From romantic getaways and pampering retreats, to being a great spot for jumping off to a popular Full Moon Party celebrated nearby, Samui offers a bit of everything.
By Dave Stamboulis
It may be well developed and at times overpriced, but Koh Samui is still known as Thailand’s premier island retreat. Set just off the coast of Surat Thani province, in the Gulf of Thailand, Samui blends a great mix of lavish resorts, top-notch restaurants, and gorgeous wellness spas with some of the country’s nicest beaches and lush jungle scenery.
Night and day, Samui offers plenty to do and is noted for its romantic getaways and pampering retreats. While it may no longer be the untouched backpacker haven it became known as in the 1970s, Thailand’s third largest island still knows how to please and really comes into its own during the hot summer months, when the gulf waters are at their most emerald and inviting.
Koh Samui offers a bit of everything, making it a good choice for a vacation with options. The island is quite large, with most of the action happening at Chaweng and Lamai beaches. Chaweng has boutique shopping, fast food outlets, and nonstop nightlife, and it is chock-a-block with resorts for just about every budget. Lamai is also very built up but with a slightly better beach. If you want something quieter, opt for Mae Rim, Choeng Mon, or Bophut beaches on the north coast, or else try some of the very tiny beaches like Tong Krut on the less developed south side. From jet skiing to snorkeling or just lying in the sun, Samui has it all. It is also a great spot for jumping off to nearby Koh Phangan and its famous Full Moon Party, or to divers’ haven, Koh Tao.
What to See
Other than swimming and basking in the sun, Samui does offer a few excursions. Most tourists at some point make their way to the Hin Ta and Hin Yai (grandfather and grandmother) Rocks, near Lamai beach, a pair of large stone formations that resemble male and female genitalia and are worth a photo op and a laugh. The Na Muang 1 waterfall has a pool for swimming in and is Samui’s tallest, with water cascading down 30 meters over rocks. The Secret Buddha Garden located up on top of the Tar Nim Waterfall peak offers the most spectacular views out over Samui along with a great collection of Buddhist folklore statues set in a lovely garden. Water buffalo fighting is a Samui island tradition that is well worth checking out. Unlike in the Spanish version, bullfighting, the buffaloes don’t die and nobody gets hurt. There is no fixed calendar, but locals will know when the next bout is.
What to Do
The most beautiful spot on Samui actually isn’t on the island itself, but in Ang Thong National Marine Park (www.dnp.go.th), a collection of 42 jungle-clad islands which are undeveloped and offer some great kayaking, exploring, and beautiful beach combing. The highlight here is the Talay Nay (inland sea), a sinkhole lagoon formed by the land collapsing into underground tunnels and cave systems, with beautiful emerald green water, reachable by a fantastic 45-minute trek up through limestone pinnacles. SeaTran Discovery (www.seatranferry.com) runs all-inclusive day trips out to the islands. The Samui Institute of Thai Culinary Arts, SITCA (www.sitca.net), proves that people don’t come to Samui just for sun and sand; SITCA offers in-depth cooking classes or intensive courses for the more serious. Diving is also possible on Samui, with trips out to the nearby Sail Rock or else farther toward Koh Tao offered. The Dive Academy (Bandara Resort, Bophut, 081 086 6214, www.thediveacademysamui.com) can get you underwater.
Eating and Drinking
Just about every cuisine is served on Samui. For authentic Royal Thai cuisine at affordable prices, Chef Chom’s Thai Restaurant (84 Moo 5, Bophut, 077 245 480) in the Tongsai Bay Resort is unmatched. For classical Italian with romantic views, Olivio’s (154 Moo 2, Chaweng Beach, 077 231 500), in the Baan Haad Ngam Resort, is run by an Italian master chef and has fantastic seafood and pastas. The Coco China House (147/4 Moo 2, Chaweng Beach, 077 230 140) serves traditional Cantonese cuisine and such favorites as the amusing Monk Jumps Over the Wall, a stew named for its aphrodisiacs such as deer horn and sharks fin. For after-dinner and late-night partying, the long running Reggae Pub (Soi Reggae, Chaweng Beach, 077 422 331), Samui’s shrine to Bob Marley, features an open-air dance palace with live music and a very social scene.
Samui features some of the most opulent sleeps you will find on the planet. Choose from the likes of renowned resort architect Bill Bensley’s Four Seasons Koh Samui (219 Moo 5, Angthong, 077 243 000, www.fourseasons.com/kohsamui) where hillside villas front Koh Samui’s finest private beach, or perhaps the elegant The Tongsai Bay (84 Moo 5, Bophut, 077 245 480, www.tongsaibay.co.th). With two freshwater swimming pools and its own private beach, not to mention plunge pool villas, the Tongsai is one of Samui’s oldest and still most pampering resorts. Also hidden away up in this northeast corner of the island, the Six Senses Samui (9/10 Moo 5, Baan Plai Laem, Bophut, 077 245 678, www.sixsenses.com/resorts/samui/destination) has an amazing infinity pool and private villas with awe-inspiring views out to sea. Also up north is the Absolute Sanctuary (88 Moo 5, Choeng Mon, 077 601 190, www.absolutesanctuary.com), a Moroccan-themed boutique resort that specializes in yoga, detox, and spa programs. On Samui’s quiet south side, the Conrad Koh Samui (49/8-9 Moo 4, Hillcrest Road,Taling-Ngam, 077 915 888, www.conradkohsamuiresort.com) sits on 25 acres, with 80 pool villas gazing out west into the sunset with nothing to disturb you for miles.
How to Get There
Koh Samui can be reached by various options. Thai Airways (www.thaiairways.com) and Bangkok Airways (www.bangkokair.com) both fly in to Samui Airport several times daily. By train, Samui is reachable by taking an overnight sleeper to Surat Thani, and then connecting bus, which goes on the car ferry across to Nathon Pier on the island. Buses make the overnight trip to Surat from Bangkok’s Southern Bus Terminal, and also connect to the bus/ferry combos once down south. There are also catamaran ferries and speedboats departing from the mainland as far north as Chumphon.