KO TAO (Turtle Island) is so named because its outline resembles a turtle nose-diving towards Ko Pha Ngan, 40km to the south. The rugged shell of the turtle, to the east, is crenellated with secluded coves where one or two bungalows hide among the rocks. On the western side, the turtle’s underbelly is a long curve of classic beach, Hat Sai Ree, facing Ko Nang Yuan, a beautiful Y-shaped group of islands offshore, also known as Ko Hang Tao (Turtle’s Tail Island). The 21 square kilometres of granite in between is topped by dense forest on the higher slopes and dotted with huge boulders that look as if they await some Easter Island sculptor. It’s fun to spend a couple of days exploring the network of rough trails, after which you’ll probably know all 1700 of the island’s inhabitants. Ko Tao is now best known as a venue for scuba-diving courses, with a wide variety of dive sites in close proximity (see Diving off Ko Tao).
The island is the last and most remote of the archipelago that continues the line of Surat Thani’s mountains into the sea. It served as a jail for political prisoners from 1933 to 1947, then was settled by a family from Ko Pha Ngan. Now, there are around 150 sets of bungalows for visitors, just about enough to cope during the peak seasons of December to March and August, concentrated along the west and south sides; they include a rapidly growing number of upscale resorts with such luxuries as air conditioning, hot water and swimming pools. There’s a limited government supply of electricity, so some of it still comes from private generators on the remotest beaches, usually evenings only.
If you’re just arriving and want to stay on one of the less accessible beaches, it might be a good idea to go with one of the touts who meet the ferries at Mae Hat, the island’s main village, with pick-up or boat on hand, since at least you’ll know their bungalows aren’t full; otherwise call ahead, as even the remotest bungalows now have landlines or mobile phones and most owners come to market once a day (pick-ups are either free or B50–150/person). Some resorts with attached scuba-diving operations have been known to refuse guests who don’t sign up for diving trips or courses; on the other hand, most of the dive companies now have their own lodgings, available free or at a discounted price to divers. With a year-round customer base of divers – and resident dive instructors – a growing number of sophisticated Western restaurants and bars are springing up all the time, notably in Mae Hat and on Hat Sai Ree. For nightlife, your best bet is to watch out for posters advertising weekly and monthly parties around the island, which keep the crowds rotating.
The weather is much the same as on Pha Ngan and Samui, but being that bit further off the mainland, Ko Tao feels the effect of the southwest monsoon more: June to October can have strong winds and rain, with a lot of debris blown onto the windward coasts.