For many backpackers like us, scuba diving in Koh Tao is the ultimate reason to visit the stunning island of Koh Tao–and both the island and the diving more than live up to the hype!
When we set out to go backpacking in Southeast Asia, we knew that taking a PADI open water course and learning to scuba dive for the first time was at the top of our priority list.
Scuba diving is adventurous, a chance to discover a new-to-us world, and of course, we get to breathe underwater. As run-of-the-mill human beings, that is just so cool.
Where better to go than one of the most popular islands on the planet for scuba diving? Koh Tao, Thailand was immediately at the top of our list.
Here’s our experience getting PADI open water certified in Koh Tao, including costs, what we thought of the experience, the dive school we chose, and–most importantly–whether we’d follow the same process again.
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Why Take an Open Water Course in Koh Tao?
Thailand in general is an excellent place to get open water certified, but Koh Tao specifically is widely considered one of the best, and cheapest, places to learn around the world.
Since Koh Tao is also one of the best destinations for island hopping in Thailand in general, it’s a clear winner when it comes to places to dive in Thailand.
The diving in Koh Tao is generally considered fairly easy by pros and enthusiasts, but for beginners, Koh Tao dive sites are varied, exciting, fairly close to the shore (allowing you to pack in more dives), calm, and packed with interesting sea life.
In other words, it’s the perfect place to scuba dive for the first time.
We were sold instantly: before even arriving in the country, we knew that we wanted scuba diving to be part of our first trip to Thailand.
Getting to Koh Tao, Thailand
There are a handful of different ways to get to Koh Tao, but we used one of the most common: a joint ticket for an overnight train from Bangkok to Chumphon, a bus transfer from Chumphon train station to the pier of Chumphon, and a ferry to Koh Tao.
We purchased these tickets at the Bangkok train station a few days before leaving.
I’d recommend booking as soon as you get to Bangkok: we had slim pickings for trains and air-conditioned compartments both getting to Koh Tao and coming home.
Choosing a Dive Shop for Your Open Water Course
To say that there is a lot of choice among Koh Tao dive shops is a laughable understatement.
We asked our dive instructor how many dive shops there were on the island, and he said about 70.
I’ve read other numbers that put it closer to 40-50, but either way, that is a ton of shops.
Talking to other new divers around town, there didn’t seem to be any major benefit to booking ahead of time.
Prices were generally the same, and even though July/August was one of Koh Tao’s peak seasons, there was still same or next day availability at every shop we talked to–there’s just so much supply!
The Koh Tao Dive Shop We Chose
We landed on our shop the old-fashioned way: hitting the pavement and comparing prices.
Almost every shop that we passed had an advertised price for an Open Water Diver course listed, along with any perks they included. Some shops were willing to negotiate a bit, others weren’t.
In the end, we landed on a German-run dive shop, Dive Point, that offered a competitive price (8200 baht/$237.86 USD each).
The shop also included 6 dives during the course (some schools only do four, spending the first day in a pool), a very small group (max of four people, it ended up being just us), and–most importantly–we felt very comfortable there.
Where to Stay When Scuba Diving in Koh Tao
There are two heavily populated areas on Koh Tao: Mae Head, the village right next to the pier, and Sairee Village, next to the longest beach on the island. The two are not far apart–maybe a 20-minute walk.
Several of the more secluded bays on the far side of the island from the pier have lodging, but they are mostly resort properties.
For a large choice of restaurants and dive shops, Sairee Village and Mae Head are the places to be.
We stayed in Mae Head for simplicity upon arriving and then got comfortable there so stayed in the area.
Nothing is far on Koh Tao (the entire island is about 13 square miles), though many of the roads outside of the villages are not well developed.
Where We Stayed in Koh Tao, Thailand
Nirvana Guesthouse — Located right in the heart of Mae Head, we loved this guesthouse! It was only a short walk from the pier, reasonably priced, clean, and the owner was very accomodating.
We would be happy to stay here again–in fact, the only reason we moved guesthouses was because they were fully booked and we couldn’t extend our stay any further.
Jom Thong Guesthouse — We didn’t move far: this guesthouse is just a five-minute walk from Nirvana Guesthouse.
It is located even closer to the pier and the dive shop we were using. We walked to Sairee Beach in about 15 minutes from here.
The room was slightly smaller, though just as clean, as Nirvana–but the real prize was the view of the water out the window. We wouldn’t hesitate to go back here, either!
Our Favorite Koh Tao Dive Sites
Full disclosure for scuba novices like us: you won’t have 100% control over the Koh Tao scuba dives that you do.
Each dive shop has a schedule of which dives they head out to each day, which is obviously subject to change based on weather conditions (our friends at Dive In have a lot more information about scuba gear, liveaboards, and diving in general if you’re new to the sport!).
We got lucky (okay, lucky and tried to find a schedule that would accommodate this dive): we had the opportunity to visit Chumphon Pinnacle, considered by some to be the best dive in the Koh Tao area.
I have just this to say: wow.
We didn’t try our hand at any underwater photography on this trip, but that will be changing shortly. Learn from our mistakes: bring or rent a camera that is usable underwater.
I already regret not having photos of the gigantic schools of fish, the intimidating-looking great barracudas, the spooky moray eels, and, of course, the enormous and breathtaking corals (the underwater photos in this blog post are stock photos, though they are extremely representative of our experience!)
Other favorite dives included Japanese Gardens (though this was our first dive and we had great visibility that day, so we may be biased), and Red Rock, where we got to swim in a small cave.
We were less impressed with Hin Ngan. The submerged Mini Cooper was cool and all, but I’ll take natural reefs over man-made ones any day of the week (except for wrecks. I am very excited to eventually get our Advanced certification and go wreck diving).
Even with clearing eight dives during our time on the island, we barely scratched the surface of the diving available–which just means that there are lots of Koh Tao dive sites left for when we go back!
Would We Choose Koh Tao Scuba Diving Again?
Did Koh Tao scuba diving live up to the hype? YES.
We are so glad that we made the leap–gorgeous Koh Tao was the perfect place to learn.
I’ll never forget taking that first deep, full breath of air underwater–it is bizarre, to say the least, though it rapidly becomes a new normal.
Similarly, I’ll never forget kneeling on the floor of the ocean, a few brightly colored fish swimming around us, while we practiced the standard beginner exercises.
The only major disappointment we had was not getting to see a turtle, but alas–no luck there. Hopefully next time!
If you’re thinking about starting to scuba dive (or you’re already a diver who just wants to visit a gorgeous island), I cannot recommend Koh Tao highly enough.