The baby of the Samui–Pha-Ngan–Tao trio, Ko Tao may still be the smallest in size but in many other ways it’s all grown up. The island is consistently gaining in popularity and going more upscale, but for now this jungle-topped cutie has the busy vibe of Samui mixed with the laid-back nature of Pha-Ngan.
But Tao also has its wild card, something the others don’t: easy-to-get-to, diverse diving right off its shores. Cavort with sharks and rays in a playground of tangled neon coral, toast the day with sunset cocktails on a white beach, then get up and do it all over again.
But even though the island is synonymous with diving, there is much more to the place. Hikers and hermits can re-enact an episode from Lost in the dripping coastal jungles. And when you’re Robinson Crusoe-ed out, hit the pumpin’ bar scene that rages on until dawn.
Koh Tao in Thailand may be a premier scuba diving destination in Southeast Asia–it’s certainly the cheapest–but the island offers just as much beauty above the surface.
This off-track stretch of sand has long been a local hideaway, while still an easy walk from the main pier area of Mae Haad. Rarely crowded, thanks to its inaccessibility by road, the rock outcroppings nearly entirely camouflage the rest of Koh Tao, evoking the charm of idyllic island days past, when the Gulf trio of Koh Samui, Phangan, and Tao were just first being discovered.
One of the easternmost bays on Koh Tao, Tanote is best reached by motorbike or taxiboat. The beach itself curves gently out to sea, with plenty of space to lounge around on even the busiest of days. Tanote also claims some of the best snorkeling on the island. The shallow beach drops out almost instantly across stunning coral reef packed with marine life, and even as it gets deeper the crystal-clear water awards ever-expansive views into its depth. This bay is also popular for a giant rock jutting up from its waters, fixed with a permanent rope ladder to reach incredible views and adrenaline-pumping cliff jumping.
Another secluded spot, accessible only by hike or taxiboat, Laem Thian is a prime snorkel location that will entice more advanced swimmers with its underwater swim-throughs formed naturally from the piled-up volcanic rock. The 45-minute trek through the center of the island from Sairee is a treat in itself, the trail winding through untouched flora and fauna enclosed under a dense canopy of jungle. The bay was once home to a small resort, now abandoned for almost a decade, but the spooky property is still in tact for exploration and great photo opportunities.
The drive through the island to reach Sai Daeng beach is nearly as stunning as the beach itself. Winding up over the hills of southern Koh Tao through old palm plantations past the island’s now defunct windmill, the road eventually crests to bright blue views extending out towards Phangan in the south, and Samui past that on a clear day. At Sai Daeng itself, a fleet of kayaks is available to help you paddle out toward Shark Island, an uninhabited volcanic mount, or just laze around on the sand while filling up on beers or fruit shakes from the bamboo beach bar.
Just down from Sai Nuan beach is this private slice of paradise–particularly at its best during sunset. Amble out among the scattered rockbed exposed during low tide, to enjoy Koh Tao’s natural evening lightshow seemingly far away from packed Sairee Beach, or share a few beers at the ramshackle Banana Bar–a local haunt that has weathered years of a changing tourism ethos on the island (as well as actual inclement weather!) while retaining its original antiquated charm.
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