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Wednesday
Jan092013

Koh Tao: More than a dive

Every island has its own personality – one far more complex than its reputation ever suggests. Though these reputations might have been justifiably earned, it's worth setting aside your traveler expectations and exploring the lesser-known aspects of a destination, whether they're topographical, cultural or spiritual. This is perfectly true for the little rocky blob of land that is Koh Tao – Turtle Island – for it is far more than just a scuba diving destination.

However, it is easy to understand why Koh Tao is a renowned diver's destination – the part of the Thai Gulf in which it sits is crystal clear in places, sprinkled with small, uninhabited islands and brimming with marine life. At only 21 square kilometers, this reef-fringed rock that rises out of the ocean like a turtle’s shell is part of the idyllic Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao triumvirate. Each island has its own distinct personality and between the three, you can while away an entire Thailand holiday – or a lifetime, as some have found.

Koh Tao is close enough to Bangkok to avoid a logistical nightmare and far enough away to feel sufficiently remote. Accessible in a few hours from the capital via plane and ferry, or overnight by bus and catamaran on a combined ticket (at a cost of around 1,000 baht), you can do the trip in a long weekend. If you have your own wheels you can even drive to the pier in Chumpon in less than six hours.

Postcard-perfect seaside escape

Resorts like Sensi and Chamchuree Village, south of the main Mae Haad pier, offer some of the most idyllic views on the island, with the latter boasting sunset views and a quiet private beach. Kayak and snorkel gear is readily available, and the resorts in this area are within walking distance to Mae Haad's shops and restaurants, so they don't feel too isolated. Quiet, clean beaches are plentiful at this end of the island, sheltered between rocky coastlines and shaded by swaying palm trees. If you do a bit of exploring via kayak, you'll discover that the farther you get from the pier, the bluer the water and the friendlier the fish. No need for those trendy spas where fish nibble on your callused feet – some of the local marine life (the smaller ones, thankfully) are all too eager to taste-test you.

At the very northern part of Koh Tao is Koh Nangyuan, which is a separate island connected by a sandbar to another, smaller island. The pair offer water sports, sandy beaches, clear seas and hilltop views if you fancy climbing some boulders. The view of the Gulf is worth the effort, though closed shoes and proper clothing (i.e. not just a swimsuit) are recommended to protect you from scratches and burns – those rocks get hot!

Hippy hill hideaway                                                    

As a largely undeveloped island, Koh Tao has lots of virgin forest. Savvy locals have converted their slice of hilly paradise into bungalow retreats and the like; you can rent a bamboo bungalow for a few hundred baht per night (USD 10-20, depending on various factors) and enjoy ocean views and unparalleled peace. Moondance Magicview Bungalows high on the coast of the east side of Koh Tao is one such property. Places like this are often family run, which means that although they have limited "resort" resources, they're inexpensive and offer great personal service.

If you're planning to stay away from the main strip, it's prudent to hire a 4WD, as a one-way trip into town can cost as much as 250 baht per person, even at the cheapest bungalow resort. Just keep in mind that the terrain is hilly and winding and not to be tackled by inexperienced or intoxicated drivers.

Beach party style

In terms of drinking and dining, the Koh Tao social scene can be described as "rustic cosmopolitan". That is to say, there are people here from all parts of the world, and not one of them has a button-up shirt. Sairee Beach is the main drag, with two streets' worth of backpacker-style beach bars, dive shops, scooter rental stores and cafés. If you're coming alone and want to meet people, this is the place to stay.

There are a limited number of mid-range bars and restaurants in Sairee and nearby Mae Haad, and most are geared towards the casually-attired under-30s set. It's definitely no party central – and in no way comparable to Koh Phangan's Haad Rin – but Sairee does stay lively in the evenings until quite late. The main topic of conversation is, not surprisingly, diving. Spend enough nights at a beach bar listening to how totally amazing whale sharks are and you may well feel compelled to take a dive course.

Get there:

-  Ferry company Lomphraya sells combined tickets from Khao San Road. Some travelers have reported missing items from luggage, but if you keep everything valuable on your person, you have nothing to worry about. This is the most convenient way, besides self-driving.

-  VIP (999) buses leave from Sai Tai Mai – the Southern Bus Terminal. From there you go to Chumpon and from Chumpon by songthaew to the pier. The catamaran (operated by Lomphraya) leaves at 7.30am. Tickets for the bus are available from Thai Ticket Major.

-  Air Asia and Nok Air fly to Surat Thani from Bangkok, then you can buy a combined ticket (van and catamaran) to get to Koh Tao. Bangkok Airways flies to Samui, and you can get to Koh Tao via ferry in 90 minutes, though this is a somewhat backwards and expensive way to do things if you're coming from Bangkok.

- Take an overnight train from Hua Lumpong terminal to Chumphon. At Hua Lumphong you can buy the combined ticket (van and catamaran) that will take you all the way to Koh Tao.

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