After a month of traveling through Vietnam, we were now headed to our next destination: Thailand. We flew into Bangkok and headed straight to the island Ko Tao for some scuba diving. A few travelers we had met over the past months told us about the cheap and good diving on Ko Tao, and some were lucky enough to see whale sharks. We wanted to see them as well, having just missed one when we visited Mozambique, and after learning that Ko Tao is another likely spot to see them, we were set on going.
Ko Tao is a small island in the Gulf of Thailand, far south of Bangkok and east of Chumphon. There is no airport on Ko Tao, so the only way to get there is by boat. There are various ways of getting there from Bangkok: fly to Ko Samui, a neighboring island, or to Chumphon on the mainland and then take a fast ferry from there are the fastest ways. We couldn’t find any cheap flights for the dates we wanted to go, so we decided to take a bus from Bangkok. We had read online that during high season boats and buses are often fully booked, so it’s recommended to book in advance. In our case it would have been fine to buy our tickets once we had arrived, as it was cheaper and the buses weren’t full. The bus trip to the ferry terminal in Don Sak ended up taking about 12 hours plus another 5 on the fast ferry, which stopped in Ko Samui and Ko Phangnan first, before finally arriving at Ko Tao.
The cab ride from the ferry terminal on Ko Tao to Chalok, 3km away, was an expensive $9 and all of the cabs had identical pricing. We were visiting in high season, so accommodation wasn’t cheap either. We ended up paying $20 per night for our room, which was more than double what we had gotten used to paying in Vietnam and Indonesia. Since we only went to Ko Tao for diving, we headed out to find a dive school that would take us out on fun dives the next day.
The first three dive schools we spoke with all seemed indifferent to us diving with them, and couldn’t tell us where they would dive the next day. “Don’t worry about where we’ll go, it’ll be good. We usually don’t choose until the morning of the dives,” we were told over and over. We were pretty surprised by that, especially because with over 80 dive schools on Ko Tao, we thought they would try a bit harder to accommodate potential customers. We had hoped to be able to go to Chumphon Pinnacle or Sail Rock, the two sites where whale shark encounters were the most likely. After asking around a bit more, we ended up signing up with Pura Vida Diving, a Spanish speaking school near our hotel. Since we ended up doing four fun dives with them in total, we got a small discount and paid $22 per dive per person including gear.
At 6am the next morning we were picked up in front of the dive shop and driven down to the pier. The shop where we had booked our dives wasn’t the schools main shop, and they had somehow forgotten to communicate what gear we needed on the boat. There wasn’t anything ready for us at the boat and the dive master who was going to dive with us had to run back to the school to get the gear. The whole situation on the boat seemed to be pretty disorganized. Nobody showed us around or was interested in giving any kind of briefing. Our dive master finally came back with the right gear and seemed nice enough but also didn’t brief us or tell us anything about the dive sites. At least we learned the names of the dive sites we’d be going to, Shark Island and Hin Ngam. There had been pretty bad storms and flooding in south Thailand a week before we arrived, including on Ko Tao, so we learned that the visibility would probably not be very good.
The first dive ended up being pretty good, even though the visibility was only five meters at best. The corals were beautiful and we ended up seeing a spotted eagle ray, moray eels, butterfly fish, and big groupers. Our dive master almost swam into a box jellyfish, but luckily spotted it at the last minute, as it probably would have been a very painful and dangerous encounter.
After a short break on the boat, we were ready for the second dive at Hin Ngam. The dive site was a shallow 11 meters where we swam around and through an odd artificial reef. Large metal cubes were the artificial reef, however not a lot seemed to be growing on them or living nearby. We swam through a few cubes and ascended after 45 minutes. Our divemaster told us he didn’t think the reef was doing much good either, but it was an interesting site for the oddity of it.
After the morning was done we found we were a bit taken aback by the lack of professionalism with Pura Vida Diving. They didn’t know where they were diving the next day, so we decided to try another school for our next dives. After some asking around in different shops near the main pier, we decided to go with Roctopus, one of the bigger dive schools on the island. The fun dives were a little more expensive ($25 per dive), but they assured us they would be going to Chumphon Pinnacles for a dive. Another drawback of going with them was that we had to rent a scooter to get to the pier in the morning as they didn’t offer a pickup from the place we were staying. The prospect of heading to one of the best dive sites off Ko Tao justified the inconvenience and extra cost.
Our second day scuba diving started off better as Roctopus seemed to be more organized and concerned about giving us a briefing of the dive sites and the marine life we could expect to see. The first dive site, Chumphon Pinnacles, ended up being as good as we could hope for, except that we didn’t get lucky and see a whale shark. The site itself was pretty impressive, featuring a massive rock pinnacle just below the surface and tons of beautiful coral. We saw tons of fish, including big schools of barracudas, huge groupers, and different types of sweetlips. The visibility also was a lot better at this dive spot than the ones we had been the day before.
Our second dive site was closer to the shores of Ko Tao, where we’d visit an old navy ship wreck. The ship was a US Navy boat used in World War 2, which was later purchased by the Thai Navy. It was decommissioned in 2011 and sunk in order to provide an artificial reef and dive site. Unfortunately as soon as we jumped into the ocean and descended, the visibility took a turn for the worse. We could only see a meter or two ahead of us, so our dive master had some trouble finding the wreck. After we swam around for almost 15 minutes, she finally found the ship and in we went. Even with the visibility being almost zero, the site was still amazing. The ship sits at 30 meters deep and is large with a giant cannon on the front tip. We swam around the wreck and through a watch tower for another 10 minutes before we surfaced again. We ended up pretty happy with the dives on our second day on Ko Tao.
For our last day on the island, we ended up diving with Pura Vida Diving again as it simply was cheaper and provided transport to the pier for us. Sadly, the school didn’t head out to any of the better dive sites around Ko Tao and we ended up diving at a coral reef near the wreck we had been to the day before. The visibility hadn’t improved overnight, so the first dive of the day turned out to be very disappointing. The second dive at a site called White Rock luckily turned out to be much better. The visibility was five to ten meters and we spotted beautiful corals and a few big groupers.
Overall the scuba diving on Ko Tao may be worth taking the long trip there, especially if the visibility is good. A chance to see whale sharks is another great reason to visit, even though we didn’t see any on our short trip. A lot of people say it’s the cheapest diving in the world, which is inaccurate since our dives in Hurghada, Egypt were significantly less, but Ko Tao is definitely a good value. Due to the storm before our visit we also weren’t able to go to the best dive site near Koh Tao – Sail Rock. It’s actually better to visit Sail Rock from Ko Phangan since it’s closer than Ko Tao and trips are made daily. Since Ko Tao caters almost exclusively to first time divers, we were constantly treated as though we were new as well. Despite having 60 dives, we were told how to properly choose a wet suit, told not to worry about what dive sites we’d visit, and had basics that we’d learned years prior reiterated to no end. Open Water courses from $220 are a good deal, especially because some include accommodation in the price, but it’s only marginally less than many other easier to access and more enjoyable dive sites.
Almost everything in Koh Tao is about scuba diving, so we struggled a bit to find other activities to do on the island. Most schools do fun dives just after sunrise and return around 11am each morning, leaving the bulk of the day open. We read about a few viewpoints that we could hike to, but the walks were relatively short and required an entry fee be paid, making them pretty unappealing. We ended up at High Cafe, which is up a steep hillside with a decent view of the island, and paid pretty inflated prices for a few drinks while others smoked their restaurant ordered joints.
We ended our trip to Koh Tao with mixed feelings, the diving had been good aside from the poor visibility, but the atmosphere at the dive schools just wasn’t for us and island didn’t seem to have to offer much else to do. Our next stop in Thailand would be on the Andaman Sea side of the country, where we’d get to see gorgeous karst cliffs and islands!