More than just a diver’s paradiseby Dave Stamboulis
Koh Tao, while being a small island, only about 20sqkm in total, is blessed in that it sits far enough from the mainland to keep the Phuket and Samui masses at bay. The fact that the east side of the island is made up of precipitous mountains and really can’t be developed any more than it already is also helps. Koh Tao is renowned for being the best diving spot in Thailand. But it is a lot more than this, offering some great hiking, secluded beaches, and superb viewpoints over the Gulf of Thailand.
There is no airport on Koh Tao, meaning the only way in is via a catamaran or slow ferry either coming from neighboring Koh Phangan (via Koh Samui) or else from Chumphon on the Thai mainland. While the 5- to 6-hour slow overnight ferries still exist, one can now fly from Bangkok to Chumphon (www.nokair.com) and then grab a 90-minute catamaran from Lomprayah (www.lomprayah.com), meaning one can now get to Koh Tao in half a day from Bangkok.
Once popular only among the backpacker set, Koh Tao became renowned for its scuba diving, and the tiny island is second only to Cairns in Australia in the number of Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) open water dive certificates issued. Koh Tao is one of the cheaper places in the world to get a PADI certificate, with courses going for about THB 10,000 for three days, often including basic accommodation. While big operations like Ban’s, one of the oldest dive schools in Koh Tao, tend to attract the party crowds and have the biggest and cheapest courses, along with the largest number of instructors in different languages, they don’t exactly give the greatest student/teacher ratios, nor do they visit some of the premier dive spots on the island with their basic courses. It may be worth it to shell out an extra THB 1,000 for a smaller organization like New Way (www.newwaydiving.com), which has small groups (maximum four people), heads out early to beat the crowds, and offers plenty of personal attention.
The island is ringed by dive sites, notably the Chumphon Pinnacles, known for its whale sharks, or Shark Island, which doesn’t have any sharks, but offers abundant marine life set among pretty coral formations. Note that contrary to belief, the best time to dive on Koh Tao is not during the November–January high season, but actually from February–April when the weather is super clear and dry, offering excellent visibility and very calm seas.
Koh Tao is much more than just diving, though. The island has some excellent hiking possibilities, and given the number of divers and partying backpackers, one is likely to have most of the trails to oneself. There is a trail that runs almost all the way down the southwest coast, from Mae Haad to Chalok Baan Khao, which goes high above the ocean, and then drops down to some of the island’s loveliest beaches. At the southern end, one can continue up through the jungle to the John Suwan viewpoint, which offers one of the finest panoramas on the island, taking in two beautiful bays ringed by coconut palms.
The east side presents some challenging routes and climbs, with rarely used dirt tracks going from bay to bay, and steep and pristine jungle routes up in the wild north end of the island, culminating with a descent into Mango Bay, which has a stunning emerald bay and small beach set under the cliffs.
From here, it’s worth finding a longtail driver to take you around the northwest corner of the island, where you will encounter Koh Nang Yuan, one of Koh Tao’s most beautiful spots. Nang Yuan is actually a set of three jungle-clad rocks, connected to each other by a long and beautiful sand spit, and the view of the turquoise bays separated by the white sand bar from the accessible viewpoint above is one of Thailand’s top picture postcards.
Nang Yuan does get plenty of day trippers, so it’s best to come here either early in the morning or else opt for staying at the islet’s only lodging, the Nangyuan Resort (www.nangyuan.com), which is a bit overpriced and not exactly fancy, but does give you the advantage of getting those perfect island shots without anyone in the picture.
For those looking for seclusion, any of the east coast beaches will do, as they are accessed only by steep four-wheel-drive tracks and have only six to seven resorts on each beach. Even better, head to the south of the island, where there are still a handful of truly empty tropical paradise bays, featuring just one idyllic place to stay. The Haad Tien Resort (www.haadtien.com) is the pick of the litter; with its 400 meter secluded beach paradise, it’s the island’s most boutique retreat. If you are looking for a honeymoon spot, this is about as perfect as it gets.
For a tiny island, Koh Tao really does pack in the natural wonders and escape opportunities, and is the Gulf of Thailand’s most brilliant gem.