Tourist fare on the beach
Despite the popularity of Lamai, we were pretty underwhelmed by the food. Along the strip you'll find typical tourist fare – Italian, Indian, Thai and so on – and plenty of pubs and bars. For better options, get off the strip or head to the evening market.
Lamai gets up late and if your hotel doesn't offer breakfast you'll struggle to find an early morning spot to eat. Will Wait on Lamai Beach Road does good coffee, but the set breakfasts for 100 to 250 baht are variable.
In Lamai's sea of mediocre Thai food, where "All Thai food 79 baht"-style restaurants are common, Esan Inter Restaurant, out on the Lamai ring road, delivered us back to northeastern Thailand with an extremely affordable and extensive Thai menu with pages of specialities from the northeast. They'll do Thai standards, but the focus here is on northeastern food, with a steady stream of locals dropping by throughout our meal to pick up takeaway gai yaang (barbecued chicken), som tam and other dishes. The chicken grills away on a split drum barbecue while the older guy who seems to steer this merry shop, and who thought it was hysterical that we asked for our food to be Thai-style spicy (it was), bangs away mercilessly with the mortar and pestle.
Dishes are very affordable; many of the one-plate dishes come in at well under 100 baht. They also have some northern specialities like sok lek (think meat in a bowl of blood -- we didn't go there) for 80 baht. Drinks are cheap and the scene friendly and fun. This is a back to basics Thai joint with bamboo tables and chairs and a roadside setting, so don't expect too many creature comforts. Another (unrelated) northeastern place we tried was at the southern end of Lamai, right where Lamai Road takes a hard right inland, called E-San Thai Food, while also good, we preferred here. Esan Inter Restaurant is on the ring road, northern end of town, between Lamai fresh market and the main turn off the ring road onto Lamai Beach Road. From the market, walk onto the main road, turn right, and walk for a hundred metres of so; it will be on your left – keep an eye out for the bamboo tables and listen for the pok pok. Recommended.
Also on the ring road, but well along the northern stretch roughly half way between New Hut and Manathai, but on the off-beach side of the road, you'll find tourist-friendly Imchai Thai Food, set in a shopfront beside the road. Similar to Esan Inter Restaurant, in that the seating is mostly bamboo tables and chairs and the prices are very affordable with many under 100 baht, Imchai is for more of a tourist palate. Staff are friendly and the food is reasonable, you're just not going to get a bowl of beef in blood here – for many people that is probably a good thing. This is a convenient Thai restaurant for those staying on the northern reaches of Lamai who don't fancy a trek into town. Located nearby, New Hut also has a good restaurant, with fare similarly for a western palate, but it is on the beach rather than beside the busy road.
A popular Thai place recommended to us, Kob Thai, is set back in the boonies, roughly midway between Lamai Beach road and the ring road, towards the northern end of Lamai. It is well signposted from just about every direction, so you'll find it! It is a pleasant setting, with a swimming pool and salas dotted around a garden making for a good spot to laze away a few hours, away from the madness of downtown Lamai. The menu is multilingual and the staff are friendly, but we found the food to be toned down for tourists spice-wise – we've never had a muu manao (spicy pork salad - 130 baht) served with the spice on the side before – but perhaps we just went with the wrong dish as this is a popular and frequently recommended place. Just to the north of here is a Thai suki place and just to the south a clutch of simple Thai spots we'd be inclined to try next time. That said, if you're looking for a broad menu of foreigner friendly Thai food, with a pool, Kob Thai could be worth a look. If you want a more formal sit-down Thai meal in the middle of Lamai, Sala Thai is a classic Thai place and is frequently recommended, though we didn't try it this time around.
For something with a more healthy tilt, Radiance at Spa Samui serves raw, vegetarian and vegan dishes including a host of delicious salads. Attached to the centre made famous for its colonic fasting options (where, among other things, you don't really eat) they're none too shabby when it comes to preparing some terrific food and it has been on the receiving end of multiple accolades. Priced around the 200 to 300 baht mark, service can be very, very slow – we left here once recently after waiting for 20 minutes and never being attended to – but it was worth returning to and, well, at least the scenery is good while you wait.
For beachside snacking and boozing, we quite liked No Stress Beach Bar and Baobab beside it, two beach bars about two-thirds of the way down Lamai Beach just by a cluster of boulders on the sand before Bill Resort. They're essentially two sundecks with table settings and umbrellas and a stack of deckchairs on the sand in front of them – the deckchairs are free to use if you order something from the restaurant. No Stress' standout is their mussels, with a dozen varieties on offer from pesto through to Provencal (all 390 baht), but they also do Thai standards like pad thai (150 baht), laap (150 baht) and tom yum (140 baht) and Western salads like a Caeser for 240 baht. This is a good spot to escape the midday heat (as we did) while still being elevated over a great stretch of beach ideal for people watching. Right next door, Baobab is similar.
At the other end of the spectrum, at the far northern end of Lamai sits Beach Republic, one of a growing number of fancypants beach "clubs" on Ko Samui. Think high prices with a beachside pool, plenty of deckchairs and lounging areas and profoundly cool – or irritating (depending on your outlook) – customers lounging around in big sunglasses and small speedos. Regular events centre around all-access deals, like 999++ for three hours of free flow booze – do your math as it gets expensive for booze with cocktails starting at 250 baht and beer at 130 baht for a small Singha. Food is generally around the 250 to 500 baht mark. We were advised reservations for outside guests were required (Beach Republic is also a resort with smart rooms and villas).
Baobab: T: (084) 838 3040; https://www.facebook.com/Baobab-Restaurant-1425265817691133/.
Beach Republic: 176/34 Moo 4; T: (077) 458 100; http://www.beachrepublic.com/.
E-San Thai Food: Southern end of Lamai Road, where it turns sharply inland.
Esan Inter Restaurant: Lamai Ring Road, northern Lamai.
Imchai Thai Food: T: (081) 266 5526; https://www.facebook.com/ImchaiThaiFoodLamaiBeach/; open daily 11:00-21:00.
Kob Thai: 101/18 Moo 3; T: (082) 534 9325; https://www.facebook.com/KobThaiRestaurant; open daily 10:00-23:00.
No Stress Beach Bar: T: (085) 891 2102; https://www.facebook.com/no.stress.restaurant.koh.samui/.
Sala Thai: 124/115 Moo 3; T: (077) 233 180; http://www.sala-thai.com/
Will Wait: Lamai Beach Road
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
Our top 10 places to eat and drink around Ko Samui