The short version- Koh Tao’s snorkeling and beaches make it well worth the detour. If we did it again we would go a few week’s later in hopes of avoiding the stormy seas.
We travelled to Koh Tao from Bangkok via Chumphon using the train and Lomprayah Ferry. We booked the train in advance from Canada using 12Go. We booked the ferry from our hotel in Chumphon. The ferry cost us 750 Bth each. There is also a slower boat and an overnight ferry available; these boats leave from a different pier closer to the town of Chumphon. There is good information about getting to Koh Tao here but check before you go as not everything is running post COVID.
Koh Tao -Turtle Island in English, is the smallest of the three big tourist islands in the gulf. It is also the furthest from land. The island is best known for scuba diving. It’s an excellent place to dive and one of the cheapest places to get certified. There are dive shops everywhere. We don’t dive but we do snorkel ,and we were hoping to see some fish. The whole island is only about 21 square km so it’s easy to get around.
The ferry docks at Mae Head. We stayed at the White Jail Hostel which is about 700m from the pier. There are dorms and private rooms. We rented a private room with sliding doors and a view out into the jungle behind the hostel. The room was very nice. It was also clean and the shower worked well. There was coffee in the lobby at all times and a breakfast of toast with jam, bananas and the odd cheese puff things. The staff are excellent. Friendly and helpful and their English is much better than our Thai. We would strongly recommend it if you are staying in Mae Head. There is a reggae bar next door but the music is pretty good and they don’t party too late. Siree beach is a couple of km away. It is more upscale tourist,and has more going on but being 700m from the ferry is very convenient.
There is no public transit on Kon Tao so you can take a taxi which I am told is expensive, walk or rent a scooter. There are scooters everywhere and renting them is cheap BUT be careful about who you rent from and make sure you take lots of photos of the scooter before you rent it. We were warned that you can be charged for damage which you did not do. In general, you will have to leave your passport to rent a scooter. Kho Tao is very hilly, and the roads are not all great so its not a great place to use a scooter if you are not experienced. No one here asks for a licence, but you need a motorcycle licence and an international licence to legally drive a scooter in Thailand. We did not see any police checks but you could have an issue if you have an accident (we have seen police checks in other parts of Thailand).
We rented a scooter from our hotel for one day and walked for the others. On our first day we walked to Freedom Beach. Our original planned destination was Chanlok baan bay which is a little closer, but we could not figure out how to get to the water. We did find a way down later.
We kept walking to Freedom Beach which turned out to be an excellent spot. There is a 50 Bth charge to get in but that includes the John Suwan viewpoint and the use of beach chairs if there are any left when you get there. The beach is shaded by mangrove trees and the snorkelling right off the beach is amazing. Clear water and lots of fish. There is a bar and restaurant, but you can also bring your own snacks.
The included viewpoint is John Suwan viewpoint. It’s a bit of a scramble to the top. There are ropes to help you up and it’s worth the climb for the view. It’s easier if you don’t have flip flops on but lots of people went up with them. We liked Freedom beach so much we went back for a second afternoon.
On our second day we booked a snorkelling tour with Oxygen Koh Tao, the seas were still rough so our afternoon tour got changed to a morning tour and once we got on the boat we were warned that they would not be able to take the planned route because the seas were too rough. They also handed out gravol (or the Thai version) to everyone.
Our first stop was Koh Nang Yuan, a string of three private Islands off Koh Tao connected by sandbars. There is a 250 Bth charge per person to get onto the island. The island has an Instagram friendly viewpoint and the snorkelling right from the sandbar was great. The regular tour includes a stop at the japanese gardens, a world famous coral area but the seas were too rough. Its a great palace to see black tipped reef sharks but we did not see any
The regular itinerary is below and its the same one most of the tour companies use. We were not able to go to any of the other regular stops except shark bay.
STOP 1 Nang Yuan Island. Three islands connected by two beaches. Explore the world famous Japanese gardens. (250 THB landing fee)
STOP 2 Snorkeling at Mango Bay or Light House. This amazing bay is full of friendly and colorful fish. Enjoy your lunch with Thai food and fresh fruits.
STOP 3 Hin Wong Bay. Many species of soft and hard corals. One of the most beautiful coves around Koh Tao.
STOP 4 Snorkeling at Aow Leuk. Swim in crystal clear water and explore surrounded by fish.
STOP 5 Shark Bay: Snorkel with blacktip sharks and attempt to find the elusive turtles feeding in the bay.
We did make 4 stops including Shark bay where we saw a green sea turtle with a shell over a metre wide, Even though we had to detour the tour was great. It was a big boat tour but they had 10 staff on board and they identified fish and coral for us. They also took some great underwater photos which they made available to us all after the trip.
On our third day we rented a scooter and bumbled around the island. We visited sunset view point which I am petty sure was not the “real” sunset view point but it had a good view and we did not fall off!
We were supposed to leave the next day. We packed up all of our stuff, said good bye to the manager at the hotel and headed to the pier only to discover the sea had become so rough (4 m swells) all boats for the day were cancelled. Harold stood in line and got our tickets changed to the following day. We went back to the White Jail Hostel and got our room back.
We spent the day walking through Sairee Beach which is the bigger more touristy beach. Lots of hotels and restaurants. We met an Australian who had been travelling for three years. When COVID hit the Australians were locked out of their own country and unable to go home. He was on the last boat to make the crossing to the island before all the boats were stopped, and he said it was so rough and the boat was swaying so much he was seriously planning his escape route in case the boat went down.. A military boat and a cargo ship did sink in the golf that night in 3-4 metre swells. So I guess it was a good thing the ferries were stopped!
We had lunch and did some shopping. We had dinner at Maehead Seafood again. The restaurants in Maehead were pretty empty and we were greeted like old friends by the older couple who run the place. Definitely a mom and pop shop. Great spot with a nice sunset view. There were no big boats at the pier which was very odd. No cargo ships, no ferries. The fishing boats were still there but they were anchored in the bay.
The next morning we had been warned that the boats might not be running so Harold went down without our luggage. Sure enough there were no boats. Harold re booked the tickets, we re-booked our room and we spent the day walking to Love Koh Tao viewpoint which has a good view and a restaurant with fruit shakes. It would be a great spot if it was a little less windy. We also went to Tanote Bay which is beautiful. There is a very large boulder in the middle of the beach you can jump off but the seas were so rough and the waves were so high that I literally got knocked over by one just trying to get in.
We had dinner at our favourite spot and for the first time in three days we saw boats in the harbour. The next morning Harold went down really early and we were told our 9:30 am boat would be leaving. We knew it was going to be packed so we said good bye to the manager at White Jail again and went to the pier. Koh Tao is a beautiful island and the snorkelling is amazing but it was starting to feel like the hotel california. “You can check out anytime you like but you can never leave”
We then sat on the pier until 2:30 pm when our boat finally arrived. There were several people with small children and others who had international flights to catch out of Bangkok. We have a 24 hour rule about international flights. We always plan to be in the city we are flying out of at least 24 hours before the flight. This experience reinforced that rule. We were stuck for almost three days but Koh Tao is pretty remote. Lesson learned. Its also a pretty nice place ro get stuck for 3 days.
The boat was packed but everyone had a seat and presumably a life jacket. We were expecting the worst. I bought Thai gravol from the local pharmacy but the trip was actually smoother than the trip over.
One thought on “Thailand- Koh Tao- December 2022”
Another very interesting visit. So that’s where Turtle Island is! The White Jail Hostel doesn’t sound like the name of such a pleasant hotel!