Koh Tao is a great place for divers who want to get away from the hustle and bustle of Koh Samui and want more than the Full Moon Party on Koh Pha Ngan. Koh Tao is a great place to learn how to dive. There are hardly any currents and you have to travel in a boat for at least an hour to find depths deeper than 40 meters.
The only option is by boat.
If you're coming from the south, you can take a ferry from Surat Thani (around 3 hours) on the mainland, or from Koh Samui (1.5 hours) or Koh Pha Ngan (1 hour). If you're taking a boat from Surat Thani, 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.
If you're coming from the north, you can catch a ferry from 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.
You can also day trip on diving charters from Koh Samui. Many have high speed boats that can make the trip to Koh Tao in about an hour.
Lomprayah High Speed Catamaran is probably the fastest and most comfortable way to get to Koh Tao. They run twice a day from Koh Samui, Koh Pha Ngan 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 only one road on the entire island. There are usually plenty of taxi cars available on both Sairee village and Mae Haad.
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.
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).
However, to see the best places, go by foot as some are inaccessible to motorists.
Scuba diving is by far the biggest attraction on Koh Tao. Diving in Koh 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.
Nearly any time of the year except November is good diving weather in Ko Tao, In November, the visibility is reduced and the seas are choppy, but diving is good by the standards of many other destinations.
When diving is good, the visibility can be 40+ meters. Average visibility is around 15-20 meters.
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 (2006) the price for PADI open water certification including the new PADI training manual, professional instruction, rental equipment, boat dives, and certification is around 10,000 baht; insurance and basic accommodation may also be included. Shop around as not all shops teach the in the same way. Look for experienced dive instructors instead of 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 private beach so you will see fish and coral from the start (you can also squeeze an extra dive in this way). Also try and find a shop with a private pier as many others will make you climb across several boats at the main pier. Find out maximum number of dive students in a group. These are the little things that will make the difference between an OK course and a great one.
In January 2007 the first [sailing] charter company on Koh Tao was opening.
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 seem to be expats, you will find plenty of other cuisines too. Thai food is cheapest, with October 2003 prices ranging from 45 baht for stuff-on-rice through to 220 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.
Thipwimarn Restaurant on the north of the island has wonderful sunset views and a 'higher class' feel about the place - however the prices are not much different from the rest of the island.
El Toro Restaurant - between Ban's and AC BAR - offers great Tex-Mex, Pizza and Thai food.
Java Juice-behind the Koh Tao Physicians Clinic, offers free Wifi and fresh juices.
Playhouse is a groovy restaurant/bar/nightclub with great mediterranean food.
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.
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 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 Koh Tao resorts appearing on the internet. (All links below are genuine.)
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!)
In March 2006, 400 baht/night would get you a room for two with a fan, 24 hour electricity, and a hole in the floor right on the beach. Prices generally go up with quality and features such as a fridge or air conditioning. The swankier bungalows may go for around 1200 baht/night.
Chalok Bay is nice and quiet but you won't get a sunset view - plus you will have to pay 50 baht each time for taxis or motorbikes if you want a bit of night life in the evening. Sairee beach is where the action is but many people complain when staying there about the noise from the parties at the beach bars till the early hours. It can be cheaper and easier to stay near Mae Haad beach and do the 5 min walk over to Sairee when you want to go out. The money you save on taxis can be put towards a bigger night out!
The number one way to stay safe on Ko Tao is to not rent a motorbike. Motorbike accidents are very common, and almost unavoidable given the fact that people drive them drunk, on the left side of the road (unless they're drunk), and in the dark. The island is tiny, and can easily be navigated on bicycle or foot. Should you be unfotunate enough to need medical attention then there are numerous clinics on the island and with the largest clinic being situated in Sairee.