Every traveler in Thailand has an opinion about Koh Samui. Chaweng’s party is better than Bangkok‘s, say some; it’s paradise well and truly lost, say others. What is clear is that this island is same, same but very different to when backpackers first set foot on its palm-fringed shores in the 1970s. Today Ko Samui is more holistic spas and five-star hotels than bucket showers and beach shacks. One look at that powder-soft sand and aquamarine sea, and all seem to agree that Ko Samui still feels idyllic.
The island of Koh Samui lies 84 km off the east coast in the Gulf of Thailand, near the mainland town of Surat Thani. Since the 1850s, Koh Samui was visited by Chinese merchants from Hainan Island in the South China Sea. The island is said to have more coconut species than any other place in the world. The harvesting of coconuts (and rubber) still takes place in the hills of the island’s hinterland, but alas, many plantations have given way to wide-scale tourist development, which is now the island’s main income. Once a hippie haven of pristine beaches, idyllic thatched bungalows, and eateries along dusty red-dirt roads, Samui is now packed with upscale resorts, low-end bars, and posh spa retreats. Up to 20 flights a day land at Samui International Airport, and this voracious tourist onslaught has brought severe water shortages and environmental problems such as wastewater and refuse disposal. If you leave the main tourist hubs, Ko Samui still has a few idyllic sand beaches and simple villages, but it is certainly not the sleepy island it was 20 or even 10 years ago, and prices reflect this.
Party, flop under a coconut tree, swim, party, that’s the daily rhythm on Koh Samui and you’ll soon get the hang of it. Popular Chaweng has dazzling aquamarine water and five-star resorts, but hawkers and blaring music stop it short of being paradise. Find a quiet cove between Lamai’s striking granite boulders (picture above), escape the crowds on palm-fringed Bophut, or snorkel on secluded Mae Nam and Bang Po. When you tire of these beaches, you’re just steps away from others.
Take a boat across to Ang Thong Marine Park, where rainforest-cloaked limestone pinnacles rise out of impossible turquoise waters. Or dive in the kaleidoscopic coral reefs off nearby Koh Tao. The golden Big Buddha shines in Koh Samui’s most important temple, Wat Phra Yai. Wat Khunaram hides a more ghoulish shrine: a 20-year-old mummified monk in meditation position. Hitch a ride on an elephant to Na Muang Falls to bathe in refreshingly cold pools.
Elegant Italian bistros, fast food joints, Thai-style dining on cushions by the sea, Chaweng has the lot. Dine on a spicy green curry or freshly grilled snapper in an Ayutthaya-style teak pavilion at Poppies. Chinese shophouses have been cleverly converted into hip Mediterranean restaurants and grillhouses in Bophut’s Fisherman’s Village. Bypass Lamai’s farang (tourist) haunts in favor of the food stalls, where locals whip up fiery curries and noodles in their woks for a few baht.
The biggest beach party is at Chaweng, where hedonistic clubs, go-go dancers and one pumping bar after the next pack the sois. Clubbers head to treehouse-style Green Mango and Bob Marley fans to the Reggae Pub. Lamai’s scene is mixed, with Thai boxing halls and techno clubs giving way to chill-out beach bars. More relaxed still is Bophut’s Fisherman’s Village, where the mellow music and cocktails come with moonlit sea views.
There is very little in terms of local craft production on the island, almost everything is imported from the mainland, so save the big purchases for Bangkok or Chiang Mai. New shopping areas are growing in number by the day, however, around Chaweng. Pearls are cultivated locally, and you’ll see some good examples in several shops. Don’t miss trips to Naga Pearl Farm, on Ko Matsum.
Peak season is from mid-December to mid-January, but January to April has the best weather, before its gets very hot, with the occasional tropical storm bringing relief. Storms don’t tend to last long, however, and as this is low season, more bargains can be found. October through mid-December are the wettest months, with November bringing some heavy rain and winds that make the east side of the island rough for swimming. July and August see a brief increase in visitors, but during those months, the island’s west side is often buffeted by summer monsoons from the mainland.