Samui is the largest of about 80 islands lying off Surat Thani province. Tourists started visiting here in the early 1970s and the place started to gain popularity among the backpacker set as Phuket's rising popularity started making it too expensive. An airport opened in the late 1980s made the island easier to get to for the general public and Samui is now almost equal in popularity with Phuket.
Since it's smaller, Samui doesn't have the variety of diversions that Phuket has. It's a more laid back atmosphere. On the definite plus side, the beaches of Samui, particularly Chaweng, are among our favorites in Thailand. The island has become something of a mecca for adventure seekers. First, and perhaps foremost, some of Thailand's best scuba diving sites are within a short boat ride from Samui. Add to that canopy rides, mountain biking and just about everything else you might want to do.
The reason for visiting Samui is the sun, sand and sea. There aren't a lot of things to see on the island, but with more development comes more options. Among the highlights of things to see away from the beach are the Grandfather and Grandmother Stones, A pair of rocks sculpted by the wind and water into rather suggestive shapes. Inland from the beaches are several waterfalls, the most popular of which is the Na Muang falls. If you really want to escape the crowds, then we suggest a visit to the relatively undeveloped southern coast and the Laem Sor Pagoda.
Definitely not to be missed is Angthong National Marine Park. A day trip out of Samui will take you to this park consisting of more than 40 islands and islets. There are some very spectacular views from the largest island, and an emerald green inland lake hidden within the limestone walls of another island.
Since Samui is an island, your choices for getting there are somewhat limited:
Samui's award-winning airport was built and is serviced mainly by Bangkok Airways flying from Bangkok, other parts of Thailand, and Singapore. There are flights between Samui and Bangkok more or less hourly from early morning until about 9:00 in the evening. The airport underwent a massive re-development in 2007 and 2008, and is now something of a destination in itself.
For advice on getting from the airport to your hotel, see our Getting Around section.
There are two main ferry companies operating boats between the mainland and Samui. Most passenger ferries leave the mainland from the pier a short distance from Surat Thani town, while car ferries use the port at Don Sak. Passenger ferries arrive at the main pier in Nathon Town, while car ferries arrive at a special-built pier further south down the west coast (see beaches).
Ferries to Phangan can be caught at either the pier in Nathon Town or at Bophut on the north coast. Lastly, it's worth noting that there is a combination bus / ferry service from Bangkok. Buses take you from Bangkok to Chumpon and from there a ferry travels to Tao, then Phangan and finally Samui.
Samui is one of the most expensive places to get around in Thailand. The cheapest form of public transport on the island is the songthaew, a small pick-up truck with benches for passengers along either side of the covered truck bed. Fares are a flat THB 50. Destinations for any given songthaew will be displayed on the front or sides of the truck. The basic routes are Nathon - Chaweng - Lamai - Nathon and Nathon - Big Buddha - Chaweng - Nathon. Tell the driver where you're going before you get on to be sure he's going there. They don't always follow the same route.
There are a good number of air-conditioned taxis which can be easy to find in Chaweng and Lamai, but slightly more rare elsewhere. Although they display "Taxi Meter" signs on their roof, fares are actually fixed depending on pick-up and drop-off points, and start at THB 200. Taxis can be flagged down on the main roads, or can be called by your hotel.
The airport is located in the north-east corner of the island, about 5 km from Chaweng beach. Air conditioned vans are available to take you to the resorts on the popular beaches. The fare depends on distance, ranging from THB 300 to 500. Many hotels will have their own transfer service. They're more convenient, although the charge is usually higher than the public vans.
There are dozens of places around the island where you can rent Jeeps or motorbikes. Be sure to look over any prospective rental vehicle carefully before taking it off the lot. Many independent rental companies can be less than diligent about maintenance. If you want to rent from a more reputable agency, Budget has two locations, one at the airport and another at Chaweng Beach. National can be reached at tel: +66 77-245-393.
So you can rent a car or motorbike on the island, but should you? Thailand has one of the worst road accident rates in the world, and Samui has the most accident prone roads in Thailand. Narrow, badly maintained roads combine with poor driving habits by locals and tourists unused to the rules of the road make for some very dangerous conditions. If you decide to take to the road, keep in mind that driving is on the left. Motorcyclists must wear helmets at all times, or face a THB 500 fine. Cycles must also keep to the extreme left of the road unless over-taking. Many of the main roads have a small side lane for motorcycles.
A very practical alternative to risking your life on a motorcycle or by driving yourself around is to rent a car with English-speaking driver. It costs THB 1,200 for a half-day rental, or THB 2,000 for a full day, which is not much more than just the cost of a car from the international rental firms.
The beaches of Koh Samui are among the best in Thailand, or anywhere else. They are the main reasons for the island's popularity. The main beaches - and most developed - are Chaweng and Lamai on the island's east coast. At the north end of Chaweng, white sand beaches slope gently out to a narrow reef which protects the beach and makes the water very good for swimming.
Along the island's north coast is a series of more intimate beaches, Mae Nam, Bophut and Bangrak, also known as 'Big Buddha Beach'. None of these beaches is particularly good, and Bangrak in particular can be a muddy mess in the rainy season. However, Bangrak is where you'll find the tiny islet that is home to the Big Buddha temple. No prizes for guessing why its called that. While the size and location are impressive, the temple lacks the grace and beauty of most Thai temples.
Beyond Big Buddha beach, a wide cape juts out at the north-east corner of the island. It is home to what many think is the island's most charming beach, Choeng Mon. There are a few high-end bungalows and many restaurants with good reputations.
From humble beginnings, Samui now has a range of accommodations to rival most other destinations in Thailand. You'll find everything from inexpensive bungalows to five-star super-luxury resorts. Of course, it's the luxe places that we like here. I count no less than 50 hotels claiming five-star status, including many of the regions' top brands.