Koh Tao – best value for money diving classes

Koh Tao is known as the dive master’s island and issues more diving licenses yearly than any other place on earth. To be honest, we considered this as a bug rather than a feature when informing ourselves about dive courses in Thailand. We were quite skeptical if this is the right place to learn diving or if this is just a mass production, one size fits all dive factory lacking charm and character. Here are the facts in a nutshell:

  • Koh Tao is the cheapest place to learn to dive we know of. We paid 8500 baht for a Padi Open Water Diver course which would have set us back more than 13000 baht on Koh Lanta.
  • Competition drives up quality standards: You can find amazing teachers (many Australians), excellent equipment, good boats and small classes (2-4 people) on Koh Tao. Please, always check carefully for references, e.g. on Tripadvisor (Link). We saw a diving boat floating directly over a diver’s flag (the spot where a diver will pop on surface). Pretty risky!
  • Koh Tao does not win the beauty competition: While there are many dive sites close to the shore and beginning divers such as us have plenty to discover, there are better spots out there in Thailand, e.g. KoRok, HinDaen, HinMuangall, all reachable from Koh Lanta.
  • Our conclusion: On Koh Tao you get the best value for money diving classes. If you don’t mind spending 50+% more, also check out other options such as Koh Lanta, which may beat Koh Tao in terms of dive site beauty.

Where to stay on Koh Tao

Koh Tao has three popular areas where visitors tend to stay.

Sairee beach is the most popular but also most crowded place, directly at the boat jetty. Sairee is a great choice if you are looking for some night life, parties and full-fledged touristic infrastructure.

The southern beach is roughly 3 km south of Sairee. It’s much calmer here and the night life options are limited to a few beach bars with nice reggae music. Still, you have everything you need close by, including good and cheap restaurants, a great coffee place, a Seven Eleven and even ATMs. We chose to stay here as it’s a great place for relaxing while still being able to enjoy all the worldly pleasures.

Tip: If you stay at the southern beach, don’t miss the Hammock Cafe run by a French/Thai couple which makes the best coffee on Koh Tao. Close by is also the YinYang restaurant with excellent quality Thai food.

The eastern beach is a third option for people looking for a more remote spot. It’s hard to reach by scooter however, as you have to pass over the main mountain of the island and a taxi drive to the pier (from where also all the dive boats leave each day) is quite expensive and time consuming. That’s why we crossed it off our list for this stay.

Three steps to choose the best dive school for you

There are many great dive schools on Koh Tao, which leads to a healthy competition and much choice for you! We suggest that you follow three steps when selecting the best school for you:

  1. Choose the location where you want to stay on the island. It’s most convenient to be close to your dive school.Some days will start very early and also as many dive packages include accommodation.
  2. Choose between PADI and SSI certification. We would recommend PADI. It is accepted world-wide without any hassle. Some dive schools offer both PADI and SSI courses but many only teach one of the two.
  3. Leverage swarm intelligence and get the top-20 by user references list of dive schools from Tripadvisor (Link). Afterwards cross out all schools in the wrong location or with the wrong certification and compare prices on the webpages of the remaining ones.

The dive packages of the 20 top-ranked schools are quite similar. The main difference often lies in the accommodation options offered as part of the package. Also check with the school that the prices stated are the all-in prices without any additional charges for learning materials or far-out dive site trips.

Our personal recommendation: If you are looking for a PADI school on the southern beach, we can highly recommend Ocean Sound and Yoga (facebook page). We had an amazing time together with them and their instructors are awesome. Joe, big thanks again for your patient teaching and great humor! They also offer very good Yoga classes.

Budget Tip: Check out off- and shoulder-season special offers! We got a good deal for 8500 baht for the PADI Open Water Diver in October/November 2015. In off-season you usually have to cope with a lot of rainfalls but in shoulder season (October/November) we were really lucky. The thunderstorms only lasted during night time and we got wet once in the early morning of our departure.

The dive course program

At first we spent 3 days diving to get the PADI Open Water Diver certification, but we got so hooked up that we opted for another 2 days to also do the Advanced PADI Open Water Diver course. The advanced course extends your max allowed diving depth from 18m to 30m and also teaches advanced techniques to navigate and improve your buoyancy. Also, we chose a photography module. See pictures below!

As I could imagine that some of you are interested in what the days of the diving class typically could look like, here is a short summary of what it was in our case:

PADI Open Water Diver

Day 0: In the evening meet your instructor, receive your learning materials and watch PADI video

Day 1: Swimming pool or shallow water session to get used to handling the gear and feel comfortable in confined water. In the afternoon, you will have a couple of dive theory lessons.

Day 2: Start off with another theory lesson and take your exam (no worries, it won’t be very hard if you listened to the lessons before). In the afternoon complete your first two open water dives (max depth 12m).

Day 3: After finishing two more dives with a maximum depth of 18 m in the morning, you will be certified diver before lunch time…too easy!

PADI Advanced Open Water Diver

Over 2 days you will cover 5 dives. There are two mandatory dives

  • 30 m deep dive
  • navigation dive

and three which you can chose from this list:

  • Peak Performance Buoyancy
  • Night Dive
  • Fish Identification
  • Wreck Dive
  • Underwater Photography
travel tipp infoTip: If you are short on time and would still like to be certified for 30 m diving depth, you can just do the deep dive and you will get an additional PADI certificate that will allow you to go to 30 m in the future. This will cost you around 1800 baht and can be even done in the evening of your last day in the Open Water Diver course.

This course is without an additional exam, but it is worth reading the PADI learning manual as it is packed with valuable information (better than the one for the Open Water Diver).

The diving experience

The experience under water is amazing. It feels like gravity is gone, the world is silent and colors are fading into blue the deeper you go. As your movements and your breath should be even and slow, diving is almost like meditation. You reach a very peaceful state of mind and easily get carried away. The turtles eat sea grass, a clownfish dances around waving anemones and corals settle on big rocks. All directly in front of you! With a little luck you will spot some whale sharks.

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