The island of Koh Tao, literally ‘turtle island’ in Thai, is located in the Gulf of Thailand -the east coast-, and with an area of only about 20 km2 it is the smallest of the three sister islands in the area: Koh Tao, Koh Phangan and Koh Samui. Koh Tao is especially renowned as the main diving learning center in Thailand, thanks to its unbeatable combination of a beautiful marine environment and good diving schools with affordable prices. But even if you’re not into diving, the beauty of the island and its comforts and facilities guarantee that you’ll also enjoy every second you spend out of the water. In Koh Tao there are numerous hiking trails for those who want to explore nature, exercise and enjoy magnificent views, lots of bays and beaches -some of them really beautiful- that invite you to lie on the sand, take a dip and enjoy the rich marine life while snorkeling, a lively nightlife with all kinds of bars, restaurants and live music, and even secluded coves for those who want to enjoy tranquility.
Koh Tao is famous as the main diving center in all of Thailand, but this beautiful small island offers much more than underwater fun, and is one of the most popular island destinations among backpackers.
ℹ️ Top Things to Do in Koh Tao
With more than 20 dive sites nearby, diving among the rich underwater life is the quintessential tourist attraction of this small backpacker enclave. Schools have sprung up all over the island offering courses in both traditional diving and apnea, at very affordable prices. One can ‘get baptized’ with a single dive, do a 3 and a half day Open Water course, or even continue studying and practicing in all kinds of intermediate courses until becoming a Dive Master.
Koh Nang Yuan Islands
Koh Nang Yuan is a very small archipelago made up of three small islands, located immediately off the northwestern tip of Koh Tao, a plasant 15 minute boat ride. The beach formed by the sandbar that connects the three islands is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful in all of Thailand. Koh Nang Yuan is owned by Lomprayah boat company, which is the one who manages, cares for and profits from the island. The waters that surround Koh Nang Yuan have some of the best corals in the Koh Tao area, which make it a popular spot for snorkeling and diving. Don’t miss the rocky viewpoint on top of the main island, which offers breathtaking views even though it can get very crowded.
A good way to get to know many of Koh Tao’s beaches is joining one of the snorkeling tours offered by many local agencies. Prices, which range from THB 800 to THB 1200, include equipment (goggles and snorkel, fins and vest) and food. These tours are done in large boats, whose stability allows them to reach almost any point even when the sea is somewhat rough, and they are a good way to have a global vision of the island, even though each stop is quite brief. If you prefer to enjoy more flexibility, you can gather a small group -to reduce costs- and charter a traditional long-tail boat for the whole day, which usually costs about 3,000 THB.
When you want to take a rest from so much water, one of the best options is to climb up to one of the viewpoints at the top of the main capes and hills of the island. All of them can be reached either on foot –although the heat and the distances must be assessed well– or by riding a motorcycle to the nearest passable point, and walking from there. The two most popular viewpoints in Koh Tao are John Suwan -the most famous and easily accessible- and Two View -right in the center of the island-. Don’t forget to bring a hat, sunscreen and water!
Koh Tao’s Beaches
The best beaches of Koh Tao for bathing, swimming and snorkeling are definitely not the most famous trio -Mae Haad, Sairee and Chalok Baan Kao-, but smaller and more remote beaches and coves with a bit -or much- more difficult access. In general, to reach the farthest reaches of the island it is convenient to use some type of vehicle, while for closer spots it may be better to sweat in a good pair of sports shoes. You’ll find more details in the ‘Best beaches in Koh Tao’ section below.
🏨 Where to stay in Koh Tao
Best Areas & Beaches in Koh Tao:
In the small island of Koh Tao there are hundreds of guest houses, hotels and resorts, distributed -although very unevenly- next to its beaches and bays. The three most famous beaches in Koh Tao are Mae Haad –the main one–, Sairee –the biggest one– and Chalok Baan Kao, and they are also the busiest and more touristy. Mae Haad is Koh Tao’s capital and main town, but even though it has a big accommodation offer, we recommend you to skip it and choose to stay in one of the main following areas.
Best for: Party lovers and backpackers.
Accommodation available: Hostels, 3 star Hotels and Resorts, and 4 star Villas.
✔️ Main party area in the island -even hough quite noisy-.
✔️ Better sleep in the northern beachfront stretcht for some quietness.
✔️ Lots of accommodation options, restaurants, bars and tourism oriented shops.
✔️ Nice sunsets.
Chalok Baan Kao
Best for: Families and travelers looking for a balance between quietness and good access to services.
Accommodation available: Cheap Bungalows and up to 3 star Resorts.
✔️ Lively but much quieter than Sairee and Mae Haad.
✔️ Lots of accommodation options and tourist services.
✔️ Beach with shallow water good for kids.
✔️ Walking distance to gorgeous ‘Freedom Beach’
Best for: Travelers looking for quietness and upscale accommodation.
Accommodation available: Mainly 4 star Resorts, and some 3 star Resorts and cheap bungalows as well.
✔️ Besides Chalok Baan Kao, other beaches in the south coast are: Freedom Beach, Ao Thian Ok (Shark Bay), Haad Sai Daeng.
✔️ Quiet area, but well connected to Chalok Baan Kao to use it’s services.
✔️ Overall beautiful beaches.
✔️ Some of the most luxurious resorts on the island.
✔️ Good snorkeling areas.
East & North Coasts
Best for: travelers looking for seclusion and quietness.
Accommodation available: Cheap Bungalows and up to 3 star Resorts.
✔️ Beaches you can find here: Ao Leuk, Ao Tanote, Ao Mao, Ao Hin Wong.
✔️ Quiet and uncrowded beaches.
✔️ Some good snorkeling beaches.
✔️ At Mango Bay -north coast- there’s the 4* Mango Bay Boutique Resort, the most luxurious option in the area.
🏖️ Best beaches in Koh Tao
We’ve been to all of them, these are the best:
1️⃣ Koh Nang Yuan
Technically not in Koh Tao, Koh Nang Yuan is a tiny archipelago of three small islands located a 15 minutes boat ride off the northwestern tip of Koh Tao. The beach formed by the sandbar that connects the 3 islands is one of the most beautiful in all of Thailand.
2️⃣ Ao Thian Ok (Shark Bay)
A strong candidate to become your favorite beach in Koh Tao, the so-called “Shark Bay” is a beautiful white sand beach famous for its good snorkeling. It is conveniently close to Chalok Ban Kao, so if you stay at quiet Ao Thian Ok you can easily use the bigger neighbour beach facilities.
3️⃣ Freedom Beach
A beautiful cove in an idyllic setting, quiet and esasily accessible by motorcycle or on foot. Located just a few meters southeast of Chalok, on the west side of the small cape that separates the bays of Chalok Ban Kao and Thian Ok.
4️⃣ Ao Leuk
This beautiful bay located at the southeastern end of Koh Tao has a beach that will delight those looking for calm waters in a beautiful setting. It is also a great place to snorkel. You can get there by motorcycle, although the route is complicated, with dirt roads and steep slopes that require good driving skills. Along the beach there are a couple of mid-range resorts.
5️⃣ Haad Sai Nuan
Haad Sai Nuan is made up of two really nice little beaches, separated by a rock formation, and is located at the southern end of the west coast, halfway between Mae Haad Beach and Chalok Baan Kao Bay. Thanks to its somewhat difficult access, despite being on the busy west coast, these beaches remain quiet and seldom visited.
6️⃣ Haad Sai Daeng
Sai Daeng beach is a beautiful and very quiet beach, and it is the ideal base to explore the underwater life that boils around the nearby islet known as “Shark Island”. Don’t be scared by the name! Although it is true that among the many marine species that inhabit there it is common to find small sharks, they are completely harmless.
7️⃣ Ao Tanote
With a majestic rock emerging from its waters (which you can climb with the help of a rope, and from which you can jump into the sea from 4 or 5 meters high), this beautiful beach offers good snorkeling opportunities as well. Access by motorcycle is not too difficult, although there are some slopes on the way.
8️⃣ Ao Mao, Ao Hin Wong & Ao Muang
The common feature of these three bays, located in the north coast and the northern stretch of east coast, is that they are the most remote and worst communicated in Koh Tao. The difficult access to its beaches (it is recommended park the motorcycle and walk) is precisely the key that allows them to be so quiet and uncrowded, with clean waters ideal for swimming and snorkeling.
✈️ Getting to Koh Tao
From Bangkok, you can get there by combining plane, bus or train with boat:
Plane + boat
➡️ Easiest, fastest but more expensive option: Fly to Koh Samui Airport (USM) with Bangkok Airways. From there, take a boat to Koh Tao.
➡️ Cheaper way, but not as fast: Fly from Bangkok to Chumphon (CJM). Then take a bus to Thung Makham Noi pier and a boat to Koh Tao. If the few daily available flights to Chumphon don’t suit your timing, you can fly to Surat Thani (URT) instead.
➡️ Bangkok Airways is the only airline flying to Koh Samui. If you fly to Chumphon or Surat Thani you will have more airlines to choose from, including a few good low cost options.
Train + boat
➡️ Take a train from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station to Chumphon. The trip takes between 8 and 10 hours. Ticket prices: sleeper berth 500-1200 THB, seat 200-500 THB.
➡️ Then take a bus to Thung Makham Noi pier.
➡️ At the pier you can get a ferry to Koh Tao, you’ll reach the island in about 2 hours.
Bus + boat
➡️ From Bangkok, you can take a bus to Chumphon at Sai Tai Mai bus station or at Khao San Road area. The trip to Chumphon takes about 8-9 hours, plus another 2 hours for the ferry trip from the pier to Koh Tao.
➡️ Bus-ferry combined ticket price is around 1.000 THB.
➡️ During high season is better to book your ticket in advance.
➡️ There are three main companies operating regular boats connecting Koh Tao with its neighboring islands – Koh Phangan and Koh Samui – and with the mainland: Lomprayah, Songserm and Seatran Discovery.
➡️ Keep in mind that most of the boats that connect Koh Tao with Koh Samui make a stopover at Koh Phangan.
➡️ From Koh Tao, the trip to Koh Samui costs between 500 and 700 THB, to Koh Phangan between 250 and 500 THB, and to Chumphon between 350 and 600 THB, depending on the company chosen.