The island of Koh Samui, Thailand’s Jewel as it is sometimes referred to, features endless tropical beauty surrounded by many peaceful shores and calm Gulf of Thailand waters. Once a sleepy fishing island and later a haven for backpacking youngsters, the small island has become a favourite resort destination, as it is large on activities on sea and land.
Now home to a diverse expatriate population as well as many native Thai people, Koh Samui has over 63,000 residents, but draws over 1.5 million tourists annually. The number of actual residents varies a bit by season: during the short rainy times, there are a few less residents. But, most of the year sees a constant flow of visitors to the island’s many lovely stretches of white sand beaches, nonstop wondrous coconut plantations and jungle terrain and many activities. Gentle and fun-loving Thai people make the island home to many visitors and residents alike.
Often referred to simply as “Samui”, the island is located in the south east of Thailand, about 35 km (or 22 mi) east of the mainland town of Surat Thani, in the mainland province of the same name. Roughly 229 sq km (88 sq mi) in size, with several tropical forested mountains, the island is reached by flights from many worldwide airports, principally bringing visitors from Bangkok, either through Suvarnabhumi Airport or smaller, but recently remodelled Don Mueng Airport, both international hubs that support much regional traffic as well.
Koh Samui International Airport is a beautiful arrival place for visitors, and has been ranked in the top 10 “favourite airports” by passengers several times over the years. It has a wide selection of international shops, with a wide range of world-famous goods and food shops and cafes. Transport crews stand ready for all arriving flights, prepared to shuttle first-time visitors and regulars to all points of the island. Since it takes just over an hour to drive around the entire island on the “ring road” that circles it, even far-flung hotels, spas and retreats are not really that far at all.
Weather-wise, Koh Samui has a tropical monsoon climate. In other words, it is normally very hot, ranging from 29 to 32 degrees C (about 85-90 degrees F). Though rain bursts might occur in any season, they are usually short rain showers, and rather enjoyable with warm rain. However, Koh Samui can have heavy flooding in the wetter months of October and November. It’s best to not drive about when serious rains are occurring, as sand can make roads slippery. Samui gets on average just below 2000 mm (79 inches) of precipitation each year. Keep water on hand at all times, stay hydrated when active or in the sun, and use a hat or umbrella for extra covering when walking about.
Familiar worldwide as a snorkeling and scuba dive destination, Koh Samui’s general ocean area attracts divers from around the globe who seek peace and beauty undersea. With little diving just off the island’s shores due to limited submarine fauna and flora, many divers come to Samui to train. They begin lessons in a swimming pool, move just offshore to improve skills to use at deeper levels; numerous companies offer training, through PADI programs and other courses.
The picturesque, nearby island of Koh Tao, however, offers a wider palette of underwater life to observe and photograph. About 90 minutes from Koh Samui by large, slower ferry, or an hour by speedboat, it is the prime diving area in the local region. Its name means “Turtle Island” in Thai thanks to its olden-times abundance of hawksbill and green sea turtles. Though still seen, they’re not overly plentiful today.
Koh Tao and other out-in-sea dive sites have numerous coves and dive points with bountiful colorful tropical fish. Divers still make sightings of visiting pelagic whale sharks and manta rays, and even several varieties of sharks, including bull sharks and hammerheads. When first arriving on Koh Samui, and most of the time (even when diving), wear plenty of sunscreen and even a long-sleeved shirt. If you’re not already tanned a bit, it takes very little time to get serious sunburn, though you might not notice it as you excitedly swim about or play paddle ball on the beach.
Activities on Koh Samui are unlimited, with many occurring in-sea and on the beach and just as many on land and in the jungle. Jet Ski sessions are popular, as are banana boat and parasail rides, and even kite-boarding and occasional surfing when the waves are high. Jet skis are available on the beach at the popular, busier western beach of Chaweng, at her southern sister Lamai, and the smaller and quieter Choeng Mon, with meagre offerings elsewhere on the smaller and less-crowded beaches.
Inland activities on Koh Samui abound. They include tours to visit the many interesting and historic Buddhist temples in many locations on the island. Be sure to see the famous gold-painted, gigantic Big Buddha statue that many incoming flights fly right over upon landing.
Other Buddhist sights include the much-revered Mummified Monk at Wat Khunaram. Luong Pordaeng’s body, still in the sitting meditation position he died in, is displaced in a glass case, and draws reverent Buddhists who know of his teachings to many Samuians.
Other exciting trips range from 4-wheel drives through the island’s jungles, to tours encompassing the entire island with its many amazing viewpoints of distant islands, trekking or bicycling through jungle trails, zip-line rides through jungle canopy flora, elephant rides into tropical beauty, and trips to some fun and funky animal farms, including cobra and crocodile shows that will entertain and thrill you.
ATV vehicles and cross-country motorbikes are a favourite of many more adventurous visitors that want to rip through jungle terrain at faster speeds. Renting motorbikes to circuit Koh Samui is among top favourite activities, as is attending the many Walking Street festivals occurring almost nightly. At these events, cars are not permitted, and the streets fill with vendors of crafts, local foods and drink specials, making great fun for the evening. There’s one in Fisherman Village on Friday evenings, Maenam on Wednesday night, in Lamai on Sunday, and others. Just touring local markets is a wonder, too.
Sail boat or motorboat rentals are a popular activity for many, with or without crew depending on the company and vessel size; experience is obviously required for sailing in waters you are not familiar with.. Nearby islands offer virtually uninhabited beaches and incredible snorkeling and scuba diving. Rentals can be for a few hours, a romantic pre-dinner sunset cruise, an all-day or week long trip - it’s up to you. Chantara cruises offers leisurely trips to nearby Koh Phangan for off-gangplank jumping and swimming, trips around Samui on a real, beautifully renovated Burmese junk.
The northern Koh Samui towns of Maenam and Bophut – especially the relaxed Fisherman's Village area – are a bit more tranquil than the western side’s Chaweng, area. With its constant flow of walking folks and goods-sellers on the beach and wild dancing bars and numerous massage parlors of the serious kind as well as some of a more dubious nature. But, smaller beaches and towns dot the island at every turn and make for secretive, secluded picnics and day trips.