Koh Tao

Koh Tao and Unrealistic Expectations

In the months leading up to our big trip, Koh Tao was the place that captured my imagination and fantasy the most. As a scuba diver with salt water in my veins, I dreamt of spending every hour in the water, finning with the fishes, teasing christmas tree worms and tickling colourful clams. I imagined crystal clear water and deserted beaches where I could nap in the sun.

Koh Tao would be my own personal paradise. A place full of people who loved the ocean as much as I did. We would chat about the horrors of shark finning and debate the effect of climate change on coral bleaching. Bit idealistic, no?

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We arrived in Koh Tao exhausted after spending three nights on various modes of transport. The island greeted us from a pervasive fog that didn’t seem to clear the whole time. Massage parlours, pizza joints and sleazy bars advertising the infamous bucket greeted us at the dock. Where was the idyllic paradise that had gotten me through long hours in my grey cubicle?  and were we really still in Thailand? if so, then where were all the Thai people? 

Now at this point you might be thinking, “Man, this girl must of hated Koh Tao”. But let me just say that I actually really loved it but only after I threw most my expectations out the window (funny that).

When I got over it I actually found that Koh Tao exceeded some of them.

So don’t go to Koh Tao and expect pristine beauty and deserted beaches, and try to throw out any Little Mermaid fantasies, but the little island has so much to offer in its imperfection.

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The Delicious Food 

I can’t rave about Su Chilli’s highly enough. It is a tiny restaurant on the main road in Sairee beach.The thai food was the best we had in our whole time in Thailand. We ate there everyday and when we tried a couple of other Thai places they just didn’t even compare. We ate hot and spicy red curries filled with bamboo and tender pieces of chicken. We ate green curries with their tart baby eggplants and crisp green beans. The Pad Thai was the best I had ever eaten and it came out fresh and nutty with plenty of chicken and tofu. A dash of lime completed the dish to perfection. We sipped on fresh coconut shakes and inhaled watermelon juices by the dozen.

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Another rave worthy restaurant is Lung Pae. Although the food wasn’t spectacular, the view more than makes up for it. The restaurant is set high in the hills overlooking a beautiful bay and I seriously felt like a girl straight out of a romance movie in this restaurant. I highly suggest going at sunset and drinking a cocktail while the sun goes down. Perfect.

On the flip side, we didn’t love the breakfasts on Koh Tao. We are very much big breakfast eaters and we just didn’t find a place that served up a good english breakfast. Then again we are probably pretty fussy!

The Perfect Island Bungalow 

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We stayed with Sairee Cottage Diving for ten days. For 400 Baht we had a little bamboo bungalow of our very own. My favourite thing about this little bungalow was that it was set back from the beach so it was very quiet and peaceful.

All the bungalows are set in perfectly manicured gardens and we even adopted a little white cat for our time there. The one weird thing was that instead of giving us a blanket for the bed we were given a very large towel.

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Diving and Freediving 

You can’t write an article about Koh Tao without mentioning the diving and to be honest, I was little disappointed.

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We did three dives in Koh Tao and I think our average experience came down to bad luck with the conditions and the fact that we were diving shallow dive sites. The visibility hovered around 5-6 metres the whole time. The low visibility was particularly noticeable when we were freediving as you couldn’t see where you were going!

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We dived primarily with Sairee Cottage Diving and they were organised and efficient but very impersonal. Our first dive was done with an instructor called David who I couldn’t recommend highly enough. He was passionate about diving and really instilled an excitement about the dive in us. This dive was in Sairee Bay and was a perfect first dive for Chris as we just walked straight off the beach.

Our second and third dive was done off the Sairee cottage dive boat. On these dives we had an indifferent twenty-something as an instructor. He was obviously a bit over it and with the low visibility he just didn’t give the care and attention that would usually be expected in bad conditions.

Hiring a Longtail 

Our favourite day in Koh Tao was the day we bit the bullet and hired a long tail to take us around the island. Although a little pricey at 2500 baht for the day, it was well worth it. Our pirate-looking captain took us first to Sae Daeng Bay where we frolicked with black tipped reef sharks. We then moved on to two other bays where we snorkelled and swam. These deserted bays were right out of my pre-trip daydreams.

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The long tail driver then dropped us at Nang Yuan island where we paid a 200 baht entry fee. Strangely enough we weren’t allowed to take our fins to the island so we had to make do with our masks and snorkels.The island was packed. There was people on every square inch of the beach so we retreated to the sea with our masks and were greeted with a sea floor of dead and broken coral. Not so great.

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But seriously where were all the Thai people? 

If your heading to Thailand to have an authentic and culturally rich experience then turn around and head inland. Koh Tao is outfitted for tourists, a veritable twenty-something white-persons Disneyland. The only Thai people you will see will be the ones serving you or massaging your feet. Now maybe on a relaxing holiday you could overlook this but to me, a traveller who is looking for real connection, it felt a little bit too fake. The sheer number of scooters, the douchey men, the rubbish on the beach. I’m not saying that i didn’t enjoy scarfing down banana and nutella pancakes and getting my toenails painted blue, I just didn’t pretend that I was having a genuine or authentic experience.

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As travellers we are always managing our expectations and this little island challenged me in this regard. I found that as soon as I got over my idyllic and unrealistic visions of the island, I learnt to love the Koh Tao despite its flaws and disappointments. And seriously nutella and banana pancakes are amazing..

How to get there:

Koh Tao can be reached by boat. We travelled on the night boat from Surat Thani and it cost 500baht and took around 8 hours. There are other options including the Lomprayah and the Songserm. Keep in mind that the Songserm stops at all the other islands nearby so you’re in for a long trip. You can also take a ferry from Chumphon. Try to buy your boat tickets at the dock and steer clear of travel agencies that might rip you off.

Have you been to Koh Tao? What did you think? As a traveller, how do you manage your expectations? Leave us a comment or email us at dirtypawsblog@gmail.com.

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11 thoughts on “Koh Tao

  1. Ahah I have just been redirected here from Rachel’s blog!
    Thanks for your advices, I haven’t been to Koh Tao, and it’s actually in my destinations list this year, so all advices I can get are super useful! 🙂

  2. Great post – I get exactly what you’re saying.
    Did you stop at any other islands?
    I was planning to check out the Gulf side to do some diving but you’ve got me thinking about finding a more authentic spot for when I’m out of the water.

    1. Thank! We didn’t actually get to go to any of the other islands so can’t really compare. Planning to go back though 🙂

  3. Hello, Jo. I am glad you were able to see past your expectations and discover the joy in your vacation. Like you, I am looking for the Thai people and the culture, and want to strictly avoid the image made for westerners down south on Ko Phangnan during the Full Moon Parties. I thought that, by traveling to a smaller island, I would avoid much of the rough trade that goes along with western travelers in Asia. So, now that you have some experiences under your belt, what area would you recommend instead?

    1. Koh Tao is still very touristy, I would head for the North if you aren’t too set on going to the islands 🙂 Koh Lanta is still quite untouched too! Have a great time Jim!

  4. Well written and you do justice to my experience of Koh Tao. I am currently visiting for a few days and I have had some radical expecting adjustments! I dive for the next three days, and I can say, if it weren’t for the main objective being diving I don’t think I would have stayed. But I have, and I enjoyed a day touring with a scooter and found excellent food.

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