Koh Samui (also sometimes called Ko Samui or just Samui) is a very popular island and beach destination in the Gulf of Thailand about 700 kilometres south of Bangkok. Being in the gulf, rather than on the Andaman Sea side of the peninsula, it doesn’t have much in the way of surf beaches but there’s lots more to do in Thailand than surfing!
We prefer to go to Koh Samui over Phuket or Pattaya because it’s quieter, more laid back, easier to ride around on a scooter, but still has great places to eat, fantastic nightlife, awesome swimming and diving and is also a lot cheaper than most tourist islands in Thailand.
Because it was not connected by road to the mainland until the 1970s, Koh Samui has been a bit slower to develop than some of the other popular tourist destinations in Southern Thailand. It started out as somewhere that adventurous backpackers travelled out to on coconut boats for the hiking and diving it offered, and the accommodation and facilities were extremely basic. Since the 1990s, however, tourists have been arriving in increasing numbers and the inevitable development has followed them.
Despite the recent wave of tourism developments, Koh Samui still offers a great combination of natural scenery, sparkling coral and long sandy beaches that rank it as now the second most popular tourist location in Thailand after Phuket. This has led to some overcrowding at the most popular tourist beaches, like Chaweng and Lamai, but there are still some quiet, laid back spots to enjoy.
It’s important to know that Koh Samui’s location in the Gulf of Thailand exposes it to different weather patterns to Phuket, so Samui has its wettest months from October to December and the best time to visit is January to March.
Unlike Phuket, Koh Samui does not have an international airport as such, just a private airport with connections about every hour from Bangkok (Thai Airways) and daily connections from Phuket, Chiang Mai and Pattaya. However there are limited international direct flights into Koh Samui from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong as well. If you’re flying directly into Samui, you can get “visa on arrival” there for 30 days.
Chaweng is the main tourist area of Koh Samui, so most visitors arriving there catch a minibus into Chaweng for about 120 Baht (taxis charge 500 Baht or more and don’t use meters, so be prepared to haggle). Don’t be fooled by offers of free taxis from the airport – there are always strings attached and most are related to timeshare properties.
Places to get away from it all on Koh Samui
Once in Chaweng, you’re more than likely to quickly decide to hightail it out of there to somewhere more quiet and laid back, unless you’re a party animal or you’re booked into one of the more up-market resorts where you can be isolated from the touts and crowds. If you are a party animal, you’ll want to head straight for Chaweng Beach or Lamai Beach and partake of the legendary action there … but it’s not my scene.
Some popular destinations away from Chaweng and Lamai include:
Big Buddha Beach
North-east of Chaweng, near Bo Phut, has nice beaches and scenic views and is developing some good accommodation and restaurants.
Bo Phut Beach
On the northern end of Koh Samui, popular with diving groups who head offshore from here – but some good facilities.
Choeng Mon Beach
In the north-east corner of Koh Samui, very close to Chaweng, but a lot quieter and more relaxed.
Mae Nam Beach
On the northern end of Ko Samui, popular with families as it has safe swimming spots and shallow water. Mae Nam is also a fantastic place to sit in one of the small beachfront cafes and watch the sun go down over Koh Phang’An.
Things to see and do on Koh Samui
Most people go to Koh Samui for the relaxed beach environment, the coral sea diving and snorkelling, or the party scene in Chaweng, but there are a few attractions to while away your spare time:
- Diving is obviously one of the big attractions, with clear water and good visibility. You can dive on coral reefs, under water mountains and some spectactular rock formations. One of the best is the Samran Pinnacles, where the big fish swim, but it is a place for experienced divers only so don’t go there on your own. Ko Losin and Ko Kra, two small islands off the main island, are also popular diving locations where you can get up close with sharks, turtles and manta rays, but there are no facilities and they can be hard to get to.
- Golf – pack your clubs if you’re into spoiling a good walk, as Ko Samui has its own first class golf course located at Santiburi Resort, up in the hills above Maenam Beach.
- Samui Butterfly Garden and Insect Museum – located in the south-east of the island with some of the biggest butterflies you’re likely to see anywhere and some quite rare insects.
- Grandmother and Grandfather Rocks – an oddity, but well worth a look, as they uncannily resemble shriveled male and female sex organs. You’ll find them near Lamai Beach and you may even see some of the odd rituals that go on nearby!
- Secret Buddha Garden – strange and wonderful sculptures of people set in lush jungle surroundings at the peak of the island.
- Monkey Show – open air theatre with performing monkeys and elephants, on the main road behind Bophut Beach.
- Temples – The Laem Sor Pagoda (really a chedi) is one of Samui’s more significant temples and glows gold in certain lights. Wat Khunaram is the most famous temple in Samui and features one of its founding monks, mummified in a lotus position in a glass case.
- Night life – mostly around Chaweng and Lamai Beaches, especially the Green Mango Club, the nearby Mint Bar, and the famous Black Moon Party at Chaweng Beach. There’s also the somewhat infamous Full Moon Party, which is at Haad Rin on Ko Pha Ngan island (boats leave from Big Buddha Pier three times a day.
Places to stay on Koh Samui
The best upmarket hotels on Koh Samui are around Lamai Beach, Bophut and Choeng Mon Beach, but there are great hotels, resorts and guesthouses all over the island. Here’s a few that get rave reviews from travellers.
Samui Reef View Resort is a boutique resort in Lamai Beach owned and managed by Angus, an Australian expat with a Thai wife who both really like to look after their guests. Angus looks after the bar and the bookings and his wife looks after the kitchen. It’s a bit of a hike up the hill from the beach on foot, but the views are worth it. Rooms are large and comfortable and set in a villa style so they are well spaced from their neighbours. Angus will help you hire a bike or even drop you in town and pick you up again. Rooms go for around USD$25-45 per night, but book early because they sell out really quickly. Best rooms are at the top near Angus’s house.
Vana Belle Resort is a 5-star beach resort on Chaweng Beach with spacious suite rooms, each with its own terrace and coffee machine. This is luxury at its best and the room rates of USD$460 a night and upwards reflect the luxury of this resort. It’s located on a stunning stretch of beach and it’s generally considered worth every dollar. The location just south of View Hill is close enough to the action around Chaweng but also quiet and private when you just want to relax and soak up the sun.
Sandalwood Luxury Villa Resort is a 4-star resort hotel between Lamai Beach and Chaweng Beach and almost right on the beachfront. It’s located up on a hill with great ocean views from the private balconies of each huge villa unit. The units and the views are stunning, but you need to be pretty self-contained with food, drinks and transport as it’s a long walk up and down the hill. They do offer a car service, but it’s limited and you have to pay for it. Room rates start from around US$225 per night.
A traveller’s view of Koh Samui Island
Here’s a look at just some of the things you can do on Ko Samui Island, filmed by Tunihot T.