One of the world’s best regions for scuba diving and paradisiacal beaches is to be found amongst the Thai islands, specifically the Chumphon Archipelago off the western shore of the Gulf of Thailand. In that cluster of azure-watered coconut-palm fringed beaches lies the island of Koh Tao – a mecca for scuba divers and free climbers, due to the number of coral reefs and rock faces, both in and out of the ocean, respectively, of course!
The literal translation of Koh Tao’s name means ‘Turtle Island’. Some say that the island gets its name because the coastline perimeter of the island is ‘sort of’ turtle shaped. But it’s more likely so called because there are so many turtles swimming in the waters around the coast. In any case, you’ll soon find yourself coming out of your shell when you get there! In fact, you might well get to swim with the friendly turtles if you scuba or snorkel in any of the dive centers.
In terms of politics and geography, there’s little to say; the island covers an area of about eight square miles and administratively, it is a subdistrict of the Surat Thani Province. As of 2006, the official indigenous population of Koh Tao was around 1400 people, with the ‘capital’ or major settlement of the island being the town of Ban Mae Haad. As you can see, it’s not a huge place, and it certainly isn’t crowded with locals.
The best time to visit Koh Tao is between December and February, when the weather is optimal, and the nightlife is at its busiest. But if you’re going all the way to Thailand, you’d be crazy not to spend at least a few days in the capital, Bangkok. With a reputation as one of the most sensual playgrounds of Asia, with legal weed and its wild nightlife, Bangkok is not for the faint hearted. Or you might prefer the less urbanized city of Chiang Mai in Thailand’s northern region. In any case, how to get from Bangkok to Koh Tao is an easy journey.
You can fly from Bangkok and then take the ferry to Koh Tao. This is the most expensive method of travel. You would think it was also the fastest, but as there is no airport on the island itself, the journey involves flying from Don Mueang Airport to either Chumphon airport or Surat Thani and then take a bus to the ferry port, from where the boat takes you to Ban Mae Haad.
After you’ve checked in at the airport and done all those transfers, you might as well take a bus all the way and see some of Thailand out of a window; watch the world go by and chillax. Just because it’s budget travel doesn’t have to make it unenjoyable.
The 257-mile overland trip offers the chance to compare the hustle and bustle of one of East Asia’s most hedonistic capital cities with soaking up the relaxation on the tropical island paradise of Koh Tao. The first part of the journey is a bus from Bangkok to Thung Makham Noi Pier or Chumphon Pier in the south of the country.
When you board the ferry, depending upon which company’s vessel you choose, you’ll find that it isn’t an old rust-bucket, rather a high-speed catamaran; and once you arrive at Mae Haad Pier, you are straight into the bustling heart of the island, with all the facilities and accommodation you’d expect.
However, other ferries are available. Lomprayah, Seatran, and Songserm all go to Koh Tao from various ports:
Koh Tao island’s economy is almost completely fueled by tourism, with scuba diving being the most popular visitor activity. The island’s inexpensive prices for accommodation and hospitality, plus readily available scooters for hire, make it an affordable bohemian getaway destination for young western pleasure-seekers. Around 25 dive sites offer an amazing abundance of sea life in the waters around Koh Tao, and reassuringly, most of those critters are unlikely to eat humans! Turtles, angelfish, bannerfish, butterflyfish and stingrays live amongst the coral on reefs, where staghorn coral, table coral, mosaic and mushroom species grow in the protein rich waters. Bull sharks and Moray Eels aren’t uncommon, but they tend to keep a wary distance from scuba divers.
One of the most popular suntrap beaches is to be found at Sairee on the west coast, which is an unspoiled mile long strip of white sand, broken up only by several huge boulders and a few budget guest houses, bars and restaurants. Chalok Baan Khao, to the south of the island, is also popular as a quieter alternative for those wanting a calmer location with less commercialism. But all those huge granite boulders, found variously in the forests and on the beaches of the island, attract keen climbers wherever you go.
If you are not a licensed diver yet, Koh Tao is one of the best places to get your PADI. My husband, for one, got his here some twenty years ago. LOL. While I got mine at Apo Island, Negros Oriental. We intend to dive in Koh Tao before 2024 ends.
You can’t really put a price on the sort of memories that a trip to paradise will create – so there’s really no choice involved- if you’re going to visit Thailand, don’t forget the fascination of a quick visit to Vietnam to the north, and also make sure that your visit takes in a few days of Koh Tao and savor the bus journey too, a road trip that you’ll never forget.