I’ve been to Koh Samui several times and have posted about the previous trips in 2018 and 2020. It’s my favourite vacation destination, slightly ahead of Italy. The white sand beaches, crystal clear waters, excellent choices in restaurants and cafes, and well established luxury choices for hotels, all come together to create an unbeatable combination. We decided to again celebrate my birthday (another year has gone by…) in Koh Samui and booked four nights in Koh Samui and four nights on a nearby island.
We decided to take an excursion by spending the first four nights in Koh Tao, a small island about two hours ferry ride from Koh Samui. Koh Tao translates to “Turtle Island” and is named that for the many giant sea turtles that you’ll see in the waters around the island. Koh Tao is especially popular for its diving and snorkelling. There are signs everywhere that say “To come to Koh Tao and not dive, is like going to Italy and not eating Pasta”. Needless to say, you must try to see the sea creatures.
Haad Tien Resort
For this trip, we looked for the most luxurious hotel on the small island; there aren’t many choices so we ended up at Haad Tien Resort. It’s a bit outside of the town and requires a shuttle bus (quite a fun experience itself) or a local taxi. Taxi service will cost around 300 Baht (US$8) if brought to the outside gate and 400 Baht (US$11) if brought to the inside gate. Getting around the island is expensive so you may consider renting a motorbike or taxi pooling with friends.
Head Tien Resort is located at Thian Og Bay (Shark Bay), which lies on the southeast corner of Koh Tao, and is sheltered from the winds meaning that the weather is great throughout the year. It should be noted that the hotel puts a lot of effort into cleaning up the beach each and every day. For this service, they charge a small 100 Baht fee for people not staying at the hotel; your guests will need to pay this fee if they visit you and want to enjoy the beach.
The resort itself is decidedly 3-star, but in a very 5-star location. Our villa was at the very end (#215) on a small rock hill. I think Villa 211 would be ideal as it exits straight onto the white sand beach. However, being at the end meant we got the opportunity to walk the beautiful beach every sunrise as we headed to the free breakfast.
The villa itself is decently appointed, however due to electricity shortages on the island, they’ve kept the number of lightbulbs to a minimum. Great for mood lighting, but not so great when you’re trying to find something in the dark, or when you have a job to do in the bathroom and can’t quite see what needs to be seen.
The bed was clean and large and enabled a good night’s sleep. The resort provides three set times that the power generator switches over, so keep that in mind if you’re doing anything that requires AC. We actually found that process quite fun as the power stays off for two minutes; it brought back fond memories of our time in Myanmar where rolling brownouts were common, especially in Bagan.
Speaking of Myanmar, we noticed that the majority of staff working in our resort, as well as in Koh Tao overall, were from Myanmar. We heard Burmese spoken everywhere amongst the service staff. With Myanmar being an ex-British colony, you can expect excellent English skills from the service staff across the Island.
This has to be one of the most stunning white beaches in the world. Not only are the waters crystal clear, but the shallow nature of the beach here allows you to snorkel a few meters away from the beach edge and see incredible sea creatures. On the very first day, without knowing what I was doing, I witnessed a small shark! I didn’t realize how lucky I was to see that on my first snorkelling experience, and it all happened within 100 meters of the beach!
You can walk very far into the water because of how the sand has evolved in this cove. By stepping off the sand areas, you can snorkel to the right and left of the sand ridge and see huge sea turtles with just a few minutes of snorkelling. it’s so accessible and amazing. Even for someone like myself who’s scared of the open water, the snorkelling experience in Koh Tao is very inviting and easy.
By law, every beach in Thailand is open to the public, so the small fee the hotel charged for “private beach access” caused quite a few European backpackers to be livid at the hotel staff. I witnessed several arguments from backpackers not willing to pay the 100 Baht (US$3) fee, with one even threatening that this type of fee will prevent him from returning and predicted Shark Cove will go back to being unknown on the backpackers tour of Asia. I don’t think that argument had much impact on the staff.
To be fair to the hotel staff, I did see backpackers leave behind garbage strewn around the beach. I also saw hundreds of backpackers sleeping on the beach and not being polite to the people staying at the beachfront resorts (some of them were playing loud music or brought alcohol to the beach). Hopefully, a happy medium ground can be found so that all can enjoy the beach in a respectful way.
It seems the whole Island ends up on Sairee Beach after 5pm to watch the sun go down. There are fire shows at several beach bars and restaurants, great vibes, and excellent food, drinks and coffee. There are so many restaurants to choose from, but a few that we enjoyed included Sandbar Beach Club, Lotus Beach Club and The Smoking Dead Bar and Grill.
Sairee Beach is a bit quiet during the day, so keep that in mind. Most people who stay on the island are too busy diving, snorkelling or enjoying their semi private beaches during the day so the commercial heart is a bit quiet during the day. It really picks up in the evening however and goes until late.
One really fun experience was to visit Queen’s Cabaret in Sairee Beach. It’s a drag show that gets packed as the 9:30PM start time arrives. Tickets are 150 Baht (US$4) and include a stiff drink. It’s well worth the money as the drag queens put on one hell of a show. The nights we visited included an Australian drag queen performing and entertaining the crowd. The show would not be out of place in Bangkok or New York, it was that good! We went twice and stayed for the full 2+ hours of showtime.
I’m afraid of the deep sea and open waters. To even get into the sea is an anxiety inducing process. To take this further and trying to snorkel at the same time was pushing my limits of anxiety management. However, with the super calm boat captain at hand, I donned a way too large life jacket (tightened to within an inch of its strap tensile strength capacity), dipped my toes in the Gulf of Thailand, clumsily slipped on the snorkel goggles and tube, flipped my body forward, and fell madly in love with what I saw.
Our resort included the snorkelling experience, but I saw that you can find similar tours almost everywhere around the island. It appeared that they all stop at the asme five or so locations depending on the time of year. The captains keep in touch and help each other so that the tourists can witness the most coveted experiences of seeing sharks and giant sea turtles.
I’d recommend going for a personalized tour and rent a captain and boat for yourself. The cost was not high and you get a much better experience without the 20+ tourists all trying to look at one Sea Turtle. Our captain laid anchor a few hundred meters away from the large tour boats so that we had the sea creatures all to ourselves.
For someone that has anxiety in the open sea, being all alone with the creatures was surreal, scary, and awesome, all at the same time. By the second location however, I was into a zone of comfort and looking forward to seeing the beautiful colours and lives that hide in plain sight beneath the crystal clear waters.
By far, the biggest highlight was seeing a giant sea turtle on the last stop (ironically right outside our hotel in Shark Cove). This majestic creature is so cute; the way she ate along the sea floor and then casually came up to the top to get some air was a thing of graceful beauty. When she came up, I could see that the she was longer than my body next to her. The sea turtles are huge!
The other highlight included seeing thousands of the same fish travelling together, oftentimes completely surrounding and swimming with me. It was magical to see the colourful fish all around and being so comfortable with the weird human staring at them in awe. Because we hired our own captain and boat, we could stay for as long or as short at each stop as we wanted.
We ended up going about 45 mins overtime and the captain didn’t care at all. He seemed to be enjoying being outside as much as we did and he also loved seeing us enjoying the beauty of Koh Tao’s waters. I unfortunately didn’t get his name, but I took a picture of him; perhaps he’s always working in Shark Cove and you can find him on your next trip.
Being anxious about the open sea, I should mention one scary moment. There’s one area that we went to that’s quite far away from the island, near a large rock. The water there was very deep but super clear; we could see far down into the water, which gave me a sense of the immense scale, but also created immense anxiety at being out in the deep sea.
To make matters worse, the water was very choppy with my snorkel tube sometimes ingesting water with the bigger waves. It’s therefore very important to watch some training videos on what to do in these circumstances so that you’re well prepared before it happens. You may also want to wear flippers on your feet as it took quite a bit of power to swim back to the boat against the strong currents without them.
Even with that anxiety inducing moment, I felt the snorkelling experience had already “made the trip” and the remaining days would be a bonus; the whole trip had been well worth the money and time due to this extraordinary experience. Koh Tao may be a small island, but it has tons to offer in terms of diving, snorkelling and enjoying typical island life, with white sand beaches, lots of food choices and epic sunsets and sunrises.
You are likely to arrive and depart via the Ferry Pier, so there are three things you should know about the pier because we witnessed a lot of confusion and commotion at the pier during our stay.
First, there is now a 20 Baht (US$0.50) fee when you land to improve the pier in the future. Everyone must pay to exit the pier. It was clear that many tourists didn’t know about this fee and were stuck either with no money or arguing because they felt there shouldn’t be a fee. Twenty baht is a small price to pay for the island to manage the immense number of tourists that are discovering Koh Tao; please come prepared to pay and be happy to contribute to the local community.
Second, before you can board the ferry, you need to “convert” your tickets. This can result in standing in line for 30 minutes or more. Please be aware of this delay and come early. There were a lot of anxious people desperate to make their ferry; in the end, it seemed they waited for the laggards to get on board, but as anyone that travels knows, we want to minimize the chance of missed ferries, planes and trains.
Third, there is a thriving restaurant, cafe and bar scene around the pier. It may be worthwhile to spend 1-2 hours there after coming off the ferry, or prior to getting on the ferry. I noticed most restaurants were closed on Monday so keep that in mind. Because of where our hotel was located, we only visited the pier area once (on a Monday no less) and didn’t get the chance to try some of the highly rated restaurants and cafes in the area.
I loved, loved loved Koh Tao. Even with its popularity, it’s still an incredible hidden treasure. It’s getting a lot more popular with the Europeans, but it still seems to be off the radar of my fellow Asian and North American tourists. There’s a genuineness to Koh Tao that I love; the easygoing nature of the people, the relaxing vibe you find everywhere, and the respect for nature that is being managed alongside tourism growth.
I’m not sure how long before Koh Tao turns into another Koh Samui, or heaven’s help us, another Phuket, so visit it soon before it becomes too busy, too luxurious, and too expensive. Now seems to be the ideal time to visit where the infrastructure can manage the tourists, prices re reasonable, and the people are still happy with tourists coming to their beautiful island.
I feel very excited when I can share something off the typical path, so I hope you’ve enjoyed this post about Koh Tao. If you’ve been before, let me know in the comments below if your impressions of the island match what I’ve shared above. I’d especially like to hear from people who’ve visited a long time ago to see how it’s changed over time.