Ko Tao (also often Koh Tao, Thai: เกาะเต่า, Thai pronunciation: [kɔ̀ʔ tàw], lit. "Turtle Island") is an island in Thailand located near the western shore of the Gulf of Thailand. It covers an area of about 21 km². Administratively it forms a tambon within the district (Amphoe) Ko Pha Ngan of Surat Thani Province. As of 2006 its official population is 1,382. The main settlement is Ban Mae Hat.
The economy of the island is almost exclusively centred around tourism, especially scuba diving.
Ko Tao was named by its first settlers after the island's turtle-like geographic shape. Coincidentally, the island is an important breeding ground for Hawksbill turtles and Green turtles. Development of tourism has negatively impacted the health of these grounds but a breeding programme organised in 2004 by the Royal Thai Navy and KT-DOC, a coalition of local scuba diving centres, has reintroduced hundreds of juvenile turtles to the island's ecosystem.
The island is well known for scuba diving and snorkeling, as well as hiking, rock climbing and bouldering. The most popular place for tourists is Sairee on the West coast, which has a white sandy beach of 1.7 km interrupted only by a few huge boulders and a scattering of medium budget resorts and restaurants. Chalok Baan Khao, to the south of the island is becoming increasingly popular as an alternative for those wishing to escape the crowds. A multitude of beautiful granite boulders, which nestle both in the forests and on the beaches of Ko Tao, attract a growing number of climbers.
Ko Tao is less developed than Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan, but has become increasingly popular especially with the mid-20s backpacker crowd in search of relatively inexpensive scuba diving certification. For the last two years the demographics of the island has seen an age increase with many of the visitors that first visited the island over ten years ago are now returning with their families.
As of December 2005, Ko Tao had about 150 resorts offering accommodation and approximately 50 bars/clubs. Most of the resorts are still bungalow-style, not hotel/resort style. As of 2007 there is a trend to more upmarket resorts which do not concentrate singularly on diving. Free WiFi is provided in increasing numbers and even the first sailing charter company on Ko Tao has opened.
Ko Tao is increasingly becoming a mecca for game fishermen on a budget. Species targeted include marlin, sailfish, king mackerel, cobia, baracuda, trevally and snapper.
Diving conditions have improved dramatically in the past few years with the continuing education of locals by the dive community. The El Nino weather pattern of 1997 caused a warming of the waters which resulted in the loss of a great deal of the shallow corals near the island. Since then, the recovery has been swift and dramatic. Ko Tao now offers some of the best scuba diving in the Gulf of Thailand. And with help by island conservation groups the island environmental outlook is strong.
Chumpon Pinnacle, a dive site to the west of the island has a reputation for divers in search of both whale sharks and bull sharks. However, because of the warmer water temperatures over the last year a great amount of bull sharks have migrated to cooler waters.
With few exceptions, almost all roads on Ko Tao are dirt roads and generally are in poor shape. However, new roads are being paved at a quick rate. 95% of all traffic on the island is motorbike, with mopeds and dirt bikes being the main mode of transport. Motor bike accidents are the most common injury on the island. Poor roads, sand, reckless taxi drivers and drunkenness are all a factor.
Ko Tao is serviced by ferry services from Surat Thani (4 hours day boat, 9 hours on overnight boat), Chumphon (1.5 to 3 hours), Ko Samui (approx 2.5 hours) and Ko Pha Ngan (approx 1 hour). All ferries dock at Ban Mae Haad. Journey times vary due to the different boats used by the various ferry companies. Ticket prices are the same for Lomprayah and Seatran, and Songserm is less expensive. However, the boats themselves differ greatly. The two main ferries are Lomprayah and Seatran. Lomprayah offers the quickest service on their catamarans and also have VIP lounges where passengers can watch movies in an air conditioned lounge. In contrast, Songserm is a no-frills point to point fast ferry, where most passengers disembark slightly more green in the face than when they boarded. Seatran is the middle option less frills but not as basic as Songserm. Lomprayah offer services from Chumphon (mainland) to Koh Tao and the surrounding islands. Seatran and Songserm only offer service from Samui. Ko Tao has no airport, so anyone wishing to fly would need to fly to Koh Samui Airport and then transfer over on a ferry. Another option for flying down from Bangkok is to fly to Surat Thani Airport, and then catch the boat over after a bus ride of 2 hours to the ferry terminal from the airport. Flights to Surat Thani are much cheaper than flights to Samui, and budget airlines such as Air Asia (and previously Fly-1-2-go who currently aren't flying) service the airport from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Krabi and Phuket. A flight from Bangkok costs around £30 one way, and a ferry from Surat Thani costs around £5 including coach transfers.
Train services are available from Bangkok down to Chumphon where travellers can then catch a ferry. A first class ticket on an overnight train will cost around £20. Second class tickets are a little cheaper at around £16, passengers do not have the luxury of their own private cabin in second class, however, beds do pull down and once the party is over it is possible to have a good nights sleep. Food is served by train vendors.