From Bangkok, we took a sleeper train south down to Chumphon. From there we took a bus to the pier and a ferry out to the island of Koh Tao. Koh Tao belongs to a set of three islands in the Gulf of Thailand that are very popular tourist destinations. There is Koh Tao (where we went) which is the smallest of the three and is known for its diving. It’s probably the cheapest place in the world to get your diving certification. Koh Pha Ngan is the next biggest and is known for its full moon parties. More on this later. Koh Samui is the biggest. From what we’ve heard, it’s aimed more towards higher end tourism and maybe appeals more to families? It was never on our radar to visit.
If you don’t want to read all our thoughts on Koh Tao, feel free to just watch this video with snippets. =)
Now, on to the details.
Taco Shack Hostel. This hostel had amazing reviews, and it was fine.. just not amazing.
- It only has bunk dorm rooms (meaning Sam and I stayed in separate bunk beds along with 10 other people in one room). That was totally fine and what we expected. The dorm room also had air conditioning which was amazing.
- The bathroom facilities were all outside which was interesting. Basically, if you exit the bunk room, you are outside on the second floor of a building. You can look down to see a bunch of outside tables below and to the street beyond that. You walk about 10 feet, and you get to two outside sinks where you would brush your teeth and what not. You take a left and there are two toilet rooms (with doors) and four showers with curtains, but it is all open to the outdoors. There is a ceiling but only three walls, if that makes sense. We rolled with it.. island style is a bit more laid back, and that’s fine.
- The hostel is also a bar and restaurant. It made it a little bit weirder to just unload your stuff in the common area and catch up on blogging or whatever like we could do at the first hostel. Especially in the evening, when the party scene started up a bit.
- The WiFi was super unreliable. Maybe this is an island thing? However, I woke up around 6am each day, and I never had a problem then. I don’t know if the WiFi couldn’t support all the folks in the hostel or if there was some broader issue like way fewer people on the entire island use internet in the early morning.
Overall, I think the hostel was fine. They enforced quiet hours after 10pm, and most of our bunk mates were respectful of our super lame bed times. I think it was a learning opportunity for us that we may not be suited for hostels on islands where partying at night is more of a norm.
- Breakfast. Our hostel didn’t include breakfast, so we were on our own each morning for this. There were many places selling “western” breakfasts including eggs and toast and such but of course at a premium price. We indulged. Breakfast was usually our most expensive meal of the day, mainly because Sam usually got a coffee and I got some sort of beverage. Most other meals, we just drink water.
- Lunch. The island is a bit more expensive in general, so we bought a loaf of bread and some peanut butter for budget friendly lunches. We also supplemented this with snacks from 7/11 and street vendors selling shakes and fruit.
- Dinner. More street food (or non-western restaurants). At least one of us got pad thai each day – we are still searching for the best! We also tried some curries, more noodle bowls (including the most delicious chicken leg ever), and fried rice.
- Food prices were probably about 30% to 50% higher than in Bangkok. This is mostly for street food and water, as we aren’t as familiar with restaurant prices.
- Favorite places: Coconut Monkey (we got this on the way out of town. Western food, but delicious coffee and snacks), noodle stand in front of Umpah Mart, Yang Restaurant, Zest Coffee House and Cappuccino.
- Walked. We continued to walk a lot. Partially because we are on a budget and partially because we think it’s a better way to see the town. Let me tell you though, that island is one hilly son of a biscuit. And they do NOT believe in switchbacks. Roads just go straight up these crazy inclines. I melted more than a few times.
- Slept. We were the lamest people in the hostel. I think the first night we went to bed around 8pm. Each night was a little bit better (probably 9:30pm and 10:30pm for the last two nights), but we were definitely the first ones out of the hostel each morning. I never thought I’d be regularly getting up at 6am. Who have I become?!
- Beached. We beached all over that island.
- Aow Leuk Bay. This was a very nice beach with a few resorts nearby. The bottom of the water was nice sand out for quite a ways. The only complaint is that there isn’t a whole lot of shade.
- Gul Juea Beach. This is where we rented our kayak. It’s a very small beach by some resorts. I don’t know if I’d go out of my way, but if you are in the area, it’s nice and low key.
- Jan Som Bay (by Charm Churee Villa). This beach was a nice size, not too crowded, and had decent shade. However, the nice sand didn’t go out very far into the water.
- Thian Og Bay (Shark Bay). There are a ton of resorts here. The public area from the water edge to the resort properties is very narrow. However, the shade was nice, and the water was very shallow for a long ways (with nice sand).
- Mae Haad Bay. We hung out here on our last day waiting for our overnight ferry. There were several bars and such, but not a ton of people. It was a fine beach area in a pinch.
- Kayaked. We had initially wanted to kayak around the whole island. We realized how ambitious that was after we were about 20% done with the island. I think we could have done it, but it would have been a lot of work and somewhat stressful (because the water was quite choppy (for me) in some areas). We got in a good 4-5 mile kayak trip and were able to stop at a cool beach. There were very, very few kayakers out that we saw. I was somewhat disappointed in that. I guess everyone was out diving!
- Ran. See below.
We went on two runs while on the island – one road and one trail.
- Road run. For the road run, we ran on the main drag through down the spans almost the whole island from north to south. We veered off to some other roads too, but you could easily get your whole run by going back and forth on the main road (but maybe avoiding doing the section by the pier multiple times, as it’s busy). I would advise going early, before it gets too hot or too crazy busy. We saw a few other runners too. Definitely a doable run. Not flat though.. there are some nice rollers!
- Trail run. The trail run was an adventure! We ran to “Two View” point, and then kept going up to the highest point that you could (the second highest point of the island) that leads up above the reservoir. Once you hit the “Two View”, keep going up! It’s only a bit longer, and you won’t regret it.
- Run (or at least hike) to one of the lookout points. It was a lot of fun and completely deserted. We didn’t see a single person hiking. The viewpoint is well worth the effort, partially because of the view itself, and partially because you will likely get to experience it without a bunch of other tourists.
- Eat the street food! As previously mentioned, things were quite a bit more expensive on the island compared to the mainland. We were able to save ~100 baht (~$3) on every meal (which is a lot in a daily budget of $50!) when we ate on the street rather than in a touristy restaurant. If street food isn’t your thing, the local Thai restaurants are MUCH cheaper than the western-style restaurants. Plus, it’s better to experience the culture through eating legit Thai food, and it’s delicious!!!
- Staying in Mae Head Village. Prior to arriving in Koh Tao, I had read that the Sai Ree Beach area is known as a party area with Mae Head and the southern portion being less so. The Mae Head Village area was a bit high on the party spectrum for us. We walked through the southern part of the island and it seemed to have an even chiller vibe that probably would have suited us better.
- Quick dry towels as beach towels. In my opinion, quick try towels make for terrible beach towels. As such, I would recommend staying somewhere that has full size towels or check out beaches where upon buying a drink you can sit in a lounge chair (or bring a big scarf). This is more for other backpackers. By the end of our stay in Koh Tao I was using my huge scarf as a beach towel. Turns out it works quite well!
- The terrifying creatures have emerged. We saw a HUGE spider on our kayak. It was the biggest spider Sam and I had ever seen (up until that point.. foreshadowing..). It was about the size of my closed fist. Sam valiantly saved my life by bashing it to bits with his Teva. Usually I am one to save spiders, but there weren’t a lot of choices in a kayak in the middle of the ocean with a spider that was potentially poisonous (Turns out, it isn’t. But I was pretty sure it was the most deadly spider in the world for a good 45 seconds there).
- Be prepared for lots of tourists. Koh Tao is quite touristy. If you like to be around fewer tourists, there are still plenty of places on the island to go. You just have to get off the beaten bath.
- First change of plans. We had our first change of plans in Koh Tao. We had planned to go to Koh Pha Ngan after Koh Tao; however, we realized that we would be experiencing the island during its full moon party. As much as I wanted to go to a bunch of beach parties with 30,000 other wasted tourists (many of whom may be on several substances other than alcohol), Sam and I decided to change our plans and head back to the mainland. If you want to get a taste of what a full moon party is, you can Google it and look at some of the images. Our new destination would be the western coast of south Thailand. We are lame, but at least we own it!