This is a quick overview about Koh Tao outdoor activities with logistical requirements and facts (accommodation & gear rentals) as well as links to photos and videos. This is a self-guided fun experience on a shoestring. Follow the links to dig deeper into the article.
Walking, Scootering, and Hiking Koh Tao
For me, Thailand started with a typical on-foot border crossing as our mini-van driver busied himself with all the duty free contraband he had obtained with our passports. I couldn’t complain about his entrepreneurial efforts though. He was just taking advantage of the daily opportunity while I was taking advantage of the cheap transportation. It was a win-win, so to speak. It wasn’t a win-win with the visa processing official though. It turned out that the rules had changed for land entry into Thailand. As of November 2008, land entry visas are limited to 15 days rather than 30. It certainly makes seeing Thailand a bit of a squeeze. I complained but it didn’t do me much good so I got back into the heavily loaded (cigarettes and alcohol) mini-van for the continuation of the ride to the Thai non-descript town of Hat Yai.
It was raining cats and dogs outside, as it had been for my time in Malaysia and Indonesia. Fortunately our driver was in an expansive mood as he drove at break-neck speed through the countryside and small villages. The day had started in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands on a 9am bus to Georgetown. Then at 3:15pm I switch to a mini-van heading to Thailand. By 7pm that evening I was dropped off at the door of the Cathay Guest House in Hat Yai. The place was a classic dump, but for only 200 Bt per night ($6), with attached bathroom, it was deemed acceptable. I went out for a quick bite and then retired for the night as the rain continued to fall.
The next morning I literally flipped a coin to pick my next destination. It turned out to be the island of Koh Tao via Surat Thani (a 250 Bt, 6 hour mini-bus ride north and then a 550 Bt night-ferry ride to the island). That day, like the previous, was a blur of transportation and rainy weather, while in contrast the night ferry was a comfortable night with rolling dreams.
Total Cost Range of this Activity is: $
|Beach Bungalow (basement unit, way off beach)
with shared outside toilet/shower, 7 nights
Ferry to/from island ($15 x 2)
Meals (7 days)
Scooter Rental ($6 per day)
Link to Motorbike Ride from Chang Mai to Myanmar Post
Link to Scooter Ride around Pai post
Link to Scooter Ride around Chang Mai post
Link to Cycling in Bangkok post
I arrived at the main port of Koh Tao at 7 am the next morning. The air was clear, the sun was finally shining, and the guesthouse/taxi drivers were low-key and laid back. I settled on a ride to Freedom Beach for a 250 Bt per night bungalow. I was under the impression that the room was a done deal, but in reality we were just inquiring and my driver was just that, a driver, and not a member of the establishment. The promised rooms were 500 Bt per night and booked. Once I sorted out these details we spent the next hour driving around the island and inquiring after a room. The driver eventually confided that there really were very few standard rooms left on the island and that about 5 years ago (after the tsunami) regular (non-backpacker) tourists started showing up and demanding better rooms and were willing to pay much more for them. As a result a building boom started, most bungalows were upgraded and new resorts were under constant construction. The island was no longer the cheap backpacker spot it used to be. Yet eventually we found that the Save Bungalows (on Mae Head Bay) did have a few 200 Bt bungalows available (with shared bathroom). These are basically basement rooms under the 400 Bt upper main floor. I didn’t mind being a second-class citizen as long as I saved money, so accepted the room near the back of the establishment. The location was ideal since it was in the heart of the main village area, rather than in one of the many remote resorts that keep you as a prisoner of their restaurant and facilities.
I didn’t have a plan for the island nor did it seem that the island had a specific outdoor adventure, rather the island offered lots of outdoor holiday activities. I decided I would try my hand at a number of them and see how it panned out.
Walking the Island
The next morning I decided that one objective should be to visit as many of the local beaches as possible. About mid-morning I set out on foot with snorkeling gear and a bottle of Pepsi. I started by walking out to the main north-south road and turned to the southwest. The sun was blazing and the scooters were buzzing. I continued south until the first dirt track cut to the west, towards Sai Nuan Bay. The road started up a serious inclines and then turned into a pitted sand track that slowly wound its way to a rise with a number of mobile phone towers, then began a steep drop back to the south coast. As I descended lazily I heard a rustling in one of the palm trees followed by coconuts dropping one after another. I stopped and looked closer. To my surprise a monkey stopped and looked back at me. I then noticed a long rope attached to a collar. I followed the rope as it stretched off to a side where a friendly native stood patiently smoking a cigarette. We waved to each other and then the monkey continued twisting coconuts off the tree. I watched for about 30 minutes as the monkey methodically worked his way from tree to tree. By this time I was baked and in need of a swim. I waved bye to the monkey owner and continued down the steep track towards Sai Nuan Bay where I found a number of lovely golden beaches and clustered bungalow resorts hugging the cliffs.
I swam and snorkeled for a while and then continued to make my way from beach to beach, using a narrow jungle trail that followed the coastline (Sai Nuan Beach, Cape Hin Saam Gone, Three Rocks, and Jansom Bay) back to Mae Head Bay where I had begun my day. It had been a hot, sweaty, and wonderful day of beach hopping and I decide I would follow the same pattern the following day, but with a focus on the southeast side of the island next time.
The next day I walked out to the main north-south road again, but turned left, rather than right, to across the island and reach Thian Og Bay. I was a disappointed to find that the dirt track entered private and newly fenced property as it descended the slope toward the beach. Once again the beach was beautiful but the return trail that followed the coast to east was blocked by a new fence and barbed wire. I back-tracked to the main north-south road and then turned south, determined to pick up the trail beyond the new fence where it headed down to June Juea Beach. I found a turn-off (to the west) behind a 7-Eleven shop and followed the trail thru a small resort until it stopped at a scooter parking lot. Here I noticed two small garden gates, one leading south and the other west. I followed the west trail through some lovely jungle until it reached the main dirt track to Cape Jeda Gang. From that point I followed the dirt track as it wound in and out of small resorts, past some abandoned beach bungalows, and up and down the steep seaside cliffs, until I reached Sai Nuan Bay (visited the previous day). Form here I retraced the previous day’s jungle route back to Mae Head Bay.
The next day was a bit more leisurely. I simply followed the narrow lane in front of the Save bungalows until it reached the main port road. I then continued heading north as the lane wound through some resorts, climbed an outcrop, past the police station and school on the top of the outcrop, and then descended to Sairee Beach, the main beach and tourist area of the island. Here the beach was golden and the shore was covered with bar after bar after bar, with upscale resorts mixed in. I slowly wandered north until the beach ended at the Koh Tao Cabana. Here I turned inland and made my way back to Mae Head Bay by the narrow commercial lane that followed the beach north and south.
After three days of walking I had covered most of the beaches on the island (the west, south, and southeast) and felt that a change in methods was needed.
Scooter the Island
The next day I went to the Save Shop (owners of the Save Bungalows that I was staying at) and rented a scooter for 150 Bt a day ($5). I then headed north on the main north-south artery until reaching the Nangyuan Terrance Resort, from which I could view Nangyuan Island and its beach-attached sub-island. From here I doubled back to the south to take the eastward lane in front of the Sairee Village 7-Eleven shop. The lane was mostly a single-lane concrete track that split at the base of a central mountain. To the right the lane became a dirt track that undulated between two mountains and then wound down to Cape Thian (and the trailhead for Two Views mountain trek, see next section). The left fork went north to Mango Bay. I took the left fork and spent the next few hours climbing, turning, and dropping as the dirt track zigzagged its way north. The road was a lot of fun but a workout and even dangerous in places due to the extreme sandy drops, rises, and turns. This was made evident when I rounded a hairpin turn that abruptly dropped then turned again. Here I found a 4-wheel ATV that had flipped over onto the two girls that had been driving it. One girl was covered in cuts and blood. I helped them up, moved the ATV off the track, and then bent the handle bars back to normal so they could drive it back to town. They were shaken up and drove off very slowly to return the ATV. Clearly they had had enough adventure for the day. I then zoomed off to enjoy more of this exciting track as my tiny scooter slid around the turns and bottomed out on the many rocks in the dirt. What I really needed was a dirt bike (trail bike) to really take advantage of the numerous dirt tracks the island offered, but a scooter would have to do.
I continued to scout out the dirt tracks for the rest of the day as I doubled back to the south, then the northeast to reach Tanote Bay by another exhilarating sand track. By the time I returned the scooter it was coughing on its last drops of fuel and the sun had set. I had only visited three beaches that day (two rock beaches and one sand beach) but on the plus side I had covered a lot of fun ground and the entire north side of the island and more of the east side.
Hiking the Two View summits
See Maps & Facts page trail sketch for details & GPS waypoints.
After a day of rest I found a Dutch volunteer called Tjalle who agreed to hike to the top of one of the local mountains with me. Koh Tao has 5 official mountains (190m to 379m), but the landscape is pretty much all undulating with shear drops to the sea. We decided to visit the Two View mountain since it had two summits and, based on the name, figured it probably provided good views.
After a late lunch we set out for the main north-south road, turned east on the track leading to Tanote Bay, then cut back west on a newly excavated road after the Blue Moon Resort (GPS waypoint 8). This road wound up the slope to a newly created set of three reservoirs. From there the road was mostly washed out and full of deep ruts and gullies as it turned away from the mobile towers to the south and ran north. At the base of a gully we passed a small private farm/shack with a hand painted sign that read ‘Two View Tea House’ and then the road became even steeper until it topped a ridge where it cut left and right (T). At this point we could see a nice looking open bamboo hut/house on the rise to our right and then a smaller bamboo shack to the left.
I found out later that this intersection (marked with GPS waypoint 3) is also a trail cross-road if hiking from north to south, where the trail splits at a small plateau south of the mountain near a collapsed hut (GPS waypoint 2). The clear trail then splits to go up and down and over two small ravines on the southwest side of the mountain, to the bamboo house, and then down to the road junction. The alternative trail (about 30m before the collapsed hut on the plateau) leads up the very steep south face of the mountain.
We continued up the washed out road, and along the west side of the mountain, until it circled to the north side and then ended in a drop. Here we spotted the northwest trail head (a tree with a blue circle and x pained on the trunk-Waypoint 2). We followed the steep trail for about 100m up (now heading south) until it reached a small wooden shrine overlooking the eastern slopes and beaches. We continued thru the forest for another easy 50m until we came to the summit. From this spot we could see the entire west, south, and east sides of the island. We stopped and took photos and rested while an eagle circled in leisurely spirals high above.
We then opted to follow the trail as it dropped to the south, thru a rabbit hole in the thick foliage, and then climbed up the opposite slope to reach a large boulder and the second summit. When we exited the thick underbrush below the second summit we began climbing boulders into sunshine. At the last boulder I hesitated for no apparent reason, reached up slowly and looked over the rim. I was face to face with a coiled green snake. Its tongue flicked out in my direction as I froze and then simultaneously we both jumped backwards. Before I could utter a sound the serpent was gone. I took a deep breath and decided to be a little more careful.
We scaled the last boulders to reach the second summit and once again stopped to take photos and rest. After a short time I noticed that it was getting late so discussed our options. We could back-track our route to town or we could continue following the trail over the second summit and down a very steep slope, under a forest canopy, and then hopefully to the lower road. We foolishly opted for the forest track since it would keep us out of the sun and also take us along a new route.
The descent down the south side of the mountain was mostly a controlled drop from tree to tree. This slope was better suited for climbing than descending, but that was knowledge learned too late. At last we reached a small plateau with a collapsed hut to our right (GPS waypoint 2, discussed above). We didn’t know at the time that we could have turned to the right and followed the well marked trail back to the road split at waypoint 3 leading to Tanote Bay. We opted to go left, figuring it would be a more direct route back to the road leading to Tanote Bay.
It was starting to get dark in the forest and time was running out so we picked up our pace. We stopped to rest at a flimsy bamboo structure on a slope and then continued down into a gully where we found another trail split. We were in a hurry so opted to take the higher path and as a result missed the well marked trail split that did in fact lead back to the road leading to Tanote Bay (our objective).
We continued in a northeasterly direction through lovely forest and a number of gullies until we finally reached a road (NE Trailhead -GPS waypoint 1) that we incorrectly assumed led to Tanote Bay. We turned right (thinking it would lead to the main road) when in fact we were going in the wrong direction on a completely different road (the one leading out of Sairee Village to Cape Thian). Once again we picked up our pace as the sun set. Around 6:30pm we reached the cliffs of the eastern shore and now knew that we had made a mistake. I went down to a small resort and asked for directions. They informed me that I was at Laem Thian Bungalows on Cape Thian, literally the end of the wrong road.
Tired, but determined, we turned tail and back-tracked up the dark road as the full moon rose slowly over our shoulders. The dirt track undulated and twisted its way back towards civilization and Sairee Village in fits of darkness and gaps illuminated by the stunning full moon. The wind blew gently enough to keep us cool and the mosquitoes at bay until we reached the main road at the Sairee Village (at the 7 Eleven shop). We then joined the flow of evening humanity as we turned south to follow the main beach lane as it ran parallel to Sairee Beach and through the night life, restaurants and bars.
By 7:30pm we passed the main port and entered Mae Head Bay, were Tjalle and I parted company without a pause in our stride. Our little hike had turned into a long day of walking up and down dirt tracks and trails, we were both tired and thirsty, and I think we were both happy to be back in the world of showers, restaurants, and soft beds.
The next day I purchased an 800 Bt ferry/bus combination ticket to Bangkok. It was time for a (not so gentle) boat ride and bus trip back to the world and to see a little more of Thailand before my measly 15 day visa expired.
Link to Motorbike Ride from Chang Mai to Myanmar Post
Link to Scooter Ride around Pai post
Link to Scooter Ride around Chang Mai post
Link to Cycling in Bangkok post