Best known for being the diving mecca of Thailand, coral-reef fringed Ko Tao is also full of creative, considerate locals making their little island the spot for on-trend wellness, food and wine that would be the envy of any Bangkok neighborhood, and a sustainability-forward way of life that inspires travelers to tread lightly. Here’s our four-day guide to Ko Tao… once you sink into this eco-island, we’re betting you’ll book at least another four more.
I’D LIVED IN THAILAND for 11 years and had never been to Ko Tao until this summer. What a mistake I had been making. Blessed with natural reefs and crazy-clear waters brimming with fish, sharks and turtles, it has long been known as a diving mecca, and you can’t go five steps without tripping over a dive school. As it turns out, you also don’t have to travel far for solid Burmese or Mexican food, wellness-craze-of-the-moment ice baths, lush jungle-clad co-working spaces, and – perhaps the largest surprise of all – lengthy, organic-heavy wine lists worthy of the best Bangkok restaurants, with island-low prices to boot.
Ko Tao is the smallest of a trio of sister islands nestled in the northwesternmost corner of the Gulf of Thailand, with internationally famous, luxury-resort-populated Samui and plant-forward wellness wonderland Pha Ngan, once better known for its full-moon parties. The easiest way to get to Ko Tao is to fly to Samui, take a car to the pier, and then board a two-hour ferry that first stops in Pha Ngan. I should have put “easiest” in quotes – but that’s actually the beauty of the place. The only people on Ko Tao are the ones who really want to be there. The effort required means you need to have real intention. You’ll want to plan a visit for at least several days to make the trip worth it… and you’re likely to want to extend your stay once you arrive and see all the natural beauty and local creativity buzzing all around.
I hardly need to put Ban’s Diving Resort on a recommendations list, as it is a powerhouse on Tao with a smooth operation, from a cafe near the ferry pier to their multi-wing hotel on either side of the main street that cascades down the hill and winds up at a beachfront resto-bar that’s both kid-friendly and the spot for a post-dive drink (or, on Sundays, hilariously, a raucous beer-pong tournament). It’s not fancy, but it’s comfortable, clean and convenient – they run their own dive school and have several pools for practice, and sit smack in the middle of Sairee Beach. From Ban’s lobby, you can walk the entire neighborhood.
Watch our visit to Ko Tao with artist and environmentalist Notep, part of our Secret Thailand series, here:
On one side you’ll find Catta Go, a little streetside restaurant with a simple, but simply genius idea. They work with local fishermen to get sustainably caught fish, which they dry-age, both to bring out the flavors and to preserve in an environmentally friendly way. The fish is cooked in the method of your choosing, and served with options for various rices, sauces and marinades. After one bite I declared I could eat this simple meal daily, and was promptly informed that a new location in The Commons in Bangkok had just opened. Yay!
On the other side of Ban’s is a little alley called “Island Dive Club Road,” but that we took to calling “Wholesome Street.” Here’s you’ll find the best breakfast (croissants, coffee, salmon avocado toast) at Nui Bakery, Beijing-forward spicy Chinese at Stuffed North China Taste, a natural-wine bar straightforwardly called Weed and Wine, and three storefronts from quiet eco-warrior Khun May that are all about maki ng life better.
May and Co General Store is filled with organic household cleaning products; handmade, locally sourced, sometimes upcycled home goods and jewelry; and some fantastic coffee. PlasTao is a little two-room storefront that collects plastic from all over the island, shreds it and runs it through an injection molding machine to create a kaleidoscope of cups, coasters, games and more. You can take workshops to make your own dishes or art work (perfect for kids or kids-at-heart on a rainy day), or commission them for custom products branded with your logo, as Thai musician, artist and environmentalist Notep does with her jewelry line. Finally, there’s Pippin’s Gelato shop, which, well, I don’t have stats on their eco-cred but doesn’t homemade ice cream always make life better?
Along the way to the other two walking streets in Sairee, you’ll pass Whitening – a toes-in-the-sand upscale restaurant with a surprisingly great gin list – and Charcoal Bay, which could be a Bangkok lounge with a shockingly good wine list. The sizable Burmese population on Ko Tao ensures that Bambu is the spot for authentic Myanmar food. Get the tea leaf salad, bamboo shoots, and corn fritters. Suggest dining there on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday or Friday for front-row seats for the pub crawl that parades through the streets, starting at the ladyboy bar next door.
You mustn’t spend your entire time in Sairee, though, as Aow Leuk Bay beckons with the kind of tropical-perfection beach of everyone’s dreams that’s rarely a reality. Clear, calm, crazy-blue waters good for paddleboarding, with not-far-offshore reefs for snorkeling and beginner diving. Hop a longtail boat from here to nearby bays or islands where we spotted thousand-strong schools of fish and a pair of sea turtles. All the better if your boat is crewed by four golden retrievers who swim, surf, and fetch pollution from the sea. (Track down the lovely married duo behind the “Fanta Money Boat Tour,” Lung Chai and Pa Lai, for a good-boy fueled snorkeling adventure you’ll never forget – and your IG engagement will thank you for.)
Overlooking Aow Leuk Bay is the over-the-top charming Baan Talay Koh Tao, a hotel whose accommodations are a collection of cottages, huts and glamping tents designed to offer privacy immersed in nature, capitalizing on open-breezes to reduce energy use. Kind and multi-talented founder Devrim Zahir also offers yoga, sound baths, ice baths, dive lessons and coral regeneration activities. Take your time and relax into this place. In fact, change your tickets home and relax a few days longer. That’s what we did.
Article sponsored by Tourism Authority of Thailand.
Images by Fat Mango Studios, unless otherwise noted.