Thailand has long attracted visitors from all around the globe, with record numbers flying into the country in search of tropical beach paradises in the south with Krabi and Phuket, the hustle and shopping in the central where the capital city Bangkok lies, and the cultural immersion of tribes and temples galore in the north with Chiangmai.
And certainly, those destinations are popular with travellers, but Ko Samui sees a fair number of those travellers coming through the island too.
Located east off the mainland, Ko Samui and the surrounding islands of Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao are popular islands with travellers for everything from peace and quiet to rowdy full and half moon beach parties where the parties go on till morning light.
In this guide, I'll focus solely on Ko Samui, the biggest island and the most accessible, and if you're headed to the smaller islands of Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao, you'll most likely have to travel through Ko Samui regardless.
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This guide will focus on some essential information you'll need for planning your trip, as well as to get you a better idea of what travelling on the island is like.
How to get to Ko Samui
If money isn't a concern and time saving and convenience are the most essential, the easiest option is to fly in to Ko Samui's airport, which feels more like a laid-back tropical resort than a busy hub of transportation.
Connected the most with Bangkok, with departures running almost every hour, this will be the option for most international travellers. Otherwise, flights also arrive from Phuket and Chiangmai, with the airlines Bangkok Air and Thai Airways serving Ko Samui. Outside of Thailand, Bangkok Air offers direct connections from Singapore which we paid about ฿9, 660 / US$300 / €255 / S$400 for a one and a half hour flight. Connections to Malaysia include Kuala Lumpur and Penang, as well as some connections from China including Chengdu.
If you're already in Thailand and would like to save a bit of money, you can fly into Surat Thani and transfer by high speed ferry to go into the islands.
If you'd prefer not to fly, the company Lomprayah offers a bus / ferry option from Bangkok, travelling overland to Chumphon before transferring via ferry to Ko Samui via Ko Pha Ngan, Ko Nangyuan, and Ko Tao.
These options cost around ฿1, 000 / US$30 / €26 / S$42 or slightly above that one way.
Getting Around Ko Samui
Ko Samui didn't have roads till the 1970s, and crossing the island meant hiking through the continuous jungle landscape in the island interior.
The most convenient option would be to rent a motorbike or a car, and we went with the latter option with Hertz, and many other internationally recognised brands like Sixt also serve the island.
There are public taxis, but drivers are most likely to ask you for a fixed fare from and to popular destinations on the island which are almost guaranteed to be an expensive endeavour, certainly more than a metered taxi, but you might be able to bargain with this option. But if you're looking to travel around the island to visit the various sites scattered around, you're better off hiring a car with a driver if you don't fancy driving.
Other forms of public transportation include songthaews, common throughout Thailand in the form of pick up trucks lined with two benches on either side, but honestly I didn't see many of these outside popular tourist hotspots, so I don't know how reliable they might be as a form of transportation. On somewhere like Chaweng's walking street though, these things ply the roads and you'll be bombarded with the sound of non-stop horns which were annoying to say the least.
My Experience Driving in Ko Samui
I drove a massive SUV (a Mitsubishi Pajero Sport if we're getting specific) everyday, on the main ring road circling the island, small alleyways, on Chaweng street, up the hilly interior through the jungles to get to waterfalls and here's what that experience was like.
Ko Samui has a ring road that circles the island which is smooth, paved, and doesn't get congested in the mornings or much in the evenings. There aren't many traffic lights, I saw about 5 in all my time there, it's lined with many smaller "towns" — if they can even be considered towns, restaurants, shops, petrol stations, or massive supermarkets, if they aren't lined with trees.
Outside of the circular ring road, you'll enter many smaller roads, and the truth is that if you aren't used to driving in Southeast Asia, it might be an unnerving experience and it definitely takes a driver with confidence to get around. Remember that traffic lights are far and few in between, so turning a corner requires waiting for your time to make your move while other cars, vans and motorbikes zoom past you. There are also no official U-Turns, so if you miss your turn, you'll have to do a U-Turn in the middle of the single lane dual carriageway roads.
It helps that it never gets congested, so if you can do these manoeuvres quickly, you won't be holding up traffic if the roads are clear for a couple of seconds.
The speed limit I was advised by Hertz was 50km/h to 60km/h, but the truth is I barely pushed past 50km/h. As mentioned, roads are all single lanes, I only saw two lanes two or three times, meaning overtaking requires you to quickly make your move while temporarily crossing into oncoming traffic. On the smaller roads, you're likely to be travelling at 30km/h at most.
Most, if not all roads using Google Maps to get around are paved or at least on concrete, and the only time road conditions were tricky was up the hilly interior to get to the Secret Buddha Garden or Magic Garden. Potholes were almost everywhere, and I almost turned back when we reached a military base at the foot of the hill and were greeted with a "Restricted Area. Do Not Pass" signboard, but the soldier guarding the post allowed us to pass with a smile as we were headed up the hill and not into the military base.
Because roads aren't open and wide, and you often share the road with other vehicles parked by the side of the road, or motorcycles, trucks and the like, often I was squeezing on the road with many other vehicles that would be too close for comfort for anyone not used to such roads.
At night, roads are lit more by headlights than overhead street lamps, and certainly on the smaller roads, you're not going to get street lamps, and in the dark, your mirrors are essentially useless so you'll have to get used to relying on them less, but as mentioned because it never gets overly congested, I never had to worry too much about other vehicles in my blind spot as they would have been in front of me which would have been illuminated by my headlights, and other vehicles behind me would be visible with their headlights on.
Ko Samui is a tropical island, so expect all that comes with it, including rainy seasons (October to December in contrast with the mainland which experiences their rainy season April through September). In reality though, it is rare for it to be raining a whole day in the tropics, so expect downpours that last no longer than an hour or two outside of the wettest seasons.
Ko Samui is a great base for taking day trips out to the islands of Ang Thong Marine National Park, as well as Ko Tao and Ko Nangyuan, with many companies plying the routes between Ko Samui / Ko Pha Ngan and these islands, which are the most popular day trips packaged for travellers.
Many tour operators offer the same itineraries, but we booked ours with our resort.
One day trip cost us ฿1, 900 / US$60 / €50 / S$80 for one person, with the day trip to Ang Thong Marine National Park not including the ฿300 admission fee for foreigners which I paid at the counter at the pier with the tour company I went with, which was the most convenient option.
Unlike my experience in Labuan Bajo in Flores, Indonesia to take day trips sailing out to Komodo Island and the other islands in the archipelago, there wasn't a main street where I could find all the offices of these tour operators to shop around for the best prices, so I went with what my resort offered, which were three tour operators, two travelling by speed boat for the price mentioned above, and the last one travelling by a slower boat which cost around ฿1, 600 so I didn't think the price differential was all that worth it.
Since tourists descended on the islands by the boatload, Ko Samui has quickly developed its tourist infrastructure, and Ko Samui certainly isn't all that rural or undiscovered, and plenty of luxurious five-star resorts have a property here.
Mid-range properties can also be had as well as backpacker favourites, but many who stay on the island are here for their luxurious resort experience, so this category is the most catered for, especially outside of the noisy areas of Chaweng and in more quiet and tranquil corners of the island, many offering guests their own beach, or infinity pool overlooking the sea.
Food of various cuisines can be found in Ko Samui, as well as fine dining restaurants, some located in the aforementioned luxury resorts.
Especially at Bophut Fisherman Village and most definitely at Chaweng Walking Street, you'll find dozens and dozens of seafood restaurants, Italian restaurants, burger bars, steakhouses and the like lining the streets on both sides, some are good, some are overpriced and average, and I sought out the better ones via Google Maps which never failed me.
For many tourists, Thailand is synonymous with animal tourism, and many dream of a picture of the backs of an elephant through the jungle, and despite recent reports surfacing regarding the mistreatment of many animals sold to the tourism trade, whether it's through rides or shows put on for tourists, sadly this trade very much continues up to this day with no signs of stopping or tourists that don't know any better (or choose to turn a blind eye to).
In reality, this is a contentious topic, as some local families do rely on their animals to bring in their source of income, and because of the amount of food, say an elephant requires everyday, this money feeds both the animals and their family, ever since Thailand banned the use of elephants in illegal logging.
However, I do believe there is a more sustainable way in which we can conduct tourism alongside these animals, and this usually comes in the form of sanctuaries where they are cared for, and travellers can pay or donate money in support of the cause, and get up close to these gentle giants, whether it'd be by feeding them or walking with them.
The Samui Elephant Sanctuary can be found at:
2/8 Moo 6
Bophut Koh Samui
And you can book your trip directly with them on their website.
If it's adventure you're looking for, Ko Samui offers zip lining through the jungle, as well as ATV rides, stand up paddle boarding, kayaking and snorkelling (better done at Ang Thong Marine National Park / Ko Tao and Ko Nangyuan respectively), parasailing and paragliding at Chaweng and Lamai Beach so you'll have no shortage of thrills.