Koh Tao’s beauty astounds visitors from around the world. But they have no idea just how her magic will affect them until they see with their own eyes. Her pink-hued sunsets over tranquil, blue waters, her gorgeous vistas looking out over pristine bays and white sand beaches, and her vibrant coral reef around every corner will captivate & intoxicate. Coupled with warm, tranquil waters, this tropical gem in the gulf of Thailand remains the perfect place to get SCUBA dive certified. But as a traveler to the island, how can you stretch your budget in paradise? Let’s take a look.
Koh Tao’s location in Southeast Asia, at the westernmost peak of the world’s coral triangle, may worry some about how to fund airfare and other expenses. Not to worry. Chris and I travel on a shoestring budget ourselves, and after three years returning to the paradise Koh Tao, we have a variety of suggestions that will have you saying sawatdee before you know it. Read on for our suggestions on eating, transportation, activities, and accommodations that will maximize your vacation budget in this tropical paradise.
When in Thailand, why not eat as the Thai do? Instead of breaking your bankroll while trying to replicate your European dining experience, why not seek out the favorite travelers’ and Thai dining spots? Note, many of these locations will be casual; yet, the food will be better than anything you spent a fortune on at your favorite Thai restaurant back home.
Opt for Thai, family-owned spots with plenty of diners, and you’ll have found quality and enjoyable spots for budget-friendly meals. Our favorite easy-on-the-budget diner is Yang’s in Maehaad. There, you’ll discover a menu of bountiful Western dishes as well as a variety of Thai dishes. Chris and I recommend two favorite dishes: 1) the garlic pepper chicken over mashed potatoes and 2) chopped pork over fried rice. For a straight up Thai experience, visit Tukta in Chalok Ban Kao. Both of these locations will feed you well for very little cash.
You’re traveling around the world to experience new things, right? Why not extend that goal to your food experience? You’ll broaden your horizons while greatly extending your travel budget if you seek out budget-friendly dining at Thai, family run restaurants.
Does your room have a kitchenette? Consider keeping some staples available for breakfast, lunch, and snacks. Chris and I keep milk, eggs, bread, cereal, fruit, and more. With a gas range, we now cook meals at our place. By cutting down on the amount of meals you eat out, you’ll save on your food budget even more. We’ve also found that we feel more satisfied when we have food we can grab on the go or by preparing larger meals on our own. Our food budget has been as low as 500 TBT a day for both of us, so cooking at home helps to keep us well fed. Give this a try to see how much more money you have available for fun when you eat at home.
On Koh Tao, you’ll pass by food stalls cooking up hot eats like fried chicken, chicken satay, sea food, and even curries. All emit mouth-watering aromas. Roadside food stalls are the Asian version of fast food, but unlike McDonald’s the food doesn’t suffer in quality. Give it a go, and you’ll notice your belly gets filled for very little of your spare change. If you’re on a very tight food budget, roadside stalls will become your regular favorites. So what’s typical? It’s possible to live easily on 300 TBT per day or less by eating like a local.
Need fruit & veggies? Locally grown fruits including mango, papaya, mangosteen, pineapple, plantains and more will delight visitors who take a moment to stop at the roadside stands. Buy single pieces of fruit to avoid waste, or split a bunch of plantains among friends.If you have special dietary restrictions, seek out restaurants that meet your needs.
Vegetarian and vegan options are available to those who seek them out. While Koh Tao is not the cheapest place to eat vegetarian in Thailand, looking closely will reveal very inexpensive options. A vegan friend recommends La Carotte on the uproad in Mae Haad and the little Thai restaurant across from Whitening on the beach road in Mae Haad.
How about drinks? Water on a Thai island can be expensive. Save cash on water, and help to preserve the environment, by using a refillable water bottle. Many dive operations and restaurants offer water refilling for free or a few baht. Dive operations also offer free tea and coffee to customers as well as fruit on the boat. Above all advice we have here on saving money on food, avoid 7-11 sweetened drinks and sodas. 7-11 drinks will blow your food budget quickly.
Taxi drivers on Koh Tao will take a huge chunk out of your budget if you let them. Instead, get a free pick up from the pier through us with your SCUBA Adventure, and if necessary to get around, seek out our recommended scooter rental spots for a cheap and reliable transportation around the island. Even if you’ve never driven a scooter before, you can master it within a short time on the flatter roads of the island. Wear your helmet and go slowly, staying on the far left “lane” of the left side of the road.
You’ll notice that people pass on the right, which is correct. Sometimes, however, local drivers do crazy things. Just drive slowly and watch for people pulling out or turning right from the left side. Use your blinker, but don’t expect other people to do more than a quick wave in the direction they plan to turn. Since scooter accidents are a real thing, drive slowly, and do not drive after drinking or partying.
Renting a scooter from an honest dealer may present a challenge. We’ve witnessed all sorts of scams from seedy scooter dealers who plan their income based upon charges for imagined accident, scratch, and dings to unsuspecting tourists. Ask around among the long-stay travelers on the island to find someone with an extra bike for rent, or rent from Jack in Chalok Ban Kao at Buddha View 2.
We’ve been renting from Jack sporadically over three years with a fair and honest exchange. I’ve even had a few accidents that he’s charged me only for actual repairs. We send all of our SCUBA students to rent from Jack because he’s a straight shooter. Expect to put down a 2000 TBT refundable deposit and to pay 300 TBT a day, which includes insurance and no hassle. And nope, we don’t get commission for this insider scoop.
The beauty of Koh Tao extends year round with diving available even during monsoon season, November to January. But who wants to dive during monsoon when it’s a bit colder? Likewise, who wants to dive during peak season when dive sites are the most crowded with visitors, each of whom dreams to get that bucketlist photo with the whale shark or turtle? We recommend you take a look at Spring break or any months from February to July or September-October, when prices drop significantly for flights. During Spring, look carefully for competitive fares on Google Flights. We’ve noticed very low fares during October, but be sure to book your flights 30-60 days in advance for the best deal.
Coming during peak season? No worries. You’ll have a fantastic time with all the parties scheduled for your visit. Expect nightly beach and pool parties with fire dancing and so much more planned for your stay.
Hopping around Thailand to try to discover paradise in a dozen places over a short period won’t result in maximum pleasure. Instead, you’ll spend a lot of time cramped on buses, vans, and ferries with other travelers, all in a hurry to document a whirlwind tour. Why do that to yourself when Koh Tao offers so many pleasures to visitors in an unbelievably beautiful location?
To maximize your experience (and budget), Chris and I suggest traveling less and reserving at least six days or more on Koh Tao. This plan includes time for your PADI Open Water SCUBA Diver or Advanced Open Water course as well as for some fun diving or PADI Adventure Dives. Then, you’ll still be able to make it to our famous overlooks and snorkeling beaches. We’ve heard first hand from friends who have gone to Ko Samui in search of that romantic honeymoon only to regret leaving Koh Tao. And we feel the same. When you arrive in paradise, give yourself time to soak in the experience of all she has to offer.
Koh Tao island charms visitors with its simple beauty, its quirk, and the endless opportunities to experience adventure with so many like-minded people. Everything you need is within a walk or a short scooter ride. Have you ever heard the phrase, “lost on a Thai island?” Koh Tao is that place where time stands still, and you’ll never want to leave.
Koh Tao amazes SCUBA divers with year-long diving, protecting her reefs with rugged bays that shelter dive sites from prevailing winds. On any day of the year, divers can find a bay suitable for training dives with waters that resemble calm and warm swimming pools. As the sun comes up on Koh Tao, the warm rays shine down, creating aquamarine hues and lighting up clear waters. Look closer, and you’ll find coral pinnacles and bomies teaming with marine life.
Visibility varies, but much of the year, visibility on Koh Tao extends 10-20 meters, allowing us to see far across the dive site in search of pelagic visitors. On days that visibility declines, we enjoy closer encounters with great barracuda, black tip reef sharks, and eagle rays who appear out of the cloud quite close for our observation. On any typical dive, schools of fusiliers and chevron barracuda encircle captivated divers. And it feels so incredibly good.
How’s the temperature? Water temperature on Koh Tao ranges from 26-31 degrees Celcius, which is quite warm and enjoyable. SCUBA divers wear 3 mm “shorties,” a cut off wet suit perfect for tropical environments. But many divers wear only their swim trunks and a rash guard. The warm temperatures make it possible to enjoy multiple dives in a day and night dives, too, while maintaining a comfortable body temperature. With 25 dive sites within a short boat ride, we have plenty for you to see. Just check out our list of Koh Tao’s Top 5 Deep Dive Sites to get ready.
Best yet, the price of SCUBA certification on Koh Tao remains more affordable than anywhere else in the world with PADI courses set at 9840 TBT. This cost includes the course materials and certification, instructor, all equipment and transportation to the pier, and free basic accommodations. That’s an incredible value for a lifetime PADI Open Water SCUBA Diver certification and an epic SCUBA adventure experience. If you’d like to try SCUBA first without the commitment, check out our Discover SCUBA Dive starting at 2000 TBT.
In addition to getting PADI certified, visitors to Koh Tao experience epic adventures for the cost of a scooter ride. Within the range of free experiences, the island delights visitors with our list of Koh Tao’s Top 5 Snorkeling Beaches, incredible overlooks in every direction, bouldering and climbing, jungle treks, sun bathing, and the most incredible sunsets.
For a little more than free, visitors can enjoy kayaking (400 TBT all day from Buddha View in Chalok Ban Kao), paddle boarding, yoga, Thai kick boxing lessons, and cooking lessons. We recommend that you forego activities you can do back home (watching movies), and go out to those incredible overlooks instead. To help you prioritize, we’ve created a list of our Top 10 Adventures in Paradise Koh Tao, a must read for adventure travelers.
Every day of the week, a venue on Koh Tao offers free entertainment (at the cost of a drink). But be careful, your drinking budget may soon be larger than your food budget. If you’re keen on drinking, visit 7-11 for some big Chang, and enjoy your beers on the beach before heading into the party. Once inside the party no one pays attention: spend nothing and hang out and enjoy the show. This is especially true of beach entertainment where you’re just hanging around. If you decide to take a seat, expect to buy something.
You may also enjoy a free sunset every night, which can be so stunning. Anywhere with a westerly view and an unobstructed view provides a perfect spot. Just take along something comfortable (or dry) to sit on and some beers. Be careful about climbing up to overlooks for sunset with a bunch of beers, though, because you do need to carry bottles out, and dark treks down (what amounts to) goat trails do not make for fun experiences. Opt instead for an easily reached view from a westerly boulder near the southern end of Maehaad or the northern end of Sairee beach. You’ll also find the occasional beach swing and platform available. Why not set up a sunset party with friends?
Looking for a gorgeous sunrise? Book your room on the east side of the island and watch a gorgeous sunrise on Tanote Bay.
You can set up beach games of volleyball, soccer, frisbee or something similar just about anywhere on the beach. Just bring along or pick up a ball or frisbee, and invite some friends to play. Just about anything goes as far as organizing a group of people for something fun as long as it doesn’t violate Thai law or hurt someone. For example, you can talk someone into teaching you fire poi if you’re polite.
Bouldering and climbing are also attracting attention of visitors, as a few legitimate climbers have mapped out bouldering and climbing sites on Koh Tao. Many of these sites are free to use, sparing your Koh Tao budget a dent, others have a land-use fee. You should expect to carry your own equipment or contact an outfitter and pay a fee for a guide and equipment. If you’re down for bouldering, take a buddy to one of Koh Tao’s many sites. You’ll never get bored, as her rugged backbone juts out all over the island, extending down to the bays, providing endless hours of scrambling and bouldering down to amazing views and hidden bays. Even if you don’t want to scramble, boulder, or climb, the day hiking is sublime.
Worried about your Koh Tao budget fitting in a sweet accommodation? A mix of Thai and international investors have developed a wide variety of accommodations on Koh Tao that suit every budget. Gone are the days when only backpacker accommodations provided for SCUBA diving travelers. Now, resorts and villas exist to lure in even the wealthiest jet setter. Whether you set your target budget at shoestring or opulent, you’ll find everything from gorgeous to bare bones.
Chris and I have been pleased to discover that even our shoestring budget buys a comfortable place with a beautiful view. The trick to finding a beautiful place seems to be looking around, negotiating a bit in person (during off season), and smiling. Of course, many people are happy with the air conditioned room over 7-11. You decide.
Unlike Hawaii, where you’ll pay a premium for that incredible view, Koh Tao offers visitors beach-side bungalows at under $20 USD per night to anyone willing to walk along the beach to seek them out. If you’re looking for a sea view on a budget and are willing to drive a scooter and forego air condition and resort swimming pool, you’ll discover endless options lining just about every bay. What’s the reward? You’ll have a sweet breeze, a sea-side hammock, and the gentle waves will lure you to sleep for cheap. For example, Chris and I scored a Thai house with an incredible view of Chalok Ban Kao for less than $200 USD a month.
If air condition is your thing, no problem, Koh Tao will provide. Plenty of air condition accommodations exist along the main roads and our favorite bays, but you will pay slightly more for them. Note, if you’re staying a month, you’ll get the best deal with a significant decrease in prices. We recommend Chalok Ban Kao for a quiet experience in Paradise, or something closer to Sairee if you plan to walk to a party ever night.
The tropical paradise, Koh Tao, located in the Gulf of Thailand, lures visitors from around the world who seek her stunning coral reefs, affordable SCUBA diving, luxurious beaches, and tropical climate. With so much to offer, Koh Tao deserves at least a six-day stay, which is barely enough time to get in a PADI Open Water SCUBA Diver course and a couple of additional dives. Want to stay longer? Why not go from zero to hero with the Divemaster Internship?
Chris and I know that not everyone is willing to sell everything to move to paradise, so we hope that this budget primer on visiting Koh Tao will convince you that you can afford to dedicate your vacation to our favorite Thai island and have an amazing, “bucketlist” adventure in paradise. For more information about budgeting, getting to, and staying on Koh Tao, visit our FAQ.