Once jokingly referred to as a drinking island with a diving problem, Ko Tao has evolved far beyond backpackers diving and beach boozing and 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, rock-climbing, live jam sessions where locals and tourists showcase their talents, beach barbecues accompanied by fire shows and even trapeze-flying classes. The draw though for many visitors remains scuba diving. With dozens of dive sites, plenty of scuba schools and notably inexpensive scuba certification costs, Ko Tao is the most popular place to learn to dive in Thailand.
It hasn't always been snorkels and sunscreen on Ko Tao 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. 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 island remained mostly uninhabited, until two brothers made their way here 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 and hotels 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.
Like a number of Thailand's smaller islands, Ko Tao has not handled this development and enormous influx of visitors particularly well. Power outages are common. Waste management is an enormous issue with piles of rubbish sitting by the side of the road and a mountain of garbage in the middle of the island as the result of island-wide waste mismanagement and political infighting. Drivers are reckless, roads unsafe and, most tragically, violent crime has arrived on Ko Tao's shores. The 2014 murder of Hannah Witheridge and David Miller and the pinning of the crime on two Burmese workers (widely regarded at patsies) drew a lot of media attention to the island – much of it negative.
Off the beach and under water, the situation remains challenging. While various dive shops work to try and manage diver numbers, in peak season it can be crazy busy underwater. When we asked about doing a refresher course in mid-2016, after telling the staffer where we had previously dived, she told us "not to bother getting wet", suggesting the crowds and the general conditions would leave us with a lacklustre experience. Other dive masters disagree, saying, correctly, that when you're learning to dive, you really have nothing to compare it to, so Ko Tao – especially when combined with the heady social scene – can seem like an amazing experience.
The other issue on Ko Tao, is a mercantile, money-grabbing attitude, which, while most easily manifesting itself through the legion of penny pinching charges for everything from parking a motorbike to walking onto a beach, pervades much of the development on the island. It is often a "cash today, who cares about tomorrow" type of vibe, which we found both jarring and unpleasant. Fast ferry operator Lomprayah is a terrific example of this, treating passengers as cattle with seeming no regard for customer comfort – that standing in a Lomprayah queue for an hour is often visitor's final experience on the island is a fitting goodbye.
When to go to Ko Tao
The busiest times on Ko Tao are between July and early September, Christmas, January and February. The island is busy, the bars are full and it’s a great time to meet new friends and enjoy the beaches. In recent years the island has become very popular with families, so if you are restricted to school holidays, don’t let this put you off. Simply choose to stay somewhere other than Sairee, where the largest concentration of bars, restaurants and resorts are. The weather in July to September is warm and sunny and the visibility is at the best for diving. Christmas, January and February can see changeable weather and dive conditions but on the whole it’s okay — certainly better than a European Winter.
The hottest time is between March and May. The island is noticeably quieter then and life gets significantly slower as locals and expats alike wilt in the heat. This is one of the best times of year to see whale sharks; the visibility isn’t often the greatest at this point, but if it was then the whale sharks wouldn’t come.
June is ideal – the island is quieter, the seas are flat calm, the temperature has returned to normal and the dive conditions are great. Similarly September and into October, the island starts to quiet down again but the dive conditions and weather remain very good; September and October are good times to spot whale sharks too.
Come late October, the wind change heralds the start of the monsoon. Businesses start to close and visitors leave. November on Ko Tao is not recommended, yet there have been recent years where the monsoon didn’t hit. If you have no choice, then keep your eye on a reliable weather source and decide from there. Be aware that in big waves ferries don’t run, so leave yourself plenty of time to get off the island.
Do remember that Ko Tao is just a short ferry ride from Ko Pha Ngan, home to the full moon party, so bear in mind these dates when booking transport and hotels. Ko Tao fills up straight after each party and is usually quiet in the days before, on the day and the day immediately after. Traveling to Ko Tao after the busier parties in July, August, December, January and February is foolhardy without a booking your ferry and room.
How long to stay on Ko Tao
Discounting your arrival and departure days, three days would be a good time to spend exploring and doing some activities. Remember that a single snorkelling trip will cost you a full day and if you want to try diving too, that’s really another day. If you are considering diving then you should make sure that you have enough time to take your open water course which is three and a half days. If you arrive on a morning transfer then you can start that afternoon, then you would need a further three days and be able to leave the day after.
Ko Tao is one the cheapest places to learn to dive in Thailand, so if you have the time then it’s certainly worth it. That said, if you are planning to come and take your open water course, then stay for longer than just the course length. Why? Because you will either fall in love with diving and want to dive more or you will wish you had more time to explore the rest of the island.
If you are pushed for time or maybe you have chosen to stay on one of the neighbouring islands of either Ko Samui or Ko Pha Ngnan it is possible to do a day trip to Ko Tao, though we'd not really recommend it. It will only give you a few hours on the island but enough time to have a little look around or visit one of the beaches. Both islands run snorkel trips to Ko Tao and Ko Nanag Yuan as well.
Around the island
While Ko Tao is a relatively small island, hundreds of places to stay are spread over a dozen different bays and beaches and unless you're arriving by kayak your ferry will almost certainly dock at Mae Haad village, the logistics hub and meet and greet centre for Ko Tao. Here you'll find near a million dive shops, restaurants and bars, plus a clutch of places to stay.
While there is beach at Mae Haad, it isn't the best, 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 terribly-run 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 including Jansom Bay, Haad Sai Nuan, Laem Je Ta Kang and Ao Jun Juea.
The trail eventually taps out at Chalok Ban Kao, the largest dive hub 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 couple of fancy pants digs overlooking the beach.
Following on from there you have the last beach on the south coast, Sai Daeng, and it is a good one. A couple of places to stay overlook a lovely little beach and offshore island.
The east coast beaches require a little more legwork to reach, but are worth the effort, even if you're not planning on staying, these are all worth a day trip.
Ao Leuk is the southern-most of the east coast beaches – and one of Ko Tao's most beautiful – followed by the popular-with-families Ao Tanote, and then, after the abandoned Laem Thian, the impressively relaxed Hin Wong Bay.
For more information on the individual beaches see our wrap on Ko Tao's most beautiful beaches.
Mae Haad, Sairee and Chalok Ban Kao all have ATMs. The vast majority of restaurants and bars are cash only and rural areas are often without ATMs. Mae Haad also has a few real banks.
Most restaurants, hotels and hostels offer free WiFi, though the reliability and speed of this service is variable.
A smattering of small clinics can attend to minor ailments, but more serious injuries or illnesses will require a trip to the hospital in Samui. Koh Tao Health Centre is in Mae Haad. 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. The Tourist Police can be reached on T: 1155. The Post Office is in Mae Haad.
Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Ko Tao or check hotel reviews on Agoda and Booking . Hungry? Read up on where to eat on Ko Tao. Want to know what to do once you're there? Check out our listings of things to do in and around Ko Tao. If you're still figuring out how to get there, you need to read up on how to get to Ko Tao, or book your transport online with 12Go Asia.
By Stuart McDonald.
Last updated on 6th November, 2016.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.