This is a guest post brought to you by Mark over at My Funky Travel, it’s nice to read about Ko Tao and the Thai islands from another travel blogger – we loved Ko Tao (except for Trudy bursting her ear-drum diving), but all the islands have their pros and cons. Read on!
Southern Thailand’s beautiful islands have grown a reputation as the ultimate beach paradise. However their ever increasing popularity has inevitably come at a cost. Phuket and Koh Samui continue to attract hordes of tourists to their golden shores but have become highly commercialised and developed a seedy side that certainly detracts from their idyllic location.
The smaller islands of Phi Phi and Pha Ngan witness the coming and going of thousands of backpackers every week. They may have escaped any major large-scale developments but their extreme popularity has meant they have become fairly overcrowded and lack the facilities to cope. Ko Pha Ngan has become synonomous with a hedonistic party culture which peaks at the raucous full moon parties. Meanwhile, Ko Phi Phi which found fame in the movie ‘The Beach’ is now far from the deserted island paradise portrayed in the film and seems to get more like Pha Ngan with each passing year.
The changes on those islands is leading travellers to look for alternatives and if you want to escape the crowds but still have plenty of things to do then Ko Tao is a good bet. Although travellers have been coming here for several decades, it has retained more of its original character than it’s overly commercialised neighbours.
The reasons for this are relatively simple. The island is pretty isolated located about 70km off the Thai mainland and a fair distance from the other major islands in the Gulf of Thailand (Ko Samui and Pha Ngan). It’s too small for any big construction projects to take place so don’t expect any large hotels or airports here any time soon. This means getting here can be a challenge in itself and many visitors to Thailand prefer the convenience of direct flights into Ko Samui or Phuket.
However visitors who make it to Ko Tao (which literally means Turtle island) rarely leave disappointed. Sairee Beach which is base camp for most travellers here is long and never seems to get too overcrowded. There are various beachside cafes and bars to keep you refreshed and many of them have hammocks, perfect for relaxing during long lazy days on the island.
Ko Tao is one of the few Thai islands that really does cater for all budgets in terms of accommodation. Sairee Beach has a few very basic hostels (most are linked to one of the Dive Schools) which are cheap and full of young (mostly) European travellers. The beachside bungalows are a bit plusher than those on nearby Ko Pha Ngan but still reasonably priced and not out of the budget of a backpacker if you’re sharing with friends. Chalok Bay is home to a few beautiful small luxury resorts which are perfect for anyone on a larger budget and value for money here is generally better than what you get on Ko Samui or Phuket.
Aside from the beaches and the nightlife, the main reason people come to Ko Tao is to scuba dive. The clear waters around the island are home to an abundance of sea-life including reef sharks, stingrays, turtles and barracudas making this a perfect spot to try diving and snorkelling. On dry land you will find plenty of dive schools which offer several days of professional training for under 10,000 Baht, a figure which typically includes accommodation and all your equipment. Courses normally start in a classroom before venturing into a nearby swimming pool to hone your basic skills. By the second or third day you can expect to finally head out into the open seas and at the end of the course you receive a PADI certificate which is recognised worldwide. [Ed note: Happy to say that Trudy and I are PADI certified from Ko Tao!]
By night, there are plenty of international restaurants along Sairee’s main street while roadside huts and stalls serve up cheap Thai dishes. As midnight approaches the action moves to the beachfront and although it lacks the large nightclubs and parties of it’s neighbours, Ko Tao certainly knows how to party.
Dotted along Sairee are numerous bars which are open till late, serve cheap drinks and hold lively open air discos every night. Most have their own evening entertainment to get things going which generally means some kind of fire show where spectators are encouraged to get involved. Bar hopping is good fun and you never have to walk more than a few hundred metres down the beach before arriving at another party.
Whether it’s day or night, Ko Tao is a fun and relaxing place to be. For the moment at least this tiny island may be one of the few slices of tropical paradise that has not become totally overrun by tourism. It has found that difficult balance between opening its doors to visitors but not allowing them to destroy the island’s heart and soul. This may change as more people discover the charms of Ko Tao, but for the moment at least this is surely one of Thailand’s secret gems.
Mark has travelled extensively in Latin America and Asia and continues to write about his travels. You can find more of his articles on MyFunkyTravel.com which provides advice for backpackers and tips for travelling on a tight budget.