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Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrThe most popular baby of the Chumpon Archipelago, off the central eastern shores of Thailand, Ko Tao is a visually stunning isle, rich in flora and fauna and abundant in relaxing pursuits and friendly locals. Measuring a modest 21 square kms, Ko Tao (or Turtle Island) is renowned as a scuba diving mecca and back-packer haven, where days are spent discovering marine wildlife, and nights relishing in the boisterous but still not-too-wild party scene. Revered for being less developed than more popular islands like Koh Phi Phi and Koh Sanui, Ko Tao offers some of the best value-for-money diving in all of Thailand. If you’re after an organic experience minus the glitz and glamour then Ko Tao may be just the spot you’re looking for.
Yet Ko Tao is also proof that not all that glistens is gold or, perhaps more accurately, that if there is a plus there will always be a minus. The island is easy to get to and, thanks to its lack of major infrastructure, it is also much cheaper than its neighbors. Even in high season one can find a guesthouse bed for $ 5.00 USD a night. Moreover it still offers the same idyllic, turquoise waters with the added bonus of close-to-shore corals and bull sharks galore. All of this, however, means that over 500,000 visitors a year descend on the shores of an island which is not only small, but also covered in thick, tropical jungle for the most part. There is no rubbish or sewage processing systems in place on Ko Tao and fresh water is scarce and precious.
The turtle breeding program started here in 2004 is also suffering (ironically enough) due to the sheer number of animal lovers who descend on the island’s shores to watch the turtles breed. Infrastructure is below-par and the few roads are in a shocking state, resulting in an abnormal amount of scooter injuries among tourists every day. Granted, the same people who spend hours on end learning all about safety when diving are the ones who jump on scooters wearing only singlets and flip flops yet road (or dirt track) conditions are still largely to blame.
This ying-and-yang affair is certainly not new in Thailand, and Ko Tao is possibly still one of the most idyllic spots to visit, as major, colossal resorts are nowhere to be seen just yet.
Brief HistoryLike many of the small isles on this archipelago, Ko Tao was left uninhabited for centuries, and used as a restful stopover by both fishermen and pirates for many years. The island was first settled as a prison in the early 1930s, yet within just a decade all imprisoned here received a Royal pardon and the isle was left bare of humans once more.
Local fishing and farming families from nearby islands and mainland, started arriving soon after, establishing modest farms and living off fish and coconuts. The first foreign visitors started arriving in the 1980s and Ko Tao quickly gained a reputation for being an ideal Robinson Crusoe type hideaway. Tourism increased exponentially within just two decades and, despite the consequential problems, Ko Tao still remains one of the most laid-back and relaxing spots in the Gulf of Thailand.
LayoutThe 1.7km stretch of pristine Sairee beach is on the western side of the island. This is where most of the island’s action is found. Accommodation and diving shops abound, as well as bars, cafés, and souvenir shops. Those who wish to enjoy a good night’s sleep usually stay on the southern side (Chalok Baan Khao), where you’ll also find a smattering of guesthouses and hostels. Diving is best organised on Sairee’s shores and jungle trekking and rock climbing trips can be booked through any guesthouse or tour agency.
What to See and Do on Ko TaoBoth in and out of the water, Ko Tao has much to offer the active traveler. For the less-than-active, there are plenty of beaches to sunbake on, massages to be had, sunsets to be admired, and sundowners to enjoy.
Diving & snorkelingDivers will have a near infinite choice of sites and trips in which to indulge. After Cairns (Australia), Ko Tao dishes out more PADI certificates than anywhere else in the world. Sites and sights abound, with Ko Tao offering the chance to dive among stingrays, barracudas, turtles, and black-tip reef sharks. Visibility at its best exceeds 30 meters and there are at least two dozen dive sites just off the shores of the island and include reefs, wrecks and caves. Certification is big business here so you’ll have plenty to choose from. Generally, look out for agencies offering small-group courses and do look for an instructor who speaks your mother-tongue, whatever that may be. Foreign and local trainers abound, so don’t be shy in asking for a particular nationality if you prefer.
Freedivers can test their skills by joining a course or trip with one of three free-diving schools on Ko Tao and those who prefer to a sailing and diving trip can also look for liveaboard trips, of which there are plenty offered.
Beach HoppingA full day of beach hopping and exploring is a wonderful way to enjoy both the turquoise waters and the exotic inland landscape. Head to Shark Bay and Mango Bay for a gorgeous day of swimming and snorkeling just off the shores, and check out Tanote Bay and Freedom Beach as well. Windsurfing, sailing and kayaking are also immensely popular on the island.
Fun for non-diversThanks to its numerous land activities, Ko Tao is also gaining popularity among non-divers. Aside more sedate watersports mentioned above, there are also many yoga and Pilates clubs, cooking schools and beauty spas on the island. Rock-climbing, mountain-biking and abseiling are extremely popular here, and trips can be booked by those who don’t come fully kitted with their own gear. There’s an open-air gym (and several indoor ones) and Thai boxing classes are offered by most of them.
Visit viewpointsThere are quite a few phenomenal viewpoints on Ko Tao, accessible via a combination of scooter riding and walking. A hilltop golden pagoda grants spectacular coastal views and although the hike to reach it can be strenuous, it is well worth the effort. Near Tanote Bay you’ll find a sign leading you to the second highest point on the island (Two View) and you’ll find the John Suwan Mountain Viewpoint on the southern end of Ko Tao. Ask your guesthouse for maps and directions of all walking trials before setting off.
AccommodationWhilst Ko Tao used to be known as a basic backpacker hub, it now offers a wide range of accommodation choices to suit all budgets. Most dive schools will offer heavily discounts (or free) stays in their adjoining resorts, but ask for a discount nonetheless even if you wish to stay elsewhere. Sairee Beach has the largest concentration of huts, bungalows, hostel and resort stays, just a step away from the relatively busy bar, club and restaurant strip. For a quieter stay, head to Chalok Bay.
Eating & Drinking OutAs can be expected, Ko Tao boasts a wide range of eateries and plenty of places where you can enjoy a sundowner. Thai food abounds, yet there are still plenty of foreign meals on offer, including French, Italian, Chinese, Mexican, Spanish, and Indian.
There are plenty of bars scattered about the beach but do note that they operate on a rotation system, so only a few will be busy at any given night.
Travel WarningsWhen it comes to crime, Ko Tao is no more dangerous than anywhere else in Thailand although pub fights and petty crime are becoming more common. This is usually what happens when a place becomes very popular yet still remains quite cheap. Desirables (both local and foreign) are not an uncommon sight. Your biggest danger, however, will come on two wheels. Some of the dirt tracks leading to remote beaches on Ko Tao are pot-holed, dusty and quite the challenge for those who have never ridden a motorbike before. If you’ve never ridden anything more than a bicycle, this is certainly not the place to learn, particularly as the few medical centers on Kao Tao are very basic at best.
Dengue fever cases have been noted on Ko Tao, so do bring repellent and be consistent in covering up and spraying yourself about an hour before sunset.
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Author: Laura Pattara. Last updated: Mar 21, 2015