Koh Tao stole my heart

Over the past two years I’ve visited almost TWENTY countries. I’ve explored many cities around Europe during this time, been to the United states a couple of time and trekked around parts of South-East Asia. It’s been such an adventure and I have no plans to slow down any time soon.

Out of all the places I have visited, there have been some that I really liked and some not so much. Then there have been the select few that have extracted a little piece of my heart along the way. Places I fell deeply in love with and that I will feel drawn to for the rest of my days.

New York is one of those places, from the moment I landed in the Big Apple, tears brimming from the pure joy of being there, my heart was captured.

I can only think of one other place in the world that has had the same effect on me, and that is the beautiful island of Koh Tao, in the Gulf of Thailand.

It is a magical place, as beautiful in real life as it is in photographs. Thankfully it hasn’t been infiltrated (so far!) by the likes of Starbuck or McDonalds and is still true to its authentic roots.

I remember walking onto the main beach the first evening we arrived, after travelling for 19 hours from Cambodia, and feeling the soft white sand between my toes. I remember the feeling of the warm water splashing gently around my legs as I stepped in to the crystal-clear ocean.

It was heaven. I had arrived. This was the Asia I was looking for. I looked across to Brian, who was standing next to me and thought ‘how lucky are we?’. This is living.

But enough of the lyrical musings, let’s delve into the specifics. Here is everything I have learnt about  Koh Tao so far and some tip to help you if you are planning a trip there.

Getting to the island

One thing that really surprised me in Thailand, is how easy it is to arrange transport once you are there.

There are bus services running from all corners of the country that will get you anywhere you want to go, for extremely reasonable prices. We flew a lot, trying to “save time”, but looking back now, it took just as long! Learn from my mistakes and bus it as much as you can.

If you are travelling from Bangkok to Koh Tao, there are several ways to do this journey:

  1. Take a bus and ferry – the journey takes roughly 7 hours to a place called Chumphon. From there you take a ferry to the island. The boat takes about 2 and a half hours and runs several times a day. The price varies depending on the season, but when you are used to European prices, it is very cheap. You can also upgrade your normal ticket to ‘VIP’ for a couple of extra euro. This is an airconditioned room with really big seats – well worth it if you’ve been travelling all day and want to try get a proper rest.
  2. Take a flight & ferry combo – This is what we did. We booked our flight and ferry all in one with Nok Air for around €35 each. We flew from Bangkok to Surat Thani (we were supposed to fly to Chumphon, but our flight was diverted due to weather). We then took a ferry all the way up to Koh Tao, and it took between 3-4 hours. This wasn’t an ideal route coming from Bangkok, but it would be ok if you were coming up from the other side of the country, say from Krabi to Koh Tao.
  3. Fly direct to Koh Samui – Flying directly to the neighbouring Island of Koh Samui takes roughly 1 hour. From there you would jump on the ferry for around 2 hours (basically if you want to get to Koh Tao you have to take a ferry, regardless).

Which would I do now? I would take an overnight bus to Chumphon and get an early morning ferry. The buses are so comfortable, plus you’ll save on a night’s accommodation. Just be sure to pack some fluffy socks and have something to throw over you – they are big fans of aircon, so you might get cold during the night.

VIP room on the ferry

Once you reach the island, the best way to get around is by moped. We rented ours from Red Power Motor RPM and it cost €7 a day. The guy who runs the business provided helmets and was super chilled about us keeping it for the week (originally, we had only planned one day). One thing to note is that a lot of the filling station on the island don’t allow mopeds to use their pumps, so you will have to buy fuel from little pop ups on the side of the road. They pour the petrol from a glass bottle into the bike using a funnel – GAS!!

Where to stay on the island

Koh Tao is a tiny island, 21 km² to be exact. Despite its size, I think there are ‘better’ areas of the island to stay in for the best experience.  

Sairee Beach is the main beach on the island. Usually this would turn me off somewhere – too many people. However, this place is an exception to my rule. The beach is beautiful and overlooked by lots of restaurants, cafes and places to have a drink. Staying anywhere close to this beach is great if you want to be in walking distance of everything.

Bans diving resort

Mae Haad Pier is where you will arrive once you get to Koh Tao. This area has lots of shops, restaurants and is close to all transport services (taxis, ferries, moped rentals etc). It’s a 10-minute walk to Sairee Beach from here.

These are the two main areas for tourists on the island. There are other pockets that are home to resorts etc, and if you are looking for a secluded experience then I do recommend staying in one of those areas instead. For us though, Sairee was perfect.

Food

Thai food is my favourite type of food in the world, by far. Bursting with flavour, I love the sweet and salty twist they take with their dishes. Every single place we ate in Koh Tao served delicious meals, but some really stood out.

The Coffee Boat Restaurant is somewhere you might walk past if you didn’t know about it. It’s not the most ‘instagrammable’ place, put it that way. However, the food is AMAZING! I lost count of the amount of times we ate there during our time in Koh Tao. The menu has close to a hundred dishes on it, and a meal will only cost you about €2 – €3. You cannot visit Koh Tao without trying something from here.

The Factory Café is a lovely place, about 5 minutes’ walk from Sairee beach. We went here for breakfast a couple of times and I loved their vegan banana pancakes with poached eggs. I liked it so much that I even tried to recreate their breakfasts at home – complete with the coconut shavings sprinkled on top!

Vegetabowl do fantastic salads. We went here for lunch one afternoon after diving and it was the perfect food to give us a little nutritious boost after spending all our energy in the water. Try the Japanese bowl, the crispy tofu cubes are the bomb!

Oishi Kaiso is another place we visited several times. They do gorgeous fresh sushi, and, this may surprise you, but the best Pad Thai I had in Thailand was in this place – it’s a Japanese restaurant!

Coconut Monkey does a nice mix of regular and vegan food. We stopped off here one evening as the sun was going down for a coffee and some cake. Overlooking the harbour, with a small strip of beach right outside, it is the perfect place to catch the sunset.

Freedom beach bar was one of my favourites finds on the island and I almost want to keep it all to myself! Tucked away on a tiny hidden beach, this restaurant and bar is the perfect place for a late lunch/early dinner. Their sweet & sour with sticky rice is gorgeous. The snorkelling around here is fantastic too and it’s very close to John-Suwan Viewpoint so you can easily spend half a day around this area.

The view from Freedom beach bar

Diving

Koh Tao is known and loved by divers all over the world. It is one of the cheapest places to get your PADI certificates and is also home to amazing marine creatures like whale sharks (these are totally harmless) and turtles. Koh Tao actually means Turtle Island as it was once a popular feeding and nesting ground for turtles.

At Bans you start in the pool so you can get used to the equipment

After talking to some friends and doing some research online, we decided that the best place to do our diving course was at Bans Diving Resort. The resort has everything you need to have the perfect dive holiday – a range of accommodation (from basic to luxury), a bar and restaurant, and an amazing team of dive instructors.

The course cost around €300 each and included classroom sessions, training in a pool that allowed us to get used to the equipment and then several ocean dives. In total we spent three and a half days training with Bans and it was so enjoyable. I want to say thank you so much to Sarah and Opal for giving us an entire new world to explore and to Jody for capturing the experience – I still watch the video sometimes if I need a little pick-me-up. I can’t wait to come back and dive with you guys again soon.

My advice to anyone heading over there to do their PADI cert would be to give yourself enough days on the other end of your course so that you have the option to do your advanced course. I guarantee if you like diving, you’ll wish you could stay longer and do the next level with Bans too!

Koh Tao bucket list:

Koh Tao has no shortage of things to do while there. Here’s a list of things to include if you’re ever lucky enough to visit this paradise island:

Take a snorkelling cruise. There are lots of places that will take you all around the island in a day to the best spots.

500 Baht = roughly €14

Hike to the top of John-Suwan Viewpoint and fall in love with the island from above.

Try class at Monsoon Gym. They do Muay Thai, Boxing, 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu and HIIT classes.

Yoga yoga yoga. Koh Tao is a popular destination for yogis and has several schools. These are some of the top rated online: Ocean Sound Dive & Yoga, Shambhala yoga Centre, New Heaven Dive School. I can’t wait to try some of these when we go back.

Go diving, the water is warm and the fish are plenty – it’s an amazing experience. Trust me.

Take a boat to Nangyuan island. This is a tiny island beside Koh Tao, boats go out all day long and stop around 6pm. There is a stunning viewpoint there that overlooks the tiny beach. Note: they ask you not to use a towel on the beach as visitors are slowly removing all the sand this way (it really is tiny). I advise that you go first thing in the morning as it gets really busy during the day, you even have to wait in line to get to the top of the view point.

Enjoy the cats – there are so many (friendly) cats on the island! You will see them in almost every shop.

Eat all the food – I challenge you to try every place I mentioned in the food section above. You won’t regret it!

Watch a fire show on the beach – lots of the bars host parties on the beach and they put on quite a show. Between the moonlit ocean, the live music and the fire, it all gets very romantic.

Take a cooking class – If you enjoy food and cooking, taking a Thai cooking class is a great idea.

It’s no exaggeration to say that I think about Koh Tao at least once a day. It’s my happy place. If I can’t sleep at night after an intense day at work, I often just close my eyes and revisit the island in my memory. It calms me right down.

It brought me so much joy in such a short space of time and I am counting down the days until I can go back there again – watch this pace!

Thanks for reading, if you have any questions about any of the above, just let me know here or over on Instagram (@lovelytomeetme).

Written with love,

Rachael

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