Initially the island was uninhabited, with only the occasional fisherman from the neighbouring islands, looking for shelter in a storm or just resting before continuing on his journey.
It would appear from old maps and descriptions that this island was known by European cartographers and mariners as “Pulo Bardia”, indicating that it was first settled by Malayo-Polynesian peoples. 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 best map example is by John Thornton from The English Pilot, the Third Book, dated 1701, but the specific map of the Gulf of Siam is dated around 1677. Also see maps of the East Indies by William Dampier c.1697. By modern standards of accuracy, the islands are poorly placed on early maps. 17th century marine navigation and cartography used the “backstaff” which, in this area, was accurate to one degree of longitude, or around 60 nautical miles.
The Edinburgh Gazetteer, or Geographical Dictionary published in 1827 also 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 [Ko Samui]; the first, called SANCORY [Ko Pha Ngan], is 7 leagues from Carnom; the other…,named BARDA, or Bardia [Ko Tao], is 7½ leagues from Sancory.” (A league is approximately 3 nautical miles or 5.5 km.)
On June 18, 1899, King Chulalongkorn visited Ko 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 today.
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 Ko Tao was abandoned again.
In the same year Khun Uaem and his brother Khun Oh reached Ko Tao from the neighbouring Ko Pha Ngan 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 Ko Pha Ngan. Despite the difficulties in reaching the island, the population grew steadily.
In the 1980s overseas travellers began to visit Ko Tao and quickly became a popular destination. As a consequence, bigger, faster and safer boats were used to allow easier access to Ko Tao. In the 1990s the island became known as a diving site.
The island is well known for scuba diving and snorkeling, as well as hiking, rock climbing, and bouldering. The most popular place for tourists is Sairee on the west coast, which has a white sandy beach of 1.7 km interrupted only by a few huge boulders and a scattering of medium budget resorts and restaurants. Chalok Baan Khao, to the south of the island, is becoming increasingly popular as an alternative for those wishing to escape the crowds. A great many granite boulders, both in the forests and on the beaches of Ko Tao, attract a growing number of climbers.
Ko Tao is less developed than Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan, but has become increasingly popular especially with the mid-20s backpacker crowd in search of relatively inexpensive scuba diving certification. For the past two years the demographics of the island has seen an age increase, with many of the visitors who first visited the island over ten years ago are now returning with their families.
Diving conditions have improved dramatically in the past few years with the continuing education of locals by the dive community. The El Nino weather pattern of 1997 caused a warming of the waters which resulted in the loss of a great deal of the shallow corals near the island. Since then, the recovery has been swift and dramatic. Ko Tao now offers some of the best scuba diving in the Gulf of Thailand. And with help by island conservation groups the island’s environmental outlook is improving.
Chumpon Pinnacle, a dive site to the west of the island has a reputation for divers in search of both whale sharks and bull sharks. However, because of warmer water temperatures over the last year a great number of bull sharks have migrated to cooler waters.
SOMe quick facts:
Population: about 1400 persons.
Area: 21 square km, 7 km long and 3 km wide
Diving center: Over 40.
Average temperature: above 30 degrees
Hours of sunshine: Lots (one of Thailand’s sun safest places)
Tourist season: from December to September.
Visibility in the water: Up to 35 m
Tourists per year: about 300,000 persons.
Currency: Thai Baht, 100 Bath is about 3 dollar (2 February 2013)