Koh Tao isn’t just an island paradise for scuba divers – this small island in the Gulf Of Thailand is great for anyone looking to get away from the crowds
Look in any guidebook and Koh Tao will always be talked about in the same way – it’s a mecca for scuba divers with not much else going on for anyone else. That may have been the case 10 years ago, but today Koh Tao has a plethora of great restaurants and accommodation set around its scenic beaches that will keep any non-diver very happy. [If you're looking for Koh Tao scuba diving info, check Travelhappy's sister site Divehappy.com]
Indeed, Koh Tao’s very remoteness – it takes four hours to get there by ferry from the mainland, a couple of hours longer than getting to neighbouring Koh Phangan and Koh Samui – means that Koh Tao’s pace of development has been a lot more laid back. It’s one of the reasons I enjoyed living on the island for six months back in 2004. Koh Tao is a rugged, hilly island still very much covered by jungle. There are no high rise hotels on the island and no airport – and there’s no McDonalds or Starbucks either. ATMs and mobile phone antennae only arrived at the turn of the new century. Instead, there are three very small towns scattered along the coastline of Koh Tao which are connected by one major road.
There are numerous beaches which are extremely pretty and a huge range of accommodation that largely caters to upmarket backpackers, with several new luxury options too. [You can browse and book Koh Tao hotels online]. If you’re looking to get away from the madness of the crowds in Samui, Phuket or Pattaya, Koh Tao is the place to go.
New arrivals in Koh Tao come into the port town of Mae Haad, a single strip of shops where you can get a pickup taxi to either Sairee Beach or to Chalok Baan Kao. Sairee is the main hub of the island – it’s a mile long. pretty beach which has lots of accommodation, bars, nightclubs and dive shops along it and culminates in Sairee Village, a small collection of shops and restaurants, including Koh Tao stalwarts Simple Life and Choppers. Most of the accommodation along Sairee is classic Thai wooden huts with balconies and room for a hammock, a stone’s throw from the sea. Sairee is the best place to be based in Koh Tao to begin with, simply because it puts everything within walking distance. Otherwise you’ll need to hire a motorbike (visit Mr Berno at Lederhosen Motorbikes in Mae Haad) or get a taxi each time you want to go out, which can be a bit tedious. A paved walkway runs the length of Sairee Beach so you can stroll up and down under the palm trees. When the paved walkway turns into a muddy hill – you’re at the end of the beach. The muddy dirt road leads up to another cluster of hotels and back to Mae Haad after another 15 minute walk.
Chalok Baan Kao is the other main town on the southern coast of the island. It’s a good spot to go if you want a bit more peace and quiet away from the Sairee scene. There are some cracking beaches around here, especially Shark Bay, which has some spectacular snorkelling, as the Bay really is a shark nursery and the baby sharks can often be seen in the water.
Overlooking Shark Bay is Jamahkiri, a truly unique restaurant and spa that has been built into the steep hill itself using traditional Thai materials, creating a breathtaking piece of architecture. You can go up there for lunch and dinner – perfect for watching sunset over the bay – and get a complete set of spa treatments too. You can also book accommodation up there too, although bear in mind it’s quite pricey and it’s also pretty remote. [You can book hotel rooms online for Jamahkiri] It’s at least 20 minutes car ride by 4 wheel pickup from Mae Haad – and the road is almost vertical in some places! It’s worth the effort though and the Jamahkiri office in Mae Haad provides the pickup for free. Alternatively you can get a beautiful view from the other side of Shark Bay at the New Heaven Bakery and Restaurant, which is a lot easier to reach.
While there is a growing range of luxury accommodation and spa therapy on Koh Tao, it co-exists peacefully with the island’s backpacker roots – at least for now. Prices on Koh Tao are much cheaper than Samui, for example, despite everything having to be imported to the island. Those looking for five star hotels and the like don’t usually bother looking as far as Koh Tao, and it’s the laid back nature of the island that makes it so appealing. With just the one major road snaking through the island, it’s possible to feel at home within a couple of days of being there because you get your orientation so quickly. Indeed, it’s easy to forget that life on the island exists beyond Sairee Beach! There are numerous small, remote bungalows scattered around the bays of the rest of the island, several only accessible by boat, that let the more adventurous get some real time to themselves.
In short, Koh Tao has plenty to offer travellers looking for a place to really relax and not necessarily go scuba diving. It’s a popular destination, so there’s plenty of other people to meet, but the island never feels crowded. There’s no fighting through sun loungers on the beach or anything like that. It’s got everything you need – decent accommodation that’s not too pricey, a range of great food, from Thai to Mexican to Italian, plus the inevitable Irish pub Dirty Nelly’s, and a collection of beautiful beaches that should keep sun worshippers happy. Most people who come to Koh Tao plan to be there for three or four days and end up staying three or four weeks instead. It’s that kind of place.