Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Running in Koh Tao: Where to Run and Hike on This Diving Paradise?

Are you heading out to the diver’s paradise of Koh Tao, Thailand, but not sure about keeping up your running?

I recently spent about a month in Koh Tao, Thailand, a small rocky island in the Gulf of Thailand, and I would summarize running options in Koh Tao as: running along the roads, lots of hills, hot and humid conditions, and don’t be afraid to get wet.

In spite of its small size, there are a few routes for running and hiking on Koh Tao. It’s not ideal running situation, but with nice beaches on all sides, it’s easy to end any run with a swim. My best advice: prepare for some steep hills!

Orientation: Koh Tao Running and Hiking

About two hours by boat from the nearest airport and two to three hours by ferry to the mainland lies the low-key, undeveloped island of Koh Tao. The least developed of its partner islands of Koh Samui and Koh Phangan, Koh Tao is famous for its coral reefs for diving, palm-tree lined beaches and ramshackle charm. Its sunsets each evening don’t disappoint either.

As a traveling runner, I enjoy exploring new places on my own two feet. Koh Tao didn’t disappoint but being that it is only 21 km2, don’t expect any huge loops or flat long runs. In fact, most of the good running you can do on Koh Tao is up and down hills.

Map of Koh Tao

Here is a map of Koh Tao’s key features (including dive sites):

Let’s get ourselves oriented. The three main areas of Koh Tao are Mae Head, Sairee Beach and Chalook. All three of these are on the westside of the island and connected by the main, north-south road on the island.

Mae Head is where all the ferries arrive and depart from, and its also where you find most of the boat traffic. There isn’t much of a beach there, but hotels and hostels, bars and budget restaurants abound on Mae Head.

Sairee Beach is the main beach on the island and lies in the middle of the island. It’s a short walk or even shorter motorbike ride from Mae Head. Sairee Beach is where you’ll find the majority of the hotels, hostels, dive shops, restaurants, bars and shopping. It’s also the biggest and best beach on the island. It’s the best place to catch the daily sunset show.

Chalook is at at the south end of the island, its bay is nestled between large hills on both sides. Chalook is less developed and cheaper but still has plenty of restaurants, bars and accommodation options. There are also several dive shops too, but it should be noted that they all still depart from Mae Head.

As the map indicates, there are a few other beaches and places you might stay on the island. Be warned though that these are largely small beaches and single hotels or resorts. So compared to Sairee, Chalook and Mae Head, your options are more limited.

The main piece of information that this map excludes are the elevation rises and steep hills. Excluding Mae Head, Chalook and Sairee Beach, most of the island lies on hills rising to upwards of 200 meters. Most beaches are small and flanked by cliffs and rock face.

Now that we are oriented on the island, let’s look at general running conditions and where we can run on Koh Tao.

General Running Conditions

Koh Tao is a tropical island in the Gulf of Thailand.

Size: Koh Tao is a mere 21 km2, which makes it significantly smaller than its neighbors, Ko Samui (228.7 km²) and Ko Pha Ngan (125 km²).

Climate and Weather Averages: Koh Tao has a relatively moderate climate considering its location. On average, temperatures range from 32C (90F) and 22C (72F). April and May tend to be the hottest months, and December and January are typically the coldest. November is the wettest month with an average of 463mm of rain. October and December are generally half as wet as November in Koh Tao. You can expect some rain all year, but late winter and early spring (Feb, March, April) tend to be driest. You can expect 6 to 8 hours of sun everyday in Koh Tao.

Let’s look at some specific running conditions in Koh Tao.

Hot and Humid Conditions

As a general rule, early morning and late evening runs tend to work best almost anywhere. This is also true on Koh Tao where the humidity and sun can make it pretty hot and steamy in late morning and afternoons.

If you run in the afternoons, which I did a few times, you’ll need to take it slow and bring water. But you can run during those times and isn’t a bad way to build up heat acclimation. For example, you can do a nice “hot and heavy” hill session to one of the more secluded beaches!

Running Along “the Road”

The best single stretch for running is the main road running from the end of Sairee Beach through Mae Head and to Chalook. It’s recommended to run against traffic, so you can see on-going vehicles. It’s somewhat narrow but there is a decent shoulder on the road. It’s not particularly long but an “out and back” run will cover about 8k which you can repeat or adjust depending where you are staying. I ran this road several times while on the island, and it makes for a decent option for your easy or long runs, especially at sunset.

Lots of Hills

Koh Tao is hilly and some of those hills are rather steep. Whether you are taking a motorbike, walking, or running, this creates a challenge. Fortunately hills on Koh Tao end in goodness. Either you end up at a lovely secluded beach or a pinnacle area with an epic ocean view. Elevation rises on average to 170 to 180 meters (560 feet) and according to most maps, pinnacles at 200 meters.

Most hills are steep. If you are looking to build some strength and improve, you hill runs, and Koh Tao makes for a perfect location for hill training. Even during my short stay I noticed an improvement, and, if you are worries about losing out on training while on the island, I recommend adjusting your schedule to make Koh Tao the place to focus on hill training sessions.

Beach Runs

Besides the main road and various hill runs up and down the island, Koh Tao is good spot for a beach run. The best stretch is Sairee Beach, which lies on the westside of the island and is the main party hub. Sairee is lied by low-key restaurants and bars. It’s flat and relatively uncluttered stretch of packed sand. As the sun goes down, it’s a perfect place for a sunset run.The beach is about nearly 2km end to end.

Don’t Be Afraid to Get Wet

While some runners might avoid the rain, I found that the rain made for cooler runs on hot days. You’ll find the occasional showers almost any period of the year on Koh Tao. So rain is almost unavoidable.

My advice: Don’t Be Afraid to Get Wet. Embrace it and go for a run! Just watch out for cars and motorbikes.

Conclusion: Recommendations for Runners on Koh Tao

A few months ago I was on Koh Tao. Besides my nomadic internet work, I was also on Koh Tao for the diving, both free and scuba. I had dives with sea turtles, sting rays and even whale sharks. I also managed to do my first freedive (meaning diving without a tank on a single breath-hold) to a depth of 25 meters (82 feet). As a traveling runner, I also took advantage of the situation and went for a few exploring runs on Koh Tao.

After nearly a month on the island, my conclusion is that Koh Tao may not be the perfect place for a hardcore runner looking to put in super long runs. There just aren’t enough roads on this small island to run. That said, there are enough road (and hills) to provide some options for runners.

Just make sure you prepare for hills, expect hot and humid conditions, get ready for road running with cars and motorbikes and don’t be afraid to get wet.

In general, my recommendations for runners on Koh Tao are:

    1. “The Road,” which stretches from Sairee to Chalook for long runs,
    1. Sairee Beach Sunset Run,
    1. Hills runs to either Sai Daeng (westward) or Sai Naan (eastward) (Note: To get there, you’ll need to take one of the smaller offshoot roads between Mae Head and Chalook)

Also recommend taking a hike up the center of the island to one of the pinnacles or all the way over to Tanote Bay.

If worse comes to worst, there are a couple of gyms on the island where you can run on a treadmill. There are crossfit and muay-tai studies for some alternative training too. And don’t forget there is tons of open ocean to swim and explore too.

Personally, in spite of its limitations, I managed to run over 150km over a couple weeks on Koh Tao. My legs and butt got stronger, and I got to enjoy some pretty amazing post-run swims, including a long solo snorkel and freedive with a leatherback turtle.

In general though, I’d recommend you plan your Koh Tao trip for sun, diving, beaches and relaxation over the running. That said, hopefully this hope shared a few good options for any traveling runner like me.

Good luck traveling and running!

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