Once jokingly referred to as a drinking island with a diving problem, Ko Tao has evolved far beyond backpackers diving and beach boozing. Today the island draws families, flashpackers and sports junkies alike. Visitors will find hiking trails of various levels of difficulty that end with the promise of picturesque views, extreme rock-climbing, live jam sessions where locals and tourists showcase their talents, beach barbecues accompanied by fire shows and even trapeze-flying classes. For such a small island, Ko Tao has a lot to offer.
The draw for many visitors is still scuba diving and for good reason. With more than 35 dive sites, 60 scuba schools and notably inexpensive scuba certification price tags, Ko Tao is Thailand’s diving mecca. 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. Bull sharks have also been spotted on occasion.
It hasn't always been snorkels and sunscreen here. Though mostly uninhabited aside from the fishermen who would occasionally take shelter on shore here, Ko Tao became a political prison in 1943 when more than 100 prisoners were transferred from Ko Tarutao. The prison was home to several prominent Thais including the novelist Nimittramongkhon Nawarat, who authored The Dreams of an Idealist, and Sor-Sethabute, a Thai-English dictionary author.
In 1944 the prisoners were issued a general pardon and released to the mainland. Many had been incarcerated for a decade or more and their release to Surat Thani was met with bowls of food and wishes of good luck from local residents.
For another two years the remote island remained mostly uninhabited, until two brothers made their way here in traditional boats to begin a life for themselves. Their families joined later and several other families followed suit. Some say that the abundance of turtles at this time gave the island its name of Turtle Island. Others say it was named for its shape when viewed from Ko Pha Ngan. Either way, the turtles have largely moved elsewhere as tourism has taken off.
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. 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.
Rapid development has since 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. 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 your accommodation ahead of your arrival is strongly recommended as it can be next to impossible to find a budget bed otherwise. Budget accommodation also books up quickly directly after adjacent Ko Pha Ngan's Full Moon Party.
About our coverage of Ko Tao
While Ko Tao is a relatively small island, hundreds of places to stay are spread over a dozen different bays and beaches, so we've split our island coverage into a series of smaller sections to make it easier to navigate. Unless you're arriving by kayak your ferry will almost certainly dock at Ao Mae Haad, the logistics hub and meet and greet centre for Ko Tao. Here you'll find a million dive shops, restaurants and bars, plus a clutch of places to stay.
While there is beach at Mae Haad, it is pretty grotty and most head north to Sairee Beach which has the densest collection of accommodation options -- from almost luxury resorts down to budget shacks -- along with more than its fair share of beach bars. Sairee Beach is, well, the beach area, while well back off the beach sits Sairee village, home to cheaper beds, more restaurants and more bars.
Continuing north from Sairee around the headland takes you eventually to Mango Bay, a secluded getaway, with no beach to speak of but good snorkelling, while offshore to the north of Sairee sits the attractive but overpriced Ko Nang Yuan -- one of Thailand's most photographed islands -- and home to a single place to stay.
Back on the mainland, if you head south from Mae Haad a trail turns into a track that leads you all the way around the southwest corner of the island. There are a bunch of uber-chilled out bays and beaches along here and we refer to the entire area as Haad Sai Nual and surrounds.
The trail eventually taps out at Chalok Ban Kao, the largest dive centre on the island. Think plenty of dive schools, bars, restaurants and beds -- in that order. The beach is not great here, but just to the east lies Ao Thian Ok, which is a very secluded and attractive spot with a few midrange places to stay.
Last but not least is what we call Ko Tao East Coast, which basically takes in all the bays and isolated beaches along the east coat, including Hin Wong and Ao Leuk. These are generally backpacker style and, as they're a long haul from the rest of the island, are best if you have your own wheels.
The smallest of three islands that make up the Chumphon Archipegalo on the western shore of the Gulf of Thailand, Ko Tao is only 21 square kilometres in size. The western coast is significantly more developed than the east and it is here you will find the island’s three city centres – Haad Sairee, Mae Haad and Chalok Ban Kao.
Haad Sairee is the main hub of activity and the best place to stay if you fancy late night buckets, dancing on the beach and fire shows. North Sairee is home to a good number of upscale resorts far enough from the bustle of central Sairee to offer calm, while close enough to easily walk to and from the party. Mae Haad is the second largest city centre. This is where you will find the pier alongside a slew of slightly more upscale restaurants and bars. Chalok Ban Kao is peaceful and serene. While it offers fewer options in terms of nightlife than the other two hubs, you will not find yourself lacking in things to do past 21:00.
The east coast of Ko Tao is a great place to unwind, read a book and gaze at the ocean from a hammock. Be forewarned, however, that travel to and from these rural bays is on curvy, unpaved roads and taxis are expensive. Best to stay closer to town if you’re interested in any sort of nightlife. If what you’re looking for is peace and relaxation, however, the east coast is the place to be.
Each of the island’s city centres has several ATMs. The vast majority of restaurants and bars are cash only and rural areas are often without ATMs. There are also two small banks in Mae Haad where visitors can exchange money.
Most restaurants, hotels and hostels offer free WiFi, though the reliability and speed of this service is frustratingly dodgy. For those in need of reliable internet services Koh Tao WiFi is at the intersection of the down road and the main road in Mae Haad. Their service is arguably the best on the island and they offer daily, weekly and monthly rates.
A smattering of small clinics – at least one in each city centre – can attend to minor ailments, but more serious injuries or illnesses will require a trip to the hospital in Samui. Be sure to bring plenty of bug spray as dengue fever is a risk on Ko Tao.
The local police station is located between Mae Haad and Haad Sairee on the walking road. Their phone number is (077) 456 631.
Text and/or map last updated on 23rd November, 2015.