Island Hopping: Koh Tao and Koh Phangan
If you’ve ever considered traveling to Thailand, chances are you came across at least one of these islands. They are notorious among western tourists, but for very different reason. Koh Tao, the northernmost of the three well-known islands off the coast of Surathani, is known as the most popular diving destination on the account of the 60+ dive schools that offer unbeatable prices to get your open water certificate. Koh Phangan, on the other hand, has become the Full Moon Party destination, attracting thousands of revelers monthly. In this post, we’ll go beyond these two flagship activities.
Koh Tao: Diving and Much More
We started diving on Gili Air in Indonesia, so it was only natural to gravitate towards doing an advanced course on Koh Tao. This worked out fantastically with the help of the great staff at Alvaro dive school, where we did the course and a handful of fun dives. In fact, we returned to Koh Tao in the summer of 2017 to dive some more with Alvaro, and were just as pleased as the first time around. The staff is mega friendly and creates a distinct family-vibe. You always feel welcome, and the boat… oh my goodness, the boat! The Sea Cutter is the stuff of fairytales. But, in all seriousness, I’ve seen my share of dive boats, and this one is by far the best: spacious, sturdy, and with loads of space to hang out, including a comfy sun roof.
Dive Sites around Koh Tao
Now, the question of diving in the Gilis versus diving on Ko Tao is certainly a topic among the experienced dive crowd. The reason for this is the supposed lower visibility and less diverse marine life on Ko Tao, as well as the warning about dive school oversaturation and a factory-like approach to ‘producing’ certified divers. Having dived both locations now, I can say that the folks who argument against Ko Tao were certainly right to a degree.
HOWEVER, after two dive holidays on Koh Tao we’ve established that diving here is a lot more dependent on daily conditions. So if you spend more time diving, you will definitely have a higher chance for highlights. For instance, we dived the Sattakut site twice within a week, and the difference in visibility was WILD. Same went for Southwest Pinnacle, where we came across a LOT more marine life the second time around: huge schools of barrracuda, butterflyfish, loads of grouper, triggerfish and spotted rays.
Regarding the overcrowding in dive schools, this really depends on which school you choose. For instance, if you choose to get certified at one of the schools on the most popular Sairee beach, you will be more likely to share your dive site with 8 other groups of divers than if you head to one of the smaller bays. With Alvaro, we were always in low numbers – some dives with as few as 4 divers on the big boat, with 2 guides for each couple.
Accommodation on Koh Tao
Both times we visited, we stayed in Chalok Bay. Why?- you ask; the island has loads of other areas! Yes, that’s true, but Chalok proved each time to be the most convenient, easy to get around and least touristy. We visited Sairee, which proved too noisy and not particularly clean, and determined that Mango Bay or Tanote are too annoyingto get to and from, and potentially with fewer amenities than Chalok. We then ruled out a handful of other areas because they are somewhat restricted to resort guests.
Chalok, on the other hand, surrounds a quiet bay and has a handful of good restaurants, shops, and hotels, and is walkable. The bay itself is fit for beach bumming, and the nearby Freedom Beach, which you can reach with a walkway over the rocks, is lovely. You can spot some cool marine life there, so bring your snorkel gear – I had a close encounter with a baby reef shark in thigh-high water.
Both times, we stayed at Tropicana Resort and Guesthouse. We paid 400 Baht per night for a simple, but clean and comfy room (fan, no hot water, very basic toilet) the first time around, and around 550 the second time. This was by far the best value for money among the surrounding hotels, as we established both times by asking around. Also, Tropicana has a lovely outdoor restaurant area and they cook SO WELL. Try the Penang Curry, it’s a dream.
Food: Curries, Curries and Curries
For food, we quickly established favorites. Tukta – their menu is huge, their prices are tiny, and the dishes are very good, so I highly recommend this to anyone on a budget; Tropicana’s own restaurant; and Fishy’s. For breakfast or a snack, you can also hit up the ‘sandwich lady’ across from Ocean Sound Diving. Her sandwiches are filling, she’s got a selection fruits shakes, and you can also get a muesli with fresh fruit.
What to Do on Koh Tao if you’re Not Diving
As far as activities on the island go, beach hopping, snorkeling and hiking are all on the menu. If you want to be more mobile, you can also rent a scooter and explore the island – but be careful because the roads can be quite steep and they’re not always well paved.
If you’d like to spend a bit more money, you can also hit up the northwestern corner of the island and do a trip to the Ko Nan Yuan Island or snorkel in the Japanese Garden. It’s nice but you will be surrounded by hordes of snorkeling tours.
For the yogis, there are many yoga schools on the island as well, offering everything from single classes to full-on retreats and instructor training.
Side note: watch out for scams, especially when renting scooters or quads – most places will want you to leave your passport as deposit, so always make sure to take detailed pictures of the vehicle you’re renting to avoid being accused of causing random scratches, etc (which is NOT uncommon). Also, do invest in some decent repellent and buy some of the incense coils to burn while you’re out and about cause the mosquitoes here are vicious.
Just a short boat ride (350 Baht) away, Ko Phangan is famous for its monthly full moon parties, attracting up to 10,000 visitors each time. On the other hand, if you like it more quiet, going to Phangan right after the full moon party may be the best decision ever. This is what we did and it proved to be a successful tactic: our accommodation was cheap, the beaches were empty and had just been cleaned, and roads were not saturated with loud scooters.
Where to Stay
Koh Phangan is much bigger than Koh Tao, so you should really choose your area wisely unless you’re willing to spend a fortune on songthaew-type taxis on going up and down the island. These usually charge 200 Baht or more per person per ride. This is an astounding level of overpriced, considering that a rush hour, hour-long air-conditioned taxi ride in Bangkok would cost you less than 1 person’s fare here.
We stayed at the Hut Sun bungalows, located directly at the beach between Sri Thanu village and Haad Yao. For 350 Baht (after some negotiating), we got an air-conditioned bungalow with hot (!!) water and a spacious front porch with a couple of hammocks. We were literally about 20 steps away from our own private beach area, which we shared with a maximum of 2 other people at any given time. A nice beach escape, if that’s what you’re looking for.
Food in Our Area on Koh Phangan
For food we usually walked over to the nearest village (10-15 min away), where we found two restaurants that are definitely worth a visit: Mama Pooh’s Kitchen and Nok’s Kitchen. Mama Pooh’s is like a local institution. Going strong for several decades, Mama Pooh is a sweet old lady who takes care of almost everything in her place, all at the same time. Since none of the staff speak much English, you will have to write your order on a sheet of paper (don’t forget to indicate how spicy you’d like your Thai dish). Nok’s, on the other hands, sees fewer crowds, but it is actually slightly cheaper than the former place, and has some really good breakfast deals! It’s run by a small family, and you can often see the sun spriting over to the store after you put in your order because, inevitably, a fresh ingredient might be missing.
What to Do on Ko Phangan
Apart from the full moon parties and the smaller half-moon parties, Phangan offers a lot of activities even if you don’t like to get drunk with a bunch of gap yearers: jungle trekking, ATV rentals, snorkeling, sea kayaking, diving, as well as day trips to the nearby Ang Thong national park. We stuck to being totally lazy beach bums (which was much-needed after a week of diving anyway, and we also rented a sea kayak next door and checked out some of the neighboring beaches.