I was a month inside my travels around the world. I had spent the first month hiking through snow, standing on the trains for hours and trying to learn to write Mandarin (just because no one spoke English!) China was a great experience, but I was getting ready to take on the beach and get some sun. At one of my last stops in China, I met a couple of amazing guys and one of them was named Jon. (Editor’s note: Two years later, Jon is now our creative director) Jon mentioned that a few of them flew from Hong Kong to Bangkok and were heading directly towards Koh Tao. I also happened to be on a flight to Thailand the exact day from Hong Kong, so I decided to join them. Little did I know that this decision would make me explore the underwater world for the first time.
Koh Tao (aka. Turtle Island) may be the smallest island out of the trio of islands there, but it has plenty to offer. Beaches that will blow you away, parties you will not forget (depending on how much you drank) and diving that will make you wish you had started exploring the underwater world much earlier. The first time I went, I spent almost 2 weeks diving and partying. The second time I went was for my birthday and I spent my time diving and partying. Third time … well, are you starting to understand what’s going on there?
How to get to Koh Tao Island
Let’s face it Thailand is a central hub for travelers as it is very accessible. From Bangkok, the islands are only a few train and ferry rides away. Below are a few of the most common routes that backpackers follow.
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Koh Tao to Bangkok
Train: From Bangkok, continue to Hualamphong Station and book a sleeper train for Chumphon. We recommend getting train + ferry combinations to avoid missing the ferry. You can check the train schedule online here.
Bus: If you are not big on trains, you can also take an overnight bus from Bangkok to Chumphon. Lomprayah is a popular company that sells combination tickets for bus and ferry.
Fly: Fly from Bangkok Don Muang Airport to Chumphon with Nok Air or Suratthani with Air Asia and then take a ferry to Koh Tao. Both of these airlines have teamed up with a ferry company that allows you to purchase a shared airline / ferry ticket on their website.
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Koh Tao to Phuket
Some of my friends went to Koh Tao from Phuket. Flights to Thailand are cheap, so often people fly to Phuket and then get a minibus to Surat Thani. You will find a night ferry that sails directly to Koh Tao. There are ferries during the day, but check the schedule in advance. If you are going to Phuket, you can also check out Koh Pi Pi, which is known for its popular day trips and hefty parties.
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Which diving school in Koh Tao should you dive with?
The competition for diving schools in Koh Tao is intense! Wherever you look, there is a diving school. You will even be contacted when you are on the ferry on the way there. Koh Tao is one of the most popular destinations in Thailand to get certified because not only is it very convenient, it is also one of the most affordable places in Asia. I chose to do my open water diving course with Light divers. They had new equipment, the prices were reasonable, and the team seemed great. Plus, my friend, who is an avid diver, recommended that we dive with them after checking out most of the competition.
Related: Best Similan Islands Liveaboard
How to choose a diving school in Koh Tao?
- Does the team seem friendly and qualified?
- Do they have an instructor who speaks the same language as you?
- How many students per. group? You do not want more than 4 for a group.
- Is the equipment new? In good condition?
- Are the prices competitive?
- Are their reviews good? Take the time to look it up online!
- Do they offer PADI or SSI? – If you know which organization you want to be certified by, make sure they offer it. If you do not know, just keep reading.
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Koh Tao Diving Awards (2016)
The speeds for diving in Koh Tao can vary a lot! Some offer great accommodation packages, some offer discounts during the winter season. Although the prices are all quite similar, we have compiled the rough prices on the diving schools to give you an overall overview of how much open water diving certifications cost. You want to choose a school that offers competitive prices. If they are massively cheaper compared to others, there is a reason!
Read: Best diving in Thailand
Please note that the rates quoted are from December 2016 and are quoted in Thai baht
Getting certified in Koh Tao: PADI or SSI?
No matter what organization you are certified by, you will dive with the same equipment and see the same underwater life. However, each sets their own standards and develops their own teaching methods / materials.
PADI: Known as the world’s leading diving training organization, PADI is a popular choice among novice divers. PADI courses are student-centered and provide maximum practice and realistic application. Wherever you choose to dive, your PADI certification card will be recognized and accepted.
SSI: Scuba Schools International grew out of the passion of a couple of avid divers who were keen to enable anyone to learn to dive. Although still world famous, SSI courses are generally cheaper than PADI.
I decided to go PADI because my friend recommended them. They are also the leading diving training organization and I was told that if I ever wanted a job as a diving instructor, it would be easier. What you choose is up to you. There are benefits to both.
Overview of open water diving course
The length of your courses will vary greatly for you. Some schools may give you a 2.5-day crash course, and others extend it to four. My opinion is, do not rush! Take your time, make the most of your lessons, and take it all in! Some schools also give you discounted dives right after you finish your course, so make sure to get the most out of it as well. I think I spent a week or so beating up all the dive sites … as you can see, I was addicted! Below is an example of what your open water diving certification would look like.
- Introduction and training orientation with video, in the morning.
- A very low (2/4 meter) dive that goes beyond basic skills. Note: Some schools do this in a pool.
- 1st dive with open water (12 meters)
- Classroom with video in the morning.
- The shallow dive through several skills (4/6 meters). Again, some schools do this in a pool. For me, this was the time when I started to feel comfortable diving.
- 2nd open water dive.
- 3rd and 4th open water dive (18 meters).
- Multiple choice test.
Bom … Certification card.
It is worth saying that I had an instructor all to myself. Every dive I went on, I got 1 to 1 workout. Having this one-on-one instruction was great for me. This is also why you need to make sure that the group sizes are small and manageable. Always ask about the diving school’s maximum group size.
Koh Tao Dive Spots: My Top Favorites
My favorite dive site in Koh Tao is far from the Chumphon Peaks. The summit itself is colorful and as soon as you get underwater you will find yourself surrounded by large shoals of bat fish, barracuda and trevally. Sometimes you can even see whale sharks slowly swimming around.
A very common dive site, Twins is easy to dive, shallow and everyone spends some time checking out the clownfish. You can not miss them. Trust me.
Ladies and gentlemen, Shark Island has… sorry to say, no sharks! Ironically, it was named shark island because of its shape. Despite the name being a bit of a failure, it has amazing soft corals and large boulders. Sometimes, depending on the season, Shark Island has some currents.
When it comes to Green Rock, it’s about the swims. This is where I really learned to control my buoyancy. A fun dive with lots of sea life that seems to recede into the cracks. They also have a place there, which they call the Trigger Pit, which you need to be careful of as the trigger fish can get quite aggressive. To paint a better picture, my partner was chased down by one as she swam across their mating spots.
Sail Rock is without a doubt one of the best places in Thailand, and is 50 minutes away by speedboat. It is a top-shaped iceberg that rises from the water and creates a dive out of this world wall. Famous for its vertical chimney, which is super fun to climb. In Sail Rock you can see whale sharks, giant morrays, groupers and bat fish. The trip here is definitely worth it and can be highly recommended.
Overall diving experience on Koh Tao
I came as a diving maiden and left a diving addict. On my first dive, I thought, “Holy shit, I’m going to die.” On my last dive, however, I did not want to get out of the water. Since then, I’ve been diving all over Asia and seen some pretty amazing things (think: whale sharks, giant manta rays, and a variety of reef sharks). Is it worth getting your open water certificate in Koh Tao? 100% yes! It is by far one of the most affordable places in Asia, making the experience all worth it.
Where to stay in Koh Tao
First of all, if you have not checked out our complete guide to Koh Tao … you should! Next up, to make things easier for you, we have compiled a list of Where to stay in Koh Tao . This list has options for any type of housing budget from budget stays to large dividends.
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