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Ko Tao

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In a nutshell

Take a scuba diving course amid the hordes, or just don a snorkel and marvel at the array of beautiful marine life. Jump in a kayak to observe life above the waterline or back on overdeveloped land, everything from paintball to minigolf to muay Thai is on offer.

Cashew shaped Ko Tao, or Turtle Island, is one of Thailand's top diving locations, with plenty of amazing dive sites within easy reach of the Gulf of Thailand destination. Whale sharks are seasonal visitors and this is probably one of the few places in the world where you can see these gentle giants while scuba diving. But Ko Tao also has plenty to offer non-divers, with an array of non-water based activities such as hiking and yoga. Those willing to escape from the congested diver hotspots are rewarded with gorgeous beaches, great viewpoints and hospitable locals.

But it hasn't always been snorkels and sunscreen here. In the past, Ko Tao has been a pirate's hideout, a layover for fishermen, a prison and a badly-kept hardcore backpacker secret. While some say the island took its name from its turtle shape, others say it was named for the turtles that used to breed plentifully in its waters. Today, the turtles largely go elsewhere and instead thousands of recreational divers and other tourists flock here annually. The island is ranked number two worldwide for the issuing of PADI certificates. (Top spot is held by Cairns, Australia.)

Western travellers first stumbled on Ko Tao in the 1980s, leading to the first rickety bamboo bungalows being thrown up. Within a decade, the island became a well-established alternative to Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Samui, thanks to its fine snorkelling and the cheap huts. In more recent years, development has exploded, with more than 100 resorts, around 40 diving schools and many other related businesses now operating on the island. Accommodation now ranges from semi-budget beach shacks through to boutique resorts and villas meaning there is just about something for everyone.

The rapid development has transformed Mae Haad and Sairee from traditional wooden villages with dirt roads to bustling tourist centres. Despite this, Ko Tao does retain a certain rustic charm versus Samui, Pha Ngan and Phuket, and visitors can still find picture book Thailand tucked away on this small island.

The busiest times of year are Christmas-New Year and July-August, when booking ahead is strongly recommended as it can be next to impossible to find a budget bed otherwise. Whale shark sightings occur outside the peak times, typically between March and May and a few in September and October too. Budget accommodation also books up quickly directly after adjacent Ko Pha Ngan's Full Moon Party, when partiers arrive here after their break there.

The ongoing violence in Thailand's deep south and political uncertainties in the capital have contributed to a drop off in arrivals to the island, though neither of these issues have much to do with Ko Tao. The island is generally very safe and with its great variety of activities and places to stay, there's never been a better time to visit.

Related reading

Bangkok to Ko Samui, Pha Ngan & Tao
Dive Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan & Ko Tao
Do I need reservations for my holiday?
Ko Tao for non-divers guide
What is the best island in Thailand?
Check Ko Tao hotel rates on Agoda. Best price guarantee!

Text and/or map last updated on 30th January, 2015.

Last reviewed by:
Ayesha ditched her power suit in favour of a wetsuit and ventured to Ko Tao to indulge in her passion for scuba diving. Apart from writing for she manages the Master Divers Blog and whenever possible is underwater with her camera shooting fish!

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Reviews about Ko Tao

A little bit of everything
By cbg0927, 11 January 2014
3.0  stars

Nice Island
By BuaManagement, 20 May 2012
4.0  stars

Paradise under threat
By Beetrootboat, 27 February 2012
4.0  stars

I love Ko Tao
By annanel, 31 January 2012
5.0  stars

There is more than scuba diving on Ko Tao
By Phoebenix, 16 September 2011
3.0  stars

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