|• Total||21 km2 (8 sq mi)|
|Time zone||Thailand Standard Time (UTC+7)|
Ko Tao (also often Koh Tao, Thai: เกาะเต่า, Thai pronunciation: [kɔ̀ʔ tàw], lit. "Turtle Island") is an island in Thailand located near the western shore of the Gulf of Thailand. It covers an area of about 21 km². Administratively it forms a tambon within the district (Amphoe) Ko Pha Ngan of Surat Thani Province. As of 2006 its official population is 1,382. The main settlement is Ban Mae Hat.
The economy of the island is almost exclusively centred on tourism, especially scuba diving.
Ko Tao was named by its first settlers after the island's turtle-like geographic shape. Coincidentally, the island is an important breeding ground for Hawksbill turtles and Green turtles. Development of tourism has negatively impacted the health of these grounds but a breeding programme organised in 2004 by the Royal Thai Navy and KT-DOC, a coalition of local scuba diving centres, has reintroduced hundreds of juvenile turtles to the island's ecosystem.
Initially[when?] the island was uninhabited, with only the occasional fisherman from the neighbouring islands, looking for shelter in a storm or just resting before continuing on his journey.
It would appear from old maps and descriptions that this island was known by European cartographers and mariners as "Pulo Bardia". The old maps show a chain of three islands aligned north-south and lying off the east coast of the Malay Peninsula. The most northerly and smallest of these islands is marked P. Bardia - the name sustained until the early 1900s. The best map example is a map by John Thornton from "The English Pilot, the Third Book", dated 1701 but the specific map of the Gulf of Siam is dated around 1677. . Also see maps of the East Indies by William Dampier c1697. By modern standards of accuracy, the islands are poorly placed on early maps. 17th century marine navigation and cartography used the 'backstaff' which, in this area, was accurate to one degree of longitude or around 60 nautical miles.
Page 383 of 'The Edinburgh Gazetteer, or Geographical Dictionary' (1822) also mentions the island and provides a geographical position. In his 1852 book titled "Narrative of a residence at the capital of the Kingdom of Siam" by Frederick Arthur Neale  he describes the people and wildlife of Bardia. According to the account there were farms and even cows in a village on the bay lying to the west side of the island. The book includes a fanciful illustration of 'Bardia' showing huts and palm trees.
"The Oriental Navigator" or "New Directions for Sailing to and from the East" ... By Jean-Baptiste-Nicolas-Denis 1801  "PULO SANCORI (Koh Pha-nang) about 7 leagues NW by N from Pulo Carnom (Koh Samui) is nearly of equal height and Pulo Bardia about 8 leagues farther in the same direction is also a high island adjacent to the main. These islands need not be approached but from Pulo Carnom steer a North course towards Cin Point in about lat 12 N bearing nearly N E from it about 40 leagues the high mountains close over this point make it visible at a great distance and there are two small islands adjoining the extreme point which has a bay on each side Prom abreast the bay on the North side of the point the coast extends about NNE having good soundings at a moderate distance." (Comments: A league is approx. 3 nautical miles. Two small islands and bays at the northern point = Koh Nangyuan )
In 1933 the island started to be used as a political prison. In 1947 Khuang Abhaiwongse, prime minister at that time, pleaded and received a royal pardon for all prisoners on the island. Everybody was taken to the shore of Surat Thani and Ko Tao was abandoned again.
In the same year Khun Uaem and his brother Khun Oh reached Ko Tao from the neighbouring Ko Phangan by trying out their traditional sail boat, for that time a quite long and dangerous journey. Even though the island was still under royal patronage, it did not stop these pioneers claiming themselves a good part of the land on today's Sairee beach. Having brought their families over, they began to cultivate and harvest the excellent soil, forming the first generation of the present-day community. They lived a simple and tough life harvesting coconuts, fishing and growing vegetables, which were also traded with Ko Phangan. Despite the difficulties in reaching the island, the population grew steadily.
In the 1980s overseas travellers began to visit Ko Tao and quickly became a popular destination. As a consequence, bigger, faster and safer boats were used to allow easier access to Ko Tao. In the 1990s the island became known as a diving site.
The island is well known for scuba diving and snorkeling, as well as hiking, rock climbing and bouldering. The most popular place for tourists is Sairee on the West coast, which has a white sandy beach of 1.7 km interrupted only by a few huge boulders and a scattering of medium budget resorts and restaurants. Chalok Baan Khao, to the south of the island is becoming increasingly popular as an alternative for those wishing to escape the crowds. A multitude of beautiful granite boulders, which nestle both in the forests and on the beaches of Ko Tao, attract a growing number of climbers.
Ko Tao is less developed than Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan, but has become increasingly popular especially with the mid-20s backpacker crowd in search of relatively inexpensive scuba diving certification. For the last two years the demographics of the island has seen an age increase with many of the visitors that first visited the island over ten years ago are now returning with their families.
As of December 2005, Ko Tao had about 150 resorts offering accommodation and approximately 50 bars/clubs. Most of the resorts are still bungalow-style, not hotel/resort style. As of 2007 there is a trend to more upmarket resorts which do not concentrate singularly on diving. Free WiFi is provided in increasing numbers and even the first sailing charter company on Ko Tao has opened.
Ko Tao is increasingly becoming a mecca for game fishermen on a budget. Species targeted include marlin, sailfish, king mackerel, cobia, baracuda, trevally and snapper.
Diving conditions have improved dramatically in the past few years with the continuing education of locals by the dive community. The El Nino weather pattern of 1997 caused a warming of the waters which resulted in the loss of a great deal of the shallow corals near the island. Since then, the recovery has been swift and dramatic. Ko Tao now offers some of the best scuba diving in the Gulf of Thailand. And with help by island conservation groups the island environmental outlook is strong.
Chumpon Pinnacle, a dive site to the west of the island has a reputation for divers in search of both whale sharks and bull sharks. However, because of the warmer water temperatures over the last year a great amount of bull sharks have migrated to cooler waters.
With few exceptions, almost all roads on Ko Tao are dirt roads and generally are in poor shape. However, new roads are being paved at a quick rate. 95% of all traffic on the island is motorbike, with mopeds and dirt bikes being the main mode of transport. Motor bike accidents are the most common injury on the island. Poor roads, sand, reckless taxi drivers and drunkenness are all a factor.
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Ko Tao is serviced by ferry services from Surat Thani (4 hours day boat, 9 hours on overnight boat), Chumphon (1.5 to 3 hours), Ko Samui (approx 2.5 hours) and Ko Pha Ngan (approx 1 hour). All ferries dock at Ban Mae Haad. Journey times vary due to the different boats used by the various ferry companies. Ticket prices are the same for Lomprayah and Seatran, and Songserm is less expensive. However, the boats themselves differ greatly. The two main ferries are Lomprayah and Seatran. Lomprayah offers the quickest service on their catamarans and also have VIP lounges where passengers can watch movies in an air conditioned lounge. In contrast, Songserm is a no-frills point to point fast ferry, where most passengers disembark slightly more green in the face than when they boarded. Seatran is the middle option less frills but not as basic as Songserm. Lomprayah offer services from Chumphon (mainland) to Koh Tao and the surrounding islands. Seatran and Songserm only offer service from Samui. Ko Tao has no airport, so anyone wishing to fly would need to fly to Koh Samui Airport and then transfer over on a ferry. Another option for flying down from Bangkok is to fly to Surat Thani Airport, and then catch the boat over after a bus ride of 2 hours to the ferry terminal from the airport. Flights to Surat Thani are much cheaper than flights to Samui, and budget airlines such as Air Asia (and previously Fly-1-2-go who currently aren't flying) service the airport from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Krabi and Phuket. A flight from Bangkok costs around £30 one way, and a ferry from Surat Thani costs around £5 including coach transfers. But now, the easier way is to fly to Chumphon and take ferry directly to Koh Tao without having to stopover in other island. You can fly from Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport to Chumphon airport with Happy Air (www.happyair.co.th). In Chumphon airport, you can buy vans and ferry ticket to Koh Tao.
Train services are available from Bangkok down to Chumphon where travellers can then catch a ferry. A first class ticket on an overnight train will cost around £20. Second class tickets are a little cheaper at around £16, passengers do not have the luxury of their own private cabin in second class, however, beds do pull down and once the party is over it is possible to have a good nights sleep. Food is served by train vendors.
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