This is the island that made Thailand a rite of passage for backpackers and a luxe destination for beach lovers. With more pristine sand and emerald waters than you could shake a coconut at, Koh Samui has not lost it’s allure even after years of fame.
Travel tales from an Aunt and Uncle were a staple childhood experience for Eh. They’d sold it all and circled the globe for years and had returned to Canada with endless stories. Koh Samui was a place they returned to often. It was a palm tree laden haven to recharge and lay-low. Decades after their travels, we found ourselves living in the Land of Smiles and hesitant to visit the now globally-known and developed shores of Koh Samui. It may have been spectacular for our family in the 70’s but we had our doubts about the present. We lived in Thailand for years before visiting. We wish we’d gone sooner! Let us tell you why we’re Koh Samui converts.
The reason we avoided this island – concerns about excessive development – were true and not, all at the same time. Koh Samui offers both the tourist-friendly experience and a far more local one. Chaweng and Bo Phut, which sit on a peninsula on the island’s northeast, are where most of the development is concentrated (near the airport). The coast is dotted with fairly consistent development, but the southern third of the island is where a lot of people live. Don’t get us wrong, there are still hotels in every part of the island, but you don’t have to surround yourself with crowds and shops if you don’t want to. With so many offerings, you can build the experience you want.
Koh Samui’s reputation as a beach-lover’s happy place is well deserved. With white sand beaches, bold beach boulders, soaring jungle, and gorgeous waters, you’ll quickly understand why people dream of Koh Samui.
Access to this island is unparalleled when you are comparing Thai islands. With ferries, an airport, buses and minivans, and the ability to drive your own vehicle onto the island, you’ll be hard pressed to find another beach of this calibre that you can get to so easily.
If you’re looking to be closer to the action – attractions, restaurants, and shopping – then staying in the Chaweng or Bo Phut area is best. This is also where you want to be if you don’t have a vehicle. You’ll be within walking distance of lots of options and there is a decently sized shopping mall – Central Festival Samui (a selfie-takers stomping grounds with SAMUI signs and cute monkey statues).
The northern-facing stretch across Samui, Mae Nam, sees this development tapper-off the further west you move from Chaweng. You’ll find luxury hotels here all the way to the Four Seasons at Laem Yai on the western shore. The western coastline faces the Thai mainland and there are pockets of development surrounding the ferry piers.
The further inland you venture, the more you’ll find where people live. It’s a mix of high-end villas with hilltop ocean views and enclaves of locals. This is also true as you move south across Samui. Our favourite area is Taling Ngam, sitting on the southern end of the island. Here the ocean is greeted by cliffs and small beaches. It’s where many Thais live. There are still big-name hotels here, but the vibe is far more residential than tourist. If staying in this area, you’ll want to have your own wheels to get around.
We rested and played at The Headland Villa 3 managed by the dynamic team at The Luxe Nomad. More than being one of the most amazing villa’s we’ve experienced, this home was the perfect fit for our family while offering views that will never get old.
CHECK OUT OUR TIME AT THE HEADLAND VILLA 3. IT’S YOUR NEXT DREAM DESTINATION!
Wherever you stay on Koh Samui, you’re bound to have ocean breeze and access to some of the most famous waters in South East Asia.
Our go to place for breakfast and lunch is Boulangerie Patisserie de Samui. If the name didn’t give it away, this is a great place in Lamai for baked goods and coffee. They have a big menu so you can grab a meal here any time of day. Our kids loved sitting out in the cabana huts and seeing the resident parrots.
The Sweet Sisters Cafe is a charming eatery and shop where much of what you eat comes directly from their garden or from local growers. Fresh is best and you truly can taste the difference.
If you’re looking to ditch the kids for drinks and uninterrupted adult conversation, the you can invest in your sanity at the InterContinental’s Air Bar (with sweeping views from the cliffs of Talilng Ngam and live music) or oceanside at the Hilton Conrad’s KO Lounge.
Lamai Beach is a swath of white sands which gradually slope into clear waters. Our kiddos loved being able to walk out into the ocean with no sudden drop-offs. Stretching for 4 kilometers, you can take long strolls on the sand. Sitting south of the larger Chaweng Beach, arguably Koh Samui’s main attraction, Lamai draws a smaller crowd. There are vendors, restaurants, and beach chairs for hire so you are by no means on a secluded stretch of sand. If you’re sunburn inclined, bring a beach shelter or umbrella as much of the beach is exposed. Had Lamai Road (Lamai Beach Road) runs parallel to the beach with small streets (called sois) giving you beach access. We street parked near The Hive Hotel and later enjoyed lunch in their restaurant.
Grandfather and Grandmother Rock (Hin Ta Hin Yai in Thai) sit at the southern end of Lamai Beach. You can walk there or there is parking in several small private lots for a minimal fee. We parked at the lot closest to the rocks. You’ll feel like you’re driving through an outdoor market but trust the signs that tell you there is parking at the end on the right. The signs for these rocks are easily spotted from the ring road (4169). You’ll walk through a corridor of shops and eateries as you make your way out onto the rocks. Bulbous boulders make-up the shoreline here and there are pools between them where you can go for a swim or snorkel. The tiny patch of beach here is accessible down some stairs, but the rock exploring is the real excitement here. If you’re curious about the names, there are two rock formations that resemble female and male genitalia. Why the namers chose to make us think of our grandparents private bits, we may never know!
Thais are a spiritual people and there are stunning temples on Koh Samui. These are active places of worship so be respectful and dress appropriately. Wat Sila Ngu (Stone Snake Temple) is a small temple but it’s unique earthy-red colour and the artwork inside make it worth visiting. Wat Pra Yai (Big Buddha Temple) is worth seeing in the mornings when devotees come to start the day with prayer. Perhaps the one that caught us most by surprise, as we drove by and then pulled a u-turn to go and see, is the Guan Yu Shrine. You’ll know it when you see it’s impressive statue.
The Taling Ngam Bay Beach is a narrow strip of sand on Koh Samui’s western coast. There are a few tiny beach bars here and if you’re in the area around sunset, this beach is a perfect place for sundowners.
Crystal Bay (also called Silver Beach or Tongtakien Beach) is our favourite beach on Koh Samui. With powdery sand, arching trees for shade, huge rocks to explore, and gorgeous waters, this beach should not be missed. It’s smaller than other beaches and so you can pick one spot and still see your kids wherever they wander. Be sure to bring your snorkels as there are beautiful fish here – especially to the left end of the beach when facing the ocean. We made a day of it and ate at The Crystal Bay Beach Club Restaurant. Having our meal there also gave us pool access. To find the parking, look for the red and white Crystal Bay Yacht Club signs (not the Crystal Bay Resort – though similar) and a giant arrow pointing you towards the BEACH.
Just 2.5 kms north of Crystal Bay, Coral Cove Beach is a small beach that is down a steep embankment from the road. As you enjoy the sand, you’ll barely hear the cars go by on the road. At times it felt like a private beach just for us. The beach is lovely, but there are more rocks in the water and the visibility was lower. The upside of all those rocks is they make great homes for fish so you can bring a snorkel to dive with the fishies. We parked at the Coral Cove Resort and ate at their simple beach restaurant. The food was basic, but our toes were in the sand and the views are unbeatable. When leaving, be mindful that the roadway is steep and be sure to signal so cars on the main road know what you are doing.
A true highlight of our time on Koh Samui was Overlap Stone. This natural rock formation is hard to believe as a massive boulder sits balanced atop a rock column. The property is owned by a kind-hearted family who are happy to chat with you (in Thai). The views are unbeatable and the balancing act is unbelievable. Your GPS app will be able to find Overlap Stone. Once you leave the main road (4169), you’ll begin to climb. If you have a manual or 4 wheel drive, it will be useful. Our little 4 cyclinder car sounded like she was going to explode with the pedal to the floor. People who live on that road will allow you to park at their homes for a minimal fee. One man came out as he saw our car struggling and waved us down to park there. We’re glad he did. From there it was a short but steep hike up the road (our 3 year old did it). You’ll see signs leading you to Overlap Stone. The path is simple and takes you through gardens and jungle. You’ll arrive at the home of a family who has one of the best views in the world. It’s 50 Baht to enter (well worth it – and a tip too). From their front porch you’ll cross a bridge to these impressive rocks.
Your exploring is not limited to the shores and hills of Koh Samui. The island is encircled by gorgeous smaller islands. Hire a long tail boat (our favourite Thai style adventure on open water) and visit some of the nearby islands. The 5 Islands, often called Koh Si Koh Ha in Thai, are a grouping of islands that are home to Swifts. The nests from these birds are a sought after delicacy and can fetch up to $10,000 USD per kilo. Koh Tean, off Samui’s southern shore, is a snorkeling hot spot. Koh Madsum, or Pig Island, is lined with powdery white sand and home to the luckiest pigs on the planet.
MAKE A DAY OF IT AND SEE THE 5 ISLANDS, SNORKEL KOH TEAN, AND RELAX WITH SANDY SWINES. LEARN MORE RIGHT HERE.
TO GET THERE AND GET AROUND
Driving on Koh Samui is very user-friendly, even if you are new to the roads of Thailand. Thailand is right-hand drive and so for some, this takes a little adjusting. The more populous parts of the island are serviced by a ring road – the 4169. This encircles the northern half of the island and cuts across Samui about two-thirds of the way down the island. The Chaweng and Bo Phut peninsula is accessible on the 4171. The southern third of the island is reached by the 4170 which departs the 4169 on the west coast and rejoins on the east. There are many other roadways and for the most part it is well-signed. Interior roads can be steep and may not be fully paved. Most GPS apps are very familiar with all of the ways to circumnavigate Koh Samui
ROAD TRIPPING TO KOH SAMUI FROM BANGKOK? BREAK UP YOUR DRIVE WITH AN OVERNIGHT IN BEAUTIFUL CHUMPHON
Other than Phuket, Koh Samui is the only Thai island with an airport. If you’re making the most of your time and flying to Samui International Airport, then your only option is Bangkok Airways (they own and operate the airport). Poised as a “boutique airline”, Bangkok Airways will have you enjoying the beach in no time.
THAILAND’S BUDGET AIRLINES ARE A GREAT WAY TO SAVE TIME AND MONEY. FLY THE AFFORDABLE SKIES HERE
It wouldn’t be an island travel list if there weren’t aquatic options. In Thailand, private speedboats are always an option that will save you time, but never money. Most travelers access the islands of the Chumphon Archipelago (Koh Samui, Koh Pha Ngan, Koh Tao) using private ferry companies. The 3 major services are the Lomprayah Ferry, Seatran Ferry, and Raja Ferry. Both the Seatran and Raja ferries depart the mainland from Donsak Pier in Surat Thani province. They’ll arrive on Samui’s west coast but Seatran docks further north at Nathorn Pier while Raja arrives at the smaller Lipa Noi Pier. The Lomprayah Ferry, famous for shuttling visitors between this string of islands, has mainland piers in Chumphon (closer to Bangkok) and in Surat Thani (closer to Phuket and Krabi). Departing from the Chumphon Pier or Tapee Pier in Surat Thani, these ferries arrive at Pralan Pier in Mae Nam.
You can read about our experience with Lomprayah Ferry from our trip to Koh Tao from Chumphon HERE, but for this trip to Koh Samui we crossed with Seatran Ferry. These sizable ships have car decks, indoor seating with AC, outdoor seating, snack shops, and washrooms onboard. We purchased tickets in advance online and were able to present them on arrival. Passengers in cars have to exit the vehicle and walk onto the boat while the driver brings the car onboard. As you drive up to the boat, be sure you are ready to jump out (no small task with little kids) as loading is done in rapid speed.