Koh Samui is one of Thailand's most popular islands and its third-largest. It's also part of an archipelago that includes 80 smaller islands, of which only six – Pha-Ngan, Ta Loy, Tao, Taen, Ma Ko and Ta Pao – are also inhabited. Samui's first settlers were islanders from Hainan Island (now part of the People's Republic of China) who took up coconut farming here around 150 years ago. You can still see a map of Hainan on the saan jao (Chinese spirit shrine) near Siam City Bank in Na Thon, the oldest town on the island.
The island has had a legendary status among travellers to Asia for the past quarter century or so, but it wasn't until the late 1980s that it escalated to the touristy proportions of other similar getaways, such as Goa and Bali. Since the advent of the Don Sak ferry and the opening of the airport in 1989, things have been changing fast. During the high seasons (late December to February, and July to August) it can be hard to find a place to stay, even though most beaches are crowded with bungalows and resorts. There are nearly a dozen daily flights to Samui from Bangkok, and the island has rushed into top-end development.
Nevertheless, Samui is an enjoyable place to spend some time, and plenty of old-time travellers are still coming here despite all the changes. It still has some of the best value accommodation in Thailand and a casual, do-as-you-please atmosphere that makes it quiet attractive. Even with an airport, it has the advantage of being off the mainland and far away from Bangkok. Coconuts are still an important part of the local economy – millions are shipped to Bangkok each month. But there's no going back to 1971, when the first two tourists arrived on a coconut boat from Bangkok. The main difference is that there are now many more places to stay, most of them in the mid – to high range by Thai standards. And of course, with this 'something for everyone' climate there's more people, more traffic, more noise and more rubbish, but so far not in intolerable proportions. Samui residents are beginning to formulate policies to deal with these social and environmental challengers and the prognosis is, tentatively, optimistic – only time will tell.
Perhaps due to the Hainanese influence, Samui culture differs from that of other islands in southern Thailand, and its inhabitants refer to themselves as chao samui (Samui folk) rather than Thais. They can be even friendlier than the average upcountry Thai, in our opinion, and have a great sense of humour, although those who are in constant contact with tourists can be a bit jaded. Nowadays many of the resorts, restaurants, bars and other tourist enterprises are owned or operated by Bangkok Thais or Europeans, so you have to get into the villages to meet true chao samui. The island has a distinctive cuisine, influenced by the omnipresent coconut, which is still the main source of income for chao samui, who have disproportionately less ownership in beach property than outsiders. Coconut palms blanket the island, from the hillocks right up to the beaches. The durian, rambutan and langsat (a small round fruit similar to rambutans) are also cultivated.
Ecology & Environment
Samui's visitors and inhabitants produce an incredible amount garbage each day, much of it plastic. Not all of it is properly disposed of, and quiet a few plastic bottles and up in the sea, where they wreak havoc on marine life. You could try to fill your own water bottle from the guesthouse or hotel restaurant's large, reusable canisters. On Ko Tao and TAT arranges monthly volunteer rubbish collections with half a dozen dive agencies that offer discounts to participating customers; ask your Samui dive shop if the beach clean up is planned.
Samui has plenty of beaches to choose from, with bungalows popping up around more small bays all the time. The most crowded beaches for accommodation are Chaweng and Lamai, both are on the eastern side of the island, Chaweng has more bungalow options, plus several snazzy and some very upmarket hotels. It also boasts the longest beach (more than twice the length of Lamai) with Ko Mat Lang just offshore. Both Lamai and Chaweng have clear blue-green water, coral reefs and enough nightlife. Chaweng is the target of current upmarket development because of its long beach. Another factor is that only Chaweng (and the northern part of Lamai) has water deep enough for swimming from October to April; at most other beaches on the island the water becomes very shallow during these months.
At the wat in Ban Lamai is the Ban Lamai Cultural Hall, a sort of folk museum displaying local ceramics, household utensils, hunting weapons and musical instruments. The drawback to Lamai is the rather sleazy atmosphere of the strip of beer bars on the main road though town, though they're not necessarily offensive; Chaweng's bar-and-disco strip is more sophisticated and international. For more peace and quiet, try the beaches along the north, south and west coasts. Mae Nam, Bo Put and Bang Rak (Big Buddha) are along the northern end. The water here is not quite as clear as at Chaweng or Lamai, but the feeling of seclusion is greater and accommodation is cheaper.
Ao Thong Yang is on the western side of the island and is even more secluded. There are only a few sets of bungalows, but the beaches here isn't great by Samui standards. The southern end of the island now has many bungalows, set in little out-of-the-way coves; it's worth seeking them out. And then there's everywhere in between – every bay, cove or cape with a strip of sand gets a bungalows.
When to go
The best time of the year to visit Ko Samui is during the hot and dry season, from February to late June. From July to October it can be raining on and off. And from October to January there are sometimes heavy winds. On the other hand, many travellers have reported fine weather (and fewer crowds) in September and October. November tends to get some the rain that also effects the east coast of Malaysia at this time. Prices tend to soar from December to July, whatever the weather.
In Surat Thani or on Ko Samui, you can pick up the TAT's helpful Surat Thani map, which has maps of Surat Thani, the province, Ang Thong National Marine Park and Ko Samui, along with travel information. A couple of private companies now do maps of Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao, which are available for 50 Baht to 70 Baht in the tourist areas of Surat and on the islands.
Information & Immigration Offices
Tourist Offices, the helpful TAT office (Tel. 0-7742-0504; open 8.30am-4.30pm daily) is at the northern end of Na Thon. South of town is the tourist police (open 24hr; Tel. 0-7742-1281, emergency: 1155). Travellers can extend tourist visas by 30 days (or visa on arrival by 10 days) for a fee of 500 Baht at the Ko Samui immigration office (Tel. 077-421-069; open 8.30am-noon & 1pm-4.30pm, Mon-Fri. Closed public holidays). It's about 2km south of Na Thon.
Money, Newspapers & Magazine
Changing money isn't a problem in Na Thon, Chaweng or Lamai, where several banks (with ATMs) or exchange booths offer daily exchange services. A locally produced, tourist-oriented newspaper with articles in German, English and Thai, Samui Welcome, comes out monthly (free). What's on Samui, Samui Guide and the pocket-sized Accommodation Samui are also free and have listings of hotels, restaurants and suggestions of things to do, buried beneath scads of ads.
Post & Communications
The island's main post office (open 8.30am-4.30pm, Mon-Fri, 9am-noon Saturday) is located in Na Thon but other parts of the island have privately run branches. International telephone service is available at the CAT office (open 7am-10pm daily) at the main post office. Many private phone offices on the island will make a connection for a surcharge above the Telephone Organization of Thailand (TOT) or CAT rates. There's no shortage of Internet facilities in any of the bigger towns.
Clinic catering to foreigners are common on Chaweng and Lamai; for more serious stuff head to Samui International Hospital (Chaweng Hospital; Tel. 077-230-781, 077-422-272) This is your best bet for just about any medical or dental problem. Emergency ambulance service is available 24 hours and credit cards are accepted of treatment fees. It's opposite the Muang Kulaypan Hotel.
Dangers & Annoyances
Several travellers have written to warn others to take care when making train and bus bookings. Booking sometimes aren't made at all, the bus turns out to be far inferior to the one expected or other hassles develop. Sometimes travel agents say that economy class is fully booked and only business class is available; the agent then sells the customer an air ticket – at business – class prices – that turns out to be economy class. As on Phuket, the rate of facilities on Samui from road accidents is quite high. This is due mainly to the large number of tourists who rent motorcycles only to find out that Samui's winding roads, stray dogs and coconut trucks can be lethal to those who have never dealt with them. If you feel you must rent a motorcycle, protect yourself by wearing a helmet, shoes and appropriate clothing when diving.
Theft isn't unknown on the island. If you're staying in a beach bungalow, consider depositing your valuables with the management while off on excursions around the island or swimming at the beach. Most of the theft reports continue to come from Lamai and Mae Nam beaches.