Koh Tao is the smallest of the three Gulf of Thailand islands. Its name means “Turtle Island,” due to its shape — like the back of a sea turtle rising up from the ocean. It has pretty beaches and tropical jungles. But the real attraction of Koh Tao is it’s one of the best places for beginners to go SCUBA diving in Thailand.
In this post, I’ll share my experience doing a PADI Advanced Open Water course on Koh Tao with Ban’s Dive Resort. I’ll cover how to choose a dive shop, the best diving sites, and everything else you need to know to have a great Koh Tao diving experience.
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Why go SCUBA diving in Thailand?
Whether you’re a newbie diver or have years of experience under your belt, you can find the perfect experience diving Thailand. The crystal-clear waters mean fantastic visibility. The water is warm and the weather is good to take boats out to the dive sites year round — no need to worry about rough seas or storms. And both the Andaman and Gulf waters have a huge variety of marine life.
Even better, SCUBA diving in Thailand is insanely cheap, especially for new divers. Koh Tao dive shops are especially known for offering some of the world’s cheapest PADI certification courses. And even the liveaboard trips to the spectacular, world class dive sites of the Similan Islands are affordable (by liveaboard diving trip standards).
Finally, along with the best diving in Thailand comes a few days on some of the world’s most beautiful islands. Koh Tao is especially lovely beyond the main tourist beachfront — hike through the island’s interior to the gorgeous east coast beaches and you’ll see why people stay here for weeks on end.
Choosing a Koh Tao dive resort
My boat from Surat Thani approached the tiny island just as the sun was coming up. Nearly all the foreigners on board were excitedly chatting about their plans to do PADI Open Water Diver courses. My plans were a bit different — I had gotten certified in Egypt, and I was now ready to do my Advanced Open Water training.
As the boat docked, representatives from a dozen Koh Tao dive shops crowded the pier. They all shouted out their prices for classes, luring backpackers in with free rides to their resorts. A friend of mine had recommended Ban’s Diving Resort, so I sought out their representative and hopped in the back of their songthaew.
I highly recommend researching Koh Tao diving schools before you arrive on the island for your SCUBA diving in Thailand adventure. Once you get into a truck for a ride from the pier, you’ll face pressure to book with that shop. If you want to look around and talk to the shops directly first, walk into town from the pier (about 30 minutes).
Prices are uniform across the island — around $300 for Open Water and $250 for Advanced. You can negotiate small discounts in low season. This should include free accommodation in a dorm room for the length of your class.
Most of the Koh Tao diving schools are professional. You won’t find seedy uncertified operators here. The main distinguishing factors include, how good is their equipment? How big or small are the classes? How nice is the pool you use for training? Do they offer courses in your native language? Which dive sites do they go to? And how nice is the accommodation?
I can vouch for Ban’s Diving Resort as being stellar on all of the above. The equipment was in good condition. I was the only person in my class. I didn’t use the pool, but it was very clean. We went to different dive sites every day. And the dorm was downright luxurious. The only caution is if you’re doing the Open Water course, they’re a much bigger operation and can feel a bit assembly-line, but that’s the nature of taking a Koh Tao SCUBA diving course.
The Advanced Open Water Course on Koh Tao
The goal of the Advanced Open Water diving course is to get you comfortable diving independently — without the supervision of a dive master — in a variety of different environments. The coursework is more limited than the PADI Open Water class, and you don’t spend any time practicing skills in a pool — you do everything at the dive sites themselves.
The course includes five dives to develop different skill sets. You must do a night dive, a deep dive, and a navigation dive, and you can choose your other two skills. I decided to combine a wreck dive with learning to use a dive computer to plan a multilevel dive, and a naturalist-focused dive (where you learn to identify sea life). I also gained some experience in underwater photography.
The main reason I was able to learn so many different skills during my course was because my group was so small — just me and my instructor. This is one of the main advantages of doing your Advanced course while SCUBA diving in Thailand. The Open Water courses are much bigger.
The other great part of being in a small group was we often had the best Koh Tao dive sites to ourselves. We’d share a boat with the Open Water students, but we’d jump off sooner, at a different site. At the end of the dive we’d swim at the surface to meet up with our boat again.
Remember to make sure your travel insurance covers SCUBA diving in Thailand before you book your class.
The best Koh Tao diving sites
The reefs off the coast of Koh Tao are beautiful and full of wildlife. It’s mostly of the colorful-fish and elaborate-coral-formation variety. Don’t get your hopes up for big marine life like sharks, rays and octopi.
Far and away the best of the Koh Tao dive sites is Chumphon Pinnacle. You’re very likely to see huge grouper here, along with barracuda, tuna, possibly reef sharks, and more sea anemone than you’ve ever imagined. It can be as deep or shallow as you want it to be.
White Rock is the top Koh Tao night dive site. It’s quite deep (29 meters), but you can stay shallower and still see nearly everything. This is the one place near Koh Tao where you have a good chance of spotting rays. You’ll also see eels, angelfish, and aggressive trigger fish. (If they attack, swim out of their circular territory.)
Hin Pee Wee is the place to go wreck diving. With a max depth of 30 meters, it lacks the marine life of other sites, but the coral growth on the sunken ship is beautiful. Visibility is good considering how deep it is.
Other good Koh Tao dive sites for more advanced divers include Green Rock, Red Rock, Sail Rock and Twin Rocks. Most include fantastic swim-throughs and lots of colorful fish. Barracuda and grouper round out the big marine life.
Koh Tao beyond the diving
Once you start, it’s easy to spend your whole holiday SCUBA diving in Thailand. But if you need a break from going underwater — or if you just have an afternoon to spare between dives — don’t miss the chance to explore the rest of the island.
The main tourist beach is Sairee Beach. It’s closest to the ferry dock and the main strip of accommodation and restaurants. The swimming is good here — the sea is calm and the ocean floor is sand until it’s too deep for you to stand. It gets crowded, especially in the afternoons, but if you’re traveling to Thailand alone it’s a good place to find travel buddies.
Other great beaches include Ao Tenat Bay and Shark Bay. Both of these are excellent snorkeling spots as well. You can rent kayaks and explore some of the neighboring coastline, which is inaccessible by road or on foot.
Looking for something more active in between your Koh Tao SCUBA diving trips? Try the hike up to Mango Viewpoint. It’s the best spot to get aerial views of the island, and you only need about an hour to walk (uphill) from Sairee Beach. Some people take motorbikes up here but the road isn’t really good enough to be safe.
Finally, most beach hotels host bonfires and beach parties at night, which include beach volleyball, fire twirling shows, and even drag shows. Just remember that drinking and diving don’t mix, so skip the booze or save the partying for your last night.
Where to stay and eat on Koh Tao
If you’re diving, you should get free accommodation through your Koh Tao dive resort. Chances are it’ll be in one of the nicest places you’ll stay in Thailand — even though most dive resorts only have dorms, they’re luxurious. Clean, hot-water outdoor showers, beautifully landscaped surrounds, swimming pools, on-site restaurants, beds that aren’t bunk beds — it’s pretty great. I stayed at Ban’s Diving Resort and loved it.
The restaurant scene in Koh Tao caters to tourists. You won’t find much street food here (and what you find won’t be very good), but the backpacker-focused cafes are a welcome break from pad thai every night. The one exception is 995 Roast Duck, a barely-standing stall where you can get a delicious bowl of duck noodle soup for 70 baht.
Cappuccino and Zest Coffee are the two places to go for good java. Both serve breakfast and light meals too.
How to get to Koh Tao
Koh Tao being an island, you naturally have to take a boat to get here and start your SCUBA diving in Thailand experience. The good news is, the boats are safe, efficient, and you can get from nearly anywhere in southern Thailand to Koh Tao within a day.
From the south
If you’re coming from the south or from Koh Phi Phi, the gateway is Surat Thani. This small city is mainly a jetty town for the Thai islands, but it’s a very pleasant place to hang out for an afternoon if you have spare time. You can find a large market near the pier to pick up boat/bus snacks.
Boats from Surat Thani run all day long — go with the company Lomprayah if you can. Boats take about six hours (with a stop on Koh Phangan) and cost 850 baht. You can purchase a bus-boat combo ticket from any travel agency in Bangkok or elsewhere as well, with no markup.
Alternatively, the most atmospheric — although certainly not the most comfortable — way to get to Koh Tao from Surat Thani is on one of the night ferries. These are more like fishing boats or cargo ships than luxury boats, so I wouldn’t do it if you’re prone to seasickness or want a comfortable experience. But they are a fantastic throwback to the old days of backpacking Thailand. Pay your 600 baht, lay out your towel as padding on the open-air top deck and eight hours later you’ll reach the island — in plenty of time to start your Koh Tao SCUBA diving course the same day.
From the north
If you’re heading to/from Koh Tao from Bangkok, you’ll pass through Chumphon to pick up your boat. Again, Lomprayah is the company of choice. These high-speed boats take only three hours and cost 700 baht. Again, you can buy bus-boat combo tickets. Be careful to ensure they include the transfer between the train station and is included.
You can also take night boats to/from Chumphon. These are much nicer than the boats from Surat Thani — essentially hostel dorms on the sea. You’ll get a proper mattress, a decent bathroom, and drapes for privacy. Prices start at 400 baht.
Between the Gulf Islands
You can also get between Koh Tao, Koh Samui and Koh Pha Ngan by boat. This costs 600 baht and takes just over an hour to Koh Pha Ngan, or 700 baht and two hours to Koh Samui.
Overall, SCUBA diving in Thailand on Koh Tao is one of the best adventures you can have in Southeast Asia. I hope this guide has helped you plan your trip!
Where is your favorite place to dive? Leave a comment with your recommendations!
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