Day 9: Koh Tao Thailand vs. Koh Rong Cambodia - What is the best island in the world for backpackers?

I used to dream about living on a tropical island, in fact when Lost first aired, I would fantasize about my plane crashing and being stuck on an island somewhere.  Fast forward five years and five islands later, I'm here to pick my favorite.

The first island I lived on was Koh Tao, Thailand.

I moved there in 2008 after hearing about it from my dive instructor Rene Christoph in Phuket. Previously, I had only been to Thailand on a 3 week vacation, but during that trip, I decided to move out for 3-6 months and become a divemaster.  The book 12 Weeks in Thailand is about that move and those first couple of years living in Thailand on a budget.

Sairee Beach, Koh Tao - The Main Beach

There are tons of options from wooden bungalows to 3 star hotel rooms on the island.  Dorms are starting to get popular as well but were not' available even a few years ago.  Prices range from $10 for a shared dorm to $33 a night for a private room with A/C.  You also get discounts if you're diving and get free  rooms with a dive course.  The rooms are generally clean, 24/7 electricity, hot water, and are quiet.

Scuba Diving:

Koh Tao is the cheapest and one of the best places in the world to get certified as a diver.  The only downsides are that you could be in a large group, (I would only recommend doing it somewhere with max 4 students TOTAL per group, not per instructor)  As for fun diving, there are a few good spots, and the 1% chance of seeing Whale Sharks on your dive.  I've been luckily enough to dive with one in Koh Tao, but only once and I've been diving there 100+ times.  


The food on Koh Tao is okay.  It's more expensive than the rest of Thailand and tastes decent but is nothing special.  A BBQ on the beach will cost you around $10 and Thai food will be around $3.  


Koh Tao is decently social with a lot of bars at night, but it's also not easy to meet other travellers aside from scuba diving.  There isn't much of a hostel scene or places where people hang out to be social.   It's more of a place to hang out with people you've met previously.


There is wifi at a bunch of restaurants and all of the dive shops.  Some hotels might have it now as well, but when I was there mine didn't.  Not the best wifi but decent.


You will be over charged for Taxi rides anywhere on the island as the fixed rate there is high.  Renting a motorbike usually results in you being scammed for scratches and damages.  Other than that, the island itself is extremely safe.

Must Dos on Koh Tao:

Go scuba diving while you're here, at least once, trust me, you have to do it.  Hike to the abandoned resort at Laem Thiem, it takes less than an hour and is well worth it.  Rent a motorbike (ask for an old one and offer to pay a deposit instead of giving up your passport) and go snorkeling with black tip reef sharks in Shark Bay.  Get a tattoo by Bu at Siam Tattoo near the Muay Thai gym.


I really loved my experience living on Koh Tao for almost a year.  There's an inside joke that no one ever really leaves Koh Tao as they always come back.  It's beautiful, there is plenty to do, has a decent hiking trail, and is very safe.  I would recommend it as a perfect first island to live on and a must visit when you're in Thailand.

Currently i'm on Koh Rong in Cambodia

My first thought was how much this place reminded me of Koh Tao and I imagine this is exactly what Koh Tao was like 10 years ago before it started getting built up.  I'm really enjoying my time here now but I don't know if I could have handled how basic it is if I wasn't use to traveling already.  Koh Rong was recently voted "best off the beaten path" in SEA Backpacker Magazine.  


Loads of dorms from $5 a night but loud with music until late night.  Every room is super basic and there isn't hot water anywhere on the island.  Electricity is only available for a few hours a day as well. I'm staying at Dream Catch which is $12-$14 a night for a single room with a shared bathroom.  There are bungalows from $35-$65 a night and are large but still basic.

Scuba Diving:

Just okay.  It's a good place to get your certification as it's just as cheap as Koh Tao and is good for beginners.  But as a fun diver there's nothing special to see.  Supposedly the far away islands such as Koh Prim are very good but I didn't feel like gambling the $125 to see if they were right.


The food on Koh Rong is excellent.  I was really surprised how good the food is on this tiny, remote island.  For $3.50 - $5 you get a nice BBQ on the beach including steak, chicken or fresh caught fish. Elephant Restaurant has some of the best Cambodian food I've had so far in the country as well.

Playing a bit of beach volleyball on Koh Rong

Perfect.  Since it's a really small island everyone is super friendly, and there are a ton of places to hang out and meet other backpackers.  This may be the best place in the world for meeting new friends on a whim.


There are only a couple of places on the entire island that has wifi and it is usually only available for a few hours a day.  Not fast enough to Skype, download or upload, but works for facebook and email.  

An afternoon on Koh Rong


You physically are extremely safe here and it's nice that no one tries to rip you off or even sell you anything.  However, your stuff doesn't feel that secure here and it's one of the things that is worrying me.  I left my passport with Koh Rong Diver's and I keep my computer, iPhone and Camera locked in my private room which should be relatively safe but it still feels like it might not be.  I've met two different people who have had their passports and money stolen, but both times they had left their bag on the beach while swimming at night.  

Must Dos on Koh Rong:

Rent a Stand up Paddle Board, hike to the other side and enjoy the day and sunset at Long Beach which is quite possibly the most beautiful beach I've seen anywhere in the world.  Take a $3 boat back from Long Beach and enjoy the sun setting on the water. 


It's a toss up.  I wouldn't want to live on Koh Rong for more than a week at a time, Koh Tao would be better for long term stay, but as for island feel, backpacker's paradise, sheer beauty and the social aspect, I would say that Koh Rong is the ultimate backpacker's island paradise and is the overall best island I've ever visited.  

Sunset on Koh Rong

Other islands I've lived on:

I've been fortunate enough to have read the 4-hour workweek and had the confidence to go after my dreams and live the digital nomad lifestyle.  Scuba Diving and working as a Divemaster and Instructor has also helped me fund my trips and living on various islands around the world.  Here are some notable places I've lived on and what I thought about them:

Utila, Honduras (Caribbean Sea)

I had very high hopes for this place, but it was my least favorite overall.  It was one of the most expensive, the people weren't genuine, and it was a bit dangerous as well.  I personally would not recommend it.

Koh Lanta, Thailand

The ultimate honeymoon destination and also the most boring island I've ever lived on.  Amazing, incredible diving, extremely clean, quite, empty white sand beaches.  Amazing day trips out to far away islands.  I would live there again as a couple, especially working as a divemaster or go there for a honeymoon vacation.  

Must sees on Koh Lanta: Koh Haa islands, dive the Cathedral and surface in the cave.  Snorkel through emerald caves to the pirate hideout.  Dive Hin Daeng/Hin Muang and have a 10% chance of diving with Manta Rays, Whale Sharks or something else amazing.

Gili Trawangan, Indonesia

Located near Bali, I decided to go to Gili T for New Years Eve a few years back.  It was a beautiful island with no cars or motorbikes and just big enough to walk around for an hour or so.  It had really good scuba diving with heavy currents at the time, but I saw a ton of school fish and a few sharks as well.  The only downsides to it that make it so I could never live there is the food wasn't very good and at the time they didn't have fresh water, only salt water showers. 

I haven't been to Gili T in a few years and I've heard most bigger hotels and dive shops now have fresh water.  I would definitely go back if I'm ever back near Bali.

Mabul, Borneo

The best scuba diving anywhere in the world. Also home of the best dive resort in the world.  I really enjoyed my time working and living on Mabul but it also made me really miss living in cities.  It's a tiny island and is amazing for up to 45 days at a time, but after that you'll realize how tiny it is and need to escape.  

The only downsides is that the muslim staff won't cook pork so you'll be eating chicken until you start dreaming of bacon and that the locals dump a ton of plastic and other garbage into the otherwise beautiful, warm, clear ocean regularly, making it feel sometimes like you are swimming in trash.  Still it is the best diving in the world, has a great island feel, and I would recommend anyone save up the extra money to do their divemasters there and stay to work for a few months afterwards. Also if you don't mind being spoiled, go there to get your open water certification for the best experience you'll get anywhere in the world as a new diver.

Must sees on Mabul include: Booking 3-4 months ahead to dive the legendary Sipadan Islands.  Learn to appreciate muck/sand diving.  Take amazing macro shots of cool fish underwater, this is the place you must bring an underwater housing and camera. 

That's it for now, I hope everyone who dreams of living on a remote tropical island gets the chance to do so.  If you want to read about my experiences and learn how I mustered the courage and the finances to do so myself, read my book: 12 Weeks in Thailand  or just book your flight and figure it out along the way!
Warm Regards,


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