After a few initial sweaty but wonderful days exploring Bangkok it was decided that we should head to the coast for some relaxing beach time. Where better to start our true SE Asia odyssey than on one of those famous beaches you see every time you Google ‘Thailand’, so after a little research we settled on the island of Koh Tao.
The island is most famous for it’s excellent diving spots and hordes of people head there yearly for the comparatively cheap diving lessons and to gain their PADI certificate. However for now neither of us are up for exploring the depths of the ocean so we picked Koh Tao as it was supposedly more chilled and unspoilt than its noisy neighbours Ko Samui and Ko Pha Nang.
First Impressions can be Deceptive
After our overnight sleeper train from Bangkok and onward ferry to the island we arrived a little bleary eyed and in need of a shower. This combined with the fact I’d just had an email telling me the nice resort I had booked was unfortunately not available led to an initial sinking of hearts when being shown into our room.
The booking agency error had meant that instead of being in a bungalow surrounded by lush foliage and wildlife we were at the far end of a pathway of bungalows packed tightly together with zero privacy. On the upside we did eventually get a few THB refunded as it was a cheaper place.
We are slowly getting better at dealing with such situations but are sometimes still very quick to judge a place and have a knee-jerk reaction of wanting to leave and find something better (= more expensive) straight away. In this case we stuck with it but resolved to send a grumbling email to the booking agent later on.
However things quickly turned around and after a couple of days on Koh Tao we found our feet and started to chill out and really enjoy it.
The Search for Local Food on Koh Tao
One of our initial gripes was the lack of decent, fresh Thai food. Having just come from Bangkok where you can get tasty treats on virtually every street corner it was difficult to deal with all the restaurants offering Western fare at high prices or the total lack of food carts.
After a couple of disappointing dishes masquerading as ‘local’ we sniffed out the perfect combination of places to see us through our stay on Koh Tao.
One was a very simple eatery on the Mae Head side of the pier, close to where we were staying, which offered a big bowl of fruit, yoghurt and muesli ideal for breakfast at 70 THB and a delicious Pad Thai perfect for lunch at 60 THB.
The other was a local BBQ grill about 1 minute walk from our little hut which did a great job as our dinner destination. Here you could pick up a skewer of pork or chicken and veg with rice for around 50 THB each, perfect.
The names of both places not sure of and they didn’t look very permanent so I can’t give you an address but just the advice of following your nose. As with anywhere, sniff away to find some good local food and ignore the fancy menus and fake smiles at the restaurant doors along the main drag and head into the back streets.
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Exploring the Beaches and Bays of Koh Tao
With our stomachs sorted it was time to find our perfect spot for a swim and a beer.
The ultimate way to explore the island is on a scooter but unfortunately this is also the ultimate way to injure yourself and get severely ripped off. As with many tourist hot spots where scooters/motorbikes/quad bikes are readily available for hire there are always the usual scams in operation.
The most common involves the owner pointing out existing scratches and holding your passport to an inflated ransom. When hiring a scooter on Koh Tao make sure you always take loads of photos of any existing scratches to minimise the chances of this happening.
With a scooter hired and fingers crossed we headed off to explore beyond our side of the island.
Shark Bay was our first stop and despite following the signs we ended up at some steps that led down to a rocky outcrop and not the beach, it was a stunning view though. Backtracking and driving on a little further we found the way.
You need to park outside the Haadtien Beach Resort and follow the signs around the side of the buildings and down to a cafe that overlooks the bay. There are then steps down into the water and it’s a short waist-deep wade over to the sand so don’t bring too much to carry and avoid the rocks!
It’s quite funny that the resort that populates the bay claims it is a private beach but there seemed to be a constant stream of people like us finding their way down onto the sand much to the annoyance of the resort guests who have paid a hefty sum to stay there.
The water was pretty calm and clear here and there were a few people snorkelling about. Despite the resort there was plenty of space on the sand and we enjoyed a refreshing break here.
We also somehow ended up at Sai Daeng Beach by heading back towards the main road and taking a different turning. You park at the top of the cliff and make your way down to the beach via a fancy bar/restaurant.
This bay was a little harder to find and it was a pretty quiet spot for a refreshing swim after a dusty scooter ride. The sand was nicer than at Shark Bay but the sea was rougher, ideal for us as we like to get abused by the crashing waves rather than just floating around. We would really recommend seeking this bay out if you’re on the island and have some wheels.
Our Top Spots for a Sunset Beer
We had to give a special mention to the Pirate Bar in Ban Kao Bay. We went for a mini hike across the island on our second night there in search of somewhere for a cheeky sunset beer and stumbled upon this watering hole.
It’s one of those places where you have to follow the badly hand written signs dotted along the shoreline to find, you even have to pass through another restaurant on the way, confusing the staff as you go.
It was truly the first moment that we just sat down and chilled, beer in hand and smiled at each other, both thinking… you know Koh Tao isn’t all that bad! After all, we chose this island despite all the awesome things to do in Phuket, another Thai beach paradise.
We also quickly realised that our closest strip of sand wasn’t exclusive to the resort that faced onto it and enjoyed a cool can of Chang there each evening with the place to ourselves. Unless we really want to hang out and socialise we would always grab a bottle or can of local brew from the shop and sneak down to the beach to enjoy it with just the sound of the lapping waves for company.
Accommodation on Koh Tao
Koh Tao has a place for every budget but seems to really split opinion. I think the main issues lie in the definition of the term ‘resort’. This word is included in the name of many places across the island and gives people a mixed bag of expectations but if going by ‘western’ standards (it loathes me to type that) there are only a handful of true resorts.
Many places labelled resorts are little more than a collection of bungalows or bamboo huts with non existing service which leads to some scathing reviews. The trick if you have a higher budget is to do your research, pick your side of the island (chilled or party beach?!) and book ahead.
Being on the backpacker end of the spectrum but wanting to avoid the party hostels we stayed at Save Bungalow located on the main street south of the pier.
We paid around 1,300 THB (£26) per night for a bungalow with AC, a fan room would be cheaper. It’s fine if you just want the basics and are on a tight budget, read the reviews and you’ll get the idea but we can’t personally recommend staying there. Maybe it was the weird rubber coated pillows, yes rubber, which made our heads sweat that put us off the place but I’m sure you can find better digs for the same price or cheaper.
Cheap accommodation is plentiful on Koh Tao and very often the dive schools will chuck in a free bed with their courses but be aware that these might be quite grotty from what we have heard. A little research goes a long way and will ensure you can enjoy the natural beauty of the island hassle free.
Leaving Koh Tao, the Fast Ferry Back to Chumphon
Just as we were warming to the place our 4 nights were up and it was time to leave. We contemplated staying a few nights longer but decided to look for some beach time on the mainland just north of Chumphon.
The return boat cost 600 THB per person and we just turned up at the ticket office on the main pier the day before to purchase 2 tickets for the Lomprayah high speed catamaran back to the mainland.
The return boat was a smaller vessel than we had on the outward journey but the sea was a bit less choppy as we were going in the same direction as the wind. It took around 2 hours to get back to the mainland where we just chilled for a bit by the terminal as the hordes headed onwards to Chumphon town.
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Have you been to Koh Tao? What did you think? Where did you stay, eat, swim and drink? Let us know in the comments below…