The aptly named Koh Tao (เกาะเต่า – Turtle Island) has exactly what it sounds like – turtles and lots of other sea life. With dive sites and snorkel spots a plenty, this little island draws in luxury seekers and dreadlocked backpackers. Part of the Chumphon Archipelago, Koh Tao sits in the Gulf of Thailand and is often overlooked for it’s party-loving neighbour, Koh Pha Ngan, and the original Thai island paradise, Koh Samui. Don’t make that rookie move – you and your kids are going to love this place.
Push aside your images of powdery white sand, and embrace the idea of massive boulders jutting out of the ocean only to disappear into the jungle as it swallows the hillsides. Turtle Island is not without white sand, it’s just not the main course here. With about 2,500 Thais and 2,000 expats, Koh Tao has it’s own vibe. It’s not as polished as Koh Samui and you will see rough looking homes and working class lifestyles.
HOW TO GET THERE
From Bangkok, we drove ourselves down to the Lomprayah Pier, Chumphon Province (approx. 6 hours). Lomprayah offers a high-speed catamaran each island within the Chumphon Archipelago. The boat ride to Koh Tao took about 1 hour 45 minutes and the entire process was very straightforward. Only one of us puked from seasickness (we’re looking at you, dad). Lomprayah is a well-oiled machine and you can book buses and minivans to/from Bangkok and Hua Hin. The self-parking was 50 Baht / day and the covered spaces were on a first-come-first serve basis.
There are other ferry services available from Chumphon (including an 8 hour overnight ferry – which seemed like a whole lot of nope for our family of 5) or from the southern end of the archipelago (Surat Thani and Krabi).
Nok Air and Thai AirAsia offer Fly and Ferry combinations where you can book a flight with them and they’ll include a shuttle to the pier and the ferry ticket. These are time savers though not always the cheapest. The Chumphon Airport is just under an hour’s drive from the ferry terminal.
WHERE TO STAY
Choosing your bay is STEP ONE when it comes to accommodation on Koh Tao. Looking for amenities, white sand, corals, quiet, or nightlife will determine where you hang your sunhat on the island.
Mae Haad Beach is home to the main pier and largest “town”. Located on the Western side of the island, it faces the mainland and is a long swim or short boat ride from Koh Nang Yuan (a three part islet that you’ve probably seen while cruising Instagram). Heading north is Sairee Beach and is the second hub on Koh Tao. You’ll find hostels, hotels, and lots of eats here. The Yellow Brick Road is the focal point of it all. Both of these areas are a hard pass for us. Lacking charm, they are a sprawl of shops, eateries, and hostels each pushing against the other. If you need anything (how you doin’ 7-Eleven), then this is where to come, but not where to stay.
Our bay of choice was Tanote Bay. Over the hill, with S-curves and views that will take your breath away, this bay is on the eastern side of the island. It’s small with a handful of hotels, no ATMs, no market, and a beach that is a mix of coarse sand with swaths of the silky stuff. We knew that it was removed and so we packed snacks and drinks with us. We wanted the slower pace and smaller crowds. Unlike Phuket, where you can easily feel squeezed out by the Chinese or Russians, there wasn’t any one dominant pack of tourists here. There were backpackers, retirees, young families, and couples mostly from Europe and North America.
Some of Koh Tao’s best fish spotting is just steps away in the waters of Tanote Bay. With loads of sea life (we even saw a black tipped reef shark), you can spend hours swimming circles here. If that gets boring, you can scale the rock in the bay and take the 10 meter plunge. Sadly, the impact of tourism is visible as you glide over large patches of dead coral. This in turn, lets to the rough sand on the beach. Bring water shoes, but more importantly, treat those corals with respect!
The beach itself had a little garbage on it as the tides at this time of year (December) bring things in. Hotel staff were out twice a day to scoop away seaweed and trash. With 4 hotels, 2 dive shops, and a few restaurants, prices were a little higher and generally the same no matter where you went. We heard grumbles about this, but 20 – 50 Baht more for things when you are on the far side of a small island is not outrageous.
We stayed at the Montalay Beach Resort. This hotel has modern built rooms or bungalows set in the jungle. Most of the bungalows are 2 rooms and a shared bathroom (which you go outside to access) and they call these Tropical Cottages. We opted for a Deluxe Cottage which has a bedroom, bathroom, living room with a fold-out couch and AC. It is not high society living, but was perfect for our family. It felt like we could live in it and after our 6 day stay, we certainly did get cozy.
Owned by a Chinese business man who has made Bangkok his home, the staff here were helpful and quick to answer our questions. On Tanote Bay, the Montalay has done the best job of incorporating the islands boulders and jungles into hotel. The pathways feel like a jungle trek with gardens and water features. The pool was beachfront and the restaurant overlooks the pool area. To the side there is a simple kids playroom with AC. The hotel has some under utilized spaces which offer great views of the bay. The Montalay has it’s own dive centre with incredibly helpful staff.
OTHER HOTELS AND RESTAURANTS ON THE BAY
Next to Montalay, is the Family Tanote Bay Resort. This hotel also has it’s own dive centre, Calypso, and sits on the end of the bay offering great views. Rocks and boulders separate it from the rest of the beach and so it feels isolated from the other hotels and we did not see many people venturing over. Along with those great views comes a rock scramble / hike to get your accommodations so if you have strong knees and a weak wallet, this is your place.
The Diamond Beach Resort sits in the middle of the beach but on the low end of the niceness scale. If you believe the beach gossip from staff at other hotels, then the Diamond is not doing well. We did eat at their restaurant which looks sterile in the daylight, but nighttime and candles make everything prettier. Our kids declared they had the best french friends on the beach.
The Poseidon Resort is for backpackers looking to chill on the beach. Owned and run by a family from northeastern Thailand, The Poseidon is all kinds of laid-back and their restaurant was our kids’ number one pick. With house music, hammocks, and ocean views, we ate here repeatedly. Their green curry is some of the best we’ve ever had (and we live in Thailand). P’ TukTuk, the owners mother-in-law, is a warm and welcoming presence. If you speak Thai, be sure to chat with her.
Nestled between Poseidon and Mountain Beach is The Lai Bar. This bamboo beach cottage restaurant is run by a couple from Isaarn (northeastern Thailand) and if you want to try great northeastern food, come here! In the evening they light candles and fires on the beach so you can sit on bamboo with your toes in the sand while dinning.
Bookending the bay opposite of Family Tanote Bay Resort is Mountain Beach Reef Resort. With a little bar on the beach and a concrete slag, two-tier restaurant, this place has a disjointed feel. Boulders make it disconnected from the main beach and some of their rooms offer sweeping views of the bay (if you want to climb for it). Anytime we walked over here, it felt sleepy and empty. We suggest doing one lunch at their restaurant as the second level has a lovely ocean panorama.
WHAT TO DO
Books, beach naps, card games, and music. Beach bum like a pro on Tanote Bay. If that’s not your thing, enjoy a massage at Montalay or some of the massage huts (literally) down by Poseidon. Prices are higher than Bangkok, but the big city doesn’t have sea breezes caressing you while being rubbed down. Most of the hotels offer shuttles into town for 100 Baht / person. It may be more economical to hire a taxi for 400 Baht total depending on how many people you have. A day in town to explore and restock isn’t a and thing.
Em took our 2 older kiddos (aged 8 and 6) on a full day snorkelling tour with Oxygen. We arranged it through our hotel (prices were the same). We opted for the morning tour and we were gone from 09:00 to 17:30 with transfers, equipment, and food included. 850 Baht for an adult and half price for the kids. Landing on Koh Nang Yuan costs us another 200 Baht (100 for adults and 50 for kids). No lies – it was a hard parenting day but seeing sea turtles has been a constant talking point with our kids ever since. You can also rent snorkelling gear from the dive shops on the bay and stay local too.
A frisbee, kites, sand toys, and badminton all made it to Koh Tao with us so if it is easy to pack, you should bring some family fun along.
WHEN TO STAY
There is always calm waters to be found on Koh Tao because the island acts as it’s own windbreak. When the winds come from the east, the west is calm and vice-versa. Being such a small island means you can always find calmer waters to snorkel in, but when booking you’l want to research wind direction and pick your side of the island accordingly.
Koh Pha Ngan draws revelrous crowds with it’s New Years party and monthly Full Moon celebrations. It’s beach raves and glow-in-the-dark paint for everyone. Check when these parties are as many people will leave Koh Tao to party and then come back a few days later to recover.
If you’re looking for weather reports, look at Chumphon and Koh Samui. Koh Tao doesn’t have its own weather station and so your best bet is a mix of these two.
Be sure to pack bug spray as mosquitoes love the humid jungle. We even brought mosquito coils to ensure we enjoyed our balcony at night. Sunscreen is pricey here so bring lots.
Landing fees / entrance fees are an odd reality on some of the bays and beaches here. Tanote Bay is not one of them but don’t be taken aback if your charged to enter a beach.
The roads on Koh Tao are steep and winding. You can rent scooters or you can stay alive – we’re not sure you can do both. All jokes aside, if you do rent, insist on helmets and please be careful. Taxi services (think benches in the back of pick-up trucks) usually run about 100 Baht / person. If you have 4 or more people, consider renting an entire taxi for a flat fee of about 400 – 500 Baht.
If the spelling of things keeps throwing you off, don’t worry – it’s not you. Thai has no agreed upon transliteration into English letters. So that’s why you’ll see different ways of spelling the same thing. We may never know if it is Sai Ri Beach or Sairee Beach!
- ชุมพร = Chumphon / Chumpon / Chumporn (pronounced “chum-pon”)
- เกา = koh / ko means “island” (when saying it, think of that k as more of a k+g lovechild)
- หาด = had / haad / hat means “beach”
- อ่าว = ao / aow / aw means “bay”
However you say it or spell it, we think great family fun is waiting for you on Turtle Island.