Learn to dive, dive and dive again – that is what you are supposed to do on Koh Tao and that is actually what the majority of the folk you are about to meet on the island really do. A little hidden gem of the lower part of the Gulf, Koh Tao is attracting underwater world lovers with an abundance of easily reachable diving sites (over 30) and very affordable prices on diving lessons (there are more that 50 diving schools on the island), sea safaris and diving trips. Yet for those who are ready to go beyond the stereotypes there are hiking trails, bouldering, sea kayaking, fire-shows, and even jam sessions – all of them on the background of picturesque views and a laid-back island atmosphere. Priceless.
Getting to Koh Tao
The only way to get to Koh Tao from the mainland is by boat either from Chumphon, which is the closest departure point, or from Suratthani. You can also hop on a ferry to Koh Tao from Koh Samui or Koh Phangan.
From Bangkok via Chumphon bus + ferry
The easiest (and fastest) way to get to Koh Tao from Bangkok via Chumphon is by bus and ferry joint travel. Lomprayah catamaran and Songserm speed boat both sell such package tickets which save your time and cost more or less the same amount of money if bought separately. With early morning and late evening bus departures from Bangkok you have a choice whether to travel by day or save some baht spending your night on board a bus instead of in a guesthouse. The ferry travel with Lomprayah (the fastest operator) takes around 1½ hours; if your are prone to seasickness, get the necessary medicine at hand. Note that in case of the evening departure your trip lasts longer (around 12 hrs) compared to 9 hrs (morning departure), but you do not waste your precious day-time.
You have only 20 kg baggage allowance for your ferry travel; the extra weight is 20 baht per kg (not included in your ticket price).
Getting back from Koh Tao to Bangkok you have only morning and afternoon departures, both returning to Bangkok after dark: at 9pm and 1am, so plan your stay accordingly (book ahead).
From Bangkok via Chumphon train + bus + ferry
In case you are a railroad type, hop on your evening train down to Chumphon from Hua Lamphong train station in Bangkok. If you buy a package tour, your boat operator will provide transfer between the train station and the pier, but you still have to while away some 3 hrs between train and ferry in Chumphon. In general, if you are ok with long bus journeys, there is no special advantages of train+bus+ferry journey. Choose price-wise, then.
Tip: If your are not in a hurry, stay overnight in Chumphon and discover the tastes of local robusta, find out how the birds’ nests are harvested at the farms and prepare yourself to your island stay visiting some of the idyllic beaches in the proximity of the city (e.g. Hat Thung Wua Laen).
From Bangkok via Suratthani train + bus + ferry
Even if travelling to Suratthani instead of Chumphon seems illogical, it sometimes comes out cheaper as you may catch a 2nd class sleeper for a longer journey. As in case with Chumphon, the transfer between train and ferry for package tours is performed by the boat operator.
From Koh Samui to Koh Tao
Both Lomprayah and Seatran Discovery take 2–2¼ hrs to Koh Tao’s Mae Haad departing from Maenam and Bangrak Seatran Pier on Samui correspondingly. With Seatran you have to book at least one day in advance while Lomprayah requires two days advanced booking.
From Koh Phangan to Koh Tao
Both Lomprayah and Seatran Discovery depart from Thong Sala on Koh Phangan and take 1½–1¾ hrs to arrive to Koh Tao’s Mae Haad. Book in advance (1 day for Seatran and 2 days for Lomprayah).
Seatran vs Lomprayah
If you know what seasickness is about, go for Seatran when waters are choppy.
Lomprayah can save you from ¼ to ½ hr of your sea journey, though.
There is no car rental on a relatively small 21 sq. km island. If you consider renting a scooter or a motorcycle, be warned that the roads on the island are dangerous and get their toll of injuries regularly. Renting a vehicle though gives you freedom to explore the island as the ‘official’ taxi fares are sometimes extortionate. There is longtail boat service between certain beaches, which is a good option with reasonable prices.
Where to stay
The western side of the island is much more developed, and the ferries from the mainland and the islands arrive to Mae Haad which is on the western side. Haad Sairee, where the most of the action takes place, is also there. The eastern side is a slow life paradise, but you will have to negotiate those treacherous island roads (or greedy taxi drivers) to get to any of the western-side night spots. The busiest seasons on Koh Tao are summer (from July to August) and Christmas & New Year, so book your accommodation beforehand. The cheapest options sell out quickly.