As one of the more popular island destinations within Thailand, Ko Samui has developed from an island covered in dense hilly jungles and quiet beaches to a destination with plenty to see and do, and certainly offers something for everyone, whether it'd be a happening nightlife scene, busy shopping streets, majestic waterfalls, or golden strips of sand to lounge on.
In this guide, I'll cover all the places we visited which would be on most a tourist's itinerary, from the perspective of driving around the island, including the situation with parking and fees (if we needed to pay any).
I'll be covering the attractions in a clockwise manner starting from the Big Buddha to Bophut Fisherman's Village to help better plan an itinerary.
With that being said, the island isn't too big, and we managed to cover all these sites in 2 full days.
1. Big Buddha
You can't mention Ko Samui without talking about the towering Big Buddha statue that many a traveller sees from above outside their airplane window before touching down on the island.
Located in the Phra Yai temple complex, this massive statue sits atop a flight of pristine stairs (you have to take your shoes off at religious sites, including this one).
Up the flight of stairs, besides the actual statue itself, the complex offers a nice view of the surroundings that you can circle round to see. Mind, it is very touristy, so the grounds are home to many, many souvenir shops, juice stalls and restaurants. I never found touts here to be overbearing though (unlike Chaweng, but more on that below).
Here, there's a massive parking bay for scooters and cars, and surprisingly I wasn't asked for payment for parking here.
2. Wat Plai Laem
Just a 5 to 10 minute drive away sits the peaceful, colourful temple complex of Wat Plai Laem situated on a quiet lake.
This complex offered a nice walk around the grounds, as there are multiple smaller temples around that are free to enter and photograph.
One even offers an 18-armed statue of the goddess Guanyin.
Parking here was also readily available and free of charge.
Maybe a little tourist trappy, but interesting for kids (or the young at heart), is a machine that dispenses fish food. Throw it into the lake to see dozens of catfish rise to the surface for food.
3. Chaweng Walking Street and Beach
Chaweng is to Ko Samui what Kuta is to Bali, lined with restaurants, bars, clubs, shops selling all kinds of trinkets to "proper clothes" to cheesy holiday t-shirts to tea leaves, to hotels and shopping malls all around, including Ko Samui's premier shopping mall, Central Festival Samui, which features international brands and a massive supermarket and cinema.
Depending on the kind of traveller you are, you'll either feel comfortable here or be apathetic to the scene. I fell into the latter category.
That being said, there's a fantastic street food scene here at Chaweng Night Market, where I had one of the best meals in Ko Samui featuring fresh seafood and delicious dishes in a communal eating setting, washing it all down with fruit juices from another stall.
If nightlife is what you're looking for, you'll be right at home in Chaweng too, including the popular and busy Ark Bar.
Parking here was a little tough, because there are so many cars passing through these narrow streets, but we did eventually manage to find one by the street.
Chaweng also offers one of the busiest beaches in all of Ko Samui, but I chose to skip over Chaweng in favour of quieter beaches along the coast.
4. Lad Koh View Point
Located right on the main ring road that circles the island is Lad Koh View Point, which offers beautiful views looking out at the Gulf of Thailand, and has a walking path down to the rocks below.
It's a nice enough place to spend an hour or so strolling around getting some pictures.
There weren't many lots, but there weren't many other cars so I got a lot easily, though plenty people come over by scooter.
5. Lamai Street and Beach
Lamai is Chaweng sans the crowds, so it was a little more my speed.
Driving here was a little tricky as many of the streets are either one-way or a tight squeeze sharing the road with oncoming traffic. Some streets forbid parking, and these are easily supported by street signs that tell you so, so I decided to park a couple of streets down from the restaurant we wanted to visit.
Lamai, like Chaweng, also offers a beach, and if you're looking to be close to amenities without being thrown into the hustle of Chaweng, Lamai might be a decent option to base yourself.
6. Lamai View Point
If you only have time for one viewpoint, I'd go with Lamai over Lad Koh. Lamai's viewpoint is situated a little more inland, and you enter a compound that's a little more catered to tourism, what with raggaeton blasting through the speakers over a fish pond you can dip your toes in, ziplining activities (฿800), or the choice between taking a cable car (฿200) or hiking up to the view point (฿100) from the base. At the grounds is also the Valentine Stone, which is just a stone supposedly in the shape of a heart.
We opted for the cable car, where friendly staff ushered us into the car that scaled the hill up to the view point, which actually features a restaurant. If you're willing to part with some money— the restaurant isn't the cheapest around, you can enjoy a drink or two overlooking the dense vegetation of inland Ko Samui to the sea.
If you aren't keen on getting any food or drink (the menu isn't the most extensive or varied either), you can still head to the open balcony where you can snap some pictures.
7. Grandpa and Grandma Rocks (Hin Ta and Hin Yai)
Of everything in Ko Samui, this probably felt the most silly and tourist trappy. Still, if you're not taking things too seriously, these rocks that are naturally shaped like a male and female's genitals respectively attract many visitors.
Parking here was ample, but this was the first spot we had to pay for parking, a little fee of ฿30. We went into the first parking lot we saw as directed by one of the locals who came over to collect money, but further up the road the fee would've been the same so there's no need to shop around here.
There are many shops and stands selling all a tourist would like and need, and here's where we had some refreshing coconuts and coconut ice cream, and enjoyed a lovely chat with a friendly older lady manning her stall.
This is a spot you're unlikely to spend much time at, once you've grabbed your photos, so feel free to take a stroll around the shops and stalls.
8. Wat Khunaram (Mummified Monk)
The temple of Wat Khunaram is famous for a mummified monk kept on display in a glass case here, surrounded by flowers, incense sticks and other offerings.
Worshipped by locals, death is seen to be a chance to be reborn in a better, next life.
The monk himself is Loung Pordaeng, who dedicated the later part of his life to his religion, and instructed his followers to preserve his body in a glass casket if his body didn't decompose to inspire future generations to follow the teachings of Buddha.
9. Na Mueang Waterfalls 1 and 2
Unsurprisingly, in the hilly jungle interior of Ko Samui, you'll find many waterfalls, none more visited than Na Mueang Waterfalls 1 and 2.
We visited both but I preferred Waterfall 2 and here's why.
Waterfall 1 is located lower down in the basin, and offers a massive pool for people to jump in and cool off, and this was our plan too, till it rained in the morning, washing many sediments into the water, making jumping in look a lot less appealing.
Still, I wanted my waterfall experience, so we headed upwards and inland to Waterfall 2.
Waterfall 1 offered once again, many touristy souvenir shops selling all kinds of knick knacks, and there was a big ground for parking, which I paid ฿20 for.
Waterfall 2 can only be accessed by a bigger Wildlife and Safari Park, making this a lot more expensive to visit. We started off with a parking fee of ฿60 where you get to redeem a bottle of water free at the shop. Walking in, the grounds is basically a haven for animal and adventure tourism, which made me a little uneasy watching animals caged in and paraded around in unnatural environments and elephants carrying riders of every size up and down these trodden tracks. There are even animal shows of every kind, from elephants to monkeys to crocodiles. If there was an animal around, they were going to find a way to monetise it.
Honestly? Animal tourism is a contentious issue especially in Southeast Asia and I understand the touristy appeal for travellers who don't live in or near animals or jungles, but if you really want to partake in animal tourism, head to Samui Elephant Sanctuary instead for a more sustainable and cruelty-free experience.
We walked past all that chaos and up the roads, where we were offered a "jungle 4x4 offroad riding experience," which we said no to in favour of using our legs. The walk in took about half an hour where we came to the gate of the Tropical Garden. Here, we had to pay another fee of ฿50.
Tip? I'd skip over the 4x4 offroad experience as the vehicle could only ferry passengers so far, before they had to get off and do some trekking themselves to get to the actual waterfall. Unless you have serious mobility issues, walking in isn't an issue, plus you get a bit of exercise and save some money.
There's where the trek got steep, and you get to hold on to a rope to help you up and down the track better.
Some of the stones covered in moss are slippery, so take caution when you're scaling up and down these paths to get to the waterfalls.
Waterfall 2 is actually a bunch of waterfalls at different levels, with pools at every level, and once we got to as high as we could go on the path (rock climbing on your own is prohibited because of the danger), the waterfall truly was stunning. Again, rocks here are covered in moss if not a gushing body of water, so it'd be best advised to watch your step and take care.
10. Secret Buddha Garden (Magic Garden)
A lush hilltop garden featuring many statues of Buddha seemingly rising from the ground and a small Tar Nim Waterfall running a stream through the garden. Admission to the grounds cost ฿80 and I felt like I was transported to a video game set in the jungle. There are a few "houses" that are completely empty and covered in algae and moss, and you can go up the steps to stand on the edge of the roofs, and it felt like a place that might have had a community living in it that has completely emptied out, for lack of a better way to describe what it felt like. Maybe that's why it felt so surreal, but it was an interesting 30 minutes walking around.
The road up here was a winding and narrow road into the hills, and it was the first time I felt the condition of roads in Ko Samui was lacking, as I dodged pothole after pothole on uneven patches of roads every 10 seconds. Still, all part of the experience and adventure.
11. Lipa Noi Beach
For one of the best beaches around on the island, head to the quiet Lipa Noi Beach, where you can watch some stunning sunsets from.
We were here for the cute Think & Retro Cafe Lipa Noi that's decorated like a colourful junkyard.
Many other restaurants and resorts line this beach, and offers a wide, golden strip of powdery sand.
12. Nathon Sunset View Point
Another cool view point is the Nathon Sunset View Point which has a beachfront restaurant too, but the main attraction is the sand bar that you can walk out to at low tide to get some spectacular and unique photos.
13. Seafood at Bang Por
Bang Por is pretty much off the tourist map, but if you'd like to try food that's more local and dine with other Thais, the district of Bang Por offers some great beachfront seafood restaurants that are inexpensive, local and delicious, and run by friendly Thai staff, some who don't even speak a word of English.
Still, there's an English menu (complete with pictures) and a handful of staff around who do so you won't be caught in a lost in translation moment.
A restaurant that's been discovered by discerning tourists is called Haad Bang Po that's great, but another one that's so off the tourist map that it's only labelled in Thai on Google Maps is up the road, called Bang Por Seafood (Takho).
14. Fisherman's Village Bophut
Reflective of Ko Samui prior to massive tourist development, and of the island's Thai-Chinese history, is the peaceful Fisherman's Village at Bophut. The walking street stretches for a good distance, with many bars, cafes and restaurants lining the streets.
This is also a really nice street to spend some time on, and is too, like Chaweng without the crowds and the overt pandering to tourists atmosphere Chaweng creates.
Parking here as such was slightly easier than Chaweng, and we enjoyed a fantastic dinner at Krua Baan Khaow.
With that wraps up many spots on a tourist's itinerary, and if you fancy taking day trips out the island, Ko Samui is a great base to visit Ang Thong Marine National Park and the smaller islands of Ko Nang Yuan and Ko Tao, and both were trips that I took that I really enjoyed, and were easy to arrange.