Is Koh Tao safe? This guide has the answer, including info on recent murders, the main risks for solo travelers, and a lot more.
A paradise island washed by the clear-blue waters of the Thai Gulf, surrounded by some of the world’s most epic snorkeling and diving locations, and topped by peaks of wild jungle, this one remains an undisputed jewel of the Land of Smiles. But is Koh Tao safe?
There’s no denying that, among the alluring islands in Southern Thailand, Koh Tao probably has the darkest reputation of all. It’s been dubbed “The Murder Island,” the “Wild West Island” and “Death Island” in the past. We’ll get to the reasons behind the negative nicknames a little later on, but for now, suffice to say, the place isn’t always in the good books.
But Koh Tao also sees upwards of 100,000 travelers every year. Most of those will come and go without a single issue, and leave with nothing but fond memories of this rock in the sparkling Thai Gulf. Here, we’ll dig a little deeper to see if there’s any truth to Koh Tao’s dark rep and try to understand exactly how safe or unsafe the island really is…
Is Koh Tao safe for travelers in 2023/24?
In short: Yes.
We prefer to defer to official advice when it comes to deciding if a destination is safe or unsafe for travel. Right now, there’s not a single UK Foreign Office warning out for anywhere in Thailand apart from a warning against all but essential travel to the southernmost provinces of Narathiwat, Yala, and Pattani due to increased military presence. They’re all more than 270 miles from Koh Tao, in case you’re wondering.
The US State Department agrees with that assessment, judging the whole of Thailand – Tao included – apart from the southernmost provinces near the Malaysian border to be completely safe for travelers.
Oh, and then there’s the fact that the vast majority of the 100,000 people who visit Koh Tao each year come and go without a single issue to be spoken of. They laze on the shimmering sands of Sairee Beach, go diving with sea turtles in the marine reserves, hike to the jungle lookout points, and watch the blazing sunsets over the Thai Gulf, leaving with nothing but good vibes.
Of course, that’s not to say that Koh Tao is unequivocally safe no matter what. It’s not possible to say that about anywhere on the globe. There are still travel scams, petty theft, and more serious crimes to be wary of. Crucially, though, there’s not enough of that for the island to be considered especially dangerous or so dangerous that official state departments warn against travel there.
The Koh Tao murders
And so here it is: The proverbial Thai elephant in the room; the reason that Koh Tao has garnered the unenviable nickname “The Murder Island.”
It’s a sad fact that this particular rock in the gulf has been the site of a series of well publicized, grisly murders, plus a series mysterious deaths to boot. And it’s hit the headlines more than just about anywhere in the Land of Smiles for them, too.
Perhaps the worst happened back in 2014, when two British backpackers – Hannah Witheridge and David Miller – were found dead on the sands of beautiful Sairee Beach just a short walk from their bungalows. They had been brutally beaten and violated. Garden instruments and a bloodied club were found at the scene.
The incident rocked the island to its very core. Months of mass DNA testing and interrogation followed. The police eventually settled on suspects but the investigation and evidence came under fire from international observers far and wide, with accusations of scapegoating and poor evidence management in abundance.
And that wasn’t the only incident. The bodies of a Thai-Indian billionaire couple were discovered in the pool of a luxury hotel on the exclusive south side of the island in 2020. Two years prior to that, another British traveler was found drowned in hill pool near Sairee.
Is there a murder risk in Koh Tao?
As grisly and as disconcerting as the history of murders in Koh Tao is, it’s probably not a reason to discount the island as a travel destination.
There are over 430 tourist deaths per year in the Land of Smiles. Most of those are accidents. One or two might be criminal. The point is that Koh Tao isn’t unique when it comes to such things.
What’s more, there are still questions and mysteries surrounding the happenings of 2014 and the discovery of more bodies since. There’s no doubt that the first was murder, but later incidents might have been just as the Thai police and authorities claim: Simple accidents.
Only, they’re simple accidents that happen to have taken place on an island that’s already been dubbed the country’s murder capital, so it fans the flames and people begin to speculate.
If you look at the plain old stats then there’s no reason to think that Koh Tao is especially dangerous on the murder front. Take the homicide stats for Thailand as a whole. You’re looking at 2.6 per 100,000 head of population – that’s 10 times less than it is in Chicago and a whole load less than most cities in Mexico!
Travel scams in Koh Tao
If we had to pinpoint the greatest danger to tourists in Koh Tao, it would be travel scams. Yep, it’s the classic bane of a backpacker’s life that is the most common bad thing to happen on this island, just as it is on islands across the Thai Gulf and the Andaman Sea.
There are a couple of ones to know about when you venture down to the Southern Isles and Koh Tao in particular, including:
- The jet-ski scam – This happens when you rent a jet-ski from an outfitter on the beach. Everything seems a-okay when you pick up the vehicle, so you hand over your passport or ID as a deposit and off you go. However, things turn sour when you return with the ski only to find that the outfitter claims you’ve done damage to the craft and asks for 2,000 baht in return.
- The motorbike scam – This one’s essentially the same as the jet-ski scam above, only some renters of motorbikes will go to the length of stealing the whole vehicle they’ve rented out to you and claiming you have to pay for it. If you do decide to hire wheels, just be sure you check reviews of who you go with first. Better yet, rent straight from your hotel.
- Drug spiking – This one’s not technically a scam but certainly one to watch out for if you’re planning on partaking in the wild nightlife of Sairee Beach. Basically, local Thai island police have a habit of entrapping tourists with bogus drugs deals. Our advice? Just say no and move on. It’s just not worth it when drug arrests in Thailand can lead to fines of over $20,000 and multiple years in prison.
Is Koh Tao safe for diving?
It sure is. Koh Tao actually has a reputation for being one of the most accessible diving destinations in the world. People come from all over to splash in the seas, explore the coral reefs, and encounter the incredible marine biodiversity of the Land of Smiles. It’s not for nothing that Koh Tao is a mecca for PADI goers.
Let’s put it another way – close to 80,000 divers each year come here to get their certification. That’s one of the highest rates on the planet. You simply couldn’t hit stats like that without having exceptionally high safety standards both in and out of the water. So, expect most outfitters and dive schools to follow stringent rules and use up-to-date equipment and trainers.
Of course, there are sure to be some cowboy schools in the mix. The good news is that because diving is so important to the Koh Tao economy, they don’t tend to last all that long. The best thing you can do is check all dive instructors have the correct qualifications, read through previous reviews to ensure the whole program follows good safety rules, and take a look at the in-house equipment before you begin.
Is Koh Tao safe for solo travelers?
Generally speaking, yes, Koh Tao is safe for solo travelers. The truth is that going it alone anywhere on the planet brings unique challenges that you simply wouldn’t face if you traveled as part of a group, and we don’t mean having the willpower to get out of bed in the morning without your travel pal forcing you!
We mean the fact that solo travelers are known to be an easier target for theives and muggers, that solo travelers more often fall prey to travel scams, and that they are more susceptible to being spiked or even kidnapped.
The good news is that, largely thanks to its diving credentials, Koh Tao is usually packed to bursting with people who are globetrotting all on their own. The isle has plenty of live-in dive schools and hostels where you should find meeting and mingling with new people a cinch.
That said, there are some golden rules that solo travelers should follow:
- Try not to go out alone after dark – This is true anywhere, really. In Koh Tao, there are dangers in the jungles and on the streets, all of which are heightened once the sun goes down. Try to ensure you’re back at your accommodation before it’s fully dark or find some company to head out with.
- Watch those drinks – Keep a close eye on your Chang beers, folks, because spiking incidents aren’t uncommon in this part of Thailand, especially during major festivals such as the Full Moon Party.
- Make friends – We know it’s easier said than done, but on sociable Koh Tao it really is quite easy. Opt to stay in guesthouses and hostels and you should find that there are plenty of likeminded solo travelers out there. Booking onto a group PADI course can also help with this.
Is Koh Tao safe? Our conclusion
Despite having been nicknamed The Murder Island by various press outlets following a string of gruesome and mysterious deaths in the last decade or two, Koh Tao remains one of the most popular places to visit in Thailand. Looking at the stats, you’ll actually find that less people are killed here than they are in New York City, Chicago, Mexico City – the list goes on.
That means there’s not really a heightened risk of falling victim to murder. In fact, the most likely thing that will spoil your holiday are classic travel scams or petty theft. So, to sum up…is Koh Tao safe? Yep – it sure is!