Read more about my Self Care Sabbatical and the other places I’ve visited!
So if you have read some of my other posts, you will know that Koh Tao is the place I got “stuck” during my self-care sabbatical. My initial plan for Koh Tao was to stay 6-8 days, do my PADI Open Water certification (and possibly the Advanced Open Water), do a few fun dives, and then move on to Koh Samui. Or Koh Lanta. Maybe Railay Beach?
I never made it to Samui. Or Koh Lanta. Or Railay Beach.
Apparently, this happens to a lot of people who come to Koh Tao. They intend to stay for just a week or two and end up staying for months at a time. Some are like me. They come to dive and then fall in love with diving and don’t want to leave. Others just fall in love with this chill island, find their niche (if it’s not diving), and stay for a while. It’s a small island, much smaller than Koh Samui and Koh Phangan (so I hear, you know since I never made it there!). The island is known for scuba diving – it is the #1 place in the world to get certified and is also one of the cheapest places in the world to go diving. There are dozens and dozens of dive shops all over the island, as well as places offering snorkeling tours for those that don’t want to submerge themselves 18 meters under the sea. There are some really nice dive sites in Koh Tao and the conditions are generally pretty good which makes it a great place to learn. I’ll share more about diving in Koh Tao in a future post!
It’s also a very chill place to vacation and is popular among non-divers as well. It doesn’t have a major party reputation like Koh Phangan (home of the Full Moon Party) and isn’t super commercial like Koh Samui. Yes, there is a Dairy Queen on the island (and rumors of a McDonald’s coming soon), but it’s not a place where you will find a bunch of chain restaurants or shopping centers. Instead, you will find a mix of friendly locals and Westerners (some who have gotten stuck there for years), great local food spots, lovely beaches and viewpoints, and a few places to dance & drink the night away.
I stayed in Koh Tao because I couldn’t imagine that any of the other nearby islands (or even further away islands) would offer anything better. So many other travelers echoed this statement, especially if they had visited the other islands and weren’t overly impressed.
What to Do on the Island
A great way to see the island is to rent a motorbike and drive around, checking out the beaches and viewpoints and grabbing some great food along the way.
Check out the beaches – Some of my favorites are Tanote Bay, Sae Daeng Beach, and Freedom Beach (walk around to the area with the mangroves on the beach). Shark Bay is also supposed to be quite nice (and great for snorkeling).
Hike up to one of the many viewpoints around the island – Fraggle Rock, Two Rocks (near Love Koh Tao coffee shop), and John Suwan are popular places, especially at sunset. You will have to pay a small fee to enter the hiking area but the views are totally worth it. There is also a viewpoint near Mango Bay (northern part of the island), but supposedly a bit more challenging to get to.
Go under the sea – Scuba dive! Learn how or do fun dives if you are already certified. I HIGHLY recommend Master Divers, but there are plenty of dive shops to check out. Some dive shops will offer snorkeling, but there are also snorkel tours offered by Oxygen that will take you all around the island. I loved Master Divers because they are a slightly smaller shop with great equipment and very friendly, professional staff.
Play mini-golf – If you are looking for something to do away from the water, check out mini golf at Koh Tao Leisure Park. It’s not the fanciest course, but it’s a fun activity and not too expensive. This venue also has a small “movie theater” so check out what’s playing while you are in town. (Sidenote: I don’t recommend the food here).
Visit the turtle sanctuary – Go to Chalok and see the turtles at New Heaven dive school. Check the website to see what times you are able to visit.
Visit Koh Nangyuan – Close to Koh Tao is an even smaller island, Koh Nangyuan. Many of the beautiful photos you see when you Google “Koh Tao” are actually of this island. It’s owned by the Singha Brewing Company and you will have to pay a fee to come to the island. You can take a taxi boat from Koh Tao to get here. The island is very popular with snorkelers and sunbathers. One of the coolest things about the island is the sand bridge that connects the two parts of the island. There is also a very nice viewpoint to hike to! I never made it to this island despite many plans to visit!
Get some exercise – Learn how to do Muay Thai at Monsoon Fight Club. Stretch and relax at Shambhala Yoga or Ocean Sound. There are also a few Crossfit gyms scattered around the island and Monsoon offers a fitness center as well.
Get a bamboo tattoo – There are tattoo shops everywhere in Koh Tao, most offering bamboo tattoos. If you are looking for a permanent souvenir from your trip to Thailand, this is a fun (and somewhat painful) experience! I got a small (2 inches) one on my side which cost about $30 and took about 30 minutes to complete. Read more about bamboo tattoos here.
Go for a Thai massage – Impress in Sairee offers good massages with a view, go at sunset for the best one! In Mae Haad, go to Infinity Spa.
All My Favorite Food Spots
During my four months in Koh Tao, I became quite the creature of habit. I spent most of my time in Mae Haad and didn’t have a motorbike, so my options for food were quite limited. That said, I have a few select favorites scattered around the island for all types of cuisine/budget.
Thai – For awesome Thai food, my very favorite place is Pom Somtam in Mae Haad (close to the ferry). At one point, my friends and I came here 8 times in 5 days. Pom, the owner, is SO friendly and always greets you with a smile. The menu is much smaller than the other Thai places nearby but EVERYTHING is good. I should know – I tried nearly every dish on the menu (but would definitely recommend the cashew nut dish and the papaya salad). It’s cheap and delicious.
Other good Thai food:
- Mae Haad: Long Thai (service is not so friendly), Infinity Thai Food, Pranee’s Kitchen, Bam Bam (HUGE portions, offer Western food, but slow service) and RR Aroi (decent food near the pier). There are also a lot of unnamed spots/carts around the area that are worth checking out.
- Sairee: Coffee Boat (super cheap and really good), 995 Duck (awesome soup and noodle dishes with duck!), Su Chili (more expensive Thai spot, try the Penang Curry pizza for something a little different)
- Chalok: P. Oys (come for the massaman curry, chicken wings, and the khao soi – only offered on Tuesdays), Tukta
Healthy Food – Lots of veggie and vegan friendly spots in Koh Tao. I frequented Coconut Monkey as it was adjacent to Master Divers, would definitely recommend for a great breakfast, smoothie/snack, or lunch spot. Lots of variety in the menu that will appeal to all kinds of diets. They also serve drinks in the evening with a gorgeous view of the sunset on the beach. If you are in Sairee, I suggest Vegetabowl (salads and veg bowls) and Factory Cafe (healthy breakfasts, salads, smoothies). In Chalok, grab a juice at Koppee Cafe.
Western Food – If you are looking for a bit of a splurge, I recommend Barracuda. A mix of Western and Asian food, lots of seafood, and incredible cheese plates. Good wine selection as well. It’s expensive for Koh Tao, but not too pricey compared to US or European prices.
Pizza – Neptune (Mae Haad) and La Pizzeria (Sairee – delivers)
Burgers/Sandwiches – Hippo Burger offers a bunch of different types of burgers, all really good. Juicy Burger is a popular spot as well (and they deliver!). Lots of good sandwich options at Reef Cafe, a sports bar in Mae Haad that shows sporting events from around the world (I reco the Chicken Zinger sandwich). Near the ferry pier is Da’s Sandwiches. Very popular around lunchtime, huge sandwiches (great to take with you on your ferry ride!)
Breakfast – For traditional breakfast, go to Zest Cafe in Mae Haad. They are one of the few places open at 6am! Excellent coffee, good options for breakfast (served all day), as well as burgers/sandwiches/salads. Came here nearly every day for my coffee! Next door is Cappuccino Bakery – another good spot for breakfast or lunch. Greasy Spoon in Mae Haad offers a huge English breakfast to cure your hangover. Reef Cafe is a sports bar in Mae Haad offering breakfast all day (and good if you want to watch an early morning match from the US). Also, try Coconut Monkey or Factory Cafe mentioned above.
If you are looking for Indian food, go to Shalimar in Sairee (they also deliver). They have nightly specials and everything is really delicious. Some of the best Indian food I had on my trip.
Sunset Drinks & Nightlife
You are doing something wrong if you don’t see a few beautiful sunsets while you are in Koh Tao. This was one of my favorite things about living on this island – every night is incredible! Best place to see the sunset is along Sairee Beach and there are a number of beach bars that offer a great view and a Happy Hour special. I recommend Maya Bar and Blue Water Cafe. In Mae Haad, check out Breeze Bar or Coconut Monkey.
If you are looking to party, there is a Koh Tao Pub Crawl offered every Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It’s Asia’s biggest pub crawl and it is quite the sight to see…I never did the pub crawl but saw the large group out at the bars in Sairee many times. If you want to party, but not join this crazy group, you can go to Chopper’s, Fishbowl or Deeza Bar (beer pong), Leo Bar (dancing & fire show), and BND (dancing). There are a few bars in Chalok, but far more low key.
There is also a drag show offered every night in Sairee at Queen’s Cabaret.
Getting to Koh Tao
The worst part about Koh Tao is that it’s a pain to get to. This also holds true for the other Samui islands. If you are looking for the easiest option, you can fly into Koh Samui and take a ferry from there to Phangan or Tao. However, this will definitely be more expensive and not every city will have a route to Samui. Most likely you will be coming from Bangkok to this set of islands. And you will have the option to take a bus or a train to Chumphon where you will then board a ferry to the islands (you can buy both tickets together).
A popular option is to travel from Bangkok to Chumphon overnight, arriving at the islands in the morning by ferry. It is not the most pleasant option, but it is nice to get to Koh Tao around 9 or 10am and have the whole day available to you. I recommend the night train because you will have the option for a sleeper car with an actual bed that you can sleep on (or attempt sleep in my case). Definitely try to get a lower berth if possible – these are about six inches wider than the upper berth and more comfortable. You will arrive in Chumphon around 5am (ugh, I know) with a bit of time to have a coffee or take a little nap before boarding a shuttle to your ferry. There are a few ferry operators going to the Samui Islands – Lomprayah is the fastest and will get you to Koh Tao around 9am. A good alternative if Lomprayah is booked is Songserm. It’s not as fast (will arrive around 10am), but it’s also a bit cheaper. Don’t recommend taking the Seatran ferry.
If you take the bus from Bangkok, you will have the same options for ferries. However, the night bus won’t really offer you any sort of sleeping comfort and will likely arrive in Chumphon even earlier than the train (so more waiting time). The bus departs from Khao San Road in Bangkok, which may be more convenient than the train depending on where you are staying in Bangkok.
Once in Koh Tao, you can take the ferry to the other Samui Islands, back to Chumphon (to go to Bangkok), or to Suratthani (for land travel to southern Thailand). If you need help booking travel or dealing with visas, check out Island Travel in Mae Haad. They are awesome!
Where to Stay
Although Koh Tao is a small island, there are still a lot of options for where to stay and choosing an area will depend on what you plan to do while on the island. I had the pleasure of staying in a few different locations before settling down in an apartment for 3.5 months so I got to experience a few parts of the island. Note that if you are coming from the ferry pier to any of these areas (except Mae Haad), there are fixed rates for taxis and you will not be able to negotiate these down.
Sairee Beach – This is the party area in Koh Tao and where you will find most of the bars (and backpackers). There is a mix of hostels and resorts in this area, though it is not going to be nearly as quiet or remote as other places on the island. And the beaches are not quite as nice over here. One of the best things about this area is that it is quite walkable. There is a walking path (aka “the Yellow Brick Road”) – which pedestrians share with motorbikes – that runs alongside the beach. There are a ton of dive shops in this area so it’s a good spot if you are diving nearby. And with so many bars and restaurants in the area (including a lot of healthy/vegan/vegetarian options), it’s a great area to stay for a few days and explore. From the ferry pier, it’s about 20-30 minutes walking or a short cab/motorbike ride. I recommend Savage Hostel in Sairee Beach (awesome food, fantastic rooftop pool). There are a number of small bungalow resorts all over this area – I stayed in a cheap one called Nat Resort which was low on frills, but a great budget option.
Mae Haad – This is the area close to the ferry pier. It’s a good location if you are diving at one of the dive shops nearby (as I was), but there isn’t much excitement in this area. A lot of souvenir shops, grocery stores, some good (and not so good) restaurants, and easy access to the ferry. This is also a good area if you don’t have a motorbike and want to be centrally located to other parts of the island. I’d recommend Ananda Villa near the beach or Blackwood Hostel.
Chalok – Further south from Mae Haad is Chalok, a quieter stretch of accommodations and restaurants (and dive shops, of course). I first stayed in this area as I was looking for something a bit quieter than Sairee. It’s really lovely because it is quiet and there are a lot of nice, local restaurants nearby. However, if you don’t have a motorbike it is not very convenient to stay in this area. I was able to walk to the dive shop in Mae Haad in about 20 minutes, but I had to walk on the side of the road (no walking path) which was really unpleasant at night when it was dark. But if you are looking for a quiet spot with some amenities nearby (or you are diving with a shop in this part of the island), I’d definitely recommend staying in this area. I stayed at The Dearly Hostel which was a really nice hostel (awesome rooms and a nice pool, offered some fun activities). There are plenty of little bungalow resorts nearby.
Elsewhere on the island, you will find many quieter resorts and some high-end accommodations. You will likely want to rent a motorbike if you are staying in these areas as they are not close to other parts of the island (especially if you are going to any of the dive shops in other areas). If you just want to chill at a resort/beach the whole time, these areas might be better for that!