Back in the 1970s, when backpackers to Southeast Asia were first discovering Ko Samui, magic mushrooms were on the menu and a basic thatched hut with running water and electricity were about as luxurious as it got. What a difference 40 years makes. Today, the mushrooms have been replaced by fancy wine bars and night clubs, and the island is home to some of Thailand's most luxurious resorts.
With an international airport, a mass of ferry connections and more than 1,000 hotels and guesthouses, Ko Samui is not somewhere to come to glimpse a corner of the Thai kingdom untouched by tourism development. Rather, this is a place to witness first-hand the unwieldy juggling act Thailand is trying to pull off as it strives to attract literally millions of new tourists annually while struggling to maintain some semblance of sustainability (and/or sanity).
Two theories compete to explain where the name "Samui" came from. The first is that it is derived from a commonly found tree called a "mui"; the second that the name comes from the Chinese word "saboey", meaning 'safe haven', which it was to the original fishermen who made port here in the Taling Ngam area. Malay fishermen from the mainland as well as immigrants from Southern China saw prosperity in a surrounding sea teeming with fish and limestone outcrops filled with swift nests. Their legacy can be seen in the trading houses of Hua Thanon and Fishermen's Village, along with several Chinese temples dotted around the island and a raucous celebration of Chinese New Year.
Over the years, the island's fishing industry has been superseded in importance by that of coconut plantations. By 2006, the island exported more than two million coconuts per month to the Thai mainland for processing. While the island's hinterland is still given over to coconuts these days, the beaches have been repurposed to host an even more lucrative crop: tourists.
This new crop is peculiarly tied to coconuts in one way: An island-wide law states that no building may be taller than the nearest coconut palm. This means that, unlike Phuket, tall apartment blocks and hotels do not blight the skyline. The highest building is about four storeys – which, truth be told, is still taller than most coconut palms we've seen – and up until recently, bungalow-type accommodation was the most common across Ko Samui. Sadly though, across northern stretches of the island, you'll see new developments going in that are stretching the credulity of the coconut palm rule.
With more than a million visitors a year, Ko Samui's inadequate infrastructure is at breaking point. Local government has spent big on improving infrastructure such as roads and drainage after floods in 2010 and 2011 proved that there was a need for drastic improvement, but still, five years later, Chaweng and other popular areas continue to flood after heavy rain. Like Phuket, the island lacks any form of public mass transit, aside from shared songtheaws and private minibuses. Road accidents are the number one cause of tourist deaths on the island. Always wear a helmet when riding a motorbike.
Bangkok Airways, which has a monopoly on air traffic to Samui thanks to it owning the only airport on the island, sees Samui as a hub for mainland Chinese travellers to Thailand. In 2016 it was planning numerous direct routes between China and Samui. How this new influx will impact Samui's already punch-drunk infrastructure is grounds for serious concern.
Despite the crowds and overdevelopment, 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 all just a ferry trip away.
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 and many locals can speak a fair amount of English. Samui offers many modern conveniences, with supermarkets such as Tesco Lotus, Big C and Macro, a bowling alley and cinema, five hospitals, and an abundance of optometrists, dentists and pharmacies.
With all of these Western influences, some may consider Samui to no longer represent "real Thailand", but, like much of the country, a degree of Westernised development is part and parcel with the ever-changing Thai nation, and 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 (or eat at McDonalds!) to see where the locals often congregate in their free time.
Among all this development, some luxurious resorts have appeared on the island. If budget is of no concern, then Samui has some terrific options for serious pampering. For those on tighter budgets, bargains can be found in areas such as Mae Nam, Fisherman's Village and Bang Rak.
About our coverage of Ko Samui
Ko Samui boasts numerous beaches and bays with stacks of places to stay. The most popular beach on the island by far is Chaweng, stretching for some five kilometres along Ko Samui's east coast. Chaweng Noi or Little Chaweng is a smaller beach, just to the south. A winding road then heads south via Coral Cove and Thong Ta Kien Bay, which is also known as Crystal Bay. Thong Ta Kien Bay offers clear waters, beautiful sand and shade – even on busy days. The sand is fine and quite reasonable snorkelling can be found offshore – we really like it. Continuing south, you'll come to Lamai Beach, the beach second in popularity to Chaweng on the island; while it offers a similar feel, it's a touch more laidback – and a bit more sleazy.
Ten minutes' drive south of Lamai along the south coast you'll hit Hua Thanon, a Muslim fishing village and arguably the best place to buy fresh fish on the island. It is also a good spot for photos, as colourful longtail boats line the shores. Laem Set lies in the far south of the island, while just west is undeveloped Bang Kao and Laem Sor, which make for great exploration–it's reminiscent of what Samui's northern shores looked like 30 years ago.
Thong Krut in Samui's southwest corner doesn't offer much in the way of development, but around the bay to the north, and onto Samui's western coast, you'll reach Taling Ngam, a more luxurious bay with views across to five limestone islands. Continuing north from Taling Ngam you'll reach Lipa Noi, a great and very underrated beach on the island's west coast. As with Taling Ngam to the south and Nathon to the north, spectacular sunsets can be observed from the beach or resort cocktail lounges with the Marine Park islands in the distance.
Nathon is a great place to visit for a day, due to its abundance of shops offering cheaper prices than Chaweng and Lamai. Wooden Chinese shophouses line the main road; the main ferry dock is also located here, transporting passengers to the mainland town of Donsak, as well as to Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao.
Leaving Nathon and heading around the island in a clockwise direction will first bring you to the sedate and little-visited Bang Po and Ban Tai strip of beach and bay in the northwestern corner of the island. Bang Po is the name for the entire bay, while Ban Tai is the area towards the eastern end (before Mae Nam). This strip stretches for some four kilometres, facing north with some views of Ko Pha Ngan. The waters are calm, but at low tide they retreat considerably.
As you head east along Ko Samui's north shore, you'll hit chilled out Mae Nam. The town boasts a long stretch of impressive beach, with very calm waters and terrific views across to Ko Pha Ngan. The beach is set back quite far from the main road, meaning that there is less traffic noise and a laidback vibe. The water is clear and ideal for swimming most of the time, making it a great family beach pick. When the wind picks up, kite-surfers can be seen catching the breeze.
Further east lies Bophut. Set at the centre, Fisherman's Village boasts well-preserved old Chinese shophouses interspersed with tasteful modern buildings. The village has a European feel to it, with many boutiques, chic restaurants and guesthouses owned by French expats. Restaurants and accommodation are of the more midrange to upmarket variety in Bophut; you are less likely to find cheap street cafes or backpacker-type spots.
Further east again is Bang Rak Beach – which is often referred to as Big Buddha Beach, thanks to a huge golden Buddha beyond the far eastern end of the beach. This area has a large expat community, with private villas dotted along the beach as well as on the hilly area just before the Big Buddha. Accommodation is diverse, from five-star establishments through to small nondescript bungalow operations.
Last but not least is Choeng Mon, a cluster of bays and beaches just to the north of Chaweng. While the main beach is popular with families, some of the more secluded bays are given over to more luxurious resorts. Even if you're not staying here, Choeng Mon is worth a daytrip to sample a different more relaxed "Samui scene".
Visas and immigration issues on Ko Samui
Ko Samui's immigration office moved from Nathon to Mae Nam in September 2016. The new address is 333 Mae Nam Rd, Soi 1, T: (077) 421 069. 30-day visa free entry and 60-day tourist visas can be extended here for 30 days and the process costs 1,900 baht. The office is open Mon-Fri (excluding public holidays), 08:30-12:00 and 13:00-16:30. To extend your visa you'll need a passport photo and photocopies of both your passport and the page of your passport with the entry stamp on it and your entry card. The process takes about an hour. Don't be surprised to be asked where you are staying and also don't be surprised if the officer calls your hotel to check. Be polite at all times.
If you'd prefer to do a same-day visa run down to Malaysia, travel agents can assist. Private minibuses pick you up around 04:30, catch the 06:00 boat to Don Sak, then hurtle down to the border and back. You're generally back on Samui around 21:00 that evening (subject to traffic, level of insanity of driver, border issues and so on). Generally priced at just under the cost of an extension, to our mind they made the trip to immigration on Samui look like a good deal.
By Stuart McDonald. Last updated on 6th October, 2016.