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Ko Samet

Travel Guide

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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.

Pretty in places.

Pretty in places.

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.

Locals informed us 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.
Take it easy.

Take it easy.

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.
More pretty.

More pretty.

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.
Need not be crowded.

Need not be crowded.

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.

Ko Samet is shaped like a stingray, with a chunky three kilometre wide triangular “head” to the north and a long, thin tail that reaches for seven kilometres to the south. A large swath of the island’s northern interior remains covered in jungle-clad hills. Surprisingly, there are no hiking trails through this area. The main ferry boat pier is found on the northern coast in the tiny settlement of Nadan (aka Samet village). All visitors are now charged a 10 baht “pier fee” immediately after arriving here.

Take it easy.

Take it easy.

At Nadan pier, a pick-up truck taxi can take you to the beach of your choice for between 20 baht and 200 baht, depending on how far south you’re going. If you decide to walk, a right (west) takes you to resorts that mainly cater to Thais on Ao Noi Na, while a left (south) leads to the main kilometre-long drag through the village. This strip passes an international medical clinic, police station, village temple and several convenience stores, restaurants, bars, massage shops, internet cafes and cheap guesthouses before hitting the national park entry booth, with Haad Sai Kaew a stone’s throw beyond that. Prices in the village tend to be lower than on the beaches, particularly for air-conditioned rooms and motorbike rental.

The road cuts right (south) immediately after the national park booth and continues in that direction for the length of the island, passing all 12 of Samet’s east coast bays/beaches (in Thai, ao means ‘bay’), as well as a side road that shoots west to the island’s lone west coast beach, Ao Phrao. Stick to the east coast and, from north to south, you’ll pass lively Haad Sai Kaew, Ao Hin Khok and Ao Phai, sleepy Ao Tubtim, Ao Nuan and Ao Cho, family-friendly Ao Wong Duen, relaxed Ao Thian and Ao Lung Dam, secluded Ao Wai, a top-end luxury resort on tiny Ao Kiu Na Nok, and finally the remote and rocky Ao Pakarang at the island’s far southern tip. At least one place to stay and eat is found on all of these beaches, and signs are clearly marked along the main road.
Sleepy Noi Na.

Sleepy Noi Na.

ATMs have multiplied in recent years, with at least one now found on most beaches. Two are located at the twin 7-elevens next to Nadan pier, and another two at the other twin 7-elevens on the main drag in the village. We’d be inclined to use the Bangkok Bank ATMs at either of these locations, but we also spotted Thanachart Bank ATMs at the entrance to Haad Sai Kaew, at Tubtim Resort on Ao Tubtim, behind the convenience store next to Samed Cabana Resort on Ao Wong Duen, at Sang Thian Resort on Ao Thian, and at Samet Ville Resort on Ao Wai. Currency exchange booths are located in the village and Ao Wong Duen.

Another tourist police booth and national park station are also located on Ao Wong Duen. Samet has no central post office, though many resorts can send a postcard for you. Along with several in the village, internet cafes are available at Sea Breeze on Ao Phai and in the centre of Ao Wongduen. Many resorts offer free computer stations and most have free WiFi. One exception is Ao Nuan, where no WiFi is available. The 3G and cell signals for all major Thai providers works fine everywhere on the island.
You should have been here last night.

You should have been here last night.

Notes and precautions
In the past, Ko Samet had a bit of a bad rap for malaria, but it hasn’t been a serious problem in over a decade. Dengue fever however remains an issue, so take all the usual precautions to avoid being bitten by Samet’s notoriously aggressive mosquitoes. In the past rumours also swirled of disease-ridden dogs roaming free in packs — the truth is a lot of strays wander round, but they’re well taken care of by the locals and are used to tourists, so it’s unlikely they’ll be of any bother. Just be sure not to leave your half-full Sangsom buckets on the beach after a night’s partying — the dogs have been known to imbibe. And though the climate on Ko Samet is generally pleasant, the tides manage to pull a couple of people to their deaths every year, so be wary when swimming.
Time to eat.

Time to eat.

National park entry fee
Generally speaking, all who pass the national park entry booth at Haad Sai Kaew have to cough up some cash to enter this so-called national park. The entry fee is 200 baht for foreign tourist adults, 100 baht for foreign children, 40 baht for Thais or foreigners with a valid Thai work permit, and 20 baht for Thai children.

In the past, it was possible to avoid the fees by arriving on the island at places other than Nadan or Ao Wong Duen. However, proactive rangers now meet arriving boats at almost every location. It is worth mentioning that if you stay on Ao Noi Na or in the village and wander quietly past the booth wearing only a swim suit, there’s a good chance you’ll slip through without paying.

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Text and/or map last updated on 30th October, 2015.

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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