Ko Tao Island
A tiny Gem in the Gulf of Thailand
Giant Palm and Gentle Waters
The tiny island of Ko Tao may appear intent on sitting all
alone in the middle of nowhere but alone as it may seem in such a vast
ocean, it does however form part of a much bigger picture.
Known as Turtle Island,
this pretty enclave is in fact a member of the eighty strong Samui
archipelago. It's also the third principal island in the group. This beautiful piece of paradise lies 25 miles (40 kilometres) northwest of
and is best known for its superb scuba diving and rock climbing adventure sports.
Not that long ago Turtle Island was colonized by just a few backpackers who had come here to seek somewhere quiet to rest their weary feet, but today as more and more tourists are streaming in, escape from the crowds has become less and less possible. As tourism in Thailand increases, so privacy decreases. Nonetheless, this little corner of paradise still holds a fair amount of fascination and may well be worth a visit should you be in the vicinity. Assess to Ko Tao is by boat only.
Main Pier at Ban Mae Hat Beach on Ko Tao
Exploring Ko Tao Island
Ko Tao is so named because its shape resembles that of a turtle. The
east coast appears to echo the turtle's rugged shell and is crenelated with several secluded coves. The west coast matches the shape of the
turtle's underbelly and has a long curved beach. The south coast
mirrors the turtle diving towards Ko Phangan.
Incidentally the chance of spotting a turtle here is rather unlikely. Let me know if
you do find one. What you will find here are black tipped reef sharks.
These sharks are normally quite timid and skittish and fearful
of humans. As difficult as they are to approach, a black-tip shark
seldom poses a danger to humans unless roused by food, so please don't attempt to feed them.
Getting to Ko Tao Island
Most tourists arriving at Ko Tao will either come from Ko Samui or Ko
Phangan but there are departure points via the mainland from either
Surat Thani or Chumphon. All boats to the island dock at one of the
three piers at Ban Mae Hat beachfront.
Ban Mae Hat is the
only proper village on the island. It's lively, it's pleasant and it's
friendly. Perhaps a little too friendly if you get my drift. Long-Tail Touts
are here to greet you with a big smile while proclaiming to know the
best, but often isolated bungalows for overnight stays, the best beaches
and dive sites.
Be careful, be watchful and be wary.
Touts can be shrewd, slick and sharp. After all, they have been
perfecting this particular craft for decades and you as a first timer,
are the perfect target. You need to be wide awake here. When confronted
with situations such as these, simply smile politely and then just walk
Simple as it may seem, I know it's not always easy. You need to learn and learn fast otherwise the alternative is to get ripped off. Something that will happen at least once on your trip. I'm getting better at avoiding the suspicious behavior of touts now. And it's often said that practice makes for perfection, so it's better to avoid these confrontations. Rather than that, go your own way.
Nestling in the heart of a pleasant beachfront setting, the amenities at Mae Hat is far greater than the rest of the island and includes a few small supermarkets, a couple of pharmacies a police station and a clinic. The only paved street heads straight up a hill from the main pier and from there, to several narrower streets that run up at right angles and parallel to the seafront.
Long Boats at Ban Mae Hat Beach
Getting around Ko Tao Island
As much as you can get around the 21 square kilometre (8 square mile) island easily on foot, there are a few roads you can take, albeit
some of them being little more than rough tracks and really only
suitable for four wheel drive type vehicles. Rental agencies hire out
mopeds, quad bikes and various all terrain vehicles should you wish to explore Ko Tao island by road or off-road.
As a tip, try to avoid
the motor bike rental outfits in front of the main pier at Mae Hat.
There has been some rather nasty reports from tourists being
exorbitantly overcharged for even the slightest damage done when
returning their vehicles. Rather rent from your resort or someone more
reliable like the legendary Mr J.
Who exactly is Mr J. Well, for starters, he's quite a character I might add, and one who makes no bones about erecting a small manufacturing plant to produce his own brand of homemade condoms. Best of all, if you buy ten you'll get one absolutely free. Now here's the thing - According to Mr J. the condoms have a 20 year guarantee. Don't take my word on this, go ask him yourself.
I know what you are thinking right now. Do I spread them over a twenty year period and wait to see if his predictions come true or do I take it with a pinch of salt and use them all up before I die or better still, before I leave the small island, whichever one comes (excuse the pun) first. I'll leave you to your own conclusion.
Mr J's Supermarket on Ko Tao Island
Mr J's Supermarket and Bungalows
In addition to contraception, Mr J. offers other benefits including accommodation in the form of reasonably priced bungalows with or without air-conditioning
and a couple of supermarkets packed ceiling high with stacks of books,
heaps of clothing, loads of souvenirs, assorted snacks and drinks
including beer as well as a frightening display of fireworks. Mr J's
businesses form part of a trusted network.
One of Mr J's shops
lies just south of Mae Hat Pier and another five minutes walk north of
the village between Mae Hat and Sai Ree Beach. Here the shop is atop a
small hill with Mr J's bungalows nestling down the hill towards a very
quiet end of Mae Hat Beach. The beach is only a few minutes away, albeit
through a coconut grove littered with trash and the final resting place
of several old broken boats.
Sunset Street on Kao Tao
Exploring the Beaches of Ko Tao
You'll find all the best beaches located on the western and southern shores of Ko Tao. Though it has a pleasant beach, Mae Hat on the west coast is where boats dock to drop off visitors. From there most prefer to explore further afield.
Probably the most popular beach is Hat Sai Ree.
It's positioned north of Mae Hat just beyond a small promontory. The
beach itself is a long classical curve of white sand that stretches for
two kilometres and backed up with a sprinkling of coconut palms (see
photo below) and around twenty or so bungalow type resorts. Nearby is
the popular expat rendezvous called Suthep serving all kinds of western grub such as pizza, pasta, a variety of vegetarian food as well as tasty Thai cuisine.
great spot to just chill over a sun-downer while waiting for the beach
parties to come alive, are the beach tables in the adjacent Dry Bar. The parties mostly happen on Friday nights, but you never know what may come
next. Parties are mandatory across many of the islands here, but
perhaps more so on Ko Phangan.
Running up from the back of the
beach is a narrow paved track that takes you to the village of Ban Hat
Sai Ree, a thriving village of travel agencies, supermarkets, and
internet cafes. The stylish New Heaven Deli and Bakery on the
southern side of the island is tops for lovers of pastries. This is the
where you'll get great home-backed breads and cakes as well as pies,
sandwiches, salads and shakes.
The southern region of Ko Tao Island has several attractions, one of which is Freedom Beach, an idyllic white sandy patch carved out of the Laem Tato
headland. It is secluded, it is palm-lined and it is beautiful.
there you'll find a path leading up to a steep hillside named Jon-Suwan Mountain Viewpoint.
This is where the views take on a whole new meaning. The best time to
go would be just before sunset. The neighbouring bays of Chaloke Ban Kao
and Thian Ok as well as Ko Samui Island, Ko Phangan Island and Shark
Island, are all within sight.
Hat Sai Ree Beach Palm on Ko Tao
Main Dive Sites on Ko Tao
There are over 25 scuba diving and open water diving
sites in and around Ko Tao of which I have listed about ten of the main
They are not in any particular order of preference, but just for the record, there are about 50 dive companies
to meet your demand, thus making it the largest dive-training center not
only in Thailand but also in the whole of South East Asia. Most are
based in Mae Hat, Hat Sai Ree and Ao Chaloke Ban Kao and staffed by
westerners. It's best to inquire which of these would suit you once you
To the north of Ko Tao there are the three tiny islands of
Ko Nang Yuan, which among them, are surrounded by a variety of diving sites
suitable for everyone. The shore sports an assortment of soft and hard
coral filled with ample sea life. There are giant granite boulders with
swim-throughs, caves and canyons where you might spot a moray
stingray or perhaps an occasional reef shark.
Also between the islands of Ko Nang Yuan and Hat Sai Ree beach is White Rock,
so named because the granite boulders seen from the surface have turned
white from the sarcophyton leather coral. The surface is made up of
wire antipatharian and colourful soft coral and gorgonian sea fans that
overflow with marine sea life, including that of titan tigger fish,
butterfly fish, angle fish, clown fish and morays.
To the south of Ko Tao lies Shark Island,
so named because of the leopard and reef sharks and the occasional whale shark
seen in the waters around here. The bay area is smothered in large
granite boulders with acropora, wire and bushy antipatharian corals, sea
whips, gorgonian sea fans and barrel sponges. Apart from the resident
turtle seen here, you will see titan trigger fish, angle-fish and the odd
Shark Island Bay near Ko Tao
Dive Site for Experienced Divers
If you are an experienced diver, try the dive site at Hinwong Pinnacle, just off the north eastern shores of Ko Tao. The scenery here
is similar to that of White Rock but over a much larger area. However, you need to be a little more mindful as the currents can get fairly
strong at the best of times. At a depth of around 30 metres you'll find
lovely soft coral and a wide range of marine life which include
puffer-fish, box-fish, blue-spotted fantail stingrays and hawks-bill
You can also try Chumphon or Northwest Pinnacle.
The granite pinnacle here starts at 14 metres underwater and then
drops off sharply to around 36 metres. Its top is covered with big
beautiful anemones while being surrounded by several smaller formations.
Even at this depth, there's a very good possibility that the visibility
will be exceptional. Deeper down there are antipatharian
corals, barrel sponges and a wide variety of fish in large quantities.
Local fishermen also come here to catch barracuda, bat-fish and giant
One of the top sites in terms of scenery, marine life and visibility for experienced divers is at Southwest Pinnacle.
The principal pyramid-like pinnacle here rises 6 metres below the
surface. It's covered in anemones with few minor ones sporting several
more modest formations. At lower levels granite boulders, barrel
sponges, sea whips, tree and bushy antipatharian corals can be seen. A
variety of fish-life can be found including giant groupers, snappers and
barracuda. Leopard sharks, sand sharks, whale sharks, fin-back whales
and large rays are sometimes seen.
Midway between the islands of Ko Tao and Ko Phangan in the Gulf of Thailand is Sail Rock or Hin Bai.
The granite pinnacle you see here rises 15 metres above the surface of
the sea with a further 40 metres below the surface, 30 metres of which
has good viability. It is considered one of the premier dive site
because of its famous ten metre vertical underwater chimney
swim-through. Here you can enter either at six metres and exit at
eighteen metres or the other way round.
Snappers, large grouper
fish, blue-ringed angle fish, bat fish, king fish, chevron barracuda,
tuna and juvenile clown sweetlips are just some of the fish life here.
Occasionally manta rays can be spotted or perhaps even the odd whale
Map of Ko Tao Island
Return from Ko Tao Island to Thailand Islands
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