Getting on Island Time: 48 Hours in Koh Tao


Before I left for Thailand, I’d only planned on spending a few weeks in Southeast Asia and had set a pretty aggressive itinerary to match that time restraint.

I say that upfront in this post, because, most people venture to Koh Tao, boasting some of the best diving and snorkelling in Thailand with intent of becoming dive certified. While I would have loved getting my dive certification there, I was hesitant to commit both the time and money.

It actually wasn’t until I went snorkelling for the first time in over 10 years at spots all around Thailand that I became very interested in earning my dive certification. It’s something I’ll be looking into while I’m in Indonesia.

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Getting to Koh Tao

With two days in Koh Tao, I started planning. I went to Koh Tao because I wanted to see and experience islands on both sides of Thailand.

When researching the Gulf Islands, Koh Samui stood out to me because of the ease of flying in/out of the island. But, the more I read about Samui, the less it sounded like somewhere I wanted to spend a few days.

High up on my list of criteria was the ability to get around without needing to rent a motorbike or pay for expensive taxis. Given Samui’s side, this didn’t seem like it’d be easy.

I looked at Koh Phra Ngan as well, but read accolades that said the island was split into essentially two parts. A zone for party loving backpackers and a part for idyllic honeymoons. At any rate, it sounded like the island was far more developed than what I was looking for.

And so, I landed on Koh Tao. I knew it had a young vibe, but had heard it was more laid back than any of the other populated Gulf Islands.

Flying into Samui from Bangkok, I took a shuttle from the airport to the Maenam Pier and ferried to Koh Tao.

The only way to reach Koh Tao is by ferry to the Mae Haad Pier.

Boats leave from Samui, as well as the mainland- Surat Thani and Chumphon. Simple Google searches will return results that allow you to search different routes and select what’s best for you.

I booked my journey to Koh Tao with Lomprayah, which was by far the nicest ferry company I experienced while in Thailand.  The journey from Samui to Koh Tao was about two hours, making a ~15-20 minute stop in Koh Phra Ngan.

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Where to Stay in Koh Tao

Arriving in Koh Tao, I found another backpacker heading to my hostel and split a cab with her. This was sheer luck, and something I was grateful for because taxis on Koh Tao are expensive. It’s +400 baht if you want a private taxi truck, or less than 200 baht if you share with other travellers.

I found Savage hostel through Instagram- a cool looking design hostel steps from Sairee Beach with a rooftop pool, juice bar and private rooms?

It seemed too good to be true.
Thankfully, it wasn’t.

This was a great place to stay for two days in Koh Tao. And, it’s affordable enough to be there a bit longer, if you’re doing a dive certification or the like.

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Sairee Beach had seemed like a good place to stay- enough cafes, restaurants, etc. to have choices, but not so much activity it lost its relaxed vibe.

Other people may stay south on the island. From what I’ve heard though, you definitely need a motorbike to get around if you choose to do so.

The vibe of the entire island skews young, but if you’re not in Koh Tao to drink buckets of cocktails, you’ll still find plenty to do.

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On my first night, after checking into my hotel, I wandered Sairee Beach for a bit- watching the waves roll in with the tide, and longboats return from day trips cruising the sea.

Hungry for a late lunch, I popped in Black Garlic for a tofu and veggie salad- so fresh and delicious. They’re known for doing a great breakfast, too.

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Next up, I walked around town for a bit, then headed to the beach to watch the sun set. I had about an hour and a half before sunset would begin, but decided to just grab a bean bag at Fizz, order a mint lemonade, and read until the action started.

That’s the beauty of two days in Koh Tao- there’s plenty to do on the island, but only if you want to. Relaxed vibes means it’s easy to slip into the ultimate chill mode.

While watching the sun set, I ordered pad Thai and spring rolls to munch on for dinner. Both were okay, but not great. The front row ocean view helped make up for it. But, there are better places to eat on the island (see: Su Chili for awesome Thai).

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Exhausted from a day of travel, I popped in a 7-11 for water and headed back to my hostel for a nighttime rooftop swim before heading to bed.

In case you’re wondering, there are plenty of 7-11’s, mini marts and ATMs on the island. As elsewhere in Thailand, cash is a must but you needn’t worry about forgetting things if you come to Koh Tao- there are plenty of places to pick up things.

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The next morning, I woke up, lounged in bed for a while and decided I wanted to rent a long tail boat to snorkel and visit Koh Nang Yuan.

There are a bunch of tours operating on Koh Tao that cost less than renting your own boat. But for ~£20 more than the full day tours cost, I decided to rent a long tail so I could leave later and linger at spots.

In total, it was £50 for the day, or six hours. If you’re splitting with friends, totally worth the cost to have your own boat.

If you want to do the same, renting one isn’t hard to do. Just walk down the path behind Sairee Beach- there are plenty of ‘taxi’ shops where you can work out stops, price and departure time. Don’t pay more than 2000 baht if you’re going to the same places I visited.

Since I wanted to snorkel, I visited a few dive shops to see if they rented out gear for the day. One of them, Sairee Diving, did and had a few sets in stock. I can’t remember how much it was to rent for the day, but believe it was less than 50 baht.

Before heading out, I stopped in PermPoon for breakfast- a veggie omelet and fruit shake. Both were okay, but nothing near the quality of food I’d had in northern Thailand. Savage does breakfast as part of its room rates, but I’d lounged in my room too long that morning and missed it.

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Equipped with snorkel gear, I told my driver I wanted to visit Shark Bay, Mango Bay and Koh Nang Yuan.

I’d read over a few itineraries online and this ’round the island’ trip seemed to be the best way to see the best of Koh Tao in only a day.

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We motored down to Shark Bay first in southeastern Koh Tao. The bay gets its name for the Blacktip Reef sharks that dwell near the rocks. I enjoyed snorkelling here because it was my first time snorkelling in years.

But, snorkelling at Mango Bay and elsewhere in Thailand was far superior. I saw a few sharks, but wouldn’t say that makes this bay a “must stop” since I also saw sharks while snorkelling in the Phi Phi Islands.

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Mango Bay was much better for snorkelling- I spent far too much time here (as evident from the severe sunburn I got in turn for spending hours snorkelling).

I could not get over the dozens and dozens of parrotfish and angelfish, and how close to humans they swim.

I absolutely loved observing the different colours and patterns of these fish, it felt surreal. If you’re not visiting the islands in the Andaman Coast, a stop in Mango Bay is a must. The snorkelling is fantastic.

My driver was the one who actually decided we should move onto the next stop- he wanted to ensure I got to Koh Nang Yuan before the sun started to set.

Oh, Nang Yuan.

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A group of three private islands connected by a sandbar, you have to pay an entrance fee of 100 baht to visit the islands.

There is a resort on the island, but I’ve heard it’s pretty expensive. Being a quick boat over from Sairee Beach, I’m not sure it’s worth the added expense.

Visitors aren’t allowed to bring any food or drink on Nang Yuan- even plastic water bottles, which I LOVE. It helps keep trash controllable and the island a pristine paradise.

There is a restaurant and bar on the island, so you can order water, fresh coconuts, other drinks or food. Everything is served in glass with eco friendly straws/utensils.

On Nang Yuan, you can swim, relax on the beach or even try your luck at snorkelling- although, I didn’t see much. The activity I was most excited about was hiking to the viewpoint.

It’s a short hike- 15-20 minutes- and mostly up steps, but it’s steep and the hot weather makes it a bit more challenging than it’d be otherwise. Near the top, you have to scramble up and over a group of rocks, so I’d definitely wear shoes.

The view from the top is gorgeous- you have a prime vantage point of the three islands, turquoise water, white sand, and Koh Tao in the distance.

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Hiking back down, I swam for a bit before heading back to my boat to find my driver.

Back on Koh Tao, I started to realise how bad my sunburn was. I decided to rest in my room before heading to Blue Water, a rustic beachfront cafe in Sairee Beach, to watch the sunset.

This turned out to be a great decision because the sunset ended up being one of the legendary ‘sky on fire’ ones Koh Tao is known for.

Sitting at a table on the beach, sipping a fresh coconut with live music buzzing in the background, and an epic sunset turning the sky stunning shades of pink, orange and purple in front of me. Truly doesn’t get much better.

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Calling it an early night to rest, I woke up the next morning in a lot of pain and also not feeling too well. Later in the week, with flu like symptoms and very red sunburn, I’d realise I had a second degree sunburn.

Prior to this, I hadn’t been burned in years. I’m very diligent about SPF 50 and constant reapplication.

Despite my efforts, it wasn’t enough for the Thai sun that day I spent on the water. I should’ve 1000% worn a rash guard, and won’t make the mistake again.

Originally, on the last morning of my two days in Koh Tao, I’d planned to do yoga or hike John Suwan Viewpoint since I’d missed out on doing the Mango Viewpoint hike the night prior. However, I decided to skip all that and just relax at a few cafes in town- Cafe Culture and Blue Water again, where I could hang beachside from the cover of shade.

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Before I knew it, my two days in Koh Tao were over and it was time to head back to Samui. On my return trip, I planned on going with Lomprayah again but got booked on Seatran.

In the end, it was fine- it’s a slower, older ferry, but it took me directly to the port I needed, closer to the airport than the Maenam port.

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If I could visit Koh Tao again, would I?

Probably not. Two days in Koh Tao felt like enough, for the most part.

There are other Thai islands I’d like to see first (as well as islands in Cambodia and Vietnam), and while I liked my time on Koh Tao, I didn’t over-the-moon love it.

The best thing about my time there was that it forced me to slow down.
There wasn’t nearly as much to do as had been available in northern Thailand, and so, I very quickly found my way to island time.

So as not to deter visitors, it’s also worth noting I visited when I was 31 and during a time in my life where I wasn’t drinking alcohol.

I think if I’d visited to become dive certified or had been younger, or at least open to drinking with people I met at the hostel, I would have experienced a different side of the island.

That’s the best part about the Thai islands as far as I’m concerned- there’s an island for just about everyone.

I may not have fallen head over heels in love with Koh Tao, but I did fall hard for Ko Lanta a week later when I explored the Andaman side.

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Have you ever been to the Thai islands? Which one was your favourite, and would you go back or explore a new island if you ventured back to Thailand?

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