An Island Escape: Koh Tao

After three weeks woofing in southern Thailand we decided it was time to get off the farm and spend the last bit of time we had seeing a few other places in the country. Given how little beach time we had during the first part of our trip, we decided that an island was the way to go and Koh Tao won out for us as the best blend of accessibility, good beaches, and the possibility to get away from the crowds. With that in mind, we caught a bus-night boat combination through Surat Thani to Koh Tao. Because the last few nights on the farm had been largely sleepless ones we were able to fall asleep pretty quickly despite some pretty heavy rollers on the ride across.

Our first night boat experience!

Our first night boat experience!

The night boat washed us up at Mae Head Pier about 6:00 AM Friday morning and the first order of business was to hunt down a place for a bite of breakfast as dinner had been essentially non-existent during transit. We were also killing time until the various travel agencies opened. We wanted to book our ticket to Bangkok as we would be travelling on the first day of Thai New Year and we wanted to rent a scooter rather than paying 100-400B every time we wanted to reach or leave Tanote Bay. We shopped around and found a place (JJ travel) that would give us a good discount on a three day scooter rental if we booked our ticket to Bangkok with them (we had discovered that all the travel agencies offer the same trips for the same prices so that part didn’t really matter). Having spoken to several people who had been forced to pay thousands of Baht for a ‘damaged’ bike, we carefully photographed every smudge and marked it on the rental sheet before heading off to the far side of the island where we had booked a beach bungalow in Tanote Bay – known as a quieter place to really relax.

Our little piece of paradise.

Our little piece of paradise.

The road into Tanote Bay is a little bit tricky with lots sandy patches on the concrete and sections that are basically sand between boulders, but it was not a huge problem as we took it slowly. After a morning lounging on the beach and reading in the hammock we decided to ride back into Mae Head village to avoid the higher prices at the bay (unsurprisingly everything costs a little more on Koh Tao in general). We managed to bag a taco dinner as well as a great sunset before calling it a night.

Sunset at the Mae Head Pier.

Sunset at the Mae Head Pier.

Koh Tao is known as a diving island and is one of the cheapest places to get a scuba certification. While diving was not originally on our radar, the reefs looked too good to pass up so Blake had a refresher course with Calypso diving our second morning on Koh Tao that lasted until lunch.

After Blake finished his refresher course and dive on the local reef, we decided to head to one of the other bays for some snorkeling. After some discussion about the roads and snorkeling potential according to the locally published Koh Tao guide, we settled on Hinwong Bay about halfway up the east coast of the island. Apparently, it has some of the best snorkeling on the island. Sadly, we never got to find out during that particular trip. However, in our search for the road up the eastern side of the island we did find this cool little lunch spot.

The love Koh Toa Viewpoint overlooking Tanote Bay.

The ‘Love Koh Tao Viewpoint’ overlooking Tanote Bay.

After discovering that the trail up the east side of the island is either the tiny goat path we located or non-existent, we headed into Sairee Beach and took the concrete road across the island. This was fine until the last 150 meters, which is really steep and banged up. After contemplating it from a little hill-side pub with a view we decided to just walk. For those more adventurous than us some people did take scooters down, but a lot of passengers ended up having to hop off partway up.

Our trusty steed ... but not trusty enough to think doubling up that hill was gonna happen.

Our trusty steed … but not trusty enough to think doubling up that hill was gonna happen.

We rented snorkeling gear at Hinwong Bungalows and stored our bag behind their counter before heading over to the only stretch of sand on the whole bay… and promptly being informed that it is a private beach owned by Mol’s Beach Bar and we would have to buy something to use it. Our cash was back at Hinwong Bungalows as a deposit and we are not big fans of having to pay for beaches anyway so we opted to go off the rocks. Which was great until Tamara slipped on some algae, skated down the rock we were sitting on and smacked into another one – both were covered in barnacles so she got a little cut up. By the time we stopped the bleeding we figured that snorkeling was probably not in the cards for the day.

Hin Wong Bay

Hin Wong Bay – on the left side is Tamara’s spiky slip and slide. 

Instead we headed north up the west coast to the very end of the road across from Nangyuan island – really two islands linked by a narrow spit of sand and allegedly one of the most beautiful islands in the world. We have to admit that it was pretty nice. There is a public viewing terrace available free of charge, but you have to walk through a resort to get there. We arrived well before sunset – but just in time for happy hour at the waterfront restaurant! Nothing like cocktails and pizza to compliment a sunset.

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After the fun had by Blake on his refresher course, and the… setback? suffered while trying to snorkel, we had booked a spot on Calypso’s morning fun dives for Blake to dive and Tamara to snorkel. Our morning saw us boarding an 8 AM boat and heading for Shark Island (no sharks were sighted by anyone in our group) and then back to Hinwong Bay. We did see a whole ton of fish, including some of those schools that are so dense they look like a moving blob, a turtle, some odd looking squid, and a few stingrays. During the Hinwong dive, Blake even got to enter three underwater caves which was pretty cool.

During the afternoon, before we caught the night boat to Chumphon and a minibus on to Bangkok, we headed over to Freedom Beach. We had considered staying here, but it was a bit out of our price range. The beach is nice, but really shallow. There were people over 100 meters out who were only up to their waists. Either way, it was nice to relax on the sandy bottom. Tanote was quiet, uncrowded and had great snorkeling and even some rock jumping, but swimming was trickier due to the rocks and coral in the cove.

After dinner we had Thai massages (in the end we don’t think they were all that great or ‘authentic’) before hitting a cafe and eventually boarding our night ferry. Next stop, Bangkok!


Koh Tao is a really popular destination so getting there is not that hard. Boats leave primarily from Surat Thani in the south or Chumphon a bit further north. From many places it is possible to get a bus-boat combination ticket. If you choose this route, be sure to get tickets or receipts for both. From Krabi Town, our combo ticket was 650B. From Koh Tao to Bangkok our boat-minibus ticket was 1,000B.

On Koh Tao things are more expensive. Be aware of this when planning a budget.

Getting around Koh Tao can be a little tricky. While the roads up the west coast and over to Freedom Beach are in good shape, many of the other roads become tricky to navigate only partway across. Some roads marked on the maps are basically goat trails. There are plenty of sites that warn that Koh Tao is not the place to learn how to ride a scooter/motorbike. We would agree with that. However, the prices to get places on the east coast by the taxis etc. can be pretty high so without your own transport, be prepared to either stay fairly local, walk a lot (the island is not that huge) or shell out for transport around the island.

For those who do rent a bike, there is often sand and gravel on the roads and some switchbacks are banked the wrong way as well as having sand. From the rental companies’ perspective, you break it – you pay for seven of it so be careful. Also, be sure to carefully photograph and note any damage on the rental contract before signing it. We saw cops pulling people over every day we were there. Not sure why, but maybe no helmets?

As a general rule, the east coast is quiet and relaxing and the west coast is a bit more party-oriented. Having said that, it’s not as if they are that far apart and if you stay at Tanote you can be in town in about ten minutes.

Tanote was a great place to stay, and our bungalow at Diamond Resort was decent, although not exceptional, for the price.

Koh Tao is known for cheap diving and there are a plethora of dive shops to choose from. We were really happy with Calypso on Tanote Bay, but there were others advertising slightly cheaper fun dives. For us, the smaller group was worth a little extra. The reefs were all pretty good as well, and there is definitely a variety of sea life to observe. Shark Island is known for Whale Sharks, although they apparently don’t care for the bubbles that divers make.

Gageodo (가거도): The First Instalment

Last year on Chuseok we opted to head out to Heuksando and Hongdo and had a fantastic time, so this year we thought we’d join Pat and Mel for a trip to an even more remote island: Gageodo. It takes roughly four hours to get from Mokpo to Gageodo, including a stop at Heuksando.

We caught the earliest bus from Gwangju to Mokpo and were on the ferry heading out to sea just after 8:00. We landed at Gageodo shortly after 12:00. The main village on the island is set back among several high rocks behind a high seawall. Aside from the (apparently) recent addition of a huge orange dry-dock structure.


Our first look at the village once we stepped of the boat.

Our first look at the village once we stepped of the boat.

A view of the village from above.

A view of the village from above.

The island is remote, rocky, and sparsely populated. Perfect for a quiet getaway from the noise and people usually associated with travel on mainland Korea and especially amplified on Chuseok.

First order of business was to find a place to stay for the weekend. There are several minbak and motels available on the main street of the village, but we opted for a pension. The first one that presented itself to us was 제일 펜션 (Best Pension). We had a look at a few of the rooms and opted to share one on the third floor looking out over the harbour for 60,000₩/night. Once we were settled in we had a few snacks before heading out in search of a beach.

There is a public beach just across a headland from the harbour, but we opted to explore a little farther can found one that is a bit more secluded and is surrounded by high cliffs. Gorgeous. It also has large rocks that are nice and smooth for sunbathing or taking a nap in between dips in the ocean. Pat headed off birding but the three of us opted to lounge on the beach and swim. Despite the fact that beach season is officially over in Korea, the water was really warm and relaxing.

After a long and relaxing time on the beach, Pat rejoined us with some fantastic news; he had spotted his 700th species of bird. We will leave the birding side of the trip for Pat to deal with on his blog here. We headed back to the pension to change, explore the town, grab some beer to celebrate, and find some dinner. Given that we had all been up before 4:00 AM, we suffered a slight setback in our plans.

Tired? Whose tired?

Tired? Who’s tired?

However, we did eventually manage to head out into the village for a bit of exploration. There are only two roads in the village, one along the waterfront and one across the top of the village to the school. Everything in between are these little alley-like paths and stairs. They are actually really neat.

There are two small stores on the main street. One, the one with a green awning, serves as something of a gathering place in the village. Throughout our stay, there were always people sitting outside the door or drinking and playing cards inside. We had dinner at the restaurant in the bottom of our pension — 매운탕 — spicy fish (bone) soup. When you’re on the islands, fish is the centrepiece of pretty well every meal. We wrapped up our evening with celebratory beers under the light house and were passed out by 9:00.

The village as seen from the lighthouse

The village as seen from the lighthouse.

Our first full day on the island, we headed up the road behind the village and out along the west coast. At the hill above the village the road forks, running high and low along the side of the mountain. The high road eventually crosses over the ridge to the other side of the island, but the low road goes along hillside overlooking the ocean and cliffs until it terminates at the second village about 6 KM away.

Hangri village sits in a low point between the main island and a large peninsula. There is a minbak and a restaurant (not selling food on Chuseok) that basically make up the entire village. There was also a goat which Tamara could not resist doting on. When we hiked into the hills on the peninsula we discovered several small herds of goats grazing. In some ways, the entire area feels like it could be on the coast of Scotland or the east coast of Canada.

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After a short time, we headed back down to the 2nd village and down a series of steps to the beach where we found a sheltered little nook, had lunch and then swam for the better part of two hours. It was amazing to be able to relax and swim and not be surrounded by other people. This is probably the most amazing part about Gageodo: you can actually get away from the people and the noise and the lights and just relax.

On our way back we stopped at the minbak to ask if we could fill our waterbottles. They were more than accommodating and just as we were leaving the lady came out and offered us a huge platter of japchae (made from noodles and vegetables) apparently in the spirit of Chuseok. We sat outside on a raised platform overlooking a gorgeous harbour and coastline while devouring the delicious dish.

After we thanked our hosts we headed back along the road to the main village for a bite in our room before crashing in short order.