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Koh Tao: It's Not Just For Backpackers Anymore

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

Koh Tao has long been known as a backpacker haven, a cheap place to get your scuba diving certification and have some fun while you are doing it. But, much has changed about Koh Tao, particularly since the pandemic. It’s still one of the cheapest places to dive in Southeast Asia and there is certainly plenty of fun to be had, but there is so much more to Koh Tao than discount dive shops and bar crawls. Eighteen-to-twenty-something backpackers now mix and mingle with expats and digital nomads looking for a better quality of life, and couples, families, and groups of friends looking for a beautiful island on which to enjoy their vacation, whether it involves diving or not.

There are scores of restaurants serving everything from delicious Thai food from regions across the country to French, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Vietnamese and numerous other cuisines. You can still eat a meal for 100 baht (about 3 USD) or “splurge” on a 10-course tasting menu for 1000 baht, with a multitude of options in between. You want the local flavor of a Thai meal cooked and served to you by one person running a small restaurant? Koh Tao has that. You want an exquisite steak dinner with cocktails and wine while watching the sun set into the ocean? Koh Tao has that.

Sairee Beach, long the epicenter of Koh Tao, is still the place to party, but it also features a wide array of restaurants, bars, and lodging options for all tastes and budgets. The beach itself, once populated with laid back beach bars serving cheap beer, is now fronted mostly with higher-end restaurants and bars offering high-quality meals and cocktails to enjoy while you watch a mesmerizing fire show after sunset. Up the hill from Sairee you’ll find some of the best budget eats in town (don’t miss Duck 995, Pork Leg, or Mama Tam’s) but also one of the fanciest resorts on the island.

Speaking of resorts, while Koh Tao might not match up with Koh Samui in that regard, as long as you aren’t looking for the Four Seasons, you should be able to find something that fits. There are resorts with gorgeous pools overlooking crystal-blue bays; cliff-side bungalows; modern, beachfront, sunset-facing penthouses; apartment-style hotels; and pool villas large enough to host a whole family or group of friends. And if you are looking for more budget-friendly accommodation, Koh Tao still has plenty of that as well, with numerous family-run hotels and hostels around the island offering everything from simple fan-only (no a/c) rooms to nicely appointed, air-conditioned rooms with a view at affordable prices.

If scuba diving isn’t your thing or you are just looking for other activities during your time here, you won’t be disappointed on Koh Tao. There are numerous beautiful sand beaches where you can relax, work on your tan, eat and drink, and swim or snorkel in the clear, blue waters; there are hiking trails leading to gorgeous viewpoints; and there are day-boat trips around the island or to neighboring Koh Nangyuan (or to spectacular Ang Thong National Park, farther afield). If the natural beauty of Koh Tao isn’t enough, there are plenty of man-made activities to enjoy as well. There are gyms, including CrossFit and Muay Thai boxing, if you want to get a workout in; there’s mini golf; there’s trapeze; there’s a rock climbing gym; there are arcades; and there’s even an air-conditioned movie theater with couch seating and food service!

Do you need to get some work done while you are here? Or are you looking for a place to work remotely for a bit? Virtually everywhere has wifi and it’s generally quite good and cell service is reliable, fast, and cheap. There are cafes all across the island that can serve as workplaces and even a few dedicated co-working spaces that have opened up recently. Plus, most of the beachfront bars and restaurants have wifi if you want to mix working with gazing out across the ocean with a drink in hand — and no one will judge you if that drink is alcoholic 🙂

Oh, and did I mention that Koh Tao has scuba diving? If that IS your thing, you’ve definitely come to the right place! While some of Koh Tao’s 50-something dive shops (or is it 70, I can’t keep track) still target budget-concious backpackers, many dive shops have started to offer higher levels of service at still-very-reasonable prices. You can expect smaller, but still-spacious boats, small group sizes, personal attention, high-quality gear, and experienced guides and instructors. So, if you don’t want to be packed onto a boat with 50 other divers using rental gear that looks like it was last serviced by Jacques Cousteau, you’ll have plenty of options to choose from. And, with most of Koh Tao’s dive sites no more than 20-30 minutes away by boat, you can enjoy a variety of dive sites, from shallow reefs to pinnacles to multiple wrecks, and still be back in time for a leisurely lunch or sunset drink on the beach!

Koh Tao is as beautiful and alluring as it always has been, but it’s only gotten better over time and now offers something for everyone.

by Misha Nadel

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