Ko Samui is so big, we’ve split it up into areas, select one of the below for detailed accommodation and food listings in that area. Sights and general overviews for Ko Samui as a whole can be found via the icons above. Don’t know where to start? Read an overview of Ko Samui’s different areas.
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.
About our coverage of Ko Samui
Ko Samui boasts numerous beaches and bays with stacks of places to stay. To make our coverage easier, we've divided the island into 13 sections, listing accommodation and where to eat for each of them individually. Sights are listed on one page.
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. Taling Ngam is a secluded part of the island, but Ko Samui's capital Nathon is only a 20-minute drive away to the north for shopping, and Lamai or Chaweng only about 30 minutes' away for nightlife. 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 in Nathon, 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 the 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 you can truly find your slice of paradise. 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 French 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 Big Buddha Beach -- which is officially referred to as Bang Rak -- which is home 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".
By Rosanne Turner.