Koh Tao is a tropical island off the coast of Thailand in the Gulf of Thailand. It can be reached by ferry from the mainland ports of Chumphon and Surat Thani. It can also be reached by fast boat or slow boat from the neighbouring islands, Koh Phangan and Koh Samui. Koh Tao is the smallest of these three islands and is only slightly bigger than 21 sq. kilometers. Tao is the Thai word for Turtle and the island is appropriatly named so because of its shape.
The islands, like others in Thailand (see Koh Tarutao), was used as a political prison in the 1930's. This is because even the most clever criminal or hooligan couldn't get off without the help of a vessel. (see Alcatraz). In 1944, Prime Minister Khun A-Paiwong, pleaded royal pardon for all prisoners on the island and three years later all were released.
In the late 40's the first generation of pioneers began to arrive. These original settlers led a simple life harvesting coconuts, fishing and growing vegetables. The population experienced slow but steady growth since the island was difficult to reach.
...the backpackers discovered it in the mid-80's. Soon after, it became a popular destination and experienced a rapid growth in tourism along with the rest of Thailand. Soon transportation to and around the island improved and the locals found themselves swamped by farangs.
Today, the main staple of the local economy is tourism and diving specifically. Koh Tao is one of the premier dive spots in Thailand and, officially, the cheapest place in the world for PADI certification. (PADI Open Water Course= 160 US $, inclusive of accomodation) It is also one of the few places in the world where during the right season (March-June) divers can swim with whale sharks, the largest fish in the world.
Koh Tao is a beautiful, serene and clean island and attracts a different crowd than its (in)famous neighbor, Koh Phangan. This is slowly changing, however, and the Full Moon, Half Moon, Quarter Moon and Eighth Moon Parties are slowly taking residence. More and more backpackers come here to get off the beaten path and to get away from the crowds. They beat the path and form the crowds. Off the beaten path is an elusive concept anyway...