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Ko Samet

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In a nutshell

Rayong's pride and Bangkok's beach playground, Ko Samet walks a tight rope between natural beauty and over-development. Whether you come for a dance party, a luxury splurge, or a simple bungalow in a tranquil bay, Samet still offers something for everyone.

As the closest major island to Bangkok, Ko Samet is one of the most popular places in Thailand to watch teal water caress feathery white sand shores. It's not the kingdom's most picturesque, enchanting or cleanest island, but Samet consistently draws droves of travellers seeking a quick, easy getaway from the Thai capital.

One of the very first Thai islands to surface on the foreign traveller radar back in the 1970s, Samet's old days of crashing in hammocks next to beach campfires are long gone. The island now competes with Hua Hin as the weekend beach playground of choice for middle to upper class Thais from Bangkok. This means better Thai food than on some islands, though it also results in bars and resorts that chiefly aim to satisfy middle- to high-end Thai tastes. On weekends, big groups of Thais zoom by on ATVs before congregating around bottles of scotch in the beachside bars (hopefully after returning the ATVs).

The island is famous among Thais as the setting for a story by their most beloved poet, Sunthorn Phu, who was a native of Rayong province. The main character, Phra Arpaimanee, travels with his flute around Thailand until he's captured by a ravenous giantess. After watching her chomp a buffalo's head off, he manages to escape by lulling her to sleep with his entrancing flute music. He then uses his magical flute to win over the heart of a beautiful mermaid. The pair marry and live happily ever after with a son, Tusakorn, who incidentally has the body of a horse and head of a dragon. An imposing statue of the giantess meets all who arrive at Nadan pier, and at the far southern end of Haad Sai Kaew, a photo next to decaying statues of Phra Arpaimanee and the mermaid is obligatory for all Thai visitors.

Given that it's one of Thailand's more developed islands, many are surprised to learn that Ko Samet is part of Khao Laem Ya Ko Samet National Park, which also encompasses Khao Laem Ya on the mainland along with various smaller islands. The only way you'd know you're in a national park is via the flabbergasting 200 baht entry fee. Tacky resorts have gobbled up every inch of the most popular beaches, ditches along the main road look like small landfills, and plastic is regularly burned in the village. With no national park-maintained hiking trails, campgrounds or other facilities to speak of, you have to wonder where all of those pricey entry fees end up. We feel that Ko Samet makes a mockery of the Thai Department of National Parks.

Adding to this not-so-environmentally-conscious image, in July of 2013, 50,000 litres of crude oil gushed into the sea near Samet after a pipeline owned by PTT Global Chemical ruptured. The golden sand of Ao Phrao on Samet's west coast was painted a stinking black by the oil slick, forcing the closure of Ao Phrao's resorts and causing serious damage to the area's already fragile marine life. By September of the same year, Ao Phrao had rebounded surprisingly quickly and only a faint smell of oil remained.

Locals informed us in late 2013 that major plans are underway to widen the island's main road, replacing hastily thrown up structures with "contemporary" two-storey concrete buildings. This is potentially a positive development as it might make way for a streamlined trash removal system, which Samet appears to be in desperate need of. On the other hand, it could just result in more traffic and overpriced hotels. Some stretches of the main road that winds down Samet's long southern tail had already been sealed with concrete during our most recent visit, and we would be surprised if the length of the road from the village down to Ao Thian isn't fully paved by 2015.

Despite Samet's considerable environmental issues, it remains exceedingly popular with Thais, expats and foreign travellers. You can still find idyllic beaches in the sheltered southern bays of Ao Tubtim, Ao Nuan and Ao Wai, and even the most developed beaches still manage to be beautiful -- if you can ignore the jetskis, speedboats and bars. While Samet sees its share of rain from June to October, it's a solid alternative to the far southern Thai islands that tend to partially close up shop when they're hit by more intense monsoon storms at this time of year. Virtually every place to stay and eat is open for business year-round on Ko Samet.

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Our recommendations

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Ko Samet is one destination where it pays to do some planning before you arrive. Being so close to Bangkok, the island gets crowded on weekends and holidays, and prices rise accordingly -- sometimes by as much as 50%. Each of the bays has a distinctive vibe, and some of our favourites are too far to reach on foot if you're weighed down by a heavy backpack. With that said, if you're on a budget and don't feel like paying for a taxi, you can always set up homebase in a cheap but comfy guesthouse in the village and check out a different beach each day.

If you're looking to party, Haad Sai Kaew, Ao Hin Khok and Ao Phai are the places to be. Though they can get crowded at any time, these northern beaches turn into thumping strips of nightlife on Fridays and Saturdays when boatloads of Thais converge here. Even so, Samet's nightlife isn't seedy like some parts of Phuket and Pattaya. Think fire-spinning shows, cushions on the sand, live music and a few techno or hip hop DJs.

Samet's second most popular beach, Ao Wong Duen, offers a quieter, family-friendly atmosphere with plenty of restaurants and other conveniences to go with a range of quality midrange resorts. Those seeking seclusion might consider Nuan Bungalows on Ao Nuan, Samet Ville Resort down on Ao Wai or the lovely Nimmanoradee Resort at the far southern point of Ao Pakarang. With a decent mix of budget to midrange accommodation, Ao Tubtim, Ao Thian and Ao Lung Dum are also fine choices for a little romance.

Those who won't settle for anything less than a true luxury resort experience might head to Ao Phrao on the west coast, or go all-out on a stunning villa at Paradee Resort on Ao Kiu Na Nok. Though the beach at Ao Noi Na on the north coast isn't as dazzling as those on the eastern side, Mooban Talay Resort is a standout when it comes to style, quietude and romance. The only beach that we flat out don't recommend is Ao Cho, home only to some truly dismal midrange spots.

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Text and/or map last updated on 9th November, 2013.

Last reviewed by:
Usually found exploring Bangkok's side streets or south Thailand's islands, David Luekens is an American freelance writer & photographer who finds everyday life in Asia to be extraordinary. You can follow his travails here.

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