Every person we spoke to who had been to Southern Thailand said the same thing: you’ve gotta see Koh Tao. The statement was unanimous, which is pretty rare when talking to backpackers about various countries. Every person has their preferences, but this was one island that time and time again people couldn’t get enough of. From the diving to the beaches, Koh Tao constantly received rave reviews, and after being there we couldn’t agree more.
The thing that puts Koh Tao at the top of the list is the balance it achieves between nightlife and relaxation, tourist attractions and local hotspots. Many Thai islands have become overrun with tourists, to the point where everything becomes about the drinking, the partying, the tattoos and the complete disregard for any type of cleanliness. Koh Tao is one of those places on the verge of becoming that in 10 years (unfortunately), but for now it’s a complete gem. Sairee Beach is the main area to stay, which offers up plenty of bars and drinking if you’re in the mood, but once you rent a scooter it’s easy to escape it all to the multitude of other beaches the island has to offer.
This was the highlight of Koh Tao. Sairee Beach was big, but nothing special. It’s the main area for accommodation and nightlife, so naturally this is where most people stay, but the best spots are found with a scooter. Kyle and I ended up renting one for the entire week at 200 baht per day, and without one we would not have had the same amazing experience. Grab a map and just start hitting up as many of the surrounding beaches as you can. Below were our favourites for various reasons.
Sai Daeng Beach
Looking out over Shark Island, Sai Daeng Beach offers decent snorkelling (Kyle even saw a reef shark), and a quiet getaway from Sairee Beach. The water is clear, the sand is white, and like most beaches on Koh Tao, there are a couple of restaurants to grab a cold beer.
Thian Og Bay
To get here you have to hop into the water from a close-by restaurant up to around the waist (depending on where the tide is). This beach also has a few bushes along the beach offering a bit more privacy if needed.
If there wasn’t so much garbage floating around in the water, this beach would have been spectacular. The water was crystal clear, the sand was white, but plastic bags and bottles were continually in sight, putting a damper on the snorkelling.
A larger beach, Tanote Bay doesn’t have the whitest sand, but the coral for snorkelling was some of the best we found on the island. A large rock is also situated slightly offshore with a large rope attached to the top. Although the climb is more nerve-racking than the jump, it’s well worth the few seconds of hanging vertically off the side of the rock.
The beach here is quite secluded, with beautiful sand and (of course), beautiful water. The only downside for us is that bushes line the shore, blocking off the view of the water. While this adds to the secluded atmosphere, I’m someone who prefers gazing out over the ocean than relaxing in shade and privacy.
Chalok Ban Khao
While we didn’t spend a day on this beach, it was right round the corner from Freedom Beach, so we took a quick look. The area reminded us of Sairee, but on a lot smaller scale, with various restaurants and bars to relax at. As with most beaches here, the water was unbelievably blue and clear.
Sai Nuan Beach
This area is comprised of a few separate beach sections, with restaurants in between. Various bungalows sit a bit back from the beach, with many backpackers coming here seeking a quieter alternative to Sairee Beach. The beach itself was alright, but nothing to write home about.
Note: A few beaches have dirt roads with steep hills, so beware if you’re nervous on a scooter. Keep your wits about you, and don’t go ripping round corners only to skid face first and eat dust.
We stayed in an area called Mae Haad, at the south end of Sairee Beach. The hostel was called Koh Tao Central, and offered decent dorms for around $10 per night. If your looking for something a bit more upscale, Sairee Beach Resort is where my parents stayed, which was on the northern end of Sairee Beach and close to the action.
Out of all of the islands in Thailand, Koh Tao offered some of the best food. Walk down the main road in the Sairee Beach area, and be sure to stop at Su Chilli for the Panang Curry. We ate here a couple of times and loved it. For something slightly more romantic, check out the restaurants on the beach.
Again, one of the best things about Koh Tao (apart from the beaches), in my opinion, was the balance between nightlife and relaxation. If you wanted to party every night, you can find what you’re looking for in Sairee Village. Pub crawls occur frequently, fire shows entertain on the beach, and laughing gas awaits for the adventurous type looking for a quick high.
For a day trip DO NOT MISS Nangyuan Island, located just 5-10 minutes away from Sairee Beach by taxi boat. The taxi will cost 200 baht per person for a round trip, and an extra 100 baht for entrance on the island. If this sounds expensive at all suck it up and just do it: it’s worth the ten bucks. Also, don’t miss hiking up to the viewpoint, as it’s one of the best I’ve ever seen.
Many people come to Koh Tao for the diving, and while we never did this we heard great things from those that took the plunge and left as a certified diver. However, even if you’re not planning to dive while in Thailand, it would be sacrilege to skip Koh Tao. I imagine that this spot is what Koh Phi Phi used to be like before being trodden on time and time again by drunken travellers. Its beautiful beaches and chilled-out vibe earn the island a top spot for our favourite locations in Southern Thailand.