The waters around 'Turtle Island' contain the very best dive and snorkeling sites in Thailand. The water is remarkably clear and the marine life spectacular, with seasonal visits from such rare species as whale sharks and giant mantas. The island itself is one of the most beautiful in the Samui archipelago.
The island was actually uninhabited until the last century. For a while in the 1930s and 1940s, the island was used as a prison. When the prison was abandoned in 1947, a pair of twin brothers staked a claim and started farming coconuts. The backpackers arrived in the 1980s and nothing has been the same since.
The time was when accommodations on Koh Tao were quite rustic, to put it nicely, but now many more nice resorts are opening. Of course, there's still not much to do on the island if you're not a diver, so the major chains still stay away. Because diving is practically the only industry, there are an amazing number of dive shops to serve you. Some are good, and some are not.
Some divers have suggested that the diving around Koh Tao is not really that good - that the only thing you're likely to see under the waves is other divers. That certainly hasn't been true when I've dived there, but the possibility certainly exists. If you want to know what the diving is like currently, dive shop Master Divers now posts daily dive reports with photos on their blog.
The island itself is quite pretty, with a landscape of large boulders tumbling down to the sea, interspersed by white sandy beaches. The island's infrastructure largely consists of dirt trails. If you're in the mood for a hike, there are some great views to be had from some of the island's peaks.
Naturally, anywhere you have adventure seekers, you're going to find some nightlife. It may not be very sophisticated, but there are certainly a number of places where you can get food and drink.
Getting to Koh Tao
Koh Tao is only reachable by boat. The closest large city on the mainland is Chumpon. Boats leave Chumpon in the morning, weather permitting. The trip can take from two to three hours. There are also boats from Phangan, Samui and Surat Thani on the mainland. From Phangan the trip is from generally around 30 minutes. From Samui, it takes 1 hour 30 minutes, plus however long the boat stops in Phangan. The overnight boat from Surat Thani takes 9 hours.
Lomprayah offers a combined bus and boat service from Bangkok to Koh Tao, and on to Koh Phangan and Samui if desired. Buses leave Bangkok twice daily, stop in Hua Hin, and then terminate in Chumpon, where you transfer to their high speed catamarans for a one and a half hour trip to Koh Tao.
Packages from the major dive operators may include transportation and even lodging on Koh Tao.
Seatran Discovery runs a daily excursion from Samui, stopping at Koh Phangan and on to Koh Tao. They then move on to Koh Nang Yuan for a bit of snorkeling, move to Mango Bay for some more, plus lunch, then return to Koh Tao, Phangan and Samui. You can buy a ticket for the whole trip, or just use the boat for inter-island transfers. See their web site for more information.
Hotels & Resorts
There are many places to stay on Koh Tao, from inexpensive rooms with a fan, to luxury resorts. Since about the only thing to do on the island is scuba diving, most if not all of the resorts cater to divers.
By some counts, there are more than 30 dive shops on Koh Tao. More than enough to serve whatever needs you have. The list below shows a selection of the more well-established operations, that have at least some recommendations from other divers.
Dive Operators & Schools
- Master Divers
- PADI 5 Star IDC that is the on fully western owned and operated dive center on Koh Tao. Offers a full range of dive courses as well as dive trips out of Koh Tao.
- Scuba Junction
- Highly regarded PADI and SSI certified diving school and tour operator, right on Sairee Beach on Koh Tao.
- Koh Tao Dive Center
- A PADI instructor development center and long-established dive operator. Part of the Crystal Dive Resort.
- Big Blue Diving Resort
- Long-established dive resort, with full PADI and SSI training facilities, as well as a liveaboard operation. Claims to have the largest fleet of dive boats on Koh Tao.
- Crystal Dive Resort
- Another long-established resort, and one of four PADI Career Development Centers in Thailand.
- Koh Tao Coral Grand Resort
- Self contained PADI licensed resort. Also has a fairly swank dive boat for liveaboard cruises.
- Dive Supply
- Appears to be Thailand's largest chain of diving supplies stores. They're headquartered in Phuket, but have a shop in Mae Haad on Koh Tao.
Given that it's a two hour boat ride to the nearest land, you may want to be aware of the healthcare situation is on Koh Tao:
The island does not have a full service hospital of its own. The nearest one is on Samui. However, there are several clinics where you can get medical attention, including emergency assistance. There was a hyperbaric chamber at Physicians Clinic in Sairee Beach, but it was moved after the tsunami in the Andaman and has not been replaced. The nearest chamber is on Samui.
In Mae Haad, Mae Haad Clinic is open 24 hours.