Take the plunge on Thailand's Turtle Island

by Matthew Walker

Bask beneath swaying palms with a plate full of fresh fruit and a cool drink while watching the sun rise before a dive. Welcome to Turtle Island - one of Thailand's last secret beauty spots

Whether you’re a seasoned diver or a backpacker who’d simply like to snorkel through some beautiful coral and marine life, Koh Tao is a perfect and relatively inexpensive destination.

Turtle Island is less well known than other Thai beauty spots and has only been a feasible destination since the 1980s. An influx of diving schools and tourist-friendly transportation means that it is now known as one of the best diving spots in the world.

If you're in Bangkok, book a ticket on the Khaosan Road and the coach or train will take you overnight to Chumphon where you'll board a catamaran (www.lomprayah.com) that runs directly to the island. Alternatively, fly directly to Koh Samui or Surat Thani (www.bangkokair.com) and get the slower ferry in.

Koh Tao is a tiny island and it’s likely you’ll be accosted, as we were, by locals employed by the schools to advertise their business. Almost all of the schools are SSI and PADI certified, and though you’ll pay more for the reliability and resources of the more established ones, prices don’t differ much. Most offer some form of accommodation, though quality and choice will depend where you choose to sign up. We opted for Big Blue Diving School on the beautiful 1.7km Sairee beach and went for the cheap backpacker-friendly huts which were small but clean and within stumbling distance of the beach. Expect to pay £6-8 for a one bed room or, if you’re treating yourself, up to £125 for a luxury suite.

The island is almost entirely devoted to the tourist industry and you’ll find yourself paying more than you might expect for food and drink. Whilst banana pancakes and Pad Thai from the street vendors are a vital and delicious experience for any traveler in Thailand, if you’re looking for something more varied you’ll need to set aside some cash for eating out, as cooking facilities in tourist accommodation are rare.

That said, there are some fantastic restaurants on the island and personal favourites included Choppers for some lunchtime Aussie cuisine and banter and Lung Pae for when we fancied something more traditional. Our school also offered discounts for students at its beachfront café, which did the best breakfasts I’ve ever had in the most idyllic of surroundings.

Sitting on decking under swaying palms with a plate full of fresh fruit and a cool drink while watching the sun rise before a dive… let’s just say there are worse ways to start the day!

The diving is truly exceptional. Our trip was only scheduled to be a couple of days but we found ourselves staying for a week in order to spend more time underwater. The instructors are ex-pats to a man and totally enthusiastic about their profession; ours spent the first day telling us how amazing the experience was going to be and the rest of the time backing it up with stunning dive after stunning dive.

There’s never any sensation that you’re on a production line and ‘graduation’ parties, complete with meals out and late night partying, held at the end of each course help you feel part of a privileged family.

From the moment you get in the water you’re mere inches away from a vast array of tropical fish and as we went further and deeper we were treated to a dazzling array of aquatic life. The highlights for me were having grey reef sharks swimming among us like so many playful dogs, and watching our instructor, complete with toy sword, mock jousting with some of the territorial trigger fish. Of course, the turtles which give the island its name are also an amazing sight and are common even in the busier diving areas, whilst a whale shark which has become something of a local celebrity is a regular visitor.

You can expect to pay from £25 for a one day taster course to £150 for a four day internationally recognised open water qualification. Schools will provide you with all the equipment you need and there’s a store on the island should you fancy getting your own kit before you leave. Depending on budget you can of course stay as long as you like and spend months becoming an instructor, and most of the staff will tell you they only intended to stay for a couple of days and just haven’t managed to leave yet!

Whatever your choices are, rest assured that at the end of each day as you sit back with a cocktail admiring the sunset, head out to a breach front club, or even suit up for a night dive, you’ll be able to reflect on an unforgettable stay exploring one of the world’s most dramatic stretches of ocean.