View of Shark Bay, on the island's
(also often Koh Tao
lit. "Turtle Island") is an island in Thailand located near
the eastern shore of the Gulf of Thailand.
It covers an area of about 21 km².
Administratively it forms a tambon within the district (Amphoe) Ko Pha Ngan of Surat Thani Province.
As of 2006 its official population number
is 1382. The main settlement is Ban Mae Hat.
The economy of the island is almost exclusively centered around
tourism, especially scuba diving
Ko Tao was named by its first settlers for the island's turtle-like
geographic shape. Coincidentally, the island is an important
breeding ground for Hawksbill
and Green turtles
Development of tourism has negatively impacted the health of these
grounds but a breeding program organised in 2004 by the Royal Thai
Navy and KT-DOC, a coalition of local scuba diving centres has
reintroduced hundreds of juvenile turtles to the island's
Initially the island was not inhabited, there was only the
occasional fisherman from the neighboring islands, looking for
shelter in a storm or just taking a break before continuing his
It would appear from old maps (1600-1850) and descriptions that
this island was known by European cartographers and mariners as
"Pulo Bardia". The best example is a map by John Thornton dated
1685. Page 383 of 'The Edinburgh Gazetteer, or Geographical
Dictionary' (1822) also mentions the island and provides a
geographical position. In his book titled "Narrative of a residence
at the capital of the Kingdom of Siam" by Frederick Arthur Neale
(1852 p. 120) he describes the people and wildlife of Bardia.
According to the account there were farms and even cows in a
village on the bay lying to the west side of the island - (probably
Sairee?). The book includes a fanciful illustration of 'Bardia'
showing huts and palm trees.
On June 18, 1899 King Chulalongkorn
visited Ko Tao and left as evidence his monogram on a huge boulder
at Jor Por Ror bay next to Sairee Beach. This place is still
In 1933 the island started to be used as a political prison. In
1947 Khuang Abhaiwongse
minister at that time, pleaded and received a royal pardon for all
prisoners on the island. Everybody was taken to the shore of Surat
Thani and Ko Tao was abandoned again.
In the same year Khun Uaem and his brother Khun Oh reached Ko Tao
from the neighboring Ko Phangan by trying out their traditional
sail boat, for that time a quite long and dangerous journey. Even
though the island was still under royal patronage, it did not stop
these pioneers claiming themselves a good part of the land on
today's Sairee beach. Having brought their families over, they
began to cultivate and harvest the excellent soil, forming the
first generation of the present-day community. They lived a simple
and tough life harvesting coconuts, fishing and growing vegetables,
which were also traded with Ko Phangan. Despite the difficulties in
reaching the island, the population grew steadily.
In the 1980s the first travelers discovered Ko Tao and their
special backpacker network quickly made it widely known and a
popular destination. As a consequence, bigger, faster and safer
boats were used to allow easier access to Ko Tao. In the 1990s the
island finally became known as a diving site.
The island is well known for scuba
and snorkeling, and also offers some hiking. The most
popular place for tourists is Sairee on the West coast, which has a
white sandy beach of 1.7 km interrupted only by a few huge
and a scattering of medium budget
resorts and restaurants. Chalok Baan Khao, to the south of the
island is becoming increasingly popular as an alternative for those
wishing to escape the crowds. A multitude of beautiful granite
boulders, which nestle both in the forests and on the beaches of Ko
Tao, attract a growing number of climbers who visit each year to
enjoy the adventurous aspect of their sport.
Ko Tao is
less developed than Ko
Samui and Ko Pha
Ngan, but has become increasingly popular especially
with the mid-20's backpacker crowd in search of relatively
inexpensive scuba diving certification.
As of December 2005, Ko Tao had about 150 resorts offering
accommodation and approximately 50 bars/clubs. Most of the resorts
are still bungalow-style, not hotel/resort style. As of 2007 there
is a trend to more upmarket resorts which do not concentrate
singularly on diving. Free WiFi is provided in increasing numbers
and even the first sailing
on Ko Tao has opened.
Ko Tao is increasingly becoming a mecca for game fishermen on a
budget. Species targeted include marlin, sailfish, king mackerel,
cobia, baracuda, trevally and snapper.
Diving conditions have deteriorated tremendously over time because
of large crowds of divers and the uncontrolled environmental
development of the island. There are no plans to build a
much-needed treatment plant; at the dive spot Mango Bay people come
into direct contact with effluent disposal.
The main street at Ko Tao.
With few exceptions, almost all roads on Ko Tao are dirt roads and
generally are in poor shape. However, new roads are being paved at
a quick rate. 95% of all traffic on the island is motorbike, with
mopeds and dirt bikes being the main mode of transport. Motor bike
accidents are the most common injury on the island. Poor roads,
sand, reckless taxi drivers and drunkenness are all a factor.
Ko Tao is
serviced by ferry services from Surat Thani (4 hours day boat, 9 hours on overnight boat),
Chumphon (1.5 to 3
Samui (approx 2.5 hours) and Ko Pha Ngan (approx 1 hour).
All ferries dock at Ban Mae
Haad. Journey times vary due to the different boats used by the
various ferry companies. Ticket prices are almost the same for all
companies, however, the boats themselves differ greatly. The two
main ferries are Lomprayah and Songserm, with Seatran also offering
services between the islands and mainland. Lomprayah offer the
quickest service on the newest boats, and also have VIP lounges
where passengers can watch movies in an air conditioned lounge. In
contrast, Songserm is a no-frills point to point fast ferry, where
most passengers disembark slightly more green in the face than when
Ko Tao has no airport, so anyone wishing to fly would need to fly
to Koh Samui and then transfer over on a ferry. Flights to Samui
are operated by Bangkok Air and Thai Air only. Another option for
flying down from Bangkok is to fly to Surat Thani, and then catch
the boat over after a bus ride of 2 hours to the ferry terminal
from the airport. Flights to Surat Thani are much cheaper than
flights to Samui, and budget airlines such as Air Asia (and
previously Fly-1-2-go who currently aren't flying) service the
airport from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Krabi and Phuket. A flight form
Bangkok costs around £30 one way, and a ferry from Surat Thani
costs around £5 including coach transfers.
Train services are available from Bangkok down to Chumphon where
travellers can then catch a ferry. A first class ticket on an
overnight train will cost around £20. Second class tickets are a
little cheaper at around £16, passengers do not have the luxury of
their own private cabin in second class, however, beds do pull down
and once the party is over it is possible to have a good nights