You’ve made it to Bangkok. Enjoyed its chaotic, entertaining streets. Eaten more mysterious street food than you should’ve. Now its time to tone down all the chaos with a little beach life at Koh Tao Island.
Koh Tao literally means ‘Turtle Island’ and is one of the more popular islands to visit in Thailand. It’s packed with natural beauty, warm locals, and lots of unique things to do. First, you have to figure out how to get there.
The easiest, most popular way to get from Bangkok to Koh Tao is the bus and ferry combo. It usually takes somewhere between 13 and 15 hours, depending on traffic, but you can pay a little extra for a high-speed boat to shave 3-4 hours off the trip. Personally, I think time is valuable on a possibly once in a lifetime holiday, so you may as well splurge on the faster route.
The slower route leaves from Rambuttri Road, and the high-speed route leaves from 172 Khaosan Road. A double-decker bus, usually air-conditioned with reclining seats, will pick you up and bring you to a boat waiting for you on the beach.
Your boat will eventually arrive in Mae Haad Pier, which is close to tonnes of restaurants and bars, so if you need a little pick-me-up after the long trip, you’ll be fine. If you prefer to go straight to your accommodation and it’s not within walking distance, just look for a taxi. You can’t miss them. They will usually be pickup trucks labeled ‘TAXI’ with a friendly driver standing outside trying to lure you in.
Koh Tao is generally a cheap place, but the taxi industry is a bit of a racket. The pickup trucks will cost you around 400 baht, or 100 baht per person starting at four persons. The drivers are pretty firm on the fees, but you can always try to bargain; You might not always be successful, but it sure is satisfying when you are.
Speaking of accommodation, what are your options?
Koh Tao isn’t well known for ritzy hotels or big chains, and you won’t find them on the island. You can, however, get really nice deals on villas in the hills, and Airbnb is the probably best place to look. There are always new places that are becoming available, and the options are usually plentiful.
For tighter budgets, there are hostels for as low as 250 baht (about $8) per night, and they’re surprisingly nice with decent mattresses and air conditioning.
If you think you’d prefer the familiarity of a basic hotel, they will usually start around 2000 baht ($65) per night.
Things to Do
You might be tempted to throw a towel down on the sand and spend hours at a time soaking up that precious vitamin D, and that’s fine, but there’s a lot of unique experiences to be had on Koh Tao that you won’t want to miss.
Diving and Snorkeling
Koh Toh is one of the most beautiful and cheapest places to go diving and snorkeling. A scuba diving excursion will cost you around 800 baht ($30). And if you’re feeling extra adventurous and productive, why not get your diving certification (PADI) while you’re there? For about 8500 baht ($275), you can take a 4-day course, which includes accommodation, breakfast, equipment rental, and your PADI certificate. Outside of Koh Tao, this would be double the price and without any of the accommodation or food.
If the whole scuba diving thing is too adventurous for you or your travel mates, you can always enjoy the ocean in a kayak for about $4 an hour. This is a great way to get away from the crowds, reach other hidden beaches, and even get to some of the other tiny islands around the coastline. You can go by yourself, or you can take a tour somewhere around 1000 baht ($32)
For those who are explorers at heart, a scooter or motorbike will be your most valuable asset on Koh Tao. They are cheap, in abundance, and allow you to reach all the hidden corners of the island without having to pay for cabs. Just make sure you drive safe and wear a helmet as the roads are not always in the best shape. Only rent from presentable shops with good reputations. Tourists getting ripped off at the end of a rental or having their motorbikes break down while they’re out in the middle of nowhere is not unheard of. If you’re not comfortable on a motorbike, you can always just rent a regular bike.
In spite of all of its beauty, Koh Tao is still a developing part of the world. With that, comes a few risks common with developing countries, so sometimes you have to keep a good head on your shoulders. Make sure to never give your passport as security in any rental or transaction. Always keep an eye on your drink, don’t wander off to unfamiliar spots late at night, keep an eye on your bags, and don’t do business with unsavory types. You can find horror stories on the internet about vacations gone wrong on the Thai islands, but in general, those are exceptions to the rule. The locals on Koh Tao are amazing, exuberant, smiley people who are generally really upbeat and fun to be around, so if you’re not sure about something, you can usually just ask someone.
The Night Life
If you still have the energy, the best way to top off a day on Koh Tao is enjoying the nightlife. One of the most popular things to do is a Koh Tao pub crawl, and you’ll see people everywhere wearing the ‘Koh Tao Pub Crawl’ t-shirts.
They give you a bucket of liquor, four free shots, a t-shirt, and then take you on a tour of all the most fun bars and clubs on the island where you receive discounts on drinks and other fun surprises. It’s a great way to experience the local businesses, meet interesting people, and maybe capture some funny photos to look at when you’re back home.
With the right preparation and attitude, there’s no reason Koh Tao won’t be a highlight for your Thai adventure. Traveling is good for you. You get to see the world and learn about other cultures.