Back in the days when backpackers to Southeast Asia were first discovering Ko Samui in the 1970s, a basic thatched hut with running water and electricity was considered luxury. Now Ko Samui is home to some of Thailand's best luxury resorts and in the popularity stakes is surpassed only by Phuket.
With an international airport, a mass of ferry connections and close to 500 hotels and guesthouses, this is not somewhere to come to glimpse a corner of the Thai kingdom untouched by tourism development. One good thing about tourism development on the island is the written law that no building may be taller than the nearest coconut palm; this means that, unlike Phuket, tall apartment blocks and hotels do not ruin the skyline. The highest building is about four storeys high, and bungalow-type accommodation is still the style that is most abundant.
Samui and its neighbouring islands were first inhabited by Malay fishermen from the mainland as well as immigrants from Southern China who took advantage of a surrounding sea teeming with fish. The Chinese influence is still evident on Samui, especially at Fisherman's Village, where rows of Chinese shophouses sit next to European-influenced buildings and create a village atmosphere. The island is home to several Chinese temples and Chinese New Year is celebrated with a bang, literally, at the temple near the Mae Nam walking street market.
Despite today's crowds, if you're hunting for white-sand beaches, turquoise waters and all-day sun, Samui can be a fine choice and our Ko Samui travel guide should help you to find the best beach, guesthouse or hotel for your needs. Use Samui as a base to explore the neighbouring islands of Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao, as well as the Ang Thong National Marine Park. The islands and the park are both only a short boat or ferry trip away.
With a population of about 40,000 residents, and more than a million visitors a year, Ko Samui's inadequate infrastructure is at breaking point. While at the turn of the millennium development continued unabated, over the past five years there seems to be more control over where and how development happens. Local government has spent big on improving infrastructure such as roads and drainage after the floods of November 2010 and March 2011 proved that there was a need for drastic improvement. Resorts team together to maintain the beaches, and after storms, they quickly clean up and repair any damage.
There is very little recorded history of Samui, and there are two schools of thought on how the name came about. The first is derived from a commonly found tree called a "mui". The second and more popular theory is that the name comes from the Chinese word "saboey", meaning 'safe haven', which it was to the original Chinese fishermen.
Before the crowds drag themselves out of bed, popular Chaweng and Lamai remain pretty, while on the north side, quieter Mae Nam has a growing reputation. Of course there are many other beaches worth investigating, such as Choeng Mon and Bophut, and quiet secluded bays in the west and south -- don't make the mistake of spending your entire Ko Samui sojourn on just the one stretch of sand.
Ko Samui has a large expat community, with the majority being from the UK, France, Germany, Scandinavia and Russia. The island has several good schools, and boasts the UK affiliated International School of Samui to cater to both expat kids as well as those of wealthier Thais. Many locals can speak a fair amount of English, being exposed to so many foreigners, and with tourism being the island's main income. Samui offers many modern conveniences, with supermarkets such as Tesco Lotus, Big C and Macro. The island has a bowling alley and cinema, five hospitals, and an abundance of optometrists, dentists and pharmacies. It does not at this stage have the large shopping malls of Phuket.
With all of these Western influences, some may consider Samui to no longer represent "real Thailand", but, like much of Thailand, a degree of Westernised development is part and parcel with the ever-changing Thai nation and, as everywhere in the country, pockets of a more traditional way of life remain. One only has to attend a buffalo fight, bird singing competition, or authentic muay Thai fight to see where the locals congregate in their free time.
Among all this development, some stunning resorts have appeared on the island. If budget is of no concern, then Samui has some terrific options for serious pampering -- and best of all you'll not need to leave the resort. For those on tighter budgets, bargains can be found in areas such as Mae Nam and Fisherman's Village.
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Text and/or map last updated on 18th March, 2015.