Most people are rather disappointed by this over-touristed jet-set island. If you have deep pockets, however, there is much luxury to lap up here.
Until relatively recently Thailand’s third largest island was a sleepy backwater populated by a few fishermen and coconut farmers. After some adventurous backpackers arrived on coconut barges in the 1970s, it was only a matter of time before Samui’s secret was out.
These days the island’s manic vibe make it one of the best party destinations in southeast Asia, if you can put up with the cynicism that has overcome many of the inhabitants after so many tens of millions of visitors, not all of whom have treated the place or its residents with the respect they deserve.
Question: What does Samui have more of, coconut trees or annual visitors?
Answer: It has more annual visitors. While the island is thickly carpeted with over 3 million trees which yield an annual harvest of 40 million coconuts, it is descended on by fully 4 million visitors per year. Despite this huge number, however, Samui’s natural charms remain largely intact thanks, amongst other factors, to a policy of building nothing taller than a coconut tree on any of the beaches.
What has changed is the type of visitor, as Samui has moved constantly up-market, until it now rivals Phuket as Thailand’s premier island destination. Home to a large number of elegantly stylish resorts and enough gourmet restaurants to keep even the most committed of epicures bloated and beaming, Samui is also fast becoming Thailand’s top spa destination, with a variety of establishments offering a bewildering array of treatments. These are intended both for plain pampering and also for therapeutic purposes, perhaps after a wild night out in one of the island’s hopping nightclubs.
Mostly lacking the drug culture of neighbouring Koh Phangan, Samui is one of Thailand’s best destinations for younger people who want to party hard, but in a relatively wholesome way. The island can however no longer be recommended for budget backpackers, as in the move upmarket the cheaper resorts on the better beaches have been pushed behind the dingy, depressingly smelly and noisy backstreets. For those on a looser budget, however, this is a place where there is much luxury to lap up: not quite so much as on Phuket, but for those visitors who are not reincarnations of fairy princesses and can thus not feel a pea under a mattress, it will certainly suffice.
The island’s success has exacted its almost inevitable ecological price, however, and those visitors in search of a pristine environment should go elsewhere, as the Samui tourist industry generates 50 tons of refuse per day. It is inevitable that some of the rubbish ends up in places where it would preferably be absent – the only surprising thing is that the authorities, under such challenging circumstances, manage to keep the litter levels fairly low.
Paradise on Earth doesn’t exist. There is usually more than simply a cash price to pay for fabulous food and languorous luxury, which in Samui’s case is that the environment suffers from the torrent of visitors. It’s really a personal decision as to what the visitor wants from their holiday. If they can’t put up with the lights-out-at-twelve lack of options of pristine places like Koh Yao Noi, Koh Lao Liang and Koh Jum, or they want a round of golf before taking their pick from a wide selection of restaurants, spas and clubs, then Koh Samui is one of the best destinations in the kingdom.
Whilst most visitors arrive direct from Bangkok, the 40 minute flight from Phuket to Koh Samui is in one of southeast Asia’s most scenic, and so well worth incorporating into the traveller’s itinerary.
After leaving behind the broad beaches and verdant hills of Phuket, the plane heads out over the brilliant blues of Phang Nga Bay, where karst cathedrals rear hundreds of metres out of the sea, dripping stalactites like wax from a candle. While passing the precipitous cliffs of Koh Yao Noi and the emerald-green lagoon of Koh Hong, on a clear day you can see to the south the buttressed ramparts of the cliffs separating Ao Nang from the majestic Railay peninsula.
On sunny days Krabi’s Tiger Cave Temple sparkles in the sunshine atop its 600 metre-tall eerie, whilst on dark nights it is lit with powerful floodlights, and shines like a brilliant golden beacon for the love and hope it represents. Shortly afterwards the plane flies back over land, revealing a patchwork quilt of jungle and rice fields which, when flooded, reflect the sunlight in the most beguilingly dazzling way.
The landscape flattens out, the passenger glimpses a new coastline on the horizon and then, shortly afterwards, the plane is out over open water again. Koh Samui and its eighty attendant islets appear, the gracefully swaying palm trees on its steep hillsides obscuring the resorts beneath.
The plane dips alarmingly below the level of the lush curtain of palms and, shortly afterwards, lands at one of the cutest airports in the country, where visitors are warmly greeted in open-sided pavilions that resemble hotel reception areas more than they do airport arrival desks. It is only the uncomfortable plastic chairs that make the passenger realize that he is still walking the earth, and hasn’t yet arrived in paradise.
Most visitors’ top priority on reaching Samui is to do very little for as long as they can manage it. After a few days on the beach with their noses buried in a book, however, many people fancy a bit of gentle exercise and stroll up to a waterfall, or maybe use the hike up to the Big Buddha temple as a good excuse to stretch the legs – which should, for the monks’ sakes, be covered.
For those looking for a bit more exercise, the challenging, international-standard Santiburi Samui Country Club golf course offers some of the best views of any course in the kingdom, and there is reasonable scuba diving within range at either Ang Thong Marine Park or around Koh Tao, which it is possible to visit by liveaboard boat. Fishing is not very good near Samui, due to depletion of the Gulf of Thailand’s fish stocks. In one regrettable scam, anglers are taken to places where it is known that there will be no fish, in order to appease local fishermen.
Kiteboarding, windsurfing and water-skiing are all excellent in their respective seasons (see www.kiteboardingasia.com & www.kohsamui.org), whereas the noisy jet-skis, parasailers and banana boats are a mixed blessing all year round. Even more popular than the boxing matches in Chaweng’s raucous stadium are the ubiquitous water buffalo fights, which are excitedly gambled over in Samui’s ten buffalo fighting stadiums and are, by comparison with bull or cock fights, relatively benign towards the animals.
A popular activity with younger visitors is the island’s canopy zip-wire, using which they can zoom around the tree-tops in perfect safety - www.canopyadventuresthailand.com. Thrill-seekers will also enjoy Samui’s paintball battles, bungee jumping and waterball riding, where the visitor rolls down a hillside inside a large, clear plastic ball (www.samuiwaterball.com). Whilst the facilities for keeping children entertained are not as numerous as are those on rival Phuket, the island does offer elephant trekking, a go-kart track, an aquarium, numerous monkey shows, a tiger zoo and a giant butterfly park. Ang Thong Marine Park is a popular daytrip destination from Samui – click here for more information.
Koh Samui is rightly famous for its beaches, which have very different characters. The island is so big that it’s not easy to get from one beach to another, so it’s best to choose the beach where you want to stay with some care before departure.
Visitors after tranquillity should choose Choengmon beach, whilst those after wild nightlife should head for Lamai beach, and people who like people-watching and variety are best off on Chaweng.
Whilst all the beaches offer the bather invitingly clear, blue-green water, only Chaweng and Lamai beaches are deep enough for good swimming. Chaweng is the longest beach on the island, fully 7 km of powdery white sand, and is home to most of the more up-market resorts. An impressive beach by any standards, it has a somewhat schizophrenic character, with the southern and northern parts slumbering away, blissfully unaware of the 24-7 beach party in perpetual full swing at the beach’s mid-point.
The stray dogs roaming the beach can be a bit alarming at first, until the visitor realizes that they are only interested in chasing sand-crabs, and not at all interested in tourists – unlike the bar-girls in the many beer-bars lining the grotty road behind the beach, who will attempt to beguile the unwary male with feigned fascination and practised flattery.