them (just up the street).
Clue 2: Baby don’t worry, about a thing, coz every little thing is gonna be alright …. 😉