Located in the Gulf of Thailand, Koh Tao is a small island (21 km2) that attracts thousands of travelers, both divers and non-divers every year. Koh Tao has gained a reputation as being one of the world’s cheapest places to learn SCUBA diving, while still offering enough for experienced divers to enjoy.
The island has over 60 dive schools offering courses in almost all European languages and SCUBA diving agencies (PADI, SSI, BSAC, NAUI, CMAS, TDI plus more). Because of all the competition it has driven course and fun dive prices down. And with all the student divers coming through dive agencies are keeping a keen eye to make sure that everything is being done properly, ensuring that you will be getting good (if not great) service, great diving and a great price while keeping to the standards set out by the SCUBA council.
Koh Tao also has a rapidly growing technical diving scene, with several schools offering courses ranging from Tec 40, to Tri-mix and cave. Many of these courses will take trips to the mainland, but the bulk of the training and preparation will take place around Koh Tao.
Koh Tao has 3 main settlements, and they are all very different from each other so you can always find the best place to suit your needs.
Mae Haad: This is the main settlement on Koh Tao. This is where all the ferries arrive and depart from. There are many shops and restaurants here, but not much going on in the way of night life.
Sairee Beach: A 1.7 km stretch of white sandy beaches dotted with palm trees, this is the party hot spot of the island. This area contains the most bars, restaurants and dive schools. Great if you want to see the amazing night life Koh Tao has to offer, not too great if you want an early night!
Chalok Baan Khao: The southernmost settlement on the island, this offers the most beautiful beaches. It has a very different vibe to Sairee Beach, it is much quieter and has a much more island feel too it. A great selection of restaurants, shops and chill out bars. The go to place if you need to escape the chaos of Sairee, or just want to chill out on the beach to sun bathe or read a book.
All of the settlements offer both accommodation and dive schools to cater for all budgets, however you usually find that Chalok offers slightly cheaper accommodation, but you will find much more accommodation in Sairee. The normal accommodation on the island is the classic Thai beach bungalow, which are usually fan only, with a fridge, and a bathroom. You can upgrade to air conditioning, but as the electricity is limited (especially during the busy season) you will have to pay for this yourself, and it isn’t cheap. If you feel you need air con, and you don’t mind sharing a room, there are a couple of hostels which offer air conditioning (such as the Koh Tao Backpackers Hostel in Sairee Beach) and these are cheaper than the bungalow options.
The island can get very busy at certain times of the year. Peak season is between January and April, and then again July through to September. Usually during this time of year the weather is very hot (between 32 and 35 degrees Celsius) and there can very little rainfall, which causes problems with water supply. The weather is mostly good year round, however like anywhere in the tropics there is a rainy season, which usually begins early to mid-November and finishes towards the end of December or early January. During this time the sea can get very choppy, and although a lot of the dive schools remain open during this time, it can be an unpleasant experience, especially if you get sea sick!
Best Dive Sites:
Chumpon Pinnacle: Located around 35 minutes north east of the island, Chumpon Pinnacle is basically a giant underwater rock. The top of the pinnacle is around 14 metres and the sandy bottom is at around 30 metres. There is also a spate pinnacle called Barracuda Rock, where the bottom can go deeper, to around 35 metres. If you swim off the dive site it drops down to about 42 metres. The dive site can boast amazing visibility, and a wide selection of marine life. Common fish include schools of Chevron Barracuda, Huge Groupers, Bat fish, Cobia, Rainbow Runners. If you are really lucky then you might catch a glimpse of the mystical Whale Shark, which occasionally visits the dive site. Other than that you can enjoy the meadows of pink anemones that covers the pinnacle, and just generally see some of the great marine life Koh Tao has to offer.
White Rock: Just a 5 minute drive from Sairee Beach, white rock is more easily accessible than many other dive sites, but is one of the best places to see turtles! It has a shallow sand patch in the middle that goes down to about 12 metres, and that is surrounded by reefs and pinnacles, where you can get to about 25 metres at some points. Here you can find many rays and eels hiding amongst the corals and under rocks. This site can get very busy as it has perfect conditions most of the time for Open Water student divers.
HTMS Sattakut: A must visit if you are into wreck diving. The HTMS Sattakut was sank in 2011 as an artificial reef, by the Save Koh Tao foundation. It lies upright in around 25-30 metres of water, with the very top of the wheel house sitting at 18 metres. It was an ex US navy ship, that transported troops during World War II and then was sold to Thailand after the war. It has 2 large guns on it, and is great to dive inside. It is in very good condition, and there is already a good amount of coral starting to grow on it.
Sail Rock: Widely regarded as the best dive site in the Gulf of Thailand, this site is actually closer to Koh Phangan than it is to Koh Tao. It is a huge pinnacle that starts at around 30 meters, and comes all the way up to the surface, and then around 10 meters above the surface. It takes about 2 ½ hours to get there from Koh Tao, so it is usually done as a 3 dive day trip leaving early from Koh Tao, doing 2 dives at sail rock and 1 more on the way back. Best chances of seeing Whale Sharks here, and at certain times of the year there is a good chance of seeing Bull Sharks. A must dive spot if you can face the early start!
Laem Thien: Head to the East of the Island for a completely different experience, Laem Thien is basically a huge collection of boulders that have fallen from the island and stacked up underwater. This has created a mad collection of swim throughs that you can explore. Inside the miniature caves there you can find Eels, Box fish, Sweet lips and other unusual marine life. You will be more likely to find dive schools heading to this side of the island between May and July.
You will find that most dive schools operate almost all year round, because it is an island you can always find some shelter, however diving during November and December you will find that most schools use only about 3 or 4 dive sites throughout this season, so the sites do get very busy.
Water temperature doesn’t vary too much throughout the year. Between February and April it can get quite warm, with surface temperatures reaching a very comfortable 32 degrees Celsius, and again the same temperatures June through to August. During September the temperature starts to drop and continues dropping until it hits around 26 to 27 degrees at the end of November and stays that way until the end of December.
Visibility can be very varying throughout the year. On an exceptional day at dive sites such as Chumpon Pinnacle and White Rock visibility can reach 30 + metres. You will find the average visibility between mid-January through to mid-October. During the November /December monsoon the visibility can drop to between 2 to 5 metres. During this time of year you will find the dive sites on the west coast have slightly clearer water, and flatter seas.
Currents on Koh Tao never get too strong around the island. During this time of year you will find the dive sites on the west coast have slightly clearer water, and flatter seas. You get the strongest currents around the corners of the island at dive sites such as Green Rock, Shark Island and Hin Wong Pinnacle. There is no drift diving on the island, as most dive sites are pinnacles, instead of wall diving. This means that when the currents are running quite strongly it can make some of the diving a little trickier for novice divers. If you want to visit some of these spots then I would recommend using a dive school with a separate boat for fun divers. This is because (and quite rightly so) the choice of dive site caters for the least qualified, this means choosing a small school may get you a more personal touch, with more interaction with the team, but less varied selection of sites.
Most of the dive schools are western run, or at least employ mainly western instructors. Dive master training is very popular on Koh Tao, which means that you will normally have lots of Dive Master Trainees (DMT’s) around to help you on and around the boat, and with the moving of equipment. There is normally a maximum ration of 4 students per Instructor or Dive Master on the island. Some schools will take 6 customers out, but with the assistance of a DMT (they still count into the ratio of 8:1) however some of the largest schools will have Open Water groups with group sizes of 12 students to 2 instructors. Again this falls within dive agency standards but can give that feeling of being in a ‘dive factory’.
You will find instructors and Divemasters of all nationalities, and ages. The majority of people visiting the island are from English speaking nations, so English is very widely spoken. But there are also a good number of Scandinavian, German, Dutch, French, Italian and Spanish. So if your English is not so strong you can always find a school that will cater for your needs. You will find there is at least one school on the island that caters specifically for one language.
Boats: You will find almost all the dive schools dive off converted fishing boats, which can look a little rickety but work fine. They don’t handle the wave very well if it is choppy, so if you do get sea sick be sure to take some tablets with you. Please be respectful on the boats, as the captain usually live on them. There are some rules on the boats, and staff members should inform you of these when you get on them. You will get on the boats either on the pier at Mae Haad, Hin Wong Bay, or by using a taxi boat from the beach. These are typically the traditional Thai long tail boats.
Rental Gear: Almost all the dive shops include the equipment rental with the price of the dive course or fun dives. It is almost always the basic models, but mostly in relatively good condition.
Buying Gear: There are a few shops dotted around the island that sell new or second hand dive equipment. There are dealers for most of the major brands, so it is easy to replace parts such as fin straps for specific fins or get service kits for a particular regulator. It is generally a little more expensive to buy equipment on Koh Tao than it is in places such as Europe or the US.
Non Diving Activities:
Koh Tao is a beautiful island, and although it is famed for its SCUBA Diving, Snorkeling and Free Diving there is much more to do there. If you are into your adventure sports then Koh Tao offers some great rock climbing and bouldering spots.
There is also some good spots for cliff jumping, but if you are going to do that, never go alone and make sure you have a way to contact help should anything happen, you can get trips organized for you where staff will take you to all the best and safest spots.
There is amazing hiking on Koh Tao, with some stunning view points to visit. If you are going to go for a hike be sure that you carry plenty of water, and wear some proper clothing, including shoes (not flip flops) and use sun cream. You can end up being a few kilometers away from civilization, which is a long way to go if you run out of water!
Be sure to visit the island of Koh Nangyuan while you visit Koh Tao. It is actually 3 separate island connected by a sand bar to form a stunning beach. You can get there by getting a taxi boat from Sairee Beach, or taking the Lomprayah high speed catamaran service. There are no plastic bottles allowed on the island but you can purchase food and drinks on there. While there you can visit the stunning view points, or go snorkeling in the clear bays of Japanese Gardens or Twins.
Getting to Koh Tao:
The only way to get to Koh Tao is to take a ferry, there are several on offer which range from £10 to £15 depending on where you start your journey. If you are arriving in Bangkok and want to get there you can book a bus and boat package for around £20. If you don’t like the idea of a 7 hour bus journey then you can fly to nearby Koh Samui for around £100 and then take the ferry to Koh Tao. It is very easy to get here, as Thailand has many travel agencies that will book all the tickets for you, and offer taxi services between the travel agencies and the bus stops, airports and piers.