If you're into scuba diving or want to learn how, Koh Tao is the least expensive and most popular place to improve or begin. The island is full of diving schools, but it's also a great place to relax for a day or two...or 5.
Maybe it was the intense sun that baked me in, the cheap massages, or fun company of fellow travelers, but somehow, this island lulled me into spending far more time than I expected. Not having a pre-planned itinerary and traveling on my own allowed me the flexibility to stay as long or as short as I liked.
Getting there and accommodation:
From Koh Samui, I took the 2 hour evening ferry from Nathon Pier. It's easy to book through your hotel, and booking this way often includes a low-cost hotel transfer directly to the pier, arriving in plenty of time before departure. With several piers around the island, where you're staying will determine which one you depart from. It's possible to arrive by train/bus from Bangkok as well, but don't ask me how.
Bungalows abound on this island, and prices vary. There are many options for accommodation, so it just depends on what you're looking for and if you can split the cost with others. I stayed by the pier, which was ideal for arriving and departing. There were also many restaurants and shops to choose from, and easy access to beaches along the south, and Sairee Beach on the west coast.
The downside to the port area was being slightly outside of happening Sairee Beach, which really comes alive at night. Lanterns hang in trees and lights decorate corners of the street as you walk along the narrow sidewalk, dodging people, cars and scooters.
A cozy and pricey private getaway can be found at Haad Tien Resort on the southeast side, or Sairee's Cottages along Sairee beach -- the less expensive option. Otherwise, roughing it at a hostel is how I kept costs low.
If you're diving, you can often get cheap or free accommodation with a dive school. If not, check out Hostelworld for other affordable options. This can be a big party island, so read reviews and look around. After a terrible first night in a 12-person dorm, I quickly switched to a girls-only hostel.
Mopeds are especially popular here, but it's also easy to walk most of the island. Wearing a helmet didn't seem to be much of an issue, in contrast to the warnings about fines for not wearing one on Koh Samui.
Truck taxis are a very affordable and easy way to get around as well. You just need several people before they'll take you where you want to go. Most red truck taxis can fit 10 people, and are found all over Thailand.
Longtail boats will take you to famous Koh Nang Yuan. More about that to come...
Places to visit:
Ultra-touristy Koh Nang Yuan is expensive, popular, and a bit of a scam, but if you're in Koh Tao, you can't miss it. You can get there for 250-300 Baht/person, but make sure you also have an additional 100 baht per person, the hidden entrance fee upon landing.
The price of the longtail ride requires at least 2 people. My friend and I hopped on from upper Sairee Beach, whereas leaving from the pier area is another 50 baht. Be sure to ditch the towel and water bottle as neither are allowed onto the island. The chairs and umbrellas along the beach cost a fee, of course and be sure to eat before you go. Food is expensive and not that great. If you do need to buy something, have cash on you already -- there's no ATM.
The best view and activity is climbing up to the lookout point.
If you're wearing your swimsuit, wading in the water extends your stay and makes the price to get there more worth it. For an extra couple hundred baht, you could hit up both Mango Bay and Koh Nang Yuan in a day.
Longtails timetables are messy here, even if you've already agreed upon a pick-up time with your boat driver. Play it safe and arrive a little early, but be warned that you may still need to wait for the chaos on the dock before finally heading back to the beach.
A couple of my favorite places to eat were Yang and Coconut Monkey.
From Koh Tao, I took an unusual ferry ride and shuttle bus to Krabi (purchased from any tour company in Koh Tao) for a few days, where I took in some spectacular views of Railay Beach. Then it was a quick tour of Koh Phi Phi before heading north to Chiang Mai and Pai.