Koh Tao ('Turtle Island') has been described as offering 'heaven under the sea', its main holiday attraction being the incredible snorkelling and scuba diving opportunities afforded in its clean, clear waters. Situated to the north of its more famous sisters, Koh Samui and Koh Pha Ngan, the island is a typical tropical paradise, with rich jungle in the centre surrounded by quiet, palm-treed beaches.
Although tourist development has exploded in recent years, turning Koh Tao's traditional dirt-road villages into a montage of holiday resorts, souvenir stalls and restaurants, there are still plenty of unspoilt spots both on the coast and inland. The main beach is Sairee Beach, stretching about one mile (2km) along the west coast, offering a range of reasonably priced holiday accommodation, dive centres, restaurants, beach bars and other facilities.
No-one could describe Koh Tao as a shopping destination, but most of the essentials required on holiday are available, including basic medicines, sun screen, swim suits, sarongs, snorkelling equipment and so on. Most of the little stalls and stores lining beachfronts and main roads carry craft souvenirs made of shells or bamboo, and there is plenty of local jewellery available. There are a few supermarkets and market stalls with a good range of foodstuffs.
Not too many years ago, no one in Koh Tao would have heard of pizza or pancakes. Today, international cuisine has taken over the island and it is possible for visitors to find anything they fancy, from Tex-Mex to French baguettes or good old English steak and kidney pie. This has not been at the expense of local authentic Thai food, however, which is still available everywhere from simple street stalls to beachfront terraces.
There are dozens of restaurants, new ones opening all the time, many offering open-air barbecues and grills. Some current favourites are the Cafe del Sol grill house, with a French chef serving up delectable steaks and homemade Italian dishes; the Greasy Spoon (Mae Head), delighting Brits with full-on English breakfasts and hefty portions of fish and chips, bangers and mash, and the like; and the open-air Eagle View on a hill top near Shark Bay, offering Thai cuisine with a spectacular view.
For a relaxed, idyllic island, Koh Tao has a surprisingly buzzing nightlife. When the sun sets the parties start, usually at bars and clubs right on the beach. Most of the action takes place at the main centres of Mae Had and Sairee, but there are many impromptu theme parties happening, usually advertised in shop windows or via word of mouth. Sand sculptures, crazy games, fried chicken, bucket cocktails and fire-jugglers are usually all part of the party scene. Those who prefer a more sedate evening can retire to a pub for a game of pool or darts, or sip cocktails in a laid-back lounge to the tune of some modern classics.
Koh Tao is known as a holiday paradise for scuba divers, with 25 dive sites in close proximity; stunning and unusual rock and coral formations teeming with the resident turtles, whale sharks, stingrays and gorgeous reef fish. Visibility can sometimes exceed 131 feet (40m), the average being around 65 feet (20m). Chumphon Pinnacle is a great place to spot bull sharks, while other popular dive sites include Green Rock, Nang Yuan, and Ao Leuk. Diving in Koh Tao is available year-round, though there is some decreased visibility in windy November. Divers aren't the only ones playing in the water, however, as a variety of watersports are available from water-skiing and kayaking to sailing lessons.
On land, visitors can play local sports such as petanque or croquet, go hiking, rock-climbing or mountain-biking. A variety of boat excursions are available, a favourite being to explore the next-door islet of Nangyuan with its remarkable triple beach. Many visitors sign up for classes in Tai Chi, Yoga or Thai boxing, or limber up at the local open air gym, finishing off with a herbal steam bath, traditional Thai massage, or relaxing reflexology.
Visitors should check the tide as often as possible, as it can be so low during a full moon that getting past the reef to snorkel can be a problem.