History of Koh Tao

The History of Koh Tao is quite interesting. The small island just 21 km² and located about 70 km east of the coastline between Surat Thani and Chumphon in the Gulf of Thailand. Koh Tao means ‘Turtle Island’ and appropriately the island is actually shaped like a turtle when viewed from neighbouring islands or from out at sea. Also, past history of Koh Tao states that the island gained its name because years ago the surrounding waters had been rich with sea turtles. Initially the island was uninhabited, with only the occasional fisherman arriving from neighbouring islands, looking for shelter in a storm or just resting before continuing on his journey.

It would appear from old maps and descriptions regarding the history of Koh Tao, that this island was known by European cartographers and mariners as “Pulo Bardia”, indicating that it was first settled by Malayo-Polynesian people. 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 it had until the early 1900s.


The Edinburgh Gazetteer, or Geographical Dictionary published in 1827 mentions the island and provides a geographical position. In his 1852 book titled Narrative of a Residence in Siam, by Frederick Arthur Neale, the author describes the people and wildlife of Bardia. According to the account there were farms and even cows in a village on the bay lying on the west side of the island. The book includes a fanciful illustration of “Bardia” showing huts and palm trees.

Joseph Huddart in 1801 included these directions for navigating the islands, “To the N.W. by N are two islands of about the same height as Poolo Carnom (Koh Samui); the first, called Sancory (Koh Phangan), is 7 leagues from Poolo Carnom. The other, named Bardia (Koh Tao) is 7½ leagues from Sancory.” (A league is approximately 3 nautical miles or 5.5 km).


On June 18, 1899, King Chulalongkorn visited Koh Tao and left as evidence his monogram on a huge boulder at Jor Por Ror Bay next to Sairee Beach. This place is still worshipped on the island today and proves the history of Koh Tao. 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 Koh Tao was abandoned again.

New Beginning

In the same year Khun Uaem and his brother Khun Oh reached Koh Tao from neighbouring Koh 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 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 Koh Phangan.

Despite the difficulties in reaching the island, the population grew steadily. In the 1980s overseas travellers began to visit Koh Tao and quickly became a popular destination. As a consequence, bigger, faster and safer boats were used to allow easier access to the island. In the 1990s the island became known as Thailand’s top scuba diving destinations.

Koh Tao Today

Today, Koh Tao is known for much more than just scuba diving. Koh Tao is an island with a magnitude of attractions and things to do. Whether you prefer things at a leisurely pace or prefer taking things to the extreme then Koh Tao is the place to be. Choose from rock climbing, mountain biking, hitting the white sandy beaches, taking in breathtaking sights from the many view points or just kicking back in your hammock and admiring the scenery. Due to the past history of Koh Tao, it’s now a top tourist and backpacker destination.

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