Difference between revisions of "Ko Tao"
Revision as of 19:55, 18 December 2009
Historically, this was once a detention place for political prisoners similar to Ko Tarutao of Satun Province, but today it is a great place for divers or anybody who want to get away from the hustle and bustle of Ko Samui and want more than the Full Moon Party on Ko Pha Ngan. Ko Tao is a great place to learn how to dive. There are hardly any currents and a wide selection of dive sites and dive shops, schools and resorts. Activity options are growing outside of diving and the food and nightlife options are some of the best in the Gulf of Thailand.
Ko Tao is a small island of approximately 21 sqm km and receives over a 100,000 visitors per year. To minimize your impact on the eco-system, notice that there are no garbage disposal facilities, so everything that can't be burned has to be taken away. Try to avoid plastic bags that are given out for every purchase you make. There is also no department to clean the roads or other public areas, so don't dump your waste on the open landscape. Water is scarce and electricity expensive, so don't waste them.
Peak seasons in Ko Tao are from December to March and July to August. It is quite popular destination amongst Thais also, so it can be nearly fully booked on Thai holidays.
From Surat Thani (From The South)
If you're coming from the south, you can take a ferry from Surat Thani (around 3 hours for the morning ferry) on the mainland, or from Ko Samui (1.5 hours) or Ko Pha Ngan (1 hour). If you're taking a boat from Surat Thani by Bus or Train, one possibility might be an overnight ferry - depart around 23:00 and arrive in the morning, about 06:00 (subject to changes). It's advisable to arrive early to grab a mattress as most are formerly cargo boats, so facilities are basic.
From Bangkok / Chumphon (From The North)
The northern terminal for the island ferry service is Chumphon. Numerous agents sell tickets for a variety of boats of varying size and speed. The fastest takes about 90 minutes, the slowest almost 5 hours.
These ferries only depart Chumphon at 07:00, 13:00 and 23:00/00:00. The ferries at 07:00 and 13:00 are the normal passenger ones (offered by Lomprayah, Seatran and Songserm), the late night ferries are normally vehicle or cargo ferries, making for a slower (5-6 hour trip, arriving at 5AM) and less comfortable ride. If you are arriving via bus or train, be sure to arrive well before the ferry times, as the ferry terminal is around an hour from the train station, and a missed connection either results in a late night trip on the vehicle/cargo ferry or an overnight stay and a 05:30 start to catch the bus to the ferry terminal for the first ferry the next day.
Sangserm offer "VIP" combined coach and boat tickets from Bangkok, claiming to take 6 hours by bus and 1.5 hours by boat - in fact, it takes closer to 9 hours by bus and 3 hours by boat, neither of which are particularly comfortable.
The best trick, if coming from Bangkok, is to book a Sleeper Train (leaving Bangkok around 18:00 and arriving at Chumphon around 03:30) and then have a ticket booked for the 07:00 ferry. Most ferry operators can pick you up from the station (where you can while away the 3 hour connection gap).
From The Other Islands
You can also day trip on diving charters from Ko Samui. Many have high speed boats that can make the trip to Ko Tao in about an hour.
Lomprayah High Speed Catamaran or Seatran are the fastest and most comfortable way to get to Ko Tao. They run twice a day from Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan Surat Thani and Chumphon. They also have online booking - useful for checking availability at peak times and all their boats have air conditioning and movies for all passengers.
There is one main road running North to South on the island with many smaller roads diverting off it. Some roads lead over the spine of small mountains that run along the middle of the island and are all dirt, can close out after rain, and can be challenging even to a skilled driver. There are usually plenty of taxi cars available on both Sairee village and Mae Haad, however they tend to be expensive given the actual distance you travel.
You can rent bicycles and motorcycles at a few places on Sairee Beach, Mae Haad, and Chalok. Be careful if you rent a motorbike as the dirt roads can get dangerous. ATV's (all terrain vehicles) are dangerous (ask any medical clinic) and expensive (500+ THB a day) and should be avoided in favor of Honda Dream's (150-200 THB a day) or Sonic's (200-250 THB a day).
Be aware that an increasing number of rental shops are charging large amounts of money for non-existent scratches on bikes when returning them, notably the shop next to 7/11 in Sairee Village (Save Way travel). Make sure you note down all scratches and dents before you rent a bike from anyone. Your best bet is to hire a bike from you bungalow / resort.
Longtail boats offer rides to and from certain beaches on the island. They are a more comfortable way of getting to isolated beaches than attempting to ride over the mountains, however they are noisy. Round island longtail 500-700 baht, short trips 100-200 baht.
Take a bike around the island. Shark Bay is a good place to go snorkeling for the day (don't worry too much about sharks, they are only small black-tip reef sharks). Koh Nang Yuan, Freedom beach, Laem Thian, Mango Bay, Hin Wong Bay and Tanote Bay are good day excursions, accessible by road or boat. If you rent a scooter, be prepared to turn around or continue by foot since some roads (e.g. to Mango Bay) may be in such condition that you need a dirt bike or a car to ride them. Some beaches are private, but a boat can take you snorkeling to those bays also.
However, to see the best places, go by foot as some are inaccessible to motorists. There are a number of good viewpoints around the island such as John Suwan mountain viewpoint in the South of the island, Two View in the center and Fraggle Rock in the North.
Scuba diving is still the biggest attraction on Ko Tao. Diving in Ko Tao is easy, fun, and you can see turtles, stingrays, barracudas, lots of small fish, reef sharks, and there is a very small chance of seeing a whale shark.
At Chumphon Pinnacle you are likely to see juvenile bull sharks which have, until recently, been misidentified as grey reef sharks. Pay caution, the bulls are curious and very aggressive though for many years literally thousands of people have dived this site without a single shark related incident.
Nearly any time of the year except November is good diving weather in Ko Tao and visibility can exceed 40 meters. Average visibility is around 15-20 meters. In November visibility is reduced and the seas are choppy, but diving is good by the standards of many other destinations.
It is possible and perfectly comfortable to swim and dive without a wetsuit year round. However, as with most diving, a wetsuit is recommended to help reduce risk of cuts or injury. Avoid contact with coral reefs!
There are a huge number of dive operators on the island, many offering budget accommodation (sometimes described as free accommodation, but this is not really true as you will usually get a discount if you stay elsewhere). Currently (2009) the price for PADI open water certification including the new PADI training manual, professional instruction, rental equipment, boat dives, and certification is around 9,800 baht; insurance and basic accommodation may also be included. Shop around as not all shops teach the course in the same way. Look for experienced dive instructors rather than a low price.
A common method for teaching new divers is to train in a pool first by being taught about 20 basic skills before being taken out into the open water. Others will instead take you to a secluded beach so you will see fish and coral from the start and you might be able to squeeze in a short extra dive in this way, depending on your group and instructor. Some shops have a private pier, some shops depart with a longtail from the beach, and some use the public pier, where you will have to climb some other boats. Ask if this matters to you. Most important: find out maximum number of dive students in a group, and make sure you get an instructor who speaks your language if you are not absolutely sure about your English. These are the little things that will make the difference between an ok course and a great one.
Over the last couple of years more and more non divers have discovered the beauty of this island with its secluded little bays and unspoiled mountain ridges. Due to this, and the increasing amount of small upmarket resorts and villas nestled in the hillsides there are nowadays a lot more activities available, including sailing, rock climbing( Sport routes, Top rope routes, Bouldering), abseiling, cliff jumping, wake boarding, paint-ball jungle games, mini golf or bowling in Mae Haad, massage and yoga courses, and cooking courses.
A huge selection of Thai food is available, including lots of sea food. Barbecue fish is one of the local favourites. As a large portion of the population are expats, you will find plenty of other cuisines ,too.
Thai food is cheapest, with July 2007 prices ranging from 45 baht for stuff-on-rice through to 250 baht for a nice hunk of fresh barbecue fish at a decent restaurant. 25 baht would get you a fresh banana pancake, and 60 baht a bowl of porridge with honey at a budget resort's restaurant. 200-300 baht would get you a bowl of freshly made Italian pasta, and 160-200 baht for pizza. Fresh fruit juices are available at many stalls for 20-30 baht.
When you get a break from diving, there are a few bars on the island. The bars on the island rotate nights, so the best bet is to ask someone working at dive shop which bar will be crowded that night or check the posters. Many start off the evening at the bars located at the northern end of Sairee, and after they closes at 1am, make a pilgrimage down towards whichever club is open for the rest of the evening at the southern end of Sairee.
You can usually find accommodation at the pier when you arrive. However, during peak times it is worth booking ahead unless you want to sleep on the beach or spend the night in one of the more expensive lodgings. If you are planning on taking a SCUBA diving course whilst on the island, most dive schools have an attached resort and will either discount the accomodation or throw it in for free when you book a course. During busy periods, most resorts with dive outfits will not want you to stay unless you are diving at least every second day with them. If you don't want to stay with your dive operator and use their free accommodation, ask for a discount (although they will probably just give it to you without asking - competition is stiff!)
If you are thinking of booking accommodation online before you arrive, make sure you book with the actual resort or a trustworthy booking site as there are numerous fake sites for several well known Ko Tao resorts appearing on the Internet.
In August 2009, 300 baht/night would get you a room for two with a fan, 24 hour electricity, and basic bathroom facilities close to the beach. Prices generally go up with quality and features such as a fridge, hot shower or air conditioning. The swankier bungalows may go for around 1200 baht/night. Notice that not all resorts supply 24 hour electricity, some use their own generators usually from 6pm to 6am and for a short time around midday. You may want to check before booking if this matters to you.
The majority of the accomodation on Ko Tao are centred around two main areas - Sairee Beach and Chalok Bay.
This is the largest beach on Ko Tao, located on the Western side of the island and stretching from the Ferry Terminal (which is on the South Western corner of the island) almost the length of the island. All along this beach you will find dive schools, resorts and restaurants/bars. The southern and central sections of the beach are well known for their nightlife, and the northern end has a large number of shops and restaurants which lends it to be a bit quieter at night (but with the bars only a short walk down the "Yellow Brick Road".
Chalok Baan Kao is a much more chilled, relaxed environment than Sairee Beach, while still giving access to a great range of restaurants, beach bars and BBQs plus a wide range of accommodation from luxury resorts to budget rustic, beach-side bungalows.
The number one way to stay safe on Ko Tao is to not drink and drive. Motorbike accidents are very common, especially when driven under the influence, on the wrong side of the road, in the dark. All Terrain Vehicles (ATV) are becoming numerous on the island. They are considered a menace by many as they are expensive, slow, noisy and more people injure themselves on them under the mis-belief they are safer; which they are not. Walk or hire a smaller motorbike instead. Be aware that vehicle hire shops are cheap but can become very expensive if you so much scratch the vehicle, try to hire an older bike than a brand new one.
Be also aware of the safety of your hotel room. There are many reports of stolen money especially on the resorts on Sairee beach. Normally the thieves (sometimes even hotel staff) sneak into the room while you are out diving and take your cash from your wallet or from your bags.
As always, watch out for the sun. It seems to be particularly strong on the island due to the bright sand and surroundings, especially when slightly clouded. Prevent yourself from running around and being identified British right away with that nice red and white t-shirt tan of yours.