Go to Koh Tao for diving, they said. It’s incredibly cheap to get your PADI certification, they said. Mhmm, I nodded each time, knowing full well that I would not be diving while there. I have vertigo and I have a fear that knowing my luck, I would get into difficulty under water and issues regulating your ears while underwater is a big fat no no so I shall stick to my trusty snorkel, thank you very much.
Now that I’ve arrived in diver heaven what else is there to do?! Grab your snorkel and come with me, friends, because I will show you what else Koh Tao has in store.
A short stroll north of the busy ferry terminal lands you at Mae Haad Beach and this is where I began my weeklong, beach bum life on this Thai holiday. Soft, clean sand, warm water with the odd frantic fishie swimming by (just keep swimming, buddy) and plenty of beachside restaurants and bars, not to mention blue sky and boat views. What’s not to love? Stretch out that beach towel, slap on the sun cream and get your summer reading started in peace and quiet. The lack of commercialized beach club areas on the ferry side make for a very chilled out location.
For more life and a closer proximity to a wider range of souvenir shops and restaurants head further north to Sairee Beach. This is where the action is at night so scoping it out during the day and planning your evening is not a bad idea.
Mango Bay is at the north of the island and a taxi or scooter ride away. It is a mecca for divers so can get crowded. Might I suggest Freedom Beach on the south side of the island. The beach here is short and narrow with trees for shade and clear, warm water for snorkeling. You are charged 100bht entry and there is only one bar/restaurant to choose from but it’s perfect for a day trip and a quieter beach feel.
I mentioned that diving was out this trip but snorkeling wasn’t. I had already come prepared with my own snorkel but if you don’t have your own, fear not. You can easily buy them in shops around the island and snorkel trips rent them out. I went on the Oxygen Snorkel Day trip which leaves about 10am-ish.
We were picked up from our hotel about 9:30 am and brought to the office to sign in. A full day ticket cost 600bht plus a 100bht fee to enter Koh Nang Yuan (got my ticket for 600bht all in!) and half-day tours which start about noon are 500bht plus 100bht for Koh Nang Yaun. Lunch is included (rice, chicken, and a fried egg. Let them know if you are a veggie before hand) as well as tea, coffee, drinking water, fruit, and biscuits.
The day trip makes 5 stops around the island from Mango Bay to Shark Bay and we saw the biggest shoal of fish I have ever encountered, it was incredible.
The boat stops off at Koh Nang Yuan and you should definitely snorkel out to the Japanese Gardens on the right side of the island from the port and the reef sharks on the left. The boat provides life jackets so you can snorkel about without worrying about getting tired even if you’re not a great swimmer.
I wasn’t lucky enough to see sharks or turtles on my trip but do send me a photo if you do! The trip lasts until about 5pm, give or take, and is a fun way to spend a snorkel day and see some gorgeous little fish.
Top tip: Your lower back will be exposed more so than the rest of your skin as you snorkel so make sure to avoid the life jacket sun burn mark by putting plenty of high factor sun cream on, repeatedly!
View point hikes
I may be a glutton for punishment by hiking in high-temperature locations but there are two hikes I don’t think you should miss if you go to Koh Tao.
If you choose not to opt for the snorkel day trip you can get a water taxi out to Koh Nang Yuan early in the morning and a short hike up to the top of the view point to the left of the pier gives you that iconic view back over Koh Tao and Nang Yuan island. The majority of the steps up to the top are in the shade of trees, thankfully, but that cardio stepping does not help when you are out in 35 degree heat. The last part of the climb is over some pretty big, high boulders so get clambering!
Top tip: There are mosquitoes up there so make sure you spray yourself in bug repellant before you go up. I was nabbed 4/5 times as I climbed over the rocks. Mosquitoes are no one’s friend.
Also check out the John Suwan Viewpoint (fun fact: it’s named after two friends who discovered the viewpoint, Mr John and Mr Suwan!) for stunning views of the most brilliant aquamarine sea I have ever witnessed on the south side of the island. This hike has guide ropes and is pretty much out in the sun for all of it, bar the last few metres at the top. You are charged a fee of 100bht, which to be honest, kind of bugged me. You are literally being charged to use your own eyes and feet. I get that the ropes need to be maintained but it just seemed a bit of a joke fee. Also, you should wear decent, supportive shoes despite the fact that it’s hot and humid and you’d rather not. The climb does involve some high steps over boulders and you need to secure your footing as you pull yourself up the ropes so perhaps flip flops aren’t the best. The added bonus is that it’s not as busy as the Nang Yuan viewpoint and you can dunk yourself in the sea at Freedom Beach when you have made it back down. Win.
Massages and pampering
Koh Tao has so many spas/salons that your main problem is which one should I go to? Thai massage is so reasonably priced that you have no excuse not to get massages every day. I opted for a pedi to freshen up my holiday nails at Kayo Massage, on the little road to Sairee Beach. A polish change for 150bht, which is about €4, is a great pamper option and it turns out that it’s pretty much a mini pedicure. Win! I went to Royal Thai near the ferry/port for a Thai massage which was 350bht, under €10. While I am sure there are plenty of places around to choose from I can only tell you of my experience here. Go find a place you like the look of and get yourself a spa day for a fraction of the cost at home.
Restaurants and bars
I love frozen berry daiquiris. There I said it. Two summers working at the beach in Delaware will do that to you and I am not one bit sorry. When I saw there were frozen berry daiquiris and beer pong at Fishbowl Beach Bar, I was delighted! It is such a fun way to bring out the competitive side with old and new friends and remind myself that I am only average at this game even though I like it!
Ok so beer pong and Despacito on repeat may not be your bag. How about going to The Gallery? The Thai food on the menu is absolutely delicious and their wine selection is a refreshing break from cocktails and beers. This, more upmarket location, is a photo gallery, restaurant, and bar in one. Voted in the top 10 restaurants in Koh Tao by Trip Advisor, it is a more expensive option in comparison to some of the far cheaper eats around the island but the #treatyoself theme should continue and The Gallery does just that.
Can we talk for a minute about breakfast? Thailand, wait, South East Asia in general, you guys are not great at breakfast. Sure fruit and yoghurt is fine and all but when you are sick of that, and don’t get me started on the barely toasted toast, you want something a bit more familiar. Head to Zest, near Mae Head, and thank me later. They have bagels. Real, everything bagels. YUMMERS. They also do real French toast with maple syrup and their menu says they have hash browns but the waiter said he was out the morning I was there. SO don’t hold me to that. The portions are big and the pineapple juices are good so don’t feel bad indulging in some home comforts on your trip.
I cannot rave about this next place enough. I loved Coconut Monkey so much I think I was there 3 times in the week I was on Koh Tao. I love their healthy menu and homemade everything. They have great granola and yogurt bowls for 80baht and fresh juices. The outdoor deck with roughly carved, beautiful, wooden furniture gives you a view out over the boats by the pier. Dining alone? Not to worry, the house dog may casually plop him/herself by you as you eat your meal, for some company.
Happy hour is a regular thing on the island so no need to pay over the odds for your drink’s fix and the dining options range from street stalls selling crepes to cross legged on the floor Thai restaurants to pizza joints. You are sure to find one or two places you can’t get enough of!
Koh Tao is such a beautiful island and your (or mine!) lack of interest in diving shouldn’t put you off. Enjoy some chilled out, social media detox time and #treatyoself.