Ko Samui (เกาะสมุย), often called just Samui (สมุย) is an island in the Gulf of Thailand, some 700km south of Bangkok and about 80km from the eastern coastline of Southern Thailand. An island of great natural beauty and variety, Samui is home to about 40,000 full-time inhabitants, 90% of whom are Buddhist. The palm fringed shoreline and coconut and fruit cultivation of the coastal lowlands rise to a central granite massive, the slopes of which are cloaked in virgin rainforest.
At 247km² Samui is the third largest island in Thailand and the largest island in an archipelago of over 80 (mostly uninhabited) islands which form the Ang Thong National Marine Park, a kayaking and snorkeling paradise. At 25km long and 21km wide, Samui is big enough for serious exploration by the adventurous and fit, but can be circumnavigated in just a couple of hours by motorbike or car.
The island was probably first inhabited about 15 centuries ago, settled by fishermen from the Malay Peninsula and Southern China. It appears on Chinese maps dating back to 1687, under the name Pulo Cornam. The name Samui is mysterious in itself. Perhaps it is an extension of the name of one of the native trees, mui, or it is a corruption of the Chinese word Saboey, meaning “safe haven”.
Samui’s weather patterns are a little different from the rest of Thailand. In April through September, when most of the country has its monsoon, Samui stays fairly dry, but from October to December, it’s wet in Samui and drier elsewhere. The driest season of all, though, is January through March.
Ko Samui is all in all a fairly big island. The most popular and commercialised beaches are Chaweng and Lamai, while the northern beaches and their adjacent villages of Mae Nam, Bophut, Bang Rak (Big Buddha) and Choeng Mon are more peaceful choices, and the west coast beaches are still (comparatively) quiet.
Clockwise from Nathon on the west coast, the main beaches are:
- Nathon – Samui’s port and administrative center, but with little to attract the tourist
- Mae Nam – a quiet and beautiful beach on the northern coast
- Bophut – known for its Fisherman’s Village, laid-back but growing fast
- Bang Rak – at the northeastern tip, home of the Big Buddha
- Choeng Mon – quiet North shore beach
- Chaweng – the largest and most-developed beach, with a curious mix of luxury hotels and backpacker guesthouses and a hopping nightlife
- Lamai – Samui’s “second” beach south of Chaweng, more backpackery than Chaweng
- Samui South Coast – the small beaches of Ban Hua Thanon, Na Khai, Laem Set, Bang Kao and Thong Krut
There are plenty of airlines offering flights to Koh Samui from major UK airports including London Heathrow, Birmingham, Manchester, Aberdeen, Belfast, Glasgow, Cardiff, New Castle, London Gatwick. A 300 baht surcharge is levied on domestic departures, as well as the 500 baht surcharge on international departures. If you fly via Bangkok to an international destination the tax is only 200 baht as the Bangkok international departure tax is already included in your ticket ex Bangkok. These charges are not included in the ticket price.
Ko Samui Airport (USM) is a private airport originally built by Bangkok Airways , which is still the main operator and was for a long time the only airline with services to Ko Samui from Thailand until Thai Airways started in April 2008 to operate some flights between Bangkok and Ko Samui. They have near-hourly departures to/from Bangkok and tickets are expensive by Thai standards, with advance bookings costing 3000-4500 baht one-way, while a walk-in booking may be twice as much. There are also daily flights to/from Phuket for 2000-3000 baht, U-Tapao, and Singapore; four direct flights a week from Chiang Mai (but no direct flights in the opposite direction); and twice weekly flights to/from Hong Kong.
A feature of the International Departure Gate is a courtesy corner which provides food and drinks for all passengers in a cosy sitting area. Awaiting boarding becomes rather comfortable with food, drinks and wifi provided.
In addition to Bangkok Air, Ko Samui is served two flights a day from Bangkok with Thai Airways as well as by Berjaya Air from Kuala Lumpur and Firefly from Penang and Subang airport (Kuala Lumpur) in Malaysia.
Visa-on-Arrival and Visa-Free entry is available at Samui Airport for some nationalities.
Ground transportation from the airport is readily available. A seat in a minibus for the 20-minute ride to Chaweng costing 100 baht/person; a faster taxi will cost 300-500 baht. Be sure to negotiate the rate to your destination before you get into the taxi since many drivers refuse to use their meters.
A cheaper but less convenient option is to fly to Surat Thani and connect by road and then ferry.
From Surat Thani train station and Surat Thani Airport (URT), there are combined bus/ferry services to Ko Samui cost 200-300 baht – some entail a 60 minute bus ride to Donsak pier followed by a 90 minute ferry crossing, others a 30 minute bus ride but the ferry takes extra time. Tickets are sold by numerous agents that meet each train and airport. Should cost certainly less than 300 baht even if bought this way (return combo boat+bus ticket on more comfortable Seatran ferry bought on the Na Thon pier on Samui officially costs 230 baht).
Numerous ferry services are direct from mainland Surat Thani include an express boat (3 departures daily, taking around 3 hours and costing 150 baht) and slow night boats (taking 6-7 hours). Call operator Songserm Travel (252 9654 in Bangkok) for the latest schedules, which vary according to the season.
Lomprayah offers a combined bus/high speed catamaran ferry service from Bangkok to Ko Samui which takes about 11 hours (5.5 of them by boat) and costs around 1250 baht (1000 baht in the opposite direction). The bus pauses in Hua Hin and then stops at Chumphon, where it connects with the ferry, which calls at Ko Nang Yuan, Ko Tao and Ko Pha Ngan on its way to Ko Samui. While the route may be more scenic (as includes the long boat trip via 2 islands), and the ferry itself is comparable to Seatran, the entire way to Samui will take more time, and will cost more too.
Lomprayah, however, is a good (if not exactly cheap) option to get to Samui from Ko Tao or Ko Phangan, as well as a reasonable one to get to those islands from Bangkok. There are also regular speedboats and ferries of other operators.
As on many islands in Thailand, small motorbikes are available for rental. Compared to other nearby islands, Samui’s road systems is very developed and there are plenty of taxis cruising about, although it’s a challenge to get them to use their meters.
The Ko Samui Taxi Service is a public taxi service. The drivers, however, are very reluctant to use their meters (unlike in Bangkok), and, especially on popular beaches or entry points to the island, tend to ask foreigners much more than normal fare. Some, say on Na Thon pier, will even show you official-looking papers with “fixed” prices like 600-800 baht for a 25-30 km trip to Chaweng or Lamai beach – this is not true, and once they know you aware of that, it’s usually possible to bargain (for this distance, you should bargain to at least 400, or even better 300 baht for all car, which is still higher than Bangkok metered taxi price). On the popular beaches it may be impossible at all to get a reasonable fare sometimes – if so, just walk around to the some area which is more quiet and far away from luxurious hotels.
Pickup trucks/public passenger pick-up vehicles (songthaews) also serve as group taxis. Hail one on any major road with a wave or yell, negotiate a fare, and sit down on the bench in the back. Fares are around 10 Baht per person for local trips, more for the longer ones (have to negotiate, as the price not only depends on the distance, but also on how many fares (if any) the driver expects to get while on that route. And of course, the driver can expect more (sometimes a few times more) from a foreigner than from a local too – so, if think the price offered is too high considering all mentioned above, bargain!
In December 2009, the price across the island (25-30 km) from Nathon pier to Chaweng or Lamai was even posted near the pier as a 60 baht. Nevertheless, drivers meeting tourists routinely charge them 100 baht/person for a fully packed songthaew. If arriving not too late and to the popular destinations like these, it’s wise to wait, or to walk around Na Thon a bit (possibly to eat too, as cheaper than on the beaches) – after the initial tourist wave comes off, there will be other (local mostly) passengers, and the drivers, seeing you do not worry much about time but want the right price, finally will agree and give you a ride, when there’s enough people to your destination.
In the event you wish to hire own personally then you ought to negotiate the cost first, which is then comparable to a taxi cost.
Motorbikes can be rented virtually anywhere on Ko Samui for between 120-700 Baht per day depending on the size. It is recommended though, to hire only from a reputable company as there have been reports of scams; that is where some places deliberately steal bikes that they have rented out. If hiring a bike doesn’t appeal to you then there are motorbike-taxis willing to take you around for a small fee. They may want you to leave your passport for collateral. Don’t do it.
Bicycles Bicycles can be hired very cheaply on Ko Samui, one shouldn’t cost any more than a couple of US dollars per day.
Places to See in Koh Samui
The major reason why people come to Samui is, quite simply, to enjoy the beaches. Even though the two main beaches of Chaweng and Lamai have generally suffered due to mass development over the past decade they are still relatively impressive. Development has been thwarted slightly because of the island’s regulation governing height restriction.
Other than lying on the beach with a cold beer in hand and ogling at the babes and hunks sauntering past, there isn’t all that much to see on the island. A certain pair of rocks on Lamai amuses some visitors, Bang Rak has a large but nondescript Buddha statue, and there are some waterfalls (notably Na Muang) of minor interest.
- Chaweng Beach is the major beach on Ko Samui and one that has developed tremendously since the early 1990s. Just 20 years ago the beach was home to just a sprinkle of wooden bungalows but now the place is swamped with 4-5 star hotels, Italian pizza joints, Irish pubs and even go-go bars. Samui’s nightlife is becoming legendary but unfortunately not always attracting the best standard of tourist. Chaweng’s once ‘hippy’ only backpackers have given way to a lot of ‘lager louts’. Chaweng is the place to be if you are looking for a rowdy reckless party scene.
- Lamai Beach Like Chaweng, Lamai has transformed from a ‘hippy’ hangout into a fun, party place packed out with bars and exciting nightlife. The beach though, is still in better condition than Chaweng and the place doesn’t get quite so crowded. If it’s a quiet relaxing location you are after, then Lamai won’t be the ideal place for you. At the southern end of Lamai, there are some odd-looking rock formations.
- Maenam Beach This quiet beach, located in the north of the island is decent enough for swimming and sunbathing especially for families with children due to the shallow water.
- Bophut Beach situated in the north of the island, is a popular starting point for diving tours. The place isn’t in any way as developed as Chaweng but there are still plenty of restaurants, shops and bars.
- Choengmon Beach is in the North-East of Samui just 10 minutes from Chaweng. Unlike the latter it is a perfect place for relaxing.
- Big Buddha Beach Located in the north-east of Samui, Big Buddha offers visitors good swimming and lovely views. The area has developed a lot over the past few years and there are now a plentitude of restaurants, shops and bars.
- Na Thon – The island’s major seafront settlement where shops, restaurants and tour agencies are concentrated.
- Namtok Hin Lat – This waterfall is easily accessible by car. Some of the numerous tiny levels have a large basin for swimmers.
- Namtok Na Mueang – A local road leads to the Na Mueang 1 Waterfall. A walk of about 30 minutes ends up at the more scenic Na Mueang 2 Waterfall. Purple rocks surround the stream of water, which gushes in from an impressive height of around 79 meters.
- Ban Lipa Yai – This village grows high quality fruits, including rambutan, durian, mangosteen and the famed langsat.
- Old House – This Chinese-style house, aged almost 200 years, represents Samui’s cultural identity. Grandpa Si and Grandma Maen Hancharoen, the present owner, open the house to visitors.
Other island attractions include coral beds at Laem Set and Thong Takhian; the nearby butterfly garden and aquarium; a snake farm; a monkey theatre at Bo Phut and a massive seated Buddha image on Fan isle.
- Wat Khunaram Ko Samui This temple is the island’s most famous temple for its mummified monk on display. The mummy sits upright in a glass casket and devotees offer it flowers and incense. The mummy is in fact the body of a very revered former abbot of the temple who was also a meditation master that was able to predict his own death.
- Grandmother and Grandfather Rocks These odd-looking rocks situated on Lamai beach bear a striking resemblance to male and female sexual organs and they have turned into one of the island’s biggest attractions. For those who would like to hear a legend or two surrounding the rocks, they need only ask a local.
- Samui Aquarium and Tiger Zoo Ko Samui Located at Ban Harn beach, the Samui Aquarium and Tiger Zoo offer a fun day out for the family. The undersea world of the aquarium has an amazing collection of tropical fish and other vibrant aquatic animals such as turtles and colorful coral. The tiger zoo is home to Bengal tigers and leopards. For those who are daring enough, they can have their photograph taken with the awesome animals. The Samui Aquarium and Tiger Zoo are open daily from 9AM till 6PM.
- Big Buddha Temple (Wat Phra Yai) Also known as the Big Buddha Temple (Wat Phra Yai), has a 15 meter tall statue of the Buddha. It was built in 1972 and is in the north of the island.
- Laem Sor Pagoda Ko Samui This chedi (pagoda) situated at Laem Sor temple is one of the most important shrines on Ko Samui. The structure with its yellow tiles which gives off a golden aura is quite impressive.
- Samui Butterful Garden / Insect Museum This butterfly garden can be found in the south-east of the island. There is a huge collection of different butterflies, some quarter of a meter wide. The visitor can also enter the insect museum nearby to see a variety of rare bugs and a bee house.
- Secret Buddha Garden This beautiful garden was made by a 76 year-old Ko Samui fruit farmer in 1976. It is surrounded by lush jungle, rocky hills and is adorned with sculptures depicting both humans, in various poses, as well as various deities. Since the garden is the highest point on the island, there are also some awesome views to be had. Organized tours to the garden last for about 2 hours.
- Monkey Shows These shows can be enjoyed at the open-air theater on the main road behind Bophut beach. The entertainment also includes performing elephants
Things to Do in Koh Samui
The usual panoply of water sports are available, including plenty of dive shops, but most diving is done either in the nearby Angthong Marine National Park or Ko Tao as the visibility around Samui’s sandy beaches tends to be poor. You can book diving day trips at dive shops, most of which are based in Chaweng. The dive boats tend to leave from the pier at Bophut and Bang Ruk.
Diving Without a doubt the south of Thailand is home to some of the finest and most beautiful beaches and islands in the world, surrounded by crystal clear water and stunning coral. And that is the main reason why the number of divers coming to Thailand has escalated over the past decade or so. Even though the best time year of the year to dive in the Ko Samui is between June and August, it is still perfectly possible to dive virtually all year round. As diving in Thailand is considered one of the safest destinations for diving and snorkeling in the world, it is perfect for first-timers wanting to try these pastimes out.
The sea visibility in some places around Ko Samui is almost very good (distances of up to 10-30 meters). One can enjoy splendid sights of underwater mountains, coral gardens, undersea rock formations, hard and soft coral, whale sharks.
- ‘Samran Pinnacles:’ Since the currents in this area are often quite strong, this site is recommended therefore, for experienced divers. Due to the currents being like this, the site is a haven for bringing in larger pelagics such as barracuda, jacks. There are three submerged pinnacles near Sail Rock.
- ‘Ko Kra & Koh Losin:’ These two small islands located to the south-east of Samui, which because of its remotest, don’t get too many divers. Blacktip sharks, manta rays and hard to find loggerhead turtles can be seen.
Food in Koh Samui
Samui is well known for its coconuts, which are available everywhere and quite tasty. Being an island seafood is generally a good choice although in high season demand often exceeds local supply. The larger beaches have a number of international restaurants as well (often run by Thai-farang couples) with Bophut having a particularly good reputation.
Southern Thai food in general is renowned for its spiciness. Much of the cuisine has its origins in Malay, Indonesian and Indian food. Favourite dishes from the south include Indian-style Muslim curry (massaman), rice noodles in fish curry sauce (Khanom Jeen) and chicken birayani. Popular local food are salted eggs and delicious rambutan, too.
Dual pricing is regrettably common: some restaurants have two menus, one for tourists and the other for Thai people, at about 1/4 of the foreigner prices. Main courses in a standard, low-key Thai restaurant should be under 100 baht (except some seafood dishes), so if prices seem unreasonably steep, head elsewhere. Always check prices and menu first so you don’t have to argue when the bill is served.
Tap water is generally not potable. Liquids from sealed bottles nearly always are, and should be used wherever possible. Take care in restaurants…many may use unsafe tap water to make ice for drinks otherwise made with bottled/safe ingredients. Some residents claim that ice with round holes is made by commercial ice makers who purify their water; others state that it is wise not to rely on that claim. Tap water in most hotels should not be used for drinking or brushing teeth unless explicitly labeled as safe.
Motorbikes are somewhat risky, but jeeps, trucks, and other cars for rent are readily available at very reasonable rates, and are considerably safer. If you must use a motorbike always wear a helmet and never drive drunk the roads are hazardous with many large potholes. After a good time drinking in the party areas of Chaweng, Bophut and Lamai taxis are readily available to take you home. Be careful generally taxi drivers tend to rip you off. It’s not rare for a tuk-tuk driver to charge you 50 baht for just a kilometer ride (for example, along the main Chaweng market) during evenings. Of course you would never have boarded the tuk-tuk if you’d known about the scam beforehand!
A recent development has been the appearance of Quad Bikes to rent for use on the roads. These do not appear to be registered for road use so care should be taken as they may not be insured. Be careful about beaches in night time as crime often occurs there.