Friday, May 30, 2008

Koh Tao : Tao Island

The most famous southern province in the Gulf of Thailand, Surat Thani has several world famous islands under its territory; namely Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Ang Thong archipelagos, Koh Tao and Koh Nang Yuan. The last two are best known among intrepid travellers as the best dive site in the gulf of Thailand.

Located around 120 kilometres from the Surat Thani coast, Koh Tao and neighbouring Koh Nang Yuan, occupy an area of almost 18 square kilometers. With mountains and rocky cliffs accounting for 70% of its land area, the island has eight kilometers of coral reefs around its coast. The island’s half-moon-shaped western coast is where most of the beaches are found.

Dotted in and around Koh Tao’s 11 bays and 10 rocky headlands are many, picturesque beaches: some long and sandy like Had Sai Ree, Had Mai Had, Chaloke Ban Kao Bay; others with smaller, rockier beaches.

Acclaimed to be the best dive location in the Gulf of Thailand, tourists tend to make diving their first priority as soon as they arrive on Koh Tao. It’s not surprising therefore that each year Koh Tao’s dive school turns out a number of proficient divers from around the world.

If you are looking for an alternative to diving, you might enjoy exploring the island, and swimming from its many beaches, or kayaking, or climbing hills to check out the vistas from numerous viewpoints. Alternatively, you can take a tour to its nearby islands of Nang Yuan, which is only 15 minute away by local boats.

Getting to Koh Tao

Despite being part of Surat Thani Province, it’s more convenient and faster to go to Koh Tao from Chumphon Province. The island is only one hour ride on a high-speed catamaran from Ao Makham Noi Pier in Chumphon - a speed boat from Koh Samui takes you around 3 hours to get to Koh Tao. Nowadays, more travelers choose Chumphon as their starting-off point.

Beaches on Koh Tao

Western Beaches
Koh Tao’s west coast is the focal point for transportation, the site of the main port of Had Mae Had, and where to find accommodation, restaurants, shops, bars, access to the Internet, and road links to all other parts of the island. This is the jumping-off point to visit all the other beaches on Koh Tao.

West coast beaches are the most popular among visitors, especially Had Sai Ree and Had Mae Had where there is greater activity than on the other, smaller and quieter western beaches; however all are great vantage points from which to watch spectacular sunsets.

There is a choice of different styles of accommodation on the west coat of Koh Tao, ranging from inexpensive cottages to fully furnished lodging houses, along the beachfront and on hillsides.

Mae Had Beach (Had Mae Had)
Situated on the western side of Koh Tao, Had Mae Had is the first point of contact on the island, and Koh Tao’s “front gate”. The beach area is the center of transportation for traveling around the entire island offering taxi-buses, rental cars, speedboats and motor launches for diving, fishing or crossing to the neighboring island of Koh Nang Yuan.

As the island’s focal point, Had Mae Had has all the facilities sought by tourists including variously priced accommodation, restaurants, shops, banks, Internet service, pubs, bars, and gas stations.

Although a port, Had Mae Had is still a fair spot for swimming, with its one-kilometer beach of yellowy-red sand. But with much of the area covered in resorts and restaurants, beach space is at a premium. At the southern end of the beach, there is a strange looking pile of rocks from where visitors can walk to Ao Ta Saeng.

This beach is a favorite spot with tourists who stroll around till sunset and then explore the shops and bars and absorb the lively, nighttime atmosphere. There is ample accommodation lined up from the port to the southern end of the beach.

Sai Ree Beach (Had Sai Ree)
Sai Ree Beach or Had Sai Ree is on the west coast, north of Had Mae Had. At two kilometers in length, Had Sai Ree is Koh Tao’s longest beach, separated from Had Mae Had by a rocky escarpment. Its red-brown sandy beach, which enjoys shaded spots from coconut trees and pine trees, is suitable and safe for swimming and sunbathing. Although this long beach attracts more visitors than others, there is no sense of overcrowding.

The hills behind Had Sai Ree contain a number of interesting viewing points. The hills aren’t steep, but visitors should take along a skilful and experienced driver.

Tourists can go by motorcycle or catch a taxi-bus from Had Mae Had to Had Sai Ree, which is about two kilometers away after a left turn to go north, at Had Mae Had junction. Visitors who rent motorcycles should take the beach route to Had Sai Ree to absorb the nature and beautiful scenery.

Yai Nee Cape (Laem Yai Nee)
Located on the northwest coast north of Had Sai Ree, Laem Yai Nee is an excellent location from which to view sunsets because the sun goes down right between the sandbars joining the three islets that make up Koh Nang Yuan. For the most spectacular results, go there between March and April.

On the way to Laem Yai Nee there’s a small beach called Ao Ta Sak where visitors can walk on the beach or take a swim. Nearby Ao Ta Ten does not have a beach and is accessible only by boat.

Chan Som Bay (Ao Chan Som)
Ao Chan Som is on the western side of Koh Tao, south of Had Mae Had. It is a small bay accessible only on foot or by boat. It’s possible to catch a glimpse of many species of wild animals along the path leading to the seaside, at the end of which is a white, sandy beach suitable for swimming and snorkeling. There are also excellent viewpoints looking over the whole bay.

Jutting out into the sea is a raft-house built by the owners of the a cottage resort for guests to relax or sunbathe, with a restaurant and drinks stand on the beach. Non-guests of the cottage are welcome to use this private beach by purchasing a 100-baht coupon for snacks, drinks and a sun bed.

Ma Muang Bay (Ao Ma Muang)
Accessible by motorboat only, Ao Ma Muang is on the north coast of Koh Tao. It is the most popular spot of the north of the island even though it is difficult to reach. The coral reefs at this spot are worthy of attention, so it’s not surprising that boatloads of divers congregate at that beach everyday.

More than just coral reefs, Ao Ma Muang has an excellent sandy beach with long stretches suitable for swimming and sunbathing. Tourists can also get across to Laem Nam Tok (waterfall cape) on the northwestern tip of Koh Tao close to the neighboring island of Koh Nang Yuan, to see the stream of water that runs from the hills down to the sea.

Hin Wong Bay (Ao Hin Wong)
The scenic bay on the east of Koh Tao. Ao Hin Wong has a rocky beach with a headland at the southern end protecting a picturesque cove. Tourists are drawn to this beach by the colorful coral reefs, second only to those at Ao Ma Muang. It’s also a place where giant clams are found. The hill to the north of the beach is an excellent viewing point to take in the entire beach and to watch the sun rise in the east.

Most accommodations on this bay are dotted along the hillside, so guests are among wonderful scenery the whole of the time.

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