You may have picked up by now that I love any excuse to celebrate, don a costume or pop a bottle of (probably fake, if we’re talking Thailand) champagne — festivals and holidays are my jam! Lucky for me, Koh Tao knows how to party — it’s one of the things I love about this island I return to every year. Because of the island’s unique blend of Thai and international residents, events both local and global are observed with notable fanfare.
I know that when I’m going to be traveling for certain beloved events like Halloween or Thanksgiving, I research to find cities or towns where I know I’ll be able to find some way to celebrate. If you’re heading to Thailand soon and wondering if your favorite annual highlight is payed any attention on this tiny speck of an island, consider this a resource to find out if Koh Tao is the place for you. Likewise, if you’re happy at home but curious about a little peek into expat life on a tiny Thai island, consider this a peek into the Koh Tao calendar.
Note that many Buddhist holidays and Thai festivals are based on the lunar calendar and the full moon, and thus the exact date may change from year to year. Also keep in mind Thailand has many, many public holidays when official offices and alcohol sales are closed — be sure to check into them if you’re planning an immigration run or a big bar crawl.
January 26 • Australia Day
Australia Day is celebrated in full swing on Koh Tao with beach BBQs, day parties and lots of live music. Grab some sunscreen and an Aussie flag and head to Maya Beach Club, Fishbowl Beach Bar, and proud Aussie bar Choppers for parties starting early in the day, or for something more low key head to the nearest dive school throwing an event likely spearheaded by divemasters from Down Under.
Varies • Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year is celebrated lightly on Koh Tao. You may hear a few fireworks going off or see offerings out, and keep your eyes peeled for special events hosted by island resorts or dive shops. However, if you’re really looking for a big bash, head to nearby Koh Samui, where a festival is held in Mae Nam.
February 14 • Valentine’s Day
Valentine’s Day is a blast for everyone on Koh Tao. Couples should check out the special set menu dinners at Barracuda, View Point, Blue Water, Shalimar, and other island restaurants — personally I find The Whitening to be the most romantic restaurant on the island, even if they don’t do anything specific for the holiday. Those not interested in fancy meals will have no problem finding alternative ways to celebrate as several bars on the island will host fun theme parties that night.
But it’s not all about romance. February 14th is known as Friendship Day in Finland, and with a large Finnish population on Koh Tao — they even have their own dive school — you might end up ditching your significant other for a girls’ night like I did this year (after making a banana cinnamon pancake breakfast for my man and rocking heart-shaped sunnies on the beach, of course). Happy Ystävänpäivä!
March 17 • St. Patrick’s Day
Almost every bar on the island does a green-soaked celebration of St. Patrick. Personally, I head to Banyan Bar for their enormous party, though you’ll have several fun filled options! Banyan often goes on a bit of a bender for big holidays, so if you’re still feeling festive the next day, head back to the barstool for round two.
April 13 • Songkran
Songkran is Thailand’s wet and wild New Year. What once began as quiet cleaning rituals has devolved into a country-wide water fight celebrated with gusto… and I love it. While in other parts of Thailand Songkran stretches April 13-15 — revelers travel from far and wide to celebrate in Chiang Mai and Bangkok — on Koh Tao it’s a one day event on the 13th. Buy a water gun, don a colorful Hawaiian shirt (I’m still not sure how that became the de facto uniform for the day, but just roll with it — even immigration officers were wearing them when I fly through Bangkok Airport on April 15th last year) and get ready to get wet.
The island-wide fun starts bright and early and the parties rage until late. But there’s an unofficial cease-fire after the sun goes down, so be sure to empty your water gun beforehand. Word to the wise: don’t schedule any sort of travel for this three-day stretch, as having a suitcase will not protect you from getting soaked. I’ve been lucky to spend two Songkrans on Koh Tao — stay tuned for an upcoming post on how to Songkran responsibly.
April 22 • Earth Day
The details may change, but the sentiment remains the same: Koh Tao comes together for Earth Day. The 2016 celebrations included an island0wide land cleanup in the morning, an island-wide underwater cleanup in the afternoon, and an evening of fairground-style games, food & drinks at Hacienda to cap it off. Keep an eye out for posters and ask your dive shop how they’re planning to participate.
April 27 • King’s Day
A big beach party swathed in orange. Like the Thais, the Dutch take their King’s birthday seriously, and those on Koh Tao throw a great, if small, party. Keep your eyes peeled for posters advertising parties, and wear anything carrot colored.
Varies • Swedish Midsummer
With plenty of Scandinavians calling Koh Tao home, Midsummer is another big fun day party on Sairee Beach, with Maya Bar the epicenter. Pack a flower crown!
June 18 and 19 • Koh Tao Festival
Koh Tao Festival is the largest event of the year on Koh Tao — and I’m sad to say I’ve never personally attended it! With a focus on local conservation, music and food, the two day festival attracts thousands of people and raises millions of baht for local social and environmental causes. Prepare for sea turtle releases, trash sculpture competitions, a Mr and Mrs Save Koh Tao pageant, a volleyball tournament and lots of other silly island fun.
August 12 • Queen’s Birthday
The Queen’s birthday is also celebrated as Mother’s Day in Thailand. Aside from the occasional dive shop promotion don’t expect much fanfare, but if you happen to be traveling with your mom (or you’re a mom!), it’s as good an occasion as any to celebrate.
Varies • Oktoberfest
If you’re craving imported beers otherwise difficult to find on the island, keep an eye out for Banyan Bar‘s annual Oktoberfest, the only celebration of the sort on Koh Tao. Lederhosen-clad staff transform the bar into a beer and cider garden with a BBQ, custom t-shirts and live music.
October 31 • Halloween
Koh Tao expats have an inexplicable fascination with fancy dress — or costumes, for my fellow Americans — which makes Halloween a pretty big deal. Thais and Burmese don’t tend to dress up, but they do look fairly entertained by the whole thing. I’ve heard quite a few people say Koh Tao has one of the best Halloween celebrations in Southeast Asia, and I believe it! After all, the island has a penchant for dressing up: see Exhibit A and Exhibit B, among many many others.
Almost every bar on the island will have a party of some sort and you should hit up several, but if you’re looking for something different, Koh Tao Cinema shows the Rocky Horror Picture Show and Koh Tao Playskool does an event for kids and families.
If you didn’t plan ahead and pack any, look for supplies at the Lomprayah Shop in Mae Haad and the Bans 24 Minimart in Sairee, both of which carry face paint, costumes and accessories — the former year-round. There’s also a Facebook group to buy and sell costumes. Miss carving pumpkins? Try a pineapple instead.
Varies • Loy Kratong
Loy Kratong is a beautiful Thai holiday celebrated across the country. No, Koh Tao’s simple version can’t compare to the massive events in Chiang Mai or Sukhothai, but it’s a beautiful festival nonetheless. A daytime parade starts in Mae Haad and works up the island, while evening brings the main event: music and a show onstage next to the Seatran Pier, food vendors lining the lot and both floating sky lanterns and floating water lanterns being set off on the adjacent beach. Don’t miss it!
Varies • American Thanksgiving
On the fourth Thursday of each November, Banyan Bar hosts an elaborate Thanksgiving meal. Tickets are around 500B and sell out early, so book in advance if you hope to attend. Unfortunately for football fans, you’ll have to stream the highlights at home as games aren’t shown anywhere on the island. It’s a lovely holiday to celebrate on an island with so much to be thankful for.
And sorry, Canadians — your own Thanksgiving goes more or less unnoticed on Koh Tao. Eat with the Americans, or grab a pumpkin quiche at Through the Looking Glass bakery on your own big day.
December 5 • King’s Birthday
Like the Queen’s Birthday, The King’s Birthday is a public holiday and also celebrated as Father’s Day in Thailand. You may notice extra decorations on the streets of Koh Tao around this time, but there is no formal event or festival. If you want to really experience the full fanfare of this holiday, head to Bangkok, where things really go nuts.
December 25 • Christmas
Koh Tao does Christmas beautifully. Santa hats and reindeer antlers abound while travels, expats and locals alike get into the holiday spirit. I’ve been lucky to spend Christmas 2012 and Christmas 2015 (which I just wrote a super belated recap to!) on Koh Tao.
Christmas gear is sold at several spots around the island — the shops that sell Halloween swag should be your first stop. Western-managed businesses will be mostly closed on Christmas Day, including dive shops, but there’s plenty of fun to be found just hanging out on the beach in a red hat. Yogis, look out for holiday music themed classes at Ocean Sound on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Spas also remain open.
Many restaurants offer special menus on the 24th, the 25th, or both — reserve ahead as they often book up days ahead. There are options at several budgets from cheap (try Reef Restaurant or Neptune) to mid-priced (try Banyan Bar or Hacienda) to high-end (try View Point or Royal Resort). Check their Facebook pages in the dates leading up for menus and booking information.
As with most Koh Tao events, both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day end in big, boozy nights out at the bars.
December 31 • Western New Year
I love New Year’s Eve on Koh Tao! Technically, it’s not that different from any other big night out on the island, save for the fireworks and lanterns being set off, the black dresses and happy new year crowns, and the big fire sculptures of the pending year. But that’s the beauty of it — no bouncers, no fancy ticketed parties, no traffic. I’ve been blessed to spend New Year’s Eve in many places around the world, and Koh Tao is the perfect blend of laid back and festive.
If you’re looking to treat yourself and chill, several upscale restaurants do special menus ranging from 1,500-3,000B per person, including Jamahkiri, Blue Water and Barracuda. Note if you’re staying in an upscale resort there may be a mandatory New Year’s dinner, so check before making reservations elsewhere. Yoga addicts may wish to check the schedule at Ocean Sound Yoga, which often offers an extended New Year’s Day class to kick off the new calendar right. Trance-heads may want to head into the jungle for The Experience, a festival that spans a few days. And if all this sounds a tad too civilized, you can slap some neon body paint on and head over to the massive New Year Full Moon Party raging next door on Koh Phangan.
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And that’s not all. Once you’re on the island you’ll realize there’s a frequent roster of fundraisers, conservation events and more throughout the year — not to mention the never-ending rotation of birthdays, snorkel tests, leaving parties, coming back parties and more if you ever decide to call Koh Tao home.
Yes, it’s a tough life juggling such a crazy social calendar… but someone has gotta go do! And I, selflessly and for science, continue to volunteer.
Are you surprised at how many holidays are celebrated on Koh Tao? What’s your favorite event abroad?