Koh Tao’s Best Beaches
The jewel of the Gulf of Thailand, Koh Tao is known internationally as Thailand’s dive island. It’s no surprise then that most tourists arrive to dive with the 40 plus shops spread out over the island. But Tao is just as good above water as below and is home to some absolutely stunning beaches.
I’ve spent the last three months here working on becoming a divemaster – the first professional level diving classification. In between my adventures underwater, I have been exploring every nook and cranny of this 21 km² island to find the best sites to see.
I’ve selected my 5 favorite beaches to share with you and what makes each them great.
Ao Leuk – Best Overall
My first experience with Ao Leuk beach was a timed 800 meter swim as part of my divemaster training. Even though I could hardly stand after my swimming sprint, I couldn’t help but be floored by the sheer beauty of this slice of paradise.
The bright, white, fine sand stretches the length of the protected cove on the southeast side of the island and is popular with tourists and locals alike. It is nowhere near as jam packed as Sairee Beach on the west coast and it has plenty of space to spread out. There is good snorkeling just 20 meters off the shore and along the rocky edges of the bay.
Follow the main road south toward Chalok and take the first left turn after Mae Haad. Along this road, the Ao Leuk turnoff will be on your right after 1.5 km. It is an intermediate road difficulty wise, but should be drivable for most. The only tricky part is at the turnoff from the main road where the paved portion turns to dirt after a steep decline. Or travel by taxi for about $7 per person round trip (minimum 4 people required per taxi) from Sairee.
Koh Nang Yuan – Most Unique
Koh Nang Yuan is a small island situated just off the coast of Koh Tao and makes for a wonderful half day trip from the main island. Nang Yuan is a private island owned by the same family that runs the Lomprayah ferry company in the Gulf of Thailand. Because of this exclusivity, the Nang Yuan Resort has strict rules on what is allowed on their small isle. They prohibit outside food and drinks and notably no water bottles. That being said I would recommend only half day trips after breakfast or lunch. The island closes to non-guests at 5pm.
Highlights of Koh Nang Yuan are the crushed coral beach connecting the three land masses. I’ve heard it said that this is the only island in the world formed by a three-legged sandbar. You also must hike to the top of the southern viewpoint for the most photographed spot in Southern Thailand. The view on clear days is second to none.
To get to Nang Yuan, either hire a long tail from anywhere along Sairee Beach on Koh Tao or check with the ferry offices at the main pier in Mae Haad. Long tail prices are highly variable so be ready to do some negotiating. I’ve paid between $4-6 round trip per person in the past for a half day trip. There is also an entrance fee per person onto the island for an additional $2.50.
Sairee Beach – Most Accessible
Sairee Beach is one of the first things visitors see on approach to the island as they arrive on ferries from the mainland. The 1.7 kilometer-long beach stretches from the outskirts of Mae Haad to the rocky headlands on the northwest edge of the island.
The beach is at the center of activity on Koh Tao and on calm, sunny days can be found full of sunbathers, stand-up paddle boarders, games of volleyball and more. At low tide the beach provides ample sunbathing space and the seabed is smooth and free of sharp rocks until the barrier reef about 20 meters off shore. Even at high tide or rough surf, the beachfront is teeming with life from the 20-plus restaurants and bars that front the sand.
From the pier, walk one of the two roads that travel north to south on the island. I would recommend walking the beach road, which turns off the down road in Mae Haad at Cafe del Sol. The walk will take about 15 minutes. This street is limited to foot and motorbike traffic and is much more peaceful. Once you pass the small shrine to King Rama V after the steep descent, the beach begins on your left. It runs all the way to Koh Tao Cabanas at its northern end.
Freedom Beach – Most Secluded
Getting to Freedom Beach isn’t the easiest if you are staying in the main tourist towns of Sairee and Mae Haad but the trouble is worth it. Situated at the southern tip of the island, the beach sits beyond Chalok and Taa Toh Beach at the very end of the main north-south road on Tao.
Since it is such a small secluded place there are no dive shops and only one small resort and restaurant nearby. I’ve only ever seen 15 people or less here and yet the sand is some of the purest I’ve found on Tao. I also really like the low shade trees just two meters off the shoreline that give the beach its unique look.
Follow the alternative paved walking path around the headland just west of the beach to get back to Taa Toh Beach and your motorbike.
Follow the main road south toward Chalok all the way until it passes by the main Chalok dive shops and turns uphill. You will see signs for John Suwan Rock, the southernmost viewpoint on the island. Park at Taa Toh Bay and venture down the dirt path to Freedom Beach. Or hire a taxi for $7 per person round trip (minimum 4 people required per taxi) from Sairee.
Sai Nuan – Best Snorkeling
The first time I donned a mask and snorkel at this stunning alcove, I was greeted by a huge array of underwater life, including spotting my first black tip reef shark on Koh Tao! The intimate Sai Nuan #1 and #2 offer small curved beaches bookended by tall boulders and dense jungle. Beach #1 is my favorite of the two with a permanent slackline for testing your balance, a couple of swings, and plenty of shade under coconut palms. Beach #2 has a couple bars to grab a beer or snack in, but the best snorkeling is found back at #1.
Your best chances of seeing sharks are always first thing in the morning or in late afternoon and especially on less crowded beaches such as these two. The sharks in these waters are very timid and are a real treat if you do get to spot one. Also be on the lookout for large schools of parrotfish that can be heard munching away on the corals in the area.
There are two ways to get to Sai Nuan, one involving a bit of a hike and the other riding some of the steepest roads I’ve encountered on Koh Tao. That said I’d recommend the walk via a trail from the Charm Churee Resort. Starting in Mae Haad at the Lomprayah pier, walk south on the beach road until you reach a road turning up to the left. On the left corner is a small sandwich joint called Da’s. Head uphill until your first right past a bar called Moov. Continue to the end of this road and walk through the Charm Churee Resort following signs for Jansom Bay and Sai Nuan. The trail winds about 1km past the resort with great views of the aquamarine water. If you aren’t up for a hike, hire a taxi for $7 per person round trip (minimum 4 people required per taxi) from Sairee.
Did I miss any of your favorites? Have you visited these yourself? Tell me in the comments.
Also be sure to check out this map of Koh Tao for any additional directions. It’s the best I’ve found online.