If you go to Thailand, make your way to the islands. Bangkok and Chiang Mai are awesome must-sees, but the islands are the truly lax, tropical wonderlands that we seek on vacay. Rules go out the window, along with time schedules and shoes. Each island has its own culture, its own traditions, and its own unique features to explore. If you can, hop around for a wide range of experiences. If you only have time for one, decide on your priorities and find the best fit.
We struck a great balance of party, relaxation, and adventure by hitting Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi before ending our trip in Koh Tao. Scuba diving is often big on islands, but Koh Tao is especially dedicated, with a huge number of dive schools and resorts everywhere you look. I happen to have no desire to scuba dive, although I hope to one day bite the bullet. If you want, you can get a diving license in 3-5 days while you’re there (a friend highly recommends Big Blue). If you don’t, there is more than enough to do here without taking the plunge.
Koh Tao is covered in hidden beaches. We tried to motorbike to every single one but ran out of time to achieve our goal. Here is a quick roundup of the eight beaches we did go to, plus the places we stayed and the bars and restaurants where we got our meals, cocktails, and happy cookies. My favorites are starred–feel free to add your favorites in the comments!
Sairee Beach is the most popular beach. It’s lined with lodging, restaurants, and bars, and is a short walking distance from lots of shops and other conveniences. We spent a lot of time on this beach without even trying.
*Ao Leuk Bay is another popular beach. It’s an easy motorbike ride from the main part of town, but the distance means its less populated and commercial. There is one resort situated on it, as there is on nearly every beach. The snorkeling is pretty good (we heard that sharks hang out nearby), and there’s a big bungalow restaurant with great vibes and basic Thai food.
We walked to Ao Tanote Bay from Ao Leuk but it was very hot and a bit of a long walk. It’s another pretty, quieter beach, with Montalay Resort nearby.
Freedom Beach and Taa Toh Lek Beach are spacious, popular beaches, right next to each other on the southern tip of the island. They are lined with two big resorts, but open to the public.
If you’re staying on Mango Bay, you’d probably take a boat there. For the rest of us, it’s a difficult drive and we saw a lot of people turn back at the beginning of about 30 minutes of very steep hills. They’re the kind of hills where your bike feels like its about to give out and you’ll flip forward or fall backwards to your death. Still, we did it, which means anyone can do it. Once you’re there, it’s a bit of a kick in the pants, because you have to walk down stairs for about ten minutes, and someone is set up halfway down to surprise charge you when you’re trapped. We haggled and got a bit of a discount, but it wasn’t easy. When we got to the bottom, it was more of a resort patio with a jumping off point than a beach. We rented snorkel gear there for 50 bhat and jumped off. There is a lot to see, and if you wanted to swim a lot you could eventually reach a sand beach along the bay. Still, do NOT go through all this trouble if you just want a quick swim. Go because you’re trying to see em all, or because you love a challenge. That was our mindset and we were glad we had the adventure.
On our first attempt to go to Mango Bay, we had gone right at the fork instead, and immediately screeched down an extremely steep hill to a resort area. After we parked, off to the left was a tiny bar called Mol’s bar in front of a little beach where you could swim if you ordered a drink. We did a little snorkeling, which was pretty good. It’s a cute little alcove.
*Shark Bay is privately owned by Haadtien Resort, so unless you’re staying there, you have to sneak in. We parked by OK II Restaurant where we could walk through and down some stairs to the water. From there, we climbed over a patch of rocks to reach the bay. The water was very shallow, maybe a couple of feet deep, so it was very warm (the bay gets its name from the sharks that are lurking in the deeper water, about 250m out). We started to despair, unable to escape the heat, until I took a walk and quickly discovered the resort’s beautiful pool, in the shade of palm trees, surrounded by a grassy lawn. Heaven. I walked right up and jumped in before going back to tell my boyfriend. We spent the rest of the day there, ordering a couple drinks from the extremely overpriced bar. Were we allowed to be there? Not necessarily… but nobody kicked us out.
*Koh Nang Yuan is a tiny island off of Koh Tao, where small fishing boats take passengers all day. We went to the water and found someone who would take two of us for 300 bhat all together. After a fifteen minute ride, we arrived at the well manicured boardwalk, complete with a restaurant, a bar, bathrooms, etc. Laying on towels is not allowed here, since they take too much sand with them when you go, so grab a chair on the sand bar for a small fee. You can swim on either side of the sand bar, as well as snorkel, climb the hills for a great view, or even zip line. It feels spacious, the sand seems whiter, and the water seems bluer. It’s touristy, but hey, you’re a tourist.
For a list and description of all of the beaches on the island, click here. It lists 23 and we only made it to 9. See if you can beat our record!
Bars and Restaurants
*Natural High Cafe is the best. We only made it there twice during this trip, and it was not enough. Located on a hill, overlooking the jungle, the view is vast. There’s a bar and a pool table inside the airy bungalow, which opens on to a patio with hammocks and comfy, cushioned booths and tables where you can relax and watch as golden hour turns in to sunset. There is a good food selection with lots of Thai options, a full bar, plus all the fun stuff like pot brownies and mushroom shakes (just ask). Obviously, anything you do is at your own risk, but it feels like a very safe place. Plus, they play chill music like Simon and Garfunkel.
High Bar is the other popular place to watch the sunset and partake in less-legal substances. It’s much more crowded and it’s hard to see out from the low roof. The menu makes certain things more obvious than Natural High Cafe’s, and the cookies are pretty potent. It’s a bit steeper of a hill to get to on a motorbike, but a quick ride once you turn off from the main road. They have lodging there too!
We had breakfast at *Blue Water Cafe and Restaurant on Sairee Beach. It’s a beautifully designed place with lots of comfortable seating in the sand. Inside, it is crisp, clean, and sun drenched with good wifi. The food – sandwiches, frittatas, and other breakfast favorites – and the espresso drinks were very good. The lunch and dinner menus look great too, and they make their own craft beers!
Another morning, we had breakfast at Zest Cafe. It has great reviews, but our food wasn’t good. Everybody was raving about the Eggs Benedict, which was okay but nothing special, and I would definitely not recommend the lox bagel. They did have everything you’d want for a big, greasy breakfast on the menu, so maybe it’s worth a second chance! They had salads and sandwiches for lunch that sounded good too. Try it out and tell me what you think!
Fizz Beach Lounge is a sea of beanbag chairs, right on Sairee Beach. The food is good, with both western and Thai options, but a little pricey. They have a cocktail menu as well. Depending on what time you are there, you might be subject to see and hear whatever is going on next door at Lotus, which is a really loud place to get drunk, dance on the beach to EDM, do the limbo with a flaming stick, and watch fire poi spinners. If it’s earlier, there is chill music and a nice atmosphere.
See below for Bro and Sis Place, where we ate for dinner on our first night.
There is a lot of good street food here as well, especially closer to the pier. We ate yogurt with granola and fresh fruit from a smoothie stand, and some great fried chicken from a woman set up at the foot of the pier.
Bro & Sis Place is right on the port when you first come in. It was really convenient to stay here for the first night. They have a full bar and good food, including Thai favorites as well as different burgers, sandwiches, tacos, and more. There was a live band of Westerners playing covers, for better or for worse, when we had dinner. The rooms are modern and ours had a quintessential view of the bay lined with colorful boats. It’s right in town so it was easy to explore the shops and restaurants in the morning. The downside is it’s not very close to a swimmable beach, it doesn’t have a pool, and it’s not the cheapest.
We found *Wind Beach Resort on our second day (booking.com was our best friend during our two months in SE Asia) and stayed there for a few nights. It is located right on Sairee Beach, and depending on how close you want to be to the beach, there is a range of room prices (even the furthest are only a 3 minute walk away along a private sidewalk). There is a pool too, and a complimentary breakfast buffet on the beach. You can rent scuba gear and motorbikes here easily for good prices, so it is a one stop shop. They even have a diving school in the complex. I recommend it!
For our last nights we moved to Grand Beach Resort. Grand Beach Resort is also right on Sairee Beach. It was under construction and a little grittier, but it was in a great location and the staff was incredibly kind and helpful. Prices here were a bit lower for us, but it was also missing the pool and free breakfast.
Have you been to Koh Tao? What else did you do?
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Written by Evy Bround