Of all the beautiful beaches in Thailand, the ones in Koh Tao or Turtle Island are, by far, our all-time favourite. Located in the Gulf of Thailand east of Surat Thani, this 21 square kilometre island has many attractive beaches that visitors can never get enough of.
It is a popular place for scuba divers many of whom come to Koh Tao for the purpose of taking their open water diving course. This little island is also a favoured destination for snorkelers because its shallow coral reefs and beautiful marine creatures that are so easily accessible, since most are just within a short distance from the shore.Take for instance, Jansom Bay which belongs to the Charm Churee Hotel where we stayed. Where else can you wade just a few metres from the beach into the sea, stand is waist deep water and see the fish swimming all around you in crystal clear water?
There’s a small trick to enjoy this experience though. You need to take a piece of bread, or going Thai style, a handful of sticky rice, and hold it in the water. In no time, swarms of fish will dash in and feast on the food literally from your hand. They are so wild that they are not afraid of us don’t seem to realise or care that we are humans. They just want to fill their bellies and go on with their lives. The wonderful feeling we experienced from this activity was magically amazing. We were mesmerised with watching the commotion of fishes darting all around us and we soon found out that the bread we brought didn’t seem to be enough and the fish never appeared to get full.
Despite Koh Tao’s magnificent natural beauty, the main deterrent that discourages people from going to Koh Tao often is the inconvenience of getting there. First, there are no direct flights to Koh Tao. It takes about six hours to drive some 600 kilometres from Bangkok to Chumphon. Then, you go to Lomprayah pier to take the 1.45 hour ferry ride to Koh Tao. You can fly from Bangkok to Chumphon but the airport in Chumphon is quite far from the pier. It is also possible to travel by sea from neighbouring Koh Samui and Koh Phangan.
During our last trip, we opted to drive to Chumphon to take the ferry to the island. We started off really early in the morning, at the ungodly time of four in the morning, to avoid Thailand’s famous traffic jams. After being on the road for almost six hours, we arrived in Chumphon around lunchtime. We parked our car at the Pomprayah pier and took the 1pm ferry to Koh Tao. This schedule was different from our last visit. At that time, we left Bangkok later in the day and arrived in Chumphon in the afternoon. We spent one night in Chumphon and took the ferry across the next morning.
Before getting on the ferry, it helps to check out the weather. In any case, you pray that the sea will be calm so that you won’t get seasick. During our last trip, the sea was so rough that I got terribly nauseous. For fear of making a mess, I kept a plastic bag close to my mouth for the next two hours and it became my best friend until we moored. This is a common phenomenon and it is not unusual for visitors to have to unexpectedly extend their stay for a few nights due to bad weather and patiently wait for calmer seas and for the ferries to start operating again.
Unlike Phuket, Koh Tao is relatively a new travel destination, being discovered in the 1980s. Most of the hotels, tours and restaurants are run by Thai owners and long time expats living on the island. So far, there are no six star international hotel chains. However, there is a wide range of lodgings for visitors to choose from, starting from non-air conditioned guest houses at the rate of 300B a night to beachfront rooms at 18,000B a night. WiFi is available everywhere but we were surprised that there was no TV in our room.
In general, the food in Koh Tao is good, readily available everywhere, and the prices are quite reasonable. Eateries offer Thai, Western, Italian, French cuisine, whatever you fancy. Shops offer tasty hamburgers and pizzas, a nice breakfast coffeeshop with great bread and pancakes. Sidewalk stalls offer rotis (Indian style flat bread) as well as crepes to tourists. Sandwiches are also sold at every corner. We saw some shops making their own buns. One shop owner told me the chocolate flavour was the most popular among visitors.
Snorkelers visiting the island usually join tours for the day to visit places like Shark Bay, Hin Wong Bay, Aow Muang and Koh Nang Yuan. Many hire a long tail boat for the day to take a private tour of the various spots.
Once on the island, you walk a lot on hilly, not so smooth pathways. You can rent motorbikes to get around but be warned that the lanes are small and not well constructed. However, wherever you stay, it is most likely that there are restaurants and beaches are within walking distance. If all else fails, you can always resort to buy everything you need at the ever popular 7-Eleven which is doing brisk business all day and night.
Take mosquito repellent. Good shoes. Enjoy the long drinks and fresh fruit as you watch the sunset.