Koh Tao, Thailand – A Backpackers Guide

Rocks on the beach at Koh Tao  

Updated September 4th, 2018.

Also known as ‘Turtle Island’ because of its shape, Koh Tao is a hugely popular stop on the backpacker trail.

Located right next to Koh Phangan, home of the notorious Full Moon Party, many backpackers arrive in Koh Tao bleary-eyed and hungover, ready to chill out for a few days on this island paradise. But don’t chill out too long – as this island has too much adventure to offer!

Famous primarily as a diving Mecca; Koh Tao is where many backpackers take the plunge and get their first underwater licence, PADI certification. After all, it is one of the cheapest places in the world to learn to dive!

There is no shortage of dive schools based on the island who will help you explore the underwater world. With calm, clear waters and an abundance of marine life, it’s certainly a great place to try diving for the first time.

Learning to dive in Koh Tao, Thailand with New Way Diving School.

From rock climbing to paintballing, to kayaking, wake-boarding and other water-sports, there are many other activities available in Koh Tao for non-divers. Days cram-packed with adventure followed by seafood barbecues and nights frolicking on the sands in lively beach bars. What more could a backpacker ask for?

Top Tip: To see the island at its best, go either before the Full Moon Party or after everyone else has already moved on after the Full Moon Party. The island is at it’s most crowded just after the party when hoards of backpackers descend.

Where to Stay in Koh Tao:

Mae Haad is the main pier town where you’ll find a sprinkling of accommodation and some good watering holes. Some backpackers like the vibe here, although many prefer to stay closer to a big sandy beach, as Mae Haad only has a pier.

Haad Sairee is the longest and busiest beach on the island, and the paved path running parallel to the beach just behind it leads to Sairee Village. Many of the dive schools, restaurants, bars and coffee shops are located here and it’s a lively and popular place for backpackers to base themselves with a good variety of accommodation suitable for all budgets. At night, barbecues take place on the shore and beach bars lit with candles play cool music into the night.

Chalok Baan Kao on the south of the islands has a more low key scene which is preferred by couples and more mature travellers. If you’re looking for a quieter spot, you’ll find some decent backpacker accommodation, dive schools and restaurants here.

Koh Tao Backpackers Hostels

Koh Tao has a variety of great hostels, guesthouses and resorts. Some of our favourites include:

The Dearly Koh Tao Hostel: (Chalok Baan Kao) They call themselves a ‘premium hostel’ and they certainly live up to this! Although a bed in a mixed dorm will set you back $18 USD, which is more expensive than most hostels in Koh Tao, many travellers who stay here say it’s well worth it. With a gorgeous location, swimming pool, rooftop bar, a chill-out room and spacious dorms, this hostel gets rave reviews. Super-clean, fresh and bright design and friendly staff make this one of the best hostels on the island, if not in Thailand! (5-10 minute walk to Chalok Bay from here.)

8 homestel: (Mae Haad) At $8 USD for a dorm bed, this hostel is a great value for money hostel close to the pier in Mae Haad. The dorm rooms are designed very well so that each person gets their own private space with a privacy curtain, reading light and power socket. A friendly place with free tea, coffee and water all day!

White Jail Hostel: (Mae Haad) With novelty ‘jailhouse’ design, this hostel has a modern and stylish design with all the facilities that you would expect. New, clean and plenty of spaces to chill and chat with other travellers. At $10 USD per night, it’s a good option near the pier in Mae Haad.

The HIVE Hostel: (Sairee Beach) Another cheap and cheerful hostel located on Sairee Beach, a bed in a mixed dorm at HIVE will cost you $9 USD. This is a friendly place where it’s easy to meet people over breakfast or a game of pool in their outdoor common area. This hostel is a 5-minute walk from Sairee Beach.

BP Hostel: (Sairee Beach) Just a few minutes walk to Sairee Beach and the main action of the village, this hostel is a cheap and cheerful place to stay with a bed in an 8-bed dorm costing $10 USD.

For more accommodation in Koh Tao, Click Here!

Things to do in Koh Tao

Diving in Koh Tao: The number one attraction!

Diving in Thailand is a not-to-be-missed experience and with prices in Koh Tao amongst the cheapest in the world for beginners, it’s an absolute must on a backpacking trip! Completing an ‘Open Water Course’, (3-4 days) will grant you an underwater license that you can use anywhere in the world. Courses cost around 9,000 Thai Baht (around $270 USD).

If you decide to take the plunge, there are no shortage of excellent dive schools to choose from. Schools in Koh Tao are certified with either SSI or PADI.

Once you’re carded and can dive up to 18 metres, the underwater scenes will blow your mind! Watching turtles glide by, swimming past stingrays, hunting Nemo, spotting crab lurking in the crevices of the colourful coral reef, it’s an unforgettable experience. And, if you’re lucky, you may catch a glimpse of the incredible whale shark, a seasonal visitor to Thailand’s waters.

Read more about diving in Southeast Asia here.

Best spots for snorkelling in Koh Tao

If you’re not quite ready for diving, the snorkelling in Koh Tao is well worth it. Great places to snorkel include Tanote Bay, Ao Leuk, Laem Thien and Thian Og Bay.

Tanote Bay on the east coast of the island is a great snorkelling beach. It’s a huge sandy beach with a selection of bars and restaurants, great snorkelling, plus a massive granite boulder to climb up and jump off into the crystal clear water. (Not for the faint-hearted – trying to climb back down is scarier than jumping!)

Until recently, Laem Thien Bay, also on the east coast of the island was another fantastic snorkelling beach, accessible by kayak from Tanote Bay (or by longtail boat). However, recently, Laem Thien keeps getting trashed by visitors leaving their rubbish, crap (literally!) and lots of graffiti on the walls in the area. It seems to have become a ‘free’ camping spot, that is being badly abused. The snorkelling is still good, but the bay itself varies in its condition. Many of the dive schools, such as Master Divers, have cleared boatloads of rubbish from the bay in recent years and the battle remains ongoing!

Just a fifteen-minute boat trip from Koh Tao, at the northern tip of the island lies Nang Yuan Island, which is actually three small islands connected by a double-sided white sandy beach in the middle. Day snorkelling trips can be booked here from the main island of Koh Tao.

Koh Nang Yuan Island as seen from Koh Tao.
Koh Nang Yuan Island as seen from Koh Tao.

Not just diving!

Adventure schools in Koh Tao will help you explore the island in various ways aside from diving. From rock climbing and abseiling to hiking and cliff jumping, adrenalin junkies will have no trouble finding things to keep them busy. There’s also kayaking, watersports, paintballing, mini golf… you name it!

Hiring a scooter in Koh Tao is a great way to get around and see the island. Mango lookout point is a must do – it’s a bumpy ride but the view is just incredible.

Beach Bumming:

While on a tropical Thai island, you may think that one of the free things to do here is relaxing on a beach…

However, unfortunately, access to most beaches on Koh Tao is now controlled with pay booths – it’s illegal, but it’s happening. The Army shut down several booths and then they waited a few weeks and opened up again. Aow Leuk and Freedom Beach now charge; with Aow Leuk you get a drink and use of sun loungers/shades/hammocks; don’t believe Tanote Bay does (yet).

Note: Shark Bay has been ‘taken over’ by Haad Thien Resort and they claim to own it, so you can’t just pop along to use the beach anymore.

Recommended in Koh Tao, Thailand:

Getting to Koh Tao

If you are coming from Bangkok:

  • Bus/Ferry: You can book an overnight bus from Bangkok to Chumphon, then take the ferry from Chumphon to Koh Tao. Most tickets booked will include the bus and boat in the overall price of around 1050 baht. Buses are comfortable and you even get a blanket. (TIP: Take some warm clothes! Even though it is 100 degrees outside the bus, the AC is turned up to freezing inside!)
  • Train/Ferry: There are several trains leaving daily directly from Bangkok to Chumphon. Once at Chumphon take one of the ferries to Koh Tao. The Lomprayah high-speed catamaran makes two trips a day at 7 am and 1 pm. It costs around 600 Baht and takes 90 minutes, or the Songserm leaves at 7 am, costing a bit less and taking about an hour longer than the Lomprayah.
  • Fly/Ferry: For travellers short on time, you can catch a quick one hour flight from Bangkok to Koh Samui, then it’s a two-hour ferry ride to Koh Tao.

Where to go next?

  • Koh Phangan: The notorious Full Moon Party has made this island world famous! Also a beautiful island with deserted beaches, tropical forest and national park.
  • Khao Sok National Park: One of the most ancient natural rainforests in Thailand. From Surat Thani, it’s a one hour bus journey.
  • Chumphon: Just one hour and 3/4 from Koh Tao, Chumpon is rarely given the time it deserves on a backpacker trip. National Park, deserted beaches, hot springs – and you’re the only one there! Ssssh.

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