Travel writer: Melissa Foo
We are spoilt for choice when it comes to holiday destinations within South East Asia. Depending on your preference, an ideal holiday could be exploring a city on foot, diving 20 metres into the ocean observing marine life, reading a book in an obscure café, trekking through mountain ranges to catch the sunrise, or any combination of leisure or adventure-based activities.
Deciding on what you want for a holiday is the first step to planning a memorable trip. After all, there’s no harm in making sure we get our return on investment when it comes to travel.
This time around, we wanted an island getaway – one that includes a lot of snorkelling, swimming in the sea, local cuisine and a private villa which is easily accessible yet tucked away from tourist attractions.
Before deciding on Koh Tao, we also considered Railay Beach, Koh Phangan and Phuket. I narrowed down a couple of villas (via Airbnb) among the 4 locations and used an Excel spreadsheet to carry out a cost comparison covering all transportation costs (flight, airport transfers, ferry), accommodation and general expenses per day.
We decided on Koh Tao because of the following reasons:
- There was a full moon or half moon party in Koh Phangan during our travel period (21 Dec – 22 Dec 2015). We would’ve chosen Koh Phangan if we were up for partying, but not this time.
- Phuket has plenty of beautiful private villas but we’d have to travel to nearby islands like Koh Phi Phi (which we’ve already been to) for a proper white-sand beach. Furthermore, the nightlife in Phuket is similar to Koh Phangan due to the December peak period.
- Railay Beach was supposedly a quieter and more secluded beach on Krabi, but we couldn’t find a reasonably priced villa – I recall Airbnb had a really beautiful beachside villa on Railay but it was about RM 5,000 per night.
Koh Tao was the most difficult to get to among the 4 options but we wanted some place relatively quiet and unspoiled to explore the island without having to deal with tourist crowds. There were 2 options for traveling to Koh Tao:
- Flight to Surat Thani > average 6-hour ferry ride to Koh Tao
- Flight to Koh Samui > average 2-hour ferry ride to Koh Tao
Flying to Koh Samui is more expensive than flying to Surat Thani as there is only one direct flight out of KL to Koh Samui via Firefly versus several flights to Surat Thani with the cheapest being AirAsia. We went with Firefly as it had the shortest travel time.
Our 2-bedroom villa – Coral House cost us RM900 a night which is good for 6 pax (although there were only 4 of us). Here are some tips when selecting your accommodation on Airbnb:
- Do not skip the reviews. They reveal important information such as additional costs the host might not include in the listing, location and accessibility, accuracy of listing and photos/images, cleanliness, etc.
- Number of reviews – this will indicate if the listing is new or popular with travelers. The more reviews, the better.
- Check if the host has other listings and if all their ID details (email, phone number, etc.) have been verified by Airbnb. An added bonus would be if the host happens to be rated as a ‘Superhost’ by Airbnb.
Coral House is about 5 minutes away from the pier by taxi and 10 minutes from the main town by foot. The villa was spacious, clean and had everything that we needed and more. The host also offers Thai cooking classes, catering for private parties/events and Thai massage services at the villa’s rooftop sun deck.
If you read Trip Advisor/Wikipedia reviews on bike rental in Koh Tao, foreigners will warn you to be extra cautious of the locals overcharging you upon returning the bike due to scratches/dents that they ‘claim’ are new. For this reason, it’s common practice for the locals to request that you take photographs of the bike prior to renting it. The bike rental process was straightforward and we didn’t face any issues.
Note that they will require you to leave your passports with them and pay a 1000 THB deposit. Renting a bike is possibly the best way to explore Koh Tao as the roads are narrow, winding and hilly, so exploring by foot would mean seeing only a small part of the island.
Head up north to Taa Then Bay and check out Dusit Buncha resort on Sairee Beach, which has an amazing view of the sea. It looks like a pagoda-like structure on top of a rock and has a dedicated wooden pathway leading from the restaurant.
There are plenty of stalls along Sairee beach selling food, souvenirs, clothing, and accessories. The main stretch of Sairee beach consists of pubs, bars and restaurant; definitely the place to be if you’re looking for a good night out in Koh Tao.
We went to a nearby island called Koh Nang Yuan via speedboat, which reminded me of a bigger version of Maya Bay (where they filmed ‘The Beach“) but with clearer and more pristine waters. There were plenty of snorkeling spots to choose from but most of the corals were dead in the shallower areas. One other thing to note – you need to pay 100 THB for a spot (and an accompanying parasol) on the beach.
Take a hike up the lookout point which is said to have the best view of Koh Tao; like the numerous postcards and Google images you so often see. Once we got back to the main island, our next destination was Aow Leuk Bay. We could not snorkel much but it was a great place to swim and enjoy the sea. There are also a few bars nearby for sunset watching with some cocktails and light snacks.
The local street food outside a 7-11 on the way to Sairee beach was by far, the most memorable meal of the trip. It was truly an authentic experience to sit by the roadside on a mat that the stall owner so kindly offered us. Try the charcoal-barbequed skewered pork chops and Som Tum (papaya salad) which comes with fermented crab sauce, dried shrimps, raw cabbage and kangkung on the side.
Freedom Beach was another snorkeling spot we went to; a relatively small but secluded beach we wished we discovered sooner. Unfortunately, it started raining 15 minutes into our snorkeling session so we had to rush back to the villa.
From that point onwards, the rain did not stop until the next morning, much to our dismay. Thankfully, we still managed to enjoy the villa and ordered in from our host’s restaurant one last time, as the rain was too heavy to ride back out into town.
Although we knew that there would be extra charges for utilities (electricity and water), we did not expect the charges to come up to 1000+ THB. Travellers to Koh Tao should be aware that most private accommodations charge additional for utilities as water is scarce and electricity is expensive. It is not a ploy to charge more, but it always pays to do some research before deciding on the accommodation to avoid any last minute nasty surprises.
Overall, Koh Tao was very enjoyable and if we could do it again, the only thing we would change is to visit the island before or after the monsoon period. We paid approximately RM3,000 per person for this trip but you can easily enjoy Koh Tao on a lower budget minus the villa and if you are travelling via Surat Thani.
Definitely worth checking out within the next few years before it becomes commercialised and touristy.
Melissa Foo is a glorified Quality Assurance Manager with a not-so-enviable 9-5 job, who still dreams of being an urbanite once in a while. She kills her time experimenting in the kitchen, inconsistently practicing yoga, and discovering obscure movies. Occasionally, she and her husband travel for leisure to make up for lost time in the future (when life gets more serious and you wish you had travelled more).
P/S: She is also a walking Shazam.
Find her on Instagram @mellymellyfoo