Koh Tao is one of my favourite destinations in Thailand due to its remote location, beautiful landscapes and most of all, the abundance of marine life. Koh Tao has a few nice, semi- virgin beaches and a few hiking routes with lovely views. But its main draw is what can be found underwater: coral reefs inhabited by innumerable amount of species including sharks, green turtles and the depths frequented by majestic whale sharks. The island isn’t really affected by mass tourism- the majority of visitors are backpackers and divers. Nevertheless, due to its small size, Koh Tao can get very crowded during the peak season.
Koh Tao’s biggest drawbacks are high prices and the lack of affordable transport options within the island. It is also, as we got to know only much later, infamous for mysterious murders of Western tourists happening suspiciously often. Finally, keep in mind that Ko Tao is a small island with fragile ecosystem so excessive tourism has very negative effect on the natural habitat. I didn’t realise that until I was already on the island.
When to visit
April is considered a shoulder season in Koh Tao and it’s a great time to visit not just because the beaches aren’t overcrowded but also because the probability of spotting whale sharks is the highest. In fact, we heard of the whale sharks being spotted on most of days we stayed on the island. The very best time to come is the end/beginning of the month when the island becomes virtually deserted for a couple of days due to the Full Moon Party on the adjacent Koh Phangan island.
Where to stay
After getting off the ferry from Chumphon we were immediately approached by Koh Tao’s taxi mafia. Taxis on Koh Tao cost a fortune so we completely ignored the drivers and decided to walk to our guesthouse, located at the northern edge of Sairee beach. There is a paved promenade from Mae Head pier all the way till the end of Sairee Beach and it takes just around 25-30 mins to walk there. Most of the path is shaded.
Sairee is Koh Tao’s most developed beach and a kind of place we’d normally avoid. However, our accommodation (a basic double room, a shared bathroom and a shared terrace) was the cheapest we found on Booking.com. It turned out to be a great decision to stay at this part of the island due to the strategic location of our guesthouse. We were within a walking distance from the beach, shops and affordable eateries but far enough from the ‘centre’ not to be affected by the noise from numerous bars and restaurants.
The blogs claiming you can explore island on foot are only partially right. Koh Tao might be just 7 km long and 3.5 km wide but it’s very mountainous and you have to take into consideration the hot and humid weather. We were lucky enough to stay at the northern tip of Sairee beach, from where we could set off on foot in various directions relatively easily.
Sairee is a rather uninspiring beach. It’s just a narrow strip of sand, with plenty of resorts and bars blaring loud music at night and with longtail boats (serving as taxis) moored not very far from the shore. The water is (relatively) murky and shallow. You can’t really swim there as the deeper water is inaccessible due to the boats and coral. It isn’t a snorkeling spot either.
Sairee definitely wasn’t our kind of beach, though thankfully in April the beach was half empty. Staying on a virgin beach would feel lovely but would force us to eat at the guesthouse’s restaurant which is never a budget option.
Hin Wong Bay
The very day we arrived, we walked across the island from our guesthouse in the northern part of Sairee to Hin Wong bay. It was a steep climb and even steeper descent and it took us around 40 mins to get there.
Hin Wong is definitely worth a climb, though. This coarse sand beach is tiny and there are lots of huge boulders around so it might not be a perfect poster example of a tropical paradise. However, the beach is usually empty, literally with just up to 10 people around. There is a bar at the beach charging you 50 baht to enter (or asking you to buy a drink).
You can hire a snorkel set from the bar for 50 baht. I’d highly recommend to try snorkeling at Hin Wong, as this place is ideal for the purpose. The water visibility is simply incredible. The sea becomes pretty deep really soon but it’s totally safe to swim and snorkel since you’re protected from the currents by the bay. Underwater, a world of wonders awaits you: rocks and corals are teeming with life. Incredibly colourful fish of all sizes (like butterfly fish, parrot fish, batfish) surround you. With a bit of luck, you can spot a spotted stingray lurking at the rocky bottom.
One important piece of advice: wear a T-shirt (the longer the better) to protect yourself from sunburn. It’s easy to spend hours in the water and no sunblock can help to protect even the darker skin from the strength of the sun magnified by the reflection of the water. Both me and Sayak got completely burned that day and had to spend the following day away from the sun to recover.
The second time we went to Hin Wong, we hired a scooter from our guesthouse, leaving my passport as a deposit. Remember never to rent your scooter from anywhere else than the guesthouse you stay at! There are plenty of horrifying stories on the internet about astronomical prices charged for even a slightest damage done to the vehicles from the scooter rental companies.
The road to Hin Wong from Sairee was so steep that the scooter didn’t have enough power to take both of us all the way up. I had to get off and walk the last bit. The way down was pretty scary but at least the road was wide and covered with perfectly smooth tarmac.
Dangerous view points
We made a big mistake when we took a narrow road to see the Mango View Point. Sayak’s driving skills weren’t good enough for this challenge. We first saw a nearby paid Sunset View point on the way (entrance: 20 baht or buying a drink). In my opinion, it wasn’t really worth paying as we later found a better view point which was free of charge.
We then got on a scooter again only to fall down on the upward curve a bit above the viewpoint. I was lucky to get just a few scratches on my hand, tear my dress and bruise my bum. Sayak, on the other hand, was bleeding profusely from deeper scratches on his leg and elbow. The scooter got scratched, too but luckily nothing more than that.
We didn’t have anything to dress the wounds, not even water to clean them so we came back to the lady who charged us for visiting a viewpoint. She was our salvation. She must have been very used to accidents and turned out to be quite skilled in first aid. She cleaned our wounds with water, then disinfected them with alcohol and iodine and dressed them with gauze and bandage.
Such accidents are everyday occurrence on Koh Tao. We saw plenty of people with bandaged arms and legs during our stay and heard of quite serious accidents requiring immediate hospitalisation.
Unexpected change of plans
The scooter accident seriously messed up our plans. We were supposed to start a diving course the following day but that really wouldn’t be a good idea with all those open wounds. Wound infection is a real threat and should not be ignored. One way to deal with it is to disinfect all cuts each time after coming out of the water. The other one is to wait until they heal.
It was quite painful for me to stay almost the entire day at the guesthouse. I just did morning yoga on the empty Sairee beach and had a nice walk along the same beach shortly before the sunset. Sairee beach becomes much more romantic and photogenic with a change of light, especially the rocky outcrop closer to the southern end of the beach.
Hiking on Koh Tao
The following day we still had to keep away from the water so we went for a hike instead. Due to the central location of our accommodation, we could make an entire loop on foot, without worrying about transfer to the hiking route.
We took a large road perpendicular to Koh Tao’s main thoroughfare, passed Koh Tao Gym and Fitness and turned right into a much smaller road (starting right in front of the Tarna Align Resort). The road took us to the west coast viewpoint marked with a small, yellow, concrete pole. We could see the entire west coast from there. I had a feeling that a small path to the left could lead us further uphill – and I was right. A much narrower path led through an open area to a spot covered with man-made pebble towers. From there it was just a few steps more to the top of the hill, offering a good view at the east coast, including the Shark Island.
Although we climbed just over 300 meters above sea level, it felt like quite a hike in the very hot and humid weather. We then came back to the crossroads and this time carried on straight, reaching soon Koh Tao Two View Bar. We followed a tarmac road leading to Koh Tao’s main road (parallel to Sairee beach). As we didn’t fancy coming back along the busy road, we took the first available left turn to get to the Sairee promenade and walked all the way back to our guesthouse. Most of the walk to the viewpoint was through a forest so there was a fair amount of shade. As there was just one path for most of the way, it was impossible to get lost despite complete lack of signs. We haven’t seen a single soul during the entire trip and the view from the top was very rewarding.
Finally, my wounds looked good enough to get back to the water. Deciding not to risk hiring a scooter again, we chose to walk to Sai Nuan beach, (located around 4 km away from our guesthouse). We walked along the Sairee beach promenade and carried on pass Mae Haad pier until the tarmac road finished. From there, we went right through a posh resort and followed the signs to Sai Nuan. Once we passed the resort’s premises, a narrow dirt path led us up and down a small hill (mostly shaded by trees). We could enjoy lovely views at the rocky coastline along the way.
Before reaching Sai Nuan, we passed by Jansom Bay, belonging to Charm Churee Villa. This tiny bay was supposedly a great snorkeling site and a perfect place for spotting sea turtles. A whopping 200 baht entrance fee successfully deterred us from entering. We continued straight to Sai Nuan.
Sai Nuan beach is accessible only by foot or boat but was surprisingly crowded the day we visited. Many people, including snorkelers and divers on their first day of training arrived by boat in the early afternoon. After two boats moored in the bay, the water surface available to swim shrank considerably. I imagine it must be unbearably crowded during the peak season.
Sai Nuan is a small but undeniably beautiful sandy beach fringed with coconut palms. It is located in a nice shallow bay ending with rocky outcrops. Those rocks are the best area for snorkeling. We saw plenty of fish there but not as much as at Hin Wong. Learning from our mistakes, this time I was wearing a T-shirt both in and out of the water but it still didn’t save me from re-burning my bottom which the T-shirt couldn’t cover.
There are some basic huts and nicer bungalows on the beach. They were empty at the time of our visit and we were quite thrilled to discover that the ones without direct view at the sea had the same price as our double room at Sairee beach. We felt very tempted to move there after completing the diving course. However, we eventually decided it’d be too much effort to go for every meal all the way to Mae Haad area (as the resort’s restaurant was too pricey for our budget).
Koh Tao on a rainy day
The sun hazard virtually disappeared the following day when the sky became overcast. An initial drizzle turned into a proper downpour which encouraged us to spend most of the day in a sea-facing cafe. It was the first and last time we indulged in such a pastime as we found the food portions and its quality poor value in relation to the hefty price. We were determined from that day onward to stick only to road-side eateries.
Koh Tao on a budget
There were a couple of affordable, simple places to eat near our guesthouse- all of them hidden in small lanes above the main road, away from the beach. The vicinity of 7/11 allowed us to buy 5 litre water bottles: cheaper and more environmentally- friendly than regular size bottles. Sadly, there are no water dispensing machines on Koh Tao. The only two places where we found free water was the diving school and one of the cheap eateries. Staying near the most developed hub of the island gave us also easy access to a very needed pharmacy and shops selling overpriced fruit.