If you’re traveling through the Southeast Asia circuit, chances are you’ve bumped into someone who has gotten their diving certificate on Koh Tao. As one of the cheapest diving spots in the world, it’s no surprise that backpackers come to the island in droves for a taste of underwater exploring. We heard mixed reviews on the diving, some complaining that the sheer amount of tourists has ruined the sea life, others raving about their memories swimming with sea turtles. But no matter how they felt about the diving, we heard the same thing from everyone: don’t miss Koh Tao!
Since I’ve already done my diving certificate in Honduras and Jules is waiting for the Philippines to grab his, we were hoping that Koh Tao had more to offer than cheap diving. Fortunately we were in luck. From the gorgeous beaches to the fun nightlife, the island had plenty going on. Here’s what to do in Koh Tao besides diving:
Hiring a water taxi is an awesome way to spend the day with a good crew of travel buddies or new friends from your hostel. Our group of 5 Pioneers rented our own private water taxi for 3 hours for 350 baht each (roughly $12). The driver included a big cooler (which we promptly filled with beer) and snorkel masks. We spent the afternoon drinking, snorkeling and cruising around the ocean. Although the drivers have set places they can take you (Japanese Garden Bay, Nang Yuan, etc.), we pretty much directed him where we wanted to go. If you’re on a tight budget, we recommend just having a water taxi take you directly to the gorgeous island of Nang Yuan. But if you want to splurge, setting out on your very own party boat with a cool group of friends is a pretty sweet way to spend the day.
Normally we try to avoid popular beaches only accessible by water taxi. Our day trip to Maya Beach (from the Leonardo DiCaprio movie, the Beach) left us scarred after we were stuck for hours on a small stretch of sand with literally a thousand other tourists. Shudder. So when we were bombarded with offers to go to the nearby island of Nang Yuan, we turned them down. Finally we decided to add it as a stop on our party boat taxi. And thank goodness we did! Nang Yuan is absolutely gorgeous!
I recommend having a few hours to spend exploring the area. When you first arrive, resist the temptation to lax out on the white sands. Instead hike up to the lookout point first. This 15-minute climb can be a little steep, but the view is more than worth it. It’s breathtaking. Now that you’re nice and sweaty, head down for a refreshing swim. The water is some of the clearest I’ve ever seen on my travels. And that’s saying something because we’ve been to some of the prettiest beaches on earth. Definitely take a mask for snorkeling and check out some of the gorgeous parrot fish that will come right up to your legs. I recommend checking out the island in the late afternoon and catching a sunset here. It was a bit overcrowded when we first got there around 3:30 but cleared up after an hour. The 100 baht fee to enter the island is well worth it.
How do I even begin to describe the ridiculousness of this show? If you’re doing the infamous backpacker pub-crawl on the island, they put on a show for the group. We recommend going to the proper show at 10:30pm. The entry is free, but you have to buy a drink when you first arrive. Drinks are on the pricey side, averaging around 150 baht, but definitely worth the price to see the show. Also the drinks are super strong which helps loosen up the audience before the entertainment starts. The show starts out pretty classy. The ladyboys are dressed to the nines- full makeup, wigs and scandalous showgirl outfits. After a drink or two you really have to remind yourself that these ladies are really ladyboys.
Towards the end of the show, things start to get a little rowdy. They pull up one lucky male from the audience, plop him in a chair in the middle of the stage, take off his shirt and dance all around him. And since we were sitting in the front row, guess who they choose? Yep, Jules! I have to admit, I never thought I’d watch a group of “women” grind up on my boyfriend and just sit there cracking up. At the end of the show, a few other male audience members come on stage for a drag show. Jules and our good friend Gabe volunteered for this, giving us girls a good laugh. Ladies, if you go with male friends or boyfriends, get ready for a great night!
After the ladyboy cabaret show, you should be sufficiently loosened up for a crazy night ahead. Luckily the show ends right around the same time that the nightlife gets started. From Queen’s Cabaret head directly down to the beach for the festivities. The beach bars usually kick off the party with some fire limbo. Because what better combination is there than drunk people and fire? If you’re feeling rowdy (or just cheap) take advantage of the free bucket deal. Guys who go naked and girls who go topless get a free bucket. Just leave your clothes and your inhibitions at the bar.
The party rages until about 2 am and then all of the sudden the music switches from hip hop and electronic to slow jams. The music change is basically a sign that everyone needs to get the hell out. If you’re gearing for a big night, better save it for Koh Phangan or elsewhere. It seems Koh Tao residents can party hard, but like to get a good night sleep for early dives the next morning. Fair enough!