Sunday, December 17, 2006

Ko Tao

Ao Leuk, one of the laid back bays on the east coast of Tao - image Stephane Fauconnier TrekEarth

ATTENTION - If you stumble across this page note it is the OLD Tao page - there is an updated one following revisits with a lot more info and pix HERE.

Wow, how things change! Although I was on KO NANGYUAN (that gorgeous little satellite island - click ) 2 years ago, I haven’t been on Tao proper since 1997. The main town with the piers, MAE HAT is no longer a small village with a limited range of services. SAIREE BEACH to the north, which had lots of open space and a half dozen elcheapo places is now fully built up with a really big range of accommodation from better budget thru to midrange+, plus heaps of restaurants, bars, shops etc. It’s not too far off becoming another Chaweng, for better or worse. The road down to popular CHALOK BAN KAO on the south coast is paved rather than the dirt track which at one stage worked its way along a running creek bed for 70m. Ban Kao itself, which was a jumble of budget and dive resorts, looks much more orderly and attractive, with more midrange stuff and a good range of services. Like Sairee, the beach is pretty nice (they have cleaned out the boat junk and starter-mangroves), but both places get REAL shallow at low tide.
Part of Chalok Ban Kao - Koh Tao Resort with pool (image Thai-Tour.com) -
The really good thing for old timers is that there are still some very laid back places where you can get away from the hassle and crowds - for instance, just about any of the east coast bays.


Ko Toa - image from www.hotelthailand.com
More detailed maps showing bungalow locations - TRAVELFISH MAP OF KO TAO - AND WESTERN KO TAO
I hired a bicycle and checked out AO HIN WONG first. It is on the northern half of the east coast and is accessed by a relatively short mainly dirt road from Sairee village. This has some killer slopes and very rough sections so be very careful if you are on a motorcycle. I saw a local and his passenger have a small come-off here - these guys ride those roads every day. The bay itself is relatively small with two bungalow operations, both of which had elevated restaurants and bungalows. I bought a super-cold beer off the friendly folk at GREEN TREES which had bungalows for 200 baht. The other place looked a bit further upmarket, but not super flash. There is no beach here, but heaps of big granite rocks for sunning and the bay itself is great for swimming (I didn’t have my snorkel gear or lap-swimming goggles but the underwater scene appeared to have lots of interesting rocks and sections of coral for snorkelers). The water is deep at all tides. There was only a handful of people in the restaurants and sunning/swimming - the perfect get away from it place.

More busy and commercial, but still pretty relaxed was AO TANOTE, a slightly bigger bay more central to the east coast and accessed from a similar type of track south of Mae Hat. TANOTE BAY RESORT seems to take up most of the northern headland here and has a heap of bungalows from flash to basic. They start around 500baht. The top, most seaward ones had fabulous views both over the bay and northward up the coast. There is a nice smallish beach which had about 20 people sunning, a dive class doing theory and another 20 or so in the water swimming and snorkeling. There were some smaller bungalow outfits on the other side of the bay, with starting prices around 300, plus some nicely positioned ones dispersed along the steep hillside above the approach road as it descended the mountainside.
Tanote Bay on the laid back east coast (image Thailand Paradise)
A side road heading south off the Tanote track takes you to AO LEUK, a cross between Hin Wong and Ao Tanote in that it was very compact with just two places, but had a nice little beach. I had a super hot papaya salad in AO LEUK BUNGALOW'S beachside restaurant. They told me their bungalows started at 300.I din't swim here, but these bays tend to have some fringing coral around the headland rocks and a coral reef drop-off into the deeper water.
UPDATE - Nov 07. Several Thorntree posters mention threats and actual violence from the owner of Ao Leuk Bungalows if you are a casual visitor to the beach and try to bring your own food, drinks. Might be politic to buy something in his restaurant first and if you consume your own stuff, be discrete.
Or give the place the big miss, it's nothing special.
UPDATE NOV09 - I intend to stay on the east coast for part of my next visit. Hin Wong was my first choice - but this appealing-looking place on a little bay just north of Tanote, Laem Thian, makes my choice more difficult.

A couple of years back some Brits told me of an idyllic stay they had in one of the several small bays in the SOUTH WEST CORNER OF THE ISLAND - the area south of the main town, which is known as the HAT SAI NUAL-AO KUL JEUA are. So I spent the best part of a day exploring this on foot. The place which appealed most to me here was the area around SUNSET and MOONDANCE bungalows, because it had the nicest section of beach (Kul Jeua), some funky looking inexpensive bungalows with ocean views, could be accessed by a fairly flat rough dirt road from near Chalok Ban Kao (some of these bays are best accessed by long tail which can get expensive) and was populated by a handful of those Euro young couples and families who seem to specialise in finding out of the way locations.

Further south on this track I found the best positioned restaurant in Tao. This belonged to VIEWPOINT BUNGALOWS and was one of these places built on stilts over the seaside rocks with the water actually sloshing below at high tide. It is right on the western end of the south coast, with fabulous views of Ban Kao’s beach, headland and the surrounding hills and mountains. Viewpoint is more a flashpacker place with good looking seaside bungalows at 800 baht and a nice little section of sand, but despite being a bit upmarket, I had the best value (and tastiest) meal of my whole LOS trip here, a sweet and sour chicken with rice (yeah, I know, it’s not Thai) for 60baht.
You can also reach Viewpoint off the beach at Chalok Ban Kao by taking the concrete footbridge across the rocks westwards to TARAPORN'S restaurant (good views here too, but not as good as Viewpoint) and continue thru another 300m to Viewpoint. Taraporn has some attractive rockside bungalows too, which were 400 when I asked.


Chalok Ban Kao. Taraporn bungalows at sea level on far headland (image Thai-Tour.com)



Just east of Chalok Ban Kao in a bay of similar size is a very nice private* beach at AO THIAN OK (often called SHARK BAY, because harmless reef sharks and other interesting fish and some fairly good coral can be seen when snorkelling off the east headland - further along from Rocky Resort). There are only 3 resorts here, 2 on the headlands. There was a small charge for access when I visited, but I hear that it has been removed. The beach attracts quite a few people without getting overcrowded. The water is deeper at low tide here. Follow the road from the eastern end of Chalok's "main street".
*no beach in Thailand is private, despite what some hotel/bungalow people tell you. However the guy who owns Rocky Resort owns all the land behind the beach and used to collect an entry fee to go thru his land to the beach. There are reports he gets upset about people bringing their own snorkelling gear instead of hiring it off the beach gear-eats stand he usually has operating just behind the beach. When I snorkelled here, I went in off the rocks of the headland.
So which of these places did I stay at? None.
Sitting on Ko Nangyuan previous visits I’ve always thought the bungalows built high on the steep slopes north of Sairee Beach on Tao’s west coast looked pretty good and would have killer views. So when I got off the “new” night vehicle-ferry from Chumpon (which looks a recycled WW2 US Navy landing barge with a funky dorm behind the bridge containing abt 30 mattresses) I went up and got me one, at SILVER CLIFF BUNGALOWS. 300 baht for a wooden bungalow, attached bathroom with mirror, clean, solid, just enough room for two and their gear, comfortable double bed with good mosquito net. The big verandah had a hammock and a great 100 degree tree and rock framed view of the ocean, as did the small restaurant, but my favourite viewing spot was on top of a nearby huge granite boulder, the perfect sunset location with a bottle of Chang or Mae Khong. The restaurant meals were pretty good with an astounding variety and some of the cheapest prices all trip. Their sweet and sour was a bit ordinary after Viewpoint’s however. There is a track to the seaside rocks way down there and the snorkeling is quite interesting right off the rocks but even more so about 40m out where the fringing coral reef is located. The restaurant hires snorkeling gear.
Silver Cliff only has about 10 bungalows (some are bigger with aircon) but there are two similar places adjacent to the north, SUN SEA and SUN LORD, which seemed to have a bigger range of bungalows., including down close to the water. A group of Brits were having great late afternoon fun down there with crazy diving contests off a big granite boulder and fanging around in a small rowboat.
These places are about 10 minutes walk downhill to the closest part of Sairree beach and a good 40 minutes into central Mae Hat and the piers. No problems with a bicycle or motorcycle. 50 baht by motorbike taxi, 100 by car from town.






Sairree Beach, probably the best beach for party types (image Thailand Paradise)
If you head the other way as far north as possible (gets a bit steep in parts but the road is paved) you can head down a short track to another place I liked, CFT HERE AND NOW BUNGALOWS, which had a terrific rainforest restaurant with a cutout through the canopy for great views of Ko Nangyuan and some pretty rustic looking bungalows scattered down in the jungle. This place seemed to attract the granola munching types. I had to have a sunset beer here, and the guy told me they had some 100 baht bungalows (share bathrooms). And meditation classes! Sounds like just the place for the hippy haters from Tales of Asia.
Ko Nangyuan (image Panoramio-janols)




















The beach at Nangyuan

From the personalities point of view, Tao is of course the haunt of the diver, and it’s real interesting how they get that ‘special group’ swagger when walking around bungalow restaurants and beaches with their wet suits rolled down to hip level. Hell, if I was paying all that money for a course or a series of dives, I’d bung on a swagger too.
Another interesting group seen on Tao more than other islands is the dirt biker. These guys don’t hire 100 cc Honda Dreams, they blat up and down the ridiculous slopes at death defying speed on big 500+ dirt bashers. It’s a bit disconcerting walking your bicycle down a dangerously rutted dirt slope to suddenly find one of these things flying past at head height nudging 80 kmh.
And yeah, after my multiple end-over-ender on Ko Jum, I got sensible and walked my hire-a-wreck Cannondale down the steepest, most rutted and rocky sections. Well, not too sensible. I have a rather immature show-off streak and on the less dangerous downhill sections got great satisfaction overtaking a few motorcycles. However I should mention it is not such a good idea to enter the upper reaches of Sairee village at warp speed if a dog runs out in front of you.

UPDATE NOV 07 - there have been several complaints on Thorntree about motorcycle rental rip-offs on Tao recently - specifically people being hit for huge damage bills for small scrapes or for no damage at all. One place mentioned is Owen Motorcycle Rental. Some posters suggested it is a good idea to photograph any existing damage before you leave the joint, and to carry an expired passport to give as "security" when renting.

UPDATE DEC 08 - diver9, who I'm 95% sure is HansumMan - the Joker in the Glass House with a new handle, gave this good info about things to do on Tao apart from diving:
A walk up to the central pinnacle from the west coast is cool.
Dirt biking around the island for views is great fun if ur capable.
Breakfasts in Fatties just out of Mae Had going south are... extremely fattening with newspapers & amazing service.
There's a very underused paintball site & an overused 9 pin bowling lane.
Crazy golf further down the road from Fatties if you're really bored but I hear it can be very amusing if you mix it with mushrooms from the Rock Bar at Chalok Ban Kao.
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GETTING TO TAO FROM BANGKOK.
From Bankok the cheapest would be train or bus to Chumpon and then hop on one of the fast ferries which goes to Tao. Chumpon is a long way north of the popular alternative of Surathani. Chumpon is also a closer to Tao than Surathani. I know the sleeper train south (I think final destination is Hat Yai) gets into Chumpon in good time to catch the first express boat out each morning.
I have seen a lot of posts saying Lomprayah ferry company's bus/fast catermaran combination is very reliable - I think that bus goes overnight too and leaves from an office very close to Bangkok's Khao San Road.
If your schedule has you arriving in Chumpon late pm, there are two night ferries across to Tao.

More expensive time-saver is to fly to Samui and then hop across to Tao on one of the ferries or speedboats connecting the islands. Or fly to Surathani and catch a ferry. I think you are looking at Bangkok Air for the former (although I heard other airlines are now flying into Samui) and AirAsia, Thai and maybe others into the latter.

From most* of the Andaman or from the South -
most people come in through Surathani. Some ferries leave from the town itself but more, including vehicle ferries depart from further east on the coast. If you are coming in via the bus station, the airport or railway station (the last 2 both out of town), there are travel counters or adjacent travel agents who will sell you a shuttle bus-ferry ticket right onto the island.
Last I heard there was a night ferry from the town pier too, at around 2000-2100.
* from the north-Andaman (Ranong area) Chumpon is closer.

WHEN TO GO
The Tao/Samui/Phangan area tends to have a different wet season to most of Thailand. Normally this kicks in late September/early October and runs into early January, although the fact that Christmas/New Year is peak season indicates that it can't be too bad come late December.
The good news is that when the Andaman and Eastern Gulf islands are in wet season midyear, the Tao area is usually much drier. Sure it will rain a bit in these months but usually sunshine dominates. This drier weather means a second high season in July/August and consequently not the bargain accommodation prices you will find in Phuket, Krabi or big Ko Chang etc.
February thru April are even drier. Note March April can be pretty hot.
A point about Tao's wet season - frequently this can be as holiday-friendly as most other areas, but every now and then they have a shocker. In all the years I have been following Thai weather this is the only place I have seen forum posters complaining about persistent bad weather, prolonged heavy rain etc. This seems to happen every 3rd or 4th year, but not necessarily on a regular basis. So if I was planning a Thai beach holiday in say Oct, Nov or early Dec I might think more about the mid or eastern Gulf or the Andaman. However if these months were the only time I could visit and I really wanted to see Phangan, I would not be put-off - my first visit into this area was in a November and I got real nice weather, as good as my 3 August visits.

A smaller point - May in this area and many other Thai regions often gets a little blip of extra rain compared to adjacent months. Usually this is not enough to make it a mini wet season but once again I occasionally see complaints from the Phangan/Samui/Tao areas about prolonged rainy spells.

For the price conscious, you are going to get good discounts in wet season. But note months like March, April, June and a lot of Septrember are usually not wet, yet many accommodation places go into low season pricing. Note too that low-budget places are much less variable in pricing compared to midrange and high-end joints.

MONEY
There are lots of ATMs, money changers and several banks in Mae Had and Sairee. Chalok Ban Khao has at least one of each too. I didn't notice any of these at the other beaches.
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A GREAT FERRY TIMETABLE IS PROVIDED BY LOSING_TOUCH ON HIS BACKPACK IN THAILAND SITE.
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SOME LINKS

Big Bubble Diving website has several accommodation options. Viewpoint mentioned above is the first and has 4 ranges of bungalow from budget to those snazzy seafront ones I saw.

travelfish is very good on Tao, has a wide range of accommodation reports including Silver Cliff mentioned above, and about the most detailed bungalow loacation maps I've seen.


READERS' TRIP REPORTS ON KO TAO

Rachael has sent in a report inluding pix of Andy and her visit to Tao in December09 to the new READERS' TRIP REPORT SECTION.

If you want to fire in a trip report on Tao or any other location please send text and/or captions plus any pix to lajolla22@hotmail.com. Hopefully we can keep info up to date without me having to return to dozens of islands every second year. There are so many other places I want to visit.


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If you are visiting Tao you may be interested in nearby:

KO PHANGAN

KO SAMUI

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If you have any questions, please ask them in THE FORUM rather than below. I don't get a chance to check all threads daily, but unless I'm travelling I'll try to monitor THE FORUM regularly.

1 comment:

Matt said...

Thanks for the great info! I look forward to the update!