Koh Tao: The Scuba Diving Capital of Southeast Asia
Chika had decided before our trip that she wanted to get her PADI Open Water certification, a 3.5 day course consisting of coursework and multiple dives to learn the skills needed to scuba dive safely. Afterwards, one can dive up to 18 meters without needing an instructor. It’s also a great way to learn the basics of diving to ensure that you know what you’re doing under the water. I had completed the course and was certified in April 2012 in Santa Marta, Colombia, so I had no other plans than to hang out on beaches and possibly take a few fun dives with Chika as she completes her certification.
It was an easy choice when Chika chose Koh Tao to take her Open Water course. Koh Tao is the diving capital of Southeast Asia. We were told later on that Koh Tao certified more open water divers than all of Southeast Asia combined. This is good and bad. The good is that competition between dive schools is fierce, meaning lower prices and great quality dive schools. The bad is that there are a lot of divers, so rarely are you the only boat at a dive site. Open Water dive courses cost anywhere between 6,500 Bahts ($197) and 9,000 Bahts ($272), which is some of the cheapest in the world. Chika went with Golden Divers, who were run by guys from Holland and were fantastic.
They also offer fun dives, which are anywhere from 30-45 minutes, depending on how much air you consume. I ended up doing a refresh course, which was recommended to me since I hadn’t dived for over a year and a half. The course cost 1,200 Bahts ($36) and included a bit of coursework and a review of all of the basics, including underwater safety techniques. After doing the refresh, I was able to join Chika’s class for the dive with the rest of the air that was remaining in my tank. We dove just off the coast of Koh Nangyuan, a small island off of Koh Tao. The visibility was fairly good as we dove around the reef in the area known as the Japanese Gardens. I was happy to have done the refresher, as I had forgotten a lot and it was much safer for me to be reminded of the important stuff. The following day, I joined Chika’s class again as I did a fun dive, costing 800 Bahts ($24) for a full tank of air. The visibility was quite bad at this spot just off of Shark Island, but we did get down to 18 meters.
Arriving in Koh Tao
Getting to Koh Tao was pretty simple and straightforward. Unfortunately, it was much more simple than painless.
We took an overnight bus from Bangkok’s South Station to Chumpong, a city located on the sea. We left Bangkok at 9:30pm and arrived in Chumpong around 4:30am. The bus was actually pretty nice. A bus attendant seemed to continue giving us things. First a cupcake, then a juice box, then a bottle of water, then a milk. The bus was air conditioned and the seats weren’t too bad. It was a great experience after paying 380 Bahts ($12) for a 9 hour journey.
After arriving in Chumpong and having no idea how to get to the main pier, especially at 4:30am, we only had one good option, to buy a ferry ticket coupled with a transfer to the ferry with a company called Lomprayah. The entire trip cost 650 Bahts ($20). We arrived fine to the pier to catch the 2 hour catamaran trip to Koh Tao. This is where the real fun started.
The trip on catamaran started rough and never really calmed down. We were seated in a stuffy section full of seats inside the first level of the boat. The front of the boat seemed to be going up and down a good 30 feet with the waves. Within 10 minutes, I was already feeling sick. Over the next hour and a half, I had never felt so sick and helpless. There isn’t much worse than being sea sick on such a long journey. There is no way out of it or to really help yourself feel better. Essentially, I had a plastic bag to my face every 10 minutes for the entire trip. Even after we arrived in Koh Tao, I was still sick for about 20 minutes as we rested on the pier. This was by far the sickest I’ve ever been on a boat. For the rest of the day, I would have moments where I felt like the ground was still moving, as if I was still on the boat. Luckily, things got better as time went on.
The Rest of Our Time In Koh Tao
In total, we stayed 4 nights and 5 days in Koh Tao. We stayed at a relatively cheap hostel, called Koh Tao Central Hostel, and paying just 300 Bahts ($9) per night. On an island so touristy, it’s hard to find much cheaper than this. The room was a 14-bed dorm, but the set-up made it quite bearable. Each set of bunk beds was positioned in its own little nook with walls on both sides. The room was kept pretty dark and the walls blocked out a decent amount of the noise. It can’t get much better for a room where 14 people are sleeping.
On Chika’s first day of dive class, I took a walk all the way to the other side of the island, the east side. The entire walk was only about 3 miles long and wasn’t the nicest walk. There was a lot of traffic for about half the walk, and the road leads right by the garbage dump. It only took an hour, so it was doable. I arrived at Tanote Bay and found a beautiful beach, a much more deserted feel than Sairee Beach, just a short walk north of our hostel on the west side of the island. At Tanote Bay, there was a handful of places to stay but was much quieter without the bars of the west side of the island. It was nice to see a different side of the island without all the people.
Speaking of Sairee Beach, we ended up spending a good amount of time there. Just a 10 minute walk from our hostel, we made our way there to take a swim and watch the sunset on 4 consecutive nights. Although somewhat crowded, the waters are crystal clear and beautiful. The mountainous north side of Koh Tao in the distance also improves the view.
On our final full day in Koh Tao, we took a ferry to Nangyuan, a nearby island. The 30-minute ferry cost 200 Bahts ($6) round-trip, plus another 100 Baht ($3) was charged to enter the island. It was well worth it. Nangyuan is essentially two small islands connected by a narrow sandbar. The sandbar Is used as the beach with chairs set up and plenty of room to lay out a towel. Both sides have some of the most beautiful water, crystal clear, calm, and with a coral reef started just 50 feet into the water. We had borrowed snorkel gear from the dive shop and used that to spot the tropical fish in the clear waters. I was in shock almost the entire day by how gorgeous the entire beach was. It’s what you see in photos or commercials, except much better. It was easily one of the best beaches I’ve ever been to.
An added bonus to the island is a hiking path up to the top of the south island, where there is a great lookout point to see the beach from above. It was an easy 15 minute walk up and gave stunning views of the beach below and the surrounding sea. It’s difficult to explain how nice the view really is, and pictures almost do it no justice. It’s a place that I would say everyone who visits Thailand should see before leaving.
Leaving Koh Tao
Fortunately, leaving Koh Tao was a much more pleasant experience than coming in. We had heard that the smoothest and most comfortable option was taking the night boat. Since we were heading south, we decided on the night boat leaving from Koh Tao at 9:30pm and arriving in Surat Thani at 5:00am. Since we wanted to get to the island of Koh Phi Phi, we booked our entire ticket to Koh Phi Phi, costing 1,150 Bahts ($35) for a night boat, a 2 hour minivan ride, and a 2 hour ferry to Koh Phi Phi.
The night boat was an amazing experience. It was on a newer boat, which apparently only leaves every few days (the older, much less nice boat leaves the other days). It had air conditioning and bunk beds, essentially a hostel on a boat. I almost didn’t feel the movement of the boat throughout the night and got a good 8 hours of sleep. This was an extremely comfortable trip and I’d love to have the option to do it again.
Overall, I really enjoyed the five days in Koh Tao. After a rough start between getting terribly sea sick and then arriving in the town where tourists on mopeds and motorcycles overcrowded the treats, I warmed up to the island. There are always great beaches close by, there are quiet places if you look for them, the diving is good and inexpensive, and Nangyuan was absolutely stunning. I would highly recommend the island to anyone looking for an easily accessible island with plenty to do on the island itself.