So many to choose from
Ko Tao shines when it comes to beaches and given the relatively small size of the island (when compared to Ko Pha Ngan or Ko Samui) it is far more practical to spend your days hiking or riding to different beaches here each day. Many are also commonly visited on around the island snorkelling boat trips.
Unfortunately some of the smaller beaches and resorts charge for access (or try to block it entirely) but in the majority of cases you should have no problems dropping in for a lay on the beach and a frolic in the water. Be sure to bring your snorkelling gear with you. With the following, we start at Ko Tao's most popular beach, Sairee, and then continue around in an anti-clockwise direction. This isn't an exhaustive list – we've left a few of the real hideaways for you to find yourself!
Ko tao's most famous beach, Sairee is the most popular beach on the island and is where you’ll find the largest concentration of resorts, restaurants and bars. The beach itself is long and sandy and there’s always plenty of space. No matter where you are you’ll find yourself with easy access to a shady beachside restaurant for a cold drink and food. You’ll find reasonable snorkelling here too. The rocks at either end offer the best opportunities and you’ll be safer from boat traffic tucked in there too. It’s a sociable spot where a game of beach football or volleyball often springs up with the beach dogs invariably joining in the fun.
Ao Mae Haad
The beach at Mae Haad gets largely forgotten about due to the four piers servicing large ferries just off the sand. A bustling town backs the beach and is second only to Sairee when it comes to dining and drinking options, with a bunch of hostels and guesthouses accommodating backpackers and dive instructors. The tan sand is fine and the swimming isn’t bad at the far corners of the beach – just watch out for boats.
Haad Sai Nuan
Haad Sai Nuan (also spelt Nual) consists of two short but pretty khaki-sand beaches stretching on either side of a rocky outcrop. The vibe will remind old-time backpackers of what Tao was like decades ago. Reachable only via a hiking trail from Mae Haad or a long and steep road from Chalok Ban Kao, the two places to stay, Sai Thong and Cookies, both have basic bungalows peppered beneath the coconut trees. Two other tiny southwest-coast beaches, Laem Je Ta Kang and Ao Jun Juea, have similarly mellow scenes.
Ao Chalok Ban Kao
This broad south-coast bay boasts Tao’s third longest beach, a stripe of fluffy off-white sand backed by mediocre midrange resorts and several dive resorts, including the well-regarded New Heaven. The clear water is extremely shallow for a long way out at low tide. Running inland from behind the beach, Chalok Ban Kao village has a small but solid collection of eateries. From here it takes only around 10 minutes to walk over to Ao Thian Ok.
Hidden to the southeast of Ao Chalok Ban Kao, sparkling little Freedom Beach is made more attractive by ease of accessibility, especially when compared to more isolated bays like Ao Tanote and Ao Hin Wong. The beach is short and narrow, but stunning, with several trees shading fine coral sand. There’s only one okay place to stay, and they charge for access, but the beach is great for day trips. From here you can walk up the hill that overlooks the beach to find John Suwan Viewpoint.
Ao Thian Ok
Privately owned, by Haad Tien Resort, we'd read that the only way to get access to the beach was by boat or kayak as the resort blocks public access on foot, however we entered via Rocky Resort (at the eastern end of the beach) and had no problems walking the beach – so we guess your mileage may vary. The beach is gorgeous – blindingly white sand and absolutely crystal water offshore with some good snorkelling. The beach is also often referred to as Shark Bay, in honour of the many black tip reef sharks that you may come across when snorkelling a few hundred metres offshore.
Sai Daeng Beach
The closest beach to Shark Island, Sai Daeng is almost as beautiful as Ao Thian Ok, but unlike there, you'll have no problem gaining access to the beach (though you do need to pass through one of the two resorts set here). There is good snorkelling offshore and, with a kayak, it is possible to paddle over to Shark Island in about 30 minutes. We were told it is possible to swim there, but you'd need to be a very strong swimmer and absolutely watch those currents. Over the back of the peninsula (behind Sai Daeng Resort) there is a "secret" bay called Ao Hin Ngam – it is really an extension of Ao Leuk (see below) and you can gain access either via Sai Daeng Resort or by kayaking around the headland.
One of the most beautiful beaches on Ko Tao, yet home to some of the worst accommodation. Why is it so? The original Ao Leuk Resort continues its practise of charging all non-guests 100 baht to enter the beach and have built a kiosk and gate to help to keep the cash flowing – we strongly recommending avoiding them. Ao Leuk II was our preferred option by the beach (though both Baan Talay and Moon Dance Magic View are far better options, though not on the beach). The resorts here don't own the sand, nor the ocean, but other than kayaking here, or coming on a boat trip you have little choice but to pay. White sand, crystal water and some good snorkelling is to be had offshore. It can get quite busy here with dive boats. We counted eight on our latest visit.
The busiest and most developed of Ko Tao's east coast beaches, but you could hardly call it hectic. It probably offers a happy medium between being remote and having a few choices of places to eat. The beach is wide and offers some decent snorkelling. Now that the road has (finally) been sealed the entire way, access is easier, but novice scooter pilots should take care – it is very steep and slippery.
All that remains here is an abandoned resort, boulders, and some crystal water. It sounds good, but because the resort is abandoned nobody is cleaning the place up (well not regularly anyway) and so it can be very dirty. Considerable care should be taken when walking on any of the wooden platforms. As there is no resort here, be sure to bring enough water for the walk here and the walk back.
Ao Hin Wong
One of Ko Tao's more remote beaches, there is just a handful of guesthouse options here and only a very small artificial beach (which non-guests have to buy a drink to access – sigh). It’s more of a rocky bay which is quiet, remote and great for swimming and snorkelling, particularly when the west coast waters are wavy. Staying at a hillside bungalow here will ensure you relax in a hammock, enjoy the view and let the outside world slip into memory – we're still big fans of Hin Wong Bungalows.
Similar to Ao Hin Wong, Mango Bay has a tiny beach and is again a rocky bay, making it an excellent snorkelling spot. Of the two resorts here one charges a 100 baht admission fee and the other is only approachable by boat. We don't recommend staying here. The bay is a very popular spot for dive training and snorkel trips and does get quite busy.
Ko Nang Yuan
Taking a leaf out of Ao Leuk's book, the resort here is as appallingly run as the beach is beautiful. Massive numbers of daytrippers – from as far away as Ko Samui – leave the narrow beaches crowded and unpleasant. There is a 100 baht admission fee and you are not permitted to use your own beach towel as you may steal sand. Yes, they're serious. The mind boggles.
All of these beaches are easily visited on a daytrip from somewhere else on the island, so there is no need to move around the island (unless you want to of course). Our personal favourites are Hin Wong, Haad Sai Nuan and Sai Daeng, but we'll leave it to you to decide on your own favourites.
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
Our top 10 other sights and activities in and around Ko Tao