Thailand is blessed with some of the world’s best islands and beaches, and one of those that often appears on “Top 5” lists is Ko Samui. Hailed by families, luxury seekers, frat boys, divers, spiritual travelers, photographers, foodies, wellness travelers and nature lovers, its spot in the lists of Thailand’s best destinations is well earned.
Samui island, or ‘Ko Samui’ (the prefix ‘ko’ translates to ‘island’), is nestled in the Gulf of Thailand a few kilometers off the east cost of Thailand’s Isthmus of Kra. The 230 square kilometer circular island has it all – busy beaches with beer bars and loud music; secluded coves with palm trees swaying over turquoise water; bustling towns with local shops and western comforts; diving and snorkeling; wellness and luxury retreats and, of course, plenty of sun, sand and sea.
The best place to start in terms of orientation is undoubtedly Chaweng Beach along the island’s eastern shore and close to Samui’s international airport. Stretching nearly 5 km, it’s a long, sandy stretch of hotels, resorts, restaurants, shops and everything else necessary to support constantly-changing crowds. As you may expect, this is not the place to go for some peace and quiet, but if you want to meet people and share a few drinks, this is it!
Some of Smiling Albino’s favorite resorts in Chaweng are:
- The Library – http://www.thelibrary.co.th/
- Sareeraya – http://sareeraya.com/
- Anantara Lawana – http://lawana-chaweng.
- Poppie’s Samui – http://www.poppiessamui.com/
If Chaweng isn’t quite your taste you could head to Lamai Beach, just south of Chaweng, which runs for about 3.5 km. The beauty of sand and water here is similar but isn’t (yet) as (over)developed as Chaweng, and there are still plenty of nice places to relax without a rave party breaking out. That said, if you’re looking for a quiet beach to relax on, you’re still better off looking elsewhere (more details below).
Some of Smiling Albino’s favorite resorts in Lamai are:
- Banyan Tree Samui – http://www.banyantree.com/en/
- Silavadee – http://www.silavadeeresort.
- Montra Samui – http://www.montrasamui.com/
The south coast of the island is fringed by a few smaller beaches – Hua Thanon, Laem Set and Thong Krut – while the west side is Taling Ngam. All of these beaches are quite similar – not as developed as the big ones on the east and therefore more of a draw for those seeking peaceful beach time. Taling Ngam, especially, is a very popular area for long term expats to settle in.
Some of Smiling Albino’s favourite resorts in this area are:
- Kamalaya Wellness Resort – http://www.kamalaya.com/index.
- The Conrad Samui – http://conradhotels3.hilton.
On the northwest and northeast side of the island is Lipa Noi, Na Thon and Bangmakham beaches, not to mention the town of Na Thon, where the island’s official administration is centered. Lipa Noi and Bangmakham are the better choices here, as Na Thong is where the ferry terminal is located – handy to know if you’re heading to or from the mainland at Surat Thani (you can also catch a ferry at Taling Ngam Beach). Choeng Mon beach has several classy resorts.
Some of Smiling Albino’s favorite resorts in this area are:
- Four Seasons Resort Ko Samui – http://www.fourseasons.com/
- Sala Samui – http://www.salaresorts.com/
Were it not for the occasional beachhead, cluster of rocks or river mouth, the northern side of the island would be an unbroken beach for its entire 20km. This is a popular destination for families, as the water is shallow, the beaches are relatively quiet, and there are plenty of things to see, most notably the traditional fishing village in Bophut Beach and the Big Buddha at Bang Rak Beach which is, no surprise, a giant Buddha statue.
Some of Smiling Albino’s favorite resorts in this area are:
- Six Senses Samui – http://www.sixsenses.com/Six-
- Anantara Bophut – http://samui.anantara.com/
- Napasai – http://www.napasai.com/web/
As for things to do if you want to get away from the beaches for a day – there don’t seem to be many organized tours or clearly marked trekking trails into Samui’s densely-jungled center, but there are roads and trails which lead to waterfalls – and every hotel or tour desk in the towns will have information on these. Of course, there are some great snorkeling or scuba diving options to be had that visit some of the surrounding islands. Many of these trips head into Ang Thong Marine Park, which encompasses over 40 islands. Day trips to the park that include snorkeling, hiking, lunch and plenty of opportunities for photography, but the park can get crowded.
Ko Samui is also well known as the starting point for crowds on their way to Ko Pha Ngan – known worldwide for its raucous full moon parties – and Ko Tao, also known worldwide as a top diving destinations. Both islands, despite attracting legions of ravers and tattooed gap-year travelers, are also becoming known for spiritual and wellness escapes, bohemian eco-resorts, and “learning” holidays ranging from cooking to Muay Thai to meditation.
Ko Samui Pros: Almost any type of beach and activity you could ask for is represented well on Ko Samui. The food is good and varied, the resorts range from ultra luxury and exclusive, to modest and family-friendly beach hotels, to destination wellness and spiritual retreat centers. The crowds are vibrant and the scenery is amazing. The Gulf of Thailand’s weather patterns mean that while Phuket and Krabi on the Andaman coast are experiencing mild monsoons in July and August, balmy Samui is usually calm and warm. Plenty of people have had short vacations here turn into sabbaticals and then semi retirements. Samui is a short flight from Bangkok, and has several international flights from regional hubs arriving daily.
Ko Samui Cons: Crowds can get large, especially in the high season of which Samui has two (December-January, and July-August). While a stunning island with brilliant beaches and blue seas, the image of an idyllic and unexplored tropical hideaway is misrepresenting modern day Ko Samui. To be sure, it is a developed and world class island destination, and while quiet corners and peaceful lagoons still exist, those truly wishing to escape from the civilized world are best to keep searching.