Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Readers' Trip Reports - Ko Tao


Some of you are probably wondering why I’m posting this trip report when it’s supposed to be a forum for READERS’ trip reports. A number of reasons:
-          The smartass response: no-one reads this stuff as much as me
-          The desperation response: too few of you dudes seem to find the time to send me reports hence I gotta do it myself. Please folks, a few pix with captions aint a big ask.
-          The responsible response: I have a lot of info which may be useful to intending Tao visitors: however I’m reluctant to put it on the main Tao page on account that page is already maybe too crammed with stuff.

Our first destination was this tiny tri-island less than 1 km off Ko Tao's north-west corner. The Lomprayah ferry from Phangan was supposed to drop us off at Nangyuan's pier but because it was running late (a not infrequent occurrence) we were dumped at Tao's main pier from where we transferred to Nangyuan Island Resort's shuttle boat, reaching Nangyuan a good hour later after clambering across several daytrip boats moored parallel at the resort's super crowded pier. I have done a detailed report ("DAYTRIP CLIP JOINT") on the Nangyuan page here. Maybe you can tell I wasn't exactly whelmed by the joint, unlike several stays in years gone by.

Sensi Paradise has a great position. spread out along a gently sloping hillside at the south end of Mae Had's beach, which is a good stretch of sand most areas but unexpectedly nice in this southern corner (the resort's conscientious staff do a pretty good job of manicuring its section of beach).
We came in from Ko Nangyuan (far background left) on that resort's shuttle to the pier area (mid-background right - which may better be seen if you click-expand shot) from where it was less than 5 minutes walk along a mostly okay road behind the beach (a bit sandy towards the Sensi end). The resort will pick up from the pier but why complicate things to avoid such a short walk?
Water in the corner of the beach seemed to be suffering from the nearby boat area but became unexpectedly clear once 25m from shore and I found some interesting coral and fish out there which continues as you head westwards close to the rocks - the area seemed to keep guest snorkelers quite entertained.

Our bungalow was very spacious, fully equipped except for TV, had lots of thoughtful extras, finished nicely in attractive dark wood, comfortable beds and quiet at night except for some distant boat noise. Staff performance was excellent. But at around 3300baht all the above is to be expected
The outlook from the rockside/beachside restaurant was similar to the opening shot. The inclusive buffet breakfast wan't as fancy as some big resorts but pretty nice. Other food prices were higher than I expected for a place with so much close budget competition, but still value by western standards and supported by its quantity/presentation. There are a couple of budget resort restaurants within two minutes and plenty in town starting 5 minutes walk away. Lotsa shopping and other services there too.

The higher of the twin pools - the other very similar: lovely areas. Sensi Paradise is one of Tao's oldest resorts - it's kinda hard to believe you could get backpackers' bungalows here in the mid 90s for 100b: no pools of course, and the place was a lot more compact. Like plenty of early resorts, Sensi has expanded, updated and headed upmarket over the years and is now a rather nice lower-midrange resort.

Sensi Paradise is well situated. As said, the piers and town starts less than 5 minutes walk north. The west coast walking track goes thru Sensi, across to lovely Jamson Bay (10 minutes) thru some very nice resorts like Charm Churee before turning south along the west coast where you can pass some of Tao's most laid back beaches at Sai Nuan and Gul Jea and eventually reach the south coast 10 minutes west of popular Chalok Ban Kao in about 40 minutes total. You can see the full route of this track about 65% down the main Tao page.

Montalay's more expensive rooms are in the hotel block seen mid-distance left of center. We stayed in one of the garden bungalows, the roofs of which can be seen a bit higher up the hill center far left.

Montalay's pool is between the hotel block and the beach - a pretty nice place to spend time.
I usually try to stay in a different place when I revisit a beach but if you scroll down page you can see I was at Montalay in July 2013. Thing is, Lady Tezza was with me this visit - she likes comfortable places with a pool (as do I) and as far as I know Montalay is the only place right on the beach at Tanote can do this.
I'm not going to repeat information available down page on Montalay except to say it seemed up to standard as before.

One thing I was less than impressed with latest visit was the amount of junk on the beach. Okay, the area immediately in front of Montalay was pretty good, but this mid-beach area was a little underwhelming. February is a relatively short time after the on-shore nor-easterly monsoon winds stop blowing - looks like the local dudes haven't got around to cleaning the general beach yet.

As usual, I went trekking - as I was determined to find the correct trail to Laem Thian, which turned out to be via the dam then a hard right where the track from Sairee arrives BEFORE 2 Views. On the way back I checked the southern viewpoint via the white trail off the main road past Tanote Villa Hill Resort (you can also access this area via a track up past Jah Bar from the south end of the beach). The pic 3 above this was shot from the viewpoint.
Beware of super steep slopes, rough tracks and high temps for much of the area I covered.

Laem Thian beach turned out pretty underwhelming  - a very compact section of sand with a lot of wind blown scum and flotsam just off shore. The small resort closed several years ago and was in ruins.

Equally unimpressive was the new dam - this is late Feb, about 6 weeks after the wet season normally ends. Hate to see the water level late Sept which is normally towards the end of dry season. I blame all these mid-range dudes staying in places with cool pools.

When the ferries arrive there is a bunch of transport mafia guys will take you over to Tanote for an arm and a leg. Fortunately a lot of the resorts will do free or cut price shuttles.
Free was the case with Montalay, so The Lady and I walked the 5 minutes from Sensi Paradise to the pier area, found the transport guy and 5 minutes later were on our way with 2 guests off the incoming ferry.
Going out, Montalay charged 100b each for transfers which is maybe a third of what the transport mafia want.


Phangan in the distance from Moondance Magic View at Lang Khai Bay

These are the places I stayed at on Tao this latest trip. I was after areas I hadn’t stayed at before.


First stop was at Moondance Magic View at at Lang Khai Bay in the south of Tao’s east coast. This place is perched high on the rocks above the bay – there is no beach. Far left just above the snorkel is the cliff-top restaurant. My bungalow is the central of the ones right of the central boat upright.
I booked on one of the popular booking sites - Moondance picked me up at the ferry pier and shuttled me up here for no extra charge.

The exterior of the restaurant area is all grey weathered dfriftwood, multi-level paths twisting around big granite boulders etc – nice place to spend time. Sweet little bar area playing cool retro music out of shot upper right. Background is the outer part of Ao Leuk bay in Tao's south-east.

Looking north up the west coast you can just see Laem Thian, the small beach north of Tanote Bay.

No beach, but there is a wooden walkway down to the sunbathing platform, and considerably lower, the entrance to the water. Snorkelling was okay around the rocks but not of the standard of better Tao locations. Bay seemed to be a favourite of dive boats…..

…..and individual passers-by.

View of restaurant area from down there. Fitness-challenged visitors may need a few stops to catch their breath. A few points about  the restaurant: Extensive menu at budget bungalow prices. But the dishes I had seemed to be short of the usual Thai tasty thing. Maybe they were breaking in a new cook. Lotsa nice sitting spots outside but the place was a bit short on undercover seating if it happened to rain. Inclusive breakfast was basic but okay.
Staff members were good particularly guest liaison guy Tony whom* I thought was overworked. Some bosses don’t realise what great employees they have. I made sure the mamasan running this joint knew Tony was appreciated.
*not putting on any side: just a lucky guess. Maybe.

My bungalow at Moondance Magic View. Split pine walls, thatched roof trad style, clean, plenty of room for 2 + gear. Thin but okay king mattress, net needed tlc but worked, big grotto-style outside bathroom, big deck with busted hammock and bay views (I figured just about all bungalows have sea views). No bottled water. This one about 5 mintues walk from reception – most paths in the joint well lit but I needed a torch for last part of my walk. Very quiet.

View from deck.

SUM UP: the general area is a great get away from it spot. It will also please non-hardcore snorkelers. It is a good base for keen trekkers to walk to Tanote, 2 Views, Ao Leuk, back into town and several other places. But killer slopes require fitness on all these routes. It is not a good location for ravers although the resort’s price for shuttles into town/Sairree are lower than elsewhere.

I’d been wanting to stay at Gul Jea for years – the south west beaches of Tao are attractive but relatively unknown and thus quiet and uncrowded. Transfer there from Moondance Magic View was relatively painless – that place has a board in the restaurant with very fair prices for island transfers in their own pickup – probably less than half the cost of the taxi mafia in town.
I’d always fancied Moondance* bungalows on Gul Jea south, but when I got there it had changed names to Orchid Cliff. The old Orchid Cliff was a bit further south in the area now occupied by the giant upmarket Pinnacle resort.
When I arrived the place was deserted – I finally rustled up someone next door to the south at Sunset Resort who found their brother who was running the new Orchid Cliff. He wanted 500 and I talked him down to 400, not great value but okay I guess for Tao in high season. I was the only guest in a place with about a half dozen bungalows.

The circular bungalow with cement rendered walls, witches hat bamboo roof, no veranda, outside toilet (squat) with basic shower, no veranda, no bottled water. Was clean and deceptively roomy with plenty of space for 2 people and gear. The bed had a 5 degree slope and thin mattress but was comfy apart from hard pillows. The net was okay. The area was very quiet.
*the link with Moondance Magic View at Lang Khai Bay– the lady running that new joint used to run this Gul Jea place.

View out the door.

The new Orchid Cliff didn’t have a restaurant. I ate a few meals at Sunset on Gul Jea north above, but gave that a miss after the lady running that joint got nasty when I chided her about the 40baht boiled rice (other prices higher than typical budget bungalows but not the 100% we are talking about with the rice). Trip Adviser suggests her stropiness is not confined to dopey Aussie blokes. So my other meals were had immediately to the north at JD Resort, a place seemingly pushing into the flashpacker/lower midrange with a nice sea view restaurant, great service and no higher prices (the boiled rice was cheaper).

Gul Jea south – JD Resort’s restaurant is above the rocks at beach end. Buildings behind are part of the big Pinnacle Resort. The beach was manicured each morning by Pinnacle staff and had a few Pinnacle sun lounges – but it was never crowded. Snorkelling was very average with scappy coral and a few fish. I didn’t think the water was as clear as previous visits – Pinnacle run-off?

SUM UP: this area is a good get away from it spot. Adjacent beaches a short distance north have some very relaxed travellers' bars and restaurants. It is also a good base for walks to the southern beaches and to town. Note that transfers from the pier are not cheap if not included in your accommodation price – 300 seems the go (2013) which is outrageous for such a relatively short distance. Ravers note – it is going to cost you a lot to get into town/Sairree to party.

I saw a good deal on the newish midrange Montalay Resort at Tanote. It had free pickup from the pier so I got some transport back into town from Jul Jea (the cheapest I could get was a rip-off 300 from Pinnacle Resort) and threw my gear into Montalay’s pickup.

Montalay is towards the northern part of Tanote beach – it’s actually a new development of Black Tip Divers’ who’s rather colourful main building can be seen background above. Montalay’s more contemporary grey cement reception and hotel block is in the vegetation behind from this angle – the cheaper garden units are built up the steep rainforested hill further from the beach – if you click expand you will better some of see their peaked roofs top left.

My garden bungalow. This was in the style of typical island resort travellers’ bungalows (maybe mark3) – but much much more spacious and equipped with lower midrange stuff like the big plasma screen, jug, hot water etc. But no aircon – not that this was needed on the vegetation-shaded lower hillside. The bed was only a double, but super-comfy with good nets complimented by good window screens. The deck was huge and had a distant bay view (see pic below). This is a super quiet are. Main complaint – the lighting was a bit dim for easy reading. Oh yeah, if you are very fitness-challenged you will not like the 250m uphill from reception/restaurant – the last 50m of which are not exactly horizontal.

View from deck – the roof in shot is of the hotel block/reception. Idea of height/distance better gained by checking perspective of distant fishing boats.

Cool pool. When I last visited Tanote several years back this was Black Tip Divers’ pool. As such you can still expect the occasional group of wet-suited submerged types doing their basics at the deep end while you rip off a lap or three (yeah, I know – all you cool dudes don’t rip off laps – yer cuddle yer lover in the shallow end. Be circumspect: any overt move may cause learner-diver to swallow his/her regulator).
This is shot from the lower deck of the restaurant. Which was pretty good. The inclusive breakfast buffet was very satisfactory and while a la carte prices for other meals were 40-50% higher than typical budget bungalow restaurants, the presentation (the 120 baht pad thai came wrapped in a lovely omelette) and size (the 150 baht sweet and sour pork was huge with heaps of pork) were several steps up. Put it this way: I’m a cheapskate and yet I did not eat at any of the several cheaper restaurants on the beach.

Overall judgement of Montalay – a pretty good place and fair value. At around $us55 high season it was way better value than the $37 Relax Bay on Phi Phi I stayed at 2 weeks later (low season over there) not to mention the $140 D’Coconut at Malaysia’s Lang Tengah (room no better, inferior beach and snorkelling, shoulder season shortages of some food and drinks) a short time later.

Late afternoon scene from in front of Montalay – beach bar playing okay music just out of frame right.

This rock area is not a great distance off Tanote beach. Has pleasing snorkelling on this side – I thought as good as anywhere I’d seen on the around island snorkelling trip. Rock also good for free-jumping: about a 15m drop off far right back corner – helper ropes to climb it.

SUM UP: Tanote is one of the better places to stay on Tao – the beach is nice and doesn’t seem to get too crowded, has good snorkelling, a good range of accommodation and is a fairly quiet location. It is a good base for trekkers – the climb out of the beach alone is a real good workout. Although there are a few beach bars and lively restaurants, ravers will not be impressed by the distance from town/Sairree.

These are offered by every resort and small travel agent on the island. There seems to be at least half a dozen operators some putting on these trips. Costs may vary a bit depending on where you shop – I thought my 850baht purchased from Montalay which was for a full day including lunch and transfers from the resort was reasonable value. These inclusive transfers seem standard no matter where you book.

STOP 1 – Shark Bay in the island’s south. Nung, the tour guide, points out the best areas which were close to the rocks on the eastern side of the bay. I wasn’t whelmed: visibility was poor, coral pretty wrecked and the small harmless reef sharks scarce. I saw one, a very small specimen. Some other people saw a few bigger ones.

STOP 2 – Although Ao Leuk was advertised we sailed by to Hing Wong Bay in the island’s west. I’ve snorkelled the near-rocks central area in front of Hing Wong Resort (this shot may be worth click-expanding) in the past and found it good value. But we moved across to the far right, very close to that blue roofed resort (View Rock Resort) – just to its right and swimming towards the rocks to be exact. This area too I thought very good by Thai standards. Nice rock formations and coral, lotsa fish including a few big ones. Nung handed me a big clam – surprisingly heavy even in the water.

STOP 3 – Mango Bay. Our area was on the eastern side, seaward of Ao Mung Resort - once again swimming in towards the shore rocks. Not bad although inferior to HIng Wong. Some nice soft coral, plenty of what I call sea mushrooms. Lots of fish. Pays to stick close to Nung – he was expert at finding tiny Nemos (clown fish) in the swaying soft coral.

As usual, a few scraps of bread brought thousands of fish up from the depths.

Lunch was post snorkel at Mango. Pretty standard fried rice/chicken/shrimps combo which I always enjoy. Lotsa bottled water, some fruit – plus beer, soft drinks could be purchased at reasonable prices any time.

STOP 4 – The lovely little island of Ko Nangyuan just off Tao’s north west coast. This was an extended stop of 2.5 hours which gave plenty of time to snorkel, climb to the viewpoint top right of image, grab some sun on the beach, hang at the beach bar or in the big restaurant etc.
I found the snorkelling very ordinary – see my Nangyuan page for more details.
For the record, Nangyuan’s 100baht entry fee seemed to be covered for some of us, not others – depending on where you bought your ticket.

SUM UP: an enjoyable day. Tao seems to have just about the best coral in Thailand in recent years (the Similans and Surins have been knocked about by coral bleaching) and no shortage of fish. For island fans it is a great way to orientate yourself to the full coastline – my first experience of this despite many visits.

Sunset at Gul Jea.


The journey was pretty typical of travel around Thailand. We were dropped at a restaurant in the port town (probably the bus driver’s sister's cousin's place!), then herded into Songthaews (converted pick-up trucks) to take us to the Surathani pier.
Halfway there the trucks stopped at a petrol station an we were chucked back onto the pavement with no idea what was going on.
Alnother coach arrives and we get on to find our that our ferry has been cancelled and we are going to drive 6 hours up the mainland to Chumpon where a boat will take us to the island. Our ‘boat’ was actually a small cargo ship – after climbing over 2 jeeps, and pallets of vegetables and Thai whisky we made it to the sleeping quarters.
As the pictures show it wasn’t exactly luxury but that’s how Thailand works and after another (surprisingly comfy) night’s sleep we docked into Koh Tao at 6am the next morning.

Ban Kao.
Our favourite beach previously had been Haad Sairee but we were disappointed to find that it had been hugely developed since our last trips. Where there had once been just a few bamboo bungalows was now a mass of horrid, concrete buildings spreading out onto the sand so the beach was nothing more than a tiny sliver. Dejected, we hopped in a taxi and headed to Ban Kao on the South side of the island and were excited to find the Koh Tao we remembered still existed there – just a few resorts and a small, curved, palm fringed cove. We stayed in a concrete bungalow at the Big Fish Resort for 500 baht a night which was simple but comfy.

We visited Nang Yuan island which is a short longtail boat ride away and has 3 gorgeous forest covered islands connected by sandbanks at low tide. There is a 50 baht admission fee per person which I assume goes towards preserving the island and to that end, you can't take plastic bottles/bags in (although the island has a restaurant and beach bar so you won't starve or go thirsty!) If you like snorkelling there are several reefs to explore although get there as early as you can - its becoming a hugely popular dive site and the water was pretty busy by late morning . If you're feeling active you also can climb up to the island lookout for a breathtaking view.

On our last day I nagged Andy into hiring us a moped (well it only cost us £3 - bargain!). It was a pretty scary experience though given the lack of helmets/insurance, unpaved roads and Thai traffic laws (i.e. there are none) but with slow progress we did manage to see a bit of the island including a rather cool whale skeleton!

It was my 26th birthday whilst on Koh Tao. I wasn’t expecting anything given that the holiday was a big treat in itself but Andy still surprised me with cake, some little presents, sweeties and a Happy New Year card (apparently they had no birthday ones!). He also treated me to lunch and dinner (a big deal when you’re on a backpacker budget) so thank you Andy for a lovely day! :)

Rachael has more on Tao, plus other islands like Lanta, Mook and Bulon Lae on her site A DATE AT THE TATE. She also has a section on Bangkok and some good general info on MONEY, FOOD, COSTS etc.If you want to submit a trip report on Tao or any other location please send text and any pix to

Back to the main Ko Tao page.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you nice article.
    your next trip…Phuket is the best choice for you!!
    I love here Surin Beach Hotel This hotel is very nice clean and the people are friendly. VERY nice hotel with helpful staff.
    And I really love white sand, crystal clear waters at Surin Beach too.
    Thank again.