Koh Samui Travel Guide

Travel Thailand & Travel Koh Samui

Jewel in the Gulf of Thailand

Located around 435 miles to the south of Bangkok, Koh Samui is the largest island in the Angthong archipelago sprinkled in the Gulf of Thailand. Known for decades as an island gem, Koh Samui became more accessible when Bangkok Airways opened its airport on the island in 1989.

Despite the ranking as third largest island in the kingdom, the island is only some 230 sq km (~88 sq mi) in size, an intimate size that – especially when considering the strapline of its airport's airline operators – has lent the island its “boutique” appeal.

The island is dappled in coconut plantations, once the primary source of income for the residents of the island. Over the last few decade, however, the island has acquired a high-end tint, mainly due to the luxury five star resorts that have opened, offering everything under the tropical sun and leaving nothing for the wanting.

The mountainous interior of the island is draped in forestry, but a main ring road encircles and provides convenient transportation to the lowland and coastal areas. The beaches on the north and east coast (namely Chaweng, Lamai, Bophut) have a higher concentration of accommodation and thus entertainment options, while high-end resorts carve out private headlands around the island.

Koh Samui is also a popular launchpad to visit inhabited islands nearby in the gulf. From lazing the day away on a beautiful white sandy beach to scuba diving with whale sharks near Koh Tao or rollicking the night away at the infamous Full Moon Party on neighboring island Koh Phangan, the island of Samui offers something for everyone.


Chaweng Beach

Each of Koh Samui's beaches has their own appeals. Chaweng is the longest and arguably the nicest stretch of beach on the island, save for the throngs of like-minded visitors that swarm the beach. Relative to the eastern and northern shores, the beaches on the western coast are more “sleepy fisherman village” than “bustling tourist thoroughfare”, not to mention the fresh seafood and stunning sunsets at beaches such as Taling Ngam. The island is small enough that you can decide which palm tree you wish to lay down the beach towel under.

Natural Formations

Hin Ta and Hin Yai

Other than the postcard perfect beach shots, another oft-photographed attraction if you can call it that, rather a natural occurrence, is Hin Ta / Hin Yai – Grandmother and Grandfather Rock – on Lamai. The rock formations illicit giggles from shutter-bugging tourists with their disconcerting resemblance to female and male genitalia. Thai people with their fun loving sense of humor are no different, these formations have drawn laughs for generations.


The Mummy

Wat Khunaram near Namuang Waterfall is a traditional Buddhist temple but for the display of the naturally mummified monk Luang Pordang, still wearing his saffron robes but with a pair of sunglasses. Another hint at the country's predominant Buddhist faith is on the island's northeastern Big Buddha beach. As the the name suggests, the centerpiece of Wat Phra Yai is a 12 meter-tall golden statue of the deity sitting on a rocky outcrop, where visitors can witness how the local believes observe their faith.

A one-man showcase of his reverance is immortalized in a garden; Secret Garden, or Magic Garden, as it's sometimes known, is the work of one farmer – the late Ta Nim, or Grandpa Nim, as he's affectionately called. Sculptures of Buddhist folklore are sprinkled around a plot of land in the island's lush interiors. Though not massive, the garden's shaded trees, trickling stream, and intriguing sculptures make for a wonderful stroll.

Travel tip: Did you know there is a family-run distillery on Koh Samui that produces their own rum? Here's a look at some of the other “Made in Thailand” tipples from around the kingdom. [link to blog post]


Sun, Sand and Swimming

Koh Samui is small enough that a day or two would suffice to visit the island's handful of sights and attractions. Most of these are packaged up in island safari tours, but self-drive is also a viable option to stop and go at your own pace. Most of the island's appeal lay beyond its shorelines, but there are also enough activities on terra firma to entertain landlubbers.


Two Golf Courses

The island has two golf courses, the 9-hole Royal Samui Golf and Country Club or the championship 18-hole Santiburi Samui Country Club,

Santiburi was opened in 2003. Design to take advantage of the mountain slopes on the North Coast of Maenam, it provides amazing views of the gulf of Thailand and Koh Phanghan island. Carts are mandatory. Narrow fairways often winding uphill and down, but the large greens make the approach shots easier. Spectacular views over the coconut palm tree covered mountains might distract you from concentrating.

Royal Samui Golf & Country Club 9 hole golf course is located between Chaweng and Lamai, the route to this course has not been paved and a 4 wheel drive vehicles are recommended. You know that you have arrived at Royal Samui because you cannot go any further on the mountain. The views are absolutely stunning with sea views on every hole. The 8th tee is built on a rock face and has a view of Lamai beach that is the envy of golf courses everywhere.

Scuba & Snorkeling

A Mecca Above and Below the Water

Koh Taen, just off Thong Krut, is probably the best for snorkeling. There are also a handful of dive operators that can get you PADI certified, or take SCUBA enthusiasts out to Chumporn Pinnacle, Sail Rock, and other dive sites in the gulf waters. Koh Tao is also an excellent dive location and the resorts there are helpful to get you pointed in the right direction.

Island Hopping: One of the most scenic spots in the gulf is the Angthong National Marine Park, comprising 42 verdant islands and islets dotting the sparkling waters. The beauty of the archipelago is such that it inspired for the book (and later movie) The Beach. Day tours here usually include scrambling up limestone rocks to reach the viewpoint, visiting an inland saltwater emerald lake, snorkeling off the beach, or kayaking. Koh Phangan, Koh Tao, and the picturesque Koh Nangyuan are also day trip favorites.

Travel tip: Don't let having kids deter you from a tropical holiday. Here are some activity options to do with kids on Koh Samui. [link to blog post


Waterfalls and Ziplines

As a option from the ubiquitous sun-sea-sand option, head inland to Namuang Waterfall. While not the Niagara, the two cascades provide a good way to cool off from the tropical sun. Another option located not to far away is Hin Laad Waterfall. To fly across the canopy tops rather than walk underneath them, try Treetop Tour Cable Ride or Canopy Adventures for a zipline adventure


Spas and Resorts

Activities on holiday islands tend to be polarized – either they reflect the nocturnal debaucheries or health and wellness, sometimes both. All the five star resorts will offer some sort of spa or yoga classes, one just as world class as the other. Standalone establishments include Kamalaya, a world famous retreat offering minimum three-day holistic wellness programs, and Tamarind Springs forest spa. Once you are on the island, scootering around will reveal other alternative retreats where you an enjoy wellness services aimed at rejuvenation and health.

Fishermans Village

Fishermans Village & Walking Street

The action of Lamai Beach Road has the same feel as the one on Chaweng, albeit on a smaller scale. The pace picks up later before nightfall, when vendors start setting up their stalls at Lamai Night Market in the center of town, hawking all sorts of wares from t-shirts and boxing shorts to watches and luggage.

Along the north of the island, Maenam Walking Street sets up every Thursday from around 7 p.m. A similar low-key market is in quaint Fisherman's Village on Bophut, where the action is liveliest on Friday evenings during the designated “walking street”. Like the other walking streets, expect to find a mix of food, clothes, souvenirs, artwork and trinkets. The most local experience is on the west coast on Nathon – the main strip close to the pier is dotted sparsely with shops, which make for a good kill-time browse while soaking up the decidedly more local flavors of the island.

To complete the interior design project you started back home, head to the stretch between Bophut going north to Maenam, which is flanked with a selection of furniture and home décor boutiques including Oriental Living.

In terms of “real” shopping centers, the island is proud home to a Big C and Tesco Lotus (both on the ring road between Bophut and Chaweng), but come 2014, a Central Festival shopping complex will usher in a whole new retail era on Chaweng.


Chaweng Beach Markets

Koh Samui has never claimed to be a shopping destination, but that's not to say there's not a variety of souvenirs and handicrafts or clothes to buy. The center for all activities on island is Chaweng, and when it comes to shopping, this also holds true.

Everyday from midday to midnight, both sides of Chaweng Beach Road are flanked with fashion boutiques, tailors, art galleries, souvenir and jewelry shops making up a long stretch of retail gauntlet. If a five to six kilometers of shop-lined street is still not enough, there's an additional Walking Street in South Chaweng that springs up around 4 p.m. every day other than Friday and Sunday that boasts a decent mix of F&B stalls.

Restaurants & Nightlife

There's one thing that visitors do not have to worry about when visiting Thailand – the availability of good food, and Koh Samui is no different.

As the center of all activities on the island, Chaweng also has the highest concentration of restaurants, ranging from 9Gems Lounge and Restaurant in the hills above Chaweng with designer surroundings and killer views to Eat Sense in north Chaweng with southern Thai cuisine and comfort food done pretty at The Larder. For hearty pub grub head to The Islander or Tropical Murphy's, and for the quintessential bucket in hand, sand between the toes experience, it can only be Ark Bar right on the beach.

The island's nightlife is only rivaled by its stunning beaches by day. Chaweng's Soi Green Mango – named after the namesake nightclubs down this land – is where the vivacious nocturnals come to get groovy to the beats.

Bangrak is also known for their restaurants – including Ocean 11 – albeit in line with the area's more relaxed atmosphere, a non-rowdy one that's popular with the local expat scene. The offerings at Bophut, thanks to Fisherman's Village, have a livelier vibe about it, ranging from Starfish & Coffee as one of the original setups on the strip, to Namcha teahouse and H-Bistro at nearby Hansar Resort, whose executive chef boasts an illustrious CV including cooking for royalty. 

Beach clubs combine food, party, and lashings of sunshine for the ultimate way to spend a few hours or even an entire day. Beach Republic on Lamai is the island's pioneer for this all-in-one tropical sessions; Sunday brunch is when this beachfront establishemnt shines the brightest – beautiful people, thumping tunes, and a feast of feasts. Nikki Beach on Lipa Noi is slightly more quiet and therefore more intimate for lovebirds.

Travel tip: The food doesn't have to stop when you leave the island. Cooking classes allow you to bring a taste of Thailand back with you and are a fun activity for the whole family. Here are some of the island's best cooking classes. [link to blog post]

Getting Around

From the Airport

So the bad news is, there's no metered taxis on the island. Good news, however, is that the flat fees for the only transfer counter inside the airport (Samui Airport 'Taxi', located at arrivals) is standardized, ranging between THB500 (~US$16) to Big Buddha beach to THB1,500 (US$48) to Taling Ngam on the west coast.

Considering Taling Ngam is just a 40-minute drive away, and a one-way transfer costs the same as a full day car rental, travelers should consider self driving. A non-stop drive around the island's main ring road takes only an hour to complete, and between three to four hours if stopping to take in the scenery and sites.

If time is less of a concern than budget, the airport also has shared minivans which cost approximately a fifth of the price. The shared minivans, however, will wait until they meet the minimum five passengers to depart.

You can also walk outside the airport to the left, where there will be non-official “taxis” loitering about, but at the same price give or take as the ones inside generally speaking, save yourself the trouble, unless haggling is a hobby.

Around the Island

Main modes of transportation are private taxis, vans, or via the closest thing to an island public transport, the ubiquitous red songtaew's (open air converted pickup trucks with two benches facing each other).

Songtaew's parked around foreigner picking grounds (ie. around the pier, outside big hotels, etc.) usually have a fixed price showing on a sign, which is usually open for discussion. When hailing a passing one, tell the driver where on the island you're going. If it's a go, ask the price before getting on. Rates vary widely between timing of the day, tourist season, and of course between locals and tourists.

Car rental is a popular way to explore the island; it's perhaps easiest to rent one from the airport – Avis, Budget, Sixt, Europcar, Hertz, Thai Rent a Car all have counters there, but there are other local rental shops such as Samui TA Car Rent around the island that are able to drop off and pick up the rental from wherever your'e staying. There are also some chauffeured options, but seeing as there's only a limited number of sights on the island, chances are it would be easier to book onto a tour as opposed to the transportation separately.

Renting a motorbike is easy and cheap but just remember island roads plus proximity to a sister party island plus pervading holiday mode makes for a lot of road accidents, so wear a helmet and don't be a cliché casualty.

Getting In and Out

By Air

Samui International Airport (USM) is the only airport serving the island. Owned and mainly operated by Bangkok Airways, the airport – with its open air pavilions with thatched roofs – is known for its tropical island design. Most of the several daily flights between the island and Bangkok are operated by Bangkok Airways, with a handful by the national carrier Thai Airways.

Bangkok Airways also connects Koh Samui with Phuket, Chiang Mai, and Krabi. International routes include Hong Kong and Singapore (both by Bangkok Airways), and Penang, the latter on Firefly.

Low cost carriers Air Asia and Nok Air also offer a combo fares that also include Bangkok to Suratthani by air, land transfer to pier, and boat transfer to Koh Samui.

If arriving independently, a good place to look is Phantip Travel – the company offers a combination bus-boat ticket to Koh Samui for THB350 (~US$11), and THB550 (~US$18) including transfer to your Koh Samui hotel.

By Train

The closest railway station to Koh Samui is Phun Phin near Suratthani or Chumphon – from Bangkok, the journey is between seven to nine hours.

From Chumphon, Lomprayah ferry company offers convenient combination bus+ferry tickets to Koh Samui.

From Phun Phin, visitors can go on the Songserm fast boat from Ban Don pier to Koh Samui, a 30-minute journey. Phantip Travel offers a combination land and ferry transfer from train station to Koh Samui for THB300 (US$10).

Most ferries (which also transport cars to the islands) leave from Donsak Pier, about a 1.5 hour transfer from the train station. The ferry itself takes another 1.5 hours or so to Koh Samui, or about 45 minutes on the Lomprayah catamaran. The last ferry leaves Donsak at about 7 p.m. The main ferry companies are Seatran – which drops passengers off at the main Nathon pier on Koh Samui – and Raja, which disembarks at the nearby Lipa Noi.

Car or Bus

From Bangkok, Chumpon shaves a few bus hours off (as opposed to disembarking at Suratthani province). Travel agents usually offer joint bus-boat tickets – take it, it will cost probably less than booking them separately, not to mention less hassle.

Lomprayah does a Bangkok to Samui journey in between 11 to 15 hours – either all day or overnight – for THB1,500 (~US$48) all in. Note, however, that the boat takes nearly four hours as it lets passengers off at the closest Koh Tao first, then Koh Phangan, then Koh Samui.

If driving, the ferry from Suratthani's Donsak pier costs approximately THB470 (~US$15) including vehicle and driver, with THB150 (~US$5) per additional passenger for the 1.5 hour journey.