In the beginning…A Brief History of Koh Tao

Koh Samui, Koh Phangan & Koh Tao… 1000 Years Ago!

The Gulf of Thailand is home to several beautiful islands, Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao, all with their own rich history and cultural significance.

Koh Samui is the largest and most popular island in the Gulf of Thailand. It has a history that dates back more than 1,200 years when the island was settled by fishermen and later became a safe haven for Chinese and Malay traders who sought shelter from storms. In the late 19th century, it became a coconut plantation and remained relatively isolated until the arrival of tourism in the 1970s.

Koh Phangan is known for its famous Full Moon Party, but it also has a diverse history. The island was initially inhabited by sea gypsies, and evidence suggests that it has been inhabited for over 2,000 years. Over the centuries, it was influenced by Indian, Khmer, and Chinese traders. In the early 20th century, it became a major coconut plantation.

Koh Tao, has a fascinating history that is intertwined with the surrounding islands of Koh Samui and Koh Phangan. But historically, it was used as a place for political prisoners and later as a detention center during the political conflicts in the early 20th century.


Prison Island

Old photo of Koh Tao
Maehaad pier looks a little different these days.

Koh Tao Island was an uninhabited island until the mid 19th Century when it was turned into a political prison for prisoners from the Borawadesh uprising on Koh Tarutao. The prison was located in Mae Haad Bay and at its height housed just over one hundred prisoners and about fifteen wardens. Life wasn’t easy for the prisoners or those that ran the prisons, as food was scarce and malaria was rife. In the early 20th century, the prisoners were released and most of the islands inhabitants went back to the mainland. Within a couple of years Koh Tao had largely become an uninhabited island once again.

The First Settlers

It is approximated that at the end of the Second World War prisoners on the island were released and then soon after, two brothers came over from their land on Koh Phangan sailed over to Koh Tao on a traditional Thai boat with two masts and handmade sails. They cleared some land and used what was left of the prison as a temporary shelter. By the 1950’s, others from Koh Phangan and Koh Samui arrived on the island searching to start a new, simpler life.

Fast forward a couple of decades and the island communities and families had settled in different parts of the island, in Sairee, Maehaad, and Chalok Baan Kao to the south. Families earned a living collecting coconuts and trading them on the mainland, and the large coconut fields which were farmed more in the interior of Koh Tao became a far more appealing financial investment over the coastal stretches of shallow reef which lie around the island, so island sons inherited the land inland, from their parents, while the daughters inherited the ‘useless’ beach land.

The Intrepid Traveler

beach bungalows
The first tourist accommodation came in the form of beach bungalow resorts like this one.

The mid Seventies saw the arrival of the first foreign travelers on our beautiful Koh Tao island. With no ferry service yet, they arrived here on fishing boats and cargo boats, and as word spread about this undiscovered Utopia in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand, more people came. And suddenly this useless beachfront land became rather valuable, as small beach bungalows were built and the first of Koh Tao’s Resorts opened!

Around the mid 80’s the neighboring islands of Koh Samui and Koh Phangan were becoming increasingly busier with intrepid travelers and entrepreneurs who began to open Restaurants and Bars, next to hotels and resorts that were starting to emerge.


Koh Tao’s very 1st Dive center.

Among many of these pioneers in the area and one who can definitely call himself the Father of the dive industry on Koh Tao was an Italian man, Cesare Benelli, who would bring divers over from Koh Samui for an overnight diving trip to Koh Tao. He found the Red Rock, White Rock, and Green Rock dive sites, naming them after the three colors of the Italian flag. He also founded the first dive school on Koh Tao, Samui International Dive School. The potential of the island as a diving destination was established and gradually Koh Tao started organizing dive tours and training programs for visitors.

The Birth of Diving

An original Koh Tao Dive center
The 2nd Dive Center on Koh Tao

Come the late 80’s, as Koh Tao became better known, a tall intrepid backpacker from Sweden, Michael Spjuth, found himself sitting on a coconut boat from the mainland. Upon arriving on Koh Tao he enrolled in his Open Water Course and loved it so much he went almost as far as Divemaster before he ran out of money. Never the one to be put off by problems Michael, whizzed home to Sweden, got a bank loan to buy a car, then jumped back in the plane to Thailand & with this loan started the second Dive shop on Koh Tao – Big Blue Diving, and then went on to complete his Divemaster course with one of his Instructors he had just employed, thus becoming the first customer at Big Blue!

Cesare, Michael and a few other early dive pioneers focused on providing basic diving courses, such as Open Water Certification, to cater to the growing interest in underwater exploration. And as Koh Tao’s reputation as a dive destination grew, more dive operators and resorts began to sprout up on the island. This surge in infrastructure development brought about an increase in the number of dive sites explored. With its proximity to the famous Chumphon Pinnacle, Sail Rock, and the dive sites around Nang Yuan Island, Koh Tao offered divers a variety of underwater landscapes to discover.

The success of the dive industry in Koh Tao can also be attributed to the island’s natural resources. Its warm tropical waters, diverse marine ecosystem, and stunning coral reefs provided an ideal environment for both beginners and experienced divers. The island’s abundant marine life, including colorful coral formations, tropical fish, and even occasional sightings of whalesharks and turtles, added to the allure of diving in Koh Tao.

Over time, Koh Tao’s dive industry expanded beyond just dive courses and certifications. Dive shops began offering specialized training programs, such as advanced diving courses, technical diving, freediving and even Instructor Development Courses. This diversification of offerings attracted a wider range of divers, from casual enthusiasts to those seeking professional careers in the diving industry.

The Year 2000

A road in Asia
Your first point of arrival on Koh Tao at Maehaad Pier back in the late 90’s

The development of the dive industry in Koh Tao has had a significant impact on the island’s economy and infrastructure. As more divers flocked to the island, accommodations, restaurants, and other tourism-related businesses flourished. The local community benefited from increased job opportunities and a growing economy.

By the turn of the Century, Koh Tao had developed an infrastructure that consisted of roads, running water, a limited power supply 4 hours a day, a post office and 1 telephone line. Within a couple of years the island had changed beyond belief. Banks, ATM’s, 24 hour power, hot and cold running water, internet, mobile phones, pharmacies, and some very upmarket resorts.

However, the rapid growth of the dive industry also brought challenges. The influx of divers and tourists placed strains on the island’s resources and ecosystem. To address these concerns, various environmental initiatives were introduced to promote responsible diving practices, coral reef conservation, and waste management. Today, dive operators in Koh Tao actively participate in reef monitoring, underwater cleanups, and educational campaigns to ensure the sustainability of the marine environment.

Tsunami in Thailand

A buildings rubble after a tsunami
The 2004 Tsunami devastated much of west coast Thailand.

On the 26th December 2004, Thailand was hit with a Tsunami. Koh Tao was completely unaffected by the tsunami itself, as the tragedy occurred on the West coast of Thailand. What unfurled following this disaster was that loyal west coast tourists had to move to the East coast for their holidays. Holiday makers who had been religiously going to Phuket for years were now forced to change their destination to places like Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao and they fell in love with Thailand all over again. All 3 islands massively benefitted from the west coasts misery. And the islands just kept getting busier and busier until 2014 when something completely unexpected happened on Koh Tao which put the island on pretty much every front page of every International paper in the world for all the worst reasons.

Is Koh Tao safe?

Community Board
The media destroyed Koh Tao after the horrendous murders of Hannah & David.

Koh Tao became instantly famous on September 14th, 2014, with the gruesome murder of two British tourists, Hannah Witheridge and David Miller. Their bodies were found on a beach, and the investigation into their deaths faced scrutiny and controversy. Two Burmese migrant workers were eventually arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death for the crime, although the handling of the case raised concerns about the fairness of the trial. The negative publicity surrounding the case, combined with a few other historic incidents that occurred on the island, contributed to the perception of Koh Tao as a dangerous place. Koh Tao became labelled as “Murder Island” or “Death Island” primarily coined and popularized by the media and some individuals after the high-profile criminal cases. These labels gained traction in news reports, online forums, and social media discussions surrounding the incidents and sadly had a huge impact on the numbers of visiting tourists for a long time after. These labels did not and still don’t accurately represent the overall safety or reality of Koh Tao as a tourist destination. While the island did experience a few highly publicized deaths, the media definitely dramatized every tragic circumstance to their benefit.

Covid 19

Leaning coconut tree at the beach
Covid 19 left Koh Tao very peaceful & beautiful.

By 2020 Koh Tao was back and booming again but that all that changed when the world suffered a mental spasm and closed down for a few years over a mysterious bug that was supposedly going to kill us all. Koh Tao was a very beautiful place to be during Covid. Most businesses closed down so workers returned to their homes, whether on the Thai mainland, or Europe or Burma, and left very few of us still here. Boats were taken out of the water, less cars, bikes, traffic, noise, pollution all impacted the island within days and suddenly we were seeing more marine life, Black tip sharks on Sairee beach, Eagle rays and turtles in Sairee Bay, and so many more birds than we’ve ever had on Koh Tao before.

Since the end of the Apocalypse , Koh Tao has resumed its status as one of the world’s most popular destinations for diving certifications. The island’s accessibility, affordability, and reputation as a safe and reliable place to learn to dive continue to attract thousands of divers each year. Dive centers and resorts now offer a wide range of diving experiences, from day trips to tech expeditions, catering to the diverse needs and preferences of divers.