The string of islands in the Gulf of Thailand feel a little more remote each time you jump further from Surat Thani on the mainland.
Koh Samui, the closest to the mainland, is the biggest, the busiest, and the most developed.
Koh Phangan has a relatively big city around its main port, although the beaches around the edges are like little sanctuaries.
And then there’s Koh Tao, the smallest of the three, and the furthest from the mainland. Part of the joy of visiting Koh Tao is the sense that you’re far away from things – no big cities, no planes landing nearby, no worries.
Only about six kilometres north-south and three kilometres east-west, the island is not large – yet there are plenty of things to do on Koh Tao.
The steep mountains through the interior mean it can still take a bit of time to get from one side to the other, and it creates pockets of adventure and isolation, with beaches at the bottom of such steep hills that it feels like an expedition to reach them by road.
How do you get to Koh Tao?
Wherever you’re coming from, you’ll need to get to Koh Tao by boat. For many visitors, the easiest way is to fly to Koh Samui and get the ferry from there, usually via Koh Phangan. It also means you can combine your trip with some time on one of the other islands.
Especially in high season (but anytime really), I recommend you buy your ticket in advance for the ferry.
If you’re coming from the mainland, you can get a ferry from Surat Thani (convenient from Phuket and other southern destinations), or a ferry from Chumphon (quicker and more convenient if you’re heading down from Bangkok).
How long should you spend on Koh Tao?
After the effort to get to Koh Tao, you’ll want to stay for a little while to make it worthwhile. My suggestion would be a minimum of three nights – that gives you one full day to do a boat trip and one full day to explore the island.
However, that’s the minimum! You could easily do a week here and not be bored. Part of the fun is relaxing and getting to know the place.
When is the best time to visit Koh Tao?
The best time to visit Koh Tao is generally between January to April, when the days are dry and warm.
The worst time to visit tends to be in October and November, when the monsoons are at their worst. The months before that, June to September, can also be quiet wet but rarely for the whole day.
Is Koh Tao safe?
The simple answer is that, yes, Koh Tao is safe. It’s a small island that relies on tourism, so generally it’s in everyone’s interests to create a friendly and welcome space.
However, the murder of two British backpackers in 2014 put the spotlight on safety in Koh Tao, and there have been several deaths of tourists since, each explained as an accident (although some are a bit mysterious).
To be fair, the numbers of deaths on Koh Tao is no higher per capita than many other tourist destinations. And, I can tell you form my own experience there, it does not feel like a dangerous place at all. Just use your usual common sense, as you would anywhere else in Thailand.
One of the main activities in Koh Tao is diving, and a lot of people come here to get their PADI certification or spend time exploring the dive sites within easy reach.
But it really doesn’t matter if you don’t like diving. The dive shops don’t dominate the island, despite what you might think, and there’s plenty to do in Koh Tao for those who don’t like the idea of strapping tanks to their back (although I would recommend some snorkelling – more on that soon!).
The best way to spend your days in Koh Tao is to explore the different contours of the island (literally and figuratively). Although it’s a relaxing destination, it’s also not one where you just lie by the pool all day.
Head to some of the beaches for swimming and snorkelling, relax at the coastal bars with a cocktail – especially at sunset, and take a boat trip one day (especially one that includes Koh Nang Yuan).
Koh Tao is one of my favourite places in Thailand, and it’s easy to relax into the comfortable carefree atmosphere. But that doesn’t mean you don’t want to have some ideas of how to spend your time.
So, to help you do a bit of planning, let’s have a look at what to do on Koh Tao.
Compared to Koh Samui and Koh Phangan, the beaches of Koh Tao are generally not as large – or as filled with sundecks and vendors.
If all you want to do all day is lie in the sun, this is perhaps not the island you would choose. But the beaches are still a highlight, in a different way.
There are about a dozen beaches on Koh Tao, and these are some of the best.
The largest and most popular of the Koh Tao beaches is Sairee Beach, just north of the pier where the ferries arrives. It’s where you’ll find a lot of the accommodation, as well as bars and restaurants along much the strip.
As far as swimming, it’s certainly possible and you’ll see people getting in the water to cool off at various points along the two kilometre strip. But it’s not the nicest swimming beach on Koh Tao.
One of the best things about Sairee Beach is the sunset. The whole area glows beautiful shades of reds and oranges at dusk, and I recommend grabbing a spot at one of the bars (or just hanging on the sand with a drink) and watching the skyshow!
Chalok Baan Kao Bay
At the south of the island, Chalok Baan Kao Bay is a beautiful little beach that’s very easy to reach, with a direct paved road to the sand.
Chalok Baan Kao Bay is about 400 metres long but the strip of sand is quite narrow. That means that, although there are hotels along much of it, they don’t set up sunbeds or anything on the sand itself.
You might want to consider staying here, and I’ve got some tips in my guide to the best accommodation on Koh Tao. But even if you’re not staying here, the hotel restaurants and bars are chilled places to hang.
Just a few hundred metres from Chalok Baan Kao Bay are a couple of other great options – Freedom Beach (comfortable to hang for a few hours) and Shark Bay (good for snorkelling).
You’ll find Tanote Bay on the eastern side of the island, down a steep road that makes this more of a focused destination than a ‘pop in for a swim’ beach.
But it’s worth the trip, because Tanote Bay is one of the most dramatic beaches on Koh Tao, surrounded by steep green slopes and large boulders.
The picturesque beach is also famous for the large rock formation just offshore that people climb up to jump off into the water!
Right up at the northern tip of the island, Mango Bay is one of the hardest beaches to reach by boat – but, for some that’s part of the adventure.
The stretch of sand is relatively small. The highlight of Mango Bay is the beautifully clear water with lots of rocks and reefs (with sea life) to discover when you’re snorkelling.
Most people come here on boat trips, and that’s how I would recommend you visit Mango Bay. If you come by road, you’ll need to pay an entrance fee (100 baht) to pass through the resort and access the beach.
From the coast to the inland, the mountains of Koh Tao create a spectacular landscape. And, at the top of many of the peaks, are viewpoints with incredible vistas across the island and out to sea.
At some point during your stay, it’s worth heading to at least one of these spots to check out the views, take some photos… and have a drink (because they generally all offer that!).
John Suwan Viewpoint
The most famous of the viewpoints on Koh Tao is the John Suwan Viewpoint, which is in the south of the island near Freedom Beach. Not only is it quite easy to reach, but it gives you epic views across a series of beaches in multiple directions.
The hike up from the road to the viewpoint takes about 15 minutes and can get quite humid. There’s an entrance fee of 50 baht (US$1.50) and it can get quite busy, but the John Suwan Viewpoint is definitely on of the highlights of Koh Tao.
Sun Suwan 360 View
Not far from the John Suwan is another option that offers a slightly different experience – called Sun Suwan 360 View .
Because it’s only 300 metres away, you see much of the same landscape, but one of the big differences is that it’s only a short walk of a few minutes to reach. It also has lots of large platforms built on the hilltop, so you can see different angles and hang out with a drink.
Speaking of drinks, the entrance fee is also 50 baht but you get a free cold water or ice tea as part of that – which is always welcome, even if the hike isn’t too arduous!
Love Koh Tao
Love Koh Tao is a bit different to the first two viewpoints I’ve mentioned because it’s actually a restaurant, rather than primarily a vantage point. But you don’t come here for the food, you come for the views.
The restaurant is in the middle of the island, in an area of jungle that hasn’t been particularly developed. It’s a little out of the way, but can be conveniently combined with a trip to Tanote Bay.
Although it can probably claim the title as the highest vantage point on Koh Tao, Mango Viewpoint is also one of the hardest to reach. The road up is steep and neglected and can be quite a mission on a scooter.
Still, you’ll get epic views across the island in every direction, with one of the best panoramas available. With drinks and food available, you can stay a while to make the trip worthwhile.
There’s an entrance fee of 100 baht (US$3) but that includes a drink.
In the water
Of course, diving is one of the best things to do on Koh Tao – but it’s not the only way to get into the water and enjoy the marine wonderland around the island.
Learn to dive
Koh Tao is a popular diving destination for a few reasons. Firstly, because the underwater landscapes are spectacular, with good water visibility and colourful reefs. But the other main reason is that it’s an excellent place to learn to dive.
There are about 70 dive schools on Koh Tao, offering a range of styles, from large schools that are as much about the social life, to small specialised academies for people who need individual help with certain aspects.
If you just want to give it a go for a day to see what it’s like, then I would suggest this one-day scuba experience that will take you to a quiet bay for some instructions and then an underwater dive.
Most of the proper ‘Open Water’ diving courses that people come for are done over about four days, and involve a lot more theoretical and practical coursework. You may want to look a bit deeper (pun intended) into exactly which one is right for you, but here’s a great option if you can’t decide.
For people who are comfortable diving, Koh Tao is still a really popular destination because of the variety of great dive sites that are in easy reach of the island (and the vast number of trips going out to them each day).
There’s the collection of pinnacles called Southwest that marine life from anemonefish to barracuda; Shark Island has an excellent selection of corals that are hard to find in other places; and there’s the adventure of HTMS Sattakut, an old US Navy ship that is designed for experienced divers to explore.
The most famous of all is Sail Rock, which is considered to be pretty much the best diving site in the Gulf of Thailand. It’s focused around a large rock that has its tip above the water and then goes down about 40 metres below the surface, which heaps of fish and sometimes even whale sharks!
I’m not much of a diver, but I do love snorkelling. Thankfully there are lots of excellent places around Koh Tao to snorkel and it’s a wonderful way to see the sea life without the hassle of learning how to dive.
You can head just offshore to see some of the best snorkelling on Koh Tao. One of the best (and easiest) options is Shark Bay, where there’s a decent reef, clean waters, and plenty of fish.
An even better way, though, is to head out on one of the boat trips that will take you to a few different spots around the island throughout the day. This is one of the best snorkelling trips or another great option is this full-day snorkelling trip.
On the water
The water around the island is one of the most alluring aspects of Koh Tao, but it’s not just for divers and snorkellers. Even if you’re not keen to spend too much time actually in the water, there are a few other ways to get out on the water.
Koh Nang Yuan
Visiting the small island of Koh Nang Yuan, just 500 metres off the shore, is one of the best things to do on Koh Tao. Why just replace one island with another, you may wonder? Well, because Koh Nang Yuan is stunning in its on special way!
The island is only small but is defined by two large mountains on either end, connected by a very narrow strip of sand. You can swim on either side of the side bank, you can hike up to an incredible viewpoint on top of one of the mountains, or you can just hang at the restaurant here.
Although it’s possible to organise longtail boat transportation independently (about 300 baht per person return), I would only recommend doing that if you want to spend a long time on the island. Otherwise take one of the tours that I’ll mention in the next section, because they all stop there for about an hour.
Koh Nang Yuan is only open to non-hotel visitors between 09:30 – 17:00 each day.
There’s an entrance fee to the island of 250 baht for foreigners (120 baht for children) and 30 baht for Thais.
Ok, I’ve referred to this a couple of times now, but I just want to be clear – I think a boat trip around the island is the best thing to do on Koh Tao. It combines a bit of everything – swimming, snorkelling, incredible scenery, and a stop at Koh Nang Yuan.
There are a few local operators that run the boat trips every day and they all follow a similar itinerary.
You’ll have an hour or so at Koh Nang Yuan, then you’ll stop at about four other bays or beaches as you make your way around the island, with opportunities for swimming and snorkelling. Lunch is normally included too.
Even if you don’t wan to snorkel, the boat trip is an excellent way to see the different beaches and take in the island’s landscapes, and it’s such a pleasure to be out on the water on a fine day.
For a small boutique boat trip, I would recommend this one that even includes kayaks. Otherwise, the most popular options are here:
If you would like to control exactly where you go, perhaps kayaking is an option to consider. A lot of the waterfront hotels will have kayaks that you can borrow, or you can rent them from several stores at Sairee Beach.
Of course, you may not be able to go too far if you only have the kayak for a short time – but consider getting it for a day, and you might be able to make it around to a few bays, and include a picnic lunch and some drinks!
You’ll also find a lot of places have paddle boards that you can use as well. Although you won’t get quite as far, it’s another fun way to get out on the water.
Just by its nature as a small island with a local population of around 1000 people, Koh Tao doesn’t have a huge amount of cultural offerings.
But, having said that, of course there are a few Koh Tao attractions that will give you a bit of an insight into local life.
Let’s start with the food, because you can never have too much local Thai food!
Unfortunately Koh Tao doesn’t really have a decent night market like the other islands, but there is a smaller version on the main road between Mae Haad and Sairee Beach.
For restaurants, there are some good places on the road between Mae Haad and Chalok Baan Kao Bay, with (slightly pricey) international cuisine, or typical local dishes. You’ll also find a huge selection around Sairee Beach.
And, although it’s not specific to Koh Tao, look out for the street vendor selling crepes filled with delicious goodness – everyone ends up there at some point, ha!
As well as eating local food, you can learn to cook it yourself. Making authentic Thai food is a really fun experience, with skills you can take home with you too.
There’s this Thai cooking class in Koh Tao which is really good because it has a maximum of four participants (often just you and your group). It means the teacher will be able to give you special attention the whole time.
You’ll choose three dishes, learn how to cook them from scratch (including making your own curry paste), and then eat them all as a meal.
As Muay Thai has become more popular around the world, more gyms have opened, or opened up to foreigners, in Thailand. Koh Tao is no exception.
You won’t get the vans driving down the street with blaring speakers promoting Muay Thai shows here. But there are a couple of gyms where you can go for a lesson – or even sign up for a longer period to do a proper training course.
Wat Koh Tao
There really aren’t many big temples on the island, but you’ll probably notice the main one on the road near Mae Haad. Although it’s officially called Wat Koh Charoen Santi Dhamma, it’s normally just referred to as Wat Koh Tao.
The temple was only built in 2018 but it’s designed in the traditional style, with white walls, a red tiled roof, and golden decorations.
Although it’s impressive from the outside, you may like to stop for a moment and go inside as well. It’s a hub of local Buddhist life, so offers you a bit of a look at the Thai culture.
Other things to do
While I think that covers most of Koh Tao’s main attractions, there are a few final things to do on Koh Tao that I thought I would mention, in case they fit in with your trip.
Koh Tao Leisure Park
It’s not particularly Thai, and it doesn’t really have anything to do with the island’s gorgeous nature, but a bit of mini golf is always fun, and you’ll find it here at the Koh Tao Leisure Park.
As well as mini golf, there are pool tables, darts, and a kids playground. There’s even a cinema here.
With a restaurant and bar, it’s a nice escape for the whole family when you need a break from the beaches.
While Koh Tao certainly doesn’t have a reputation as a party island (particularly compared to Koh Phangan or Koh Samui), it still has lots of people on holidays who want to have fun. Which is perhaps why the Koh Tao Pub Crawl has become a bit of an institution here.
Aimed particularly at the backpacker crowd, it is run four nights a week and claims to be the biggest pub crawl in Asia (I’m really not sure if that’s true, though).
The ticket includes a t-shirt, a number of drinks, discounts, and the chance to win prizes. In short, if you’re young and like to party, this will probably be a great night!
If you’ve ever fancied running away to join the circus, this is your chance to see if you’re cut out for it. Flying Trapeze Adventures on Koh Tao runs private lessons for your group, where you’ll learn how to swing on the trapeze, fly through the air, and get caught by a professional catcher.
It’s another of the fun activities on the island that breaks up the time on the beaches – and, let’s be honest, you’re unlikely to do anywhere else. You can book your group in here.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION ON KOH TAO
From backpacker hostels to luxury villas, there’s a great range across the island. Have a look at my detailed story about where to stay on Koh Tao, or check out the highlights below.
One of the most popular hostels on Koh Tao, Revolution is a great place to meet people, with lots of organised social events!
The rooms may be simple at Sunrise Koh Tao, but you can’t beat the location right on the beach with a bar and terrace.
As the name suggests, View Point Resort has incredible vistas – and the pool villas are something really special.
Modern, beautifully decorated, and with stunning views, Jamahkiri Resort & Spa has villas that are among the best on the island!