Koh Samui, the second largest island in Thailand after Phuket, was once a fishing village, but it didn’t take long for people to discover its sandy beaches, coral reefs and beautiful sunsets. Located in the Gulf of Thailand, the island caters to those looking for luxurious resorts and high-end restaurants spas, as well as budget travelers who enjoy street-side food stalls, fresh food markets and a two-hour massage for US$10.
My family and I very much enjoyed our 5-night stay on the Island. This is our second visit after almost ten years, and our impression of Ko Samui’s charm remains. This guide is going to provide a basic overview of the island, travel logistics, and activities.
Koh Samui, Thailand
- Chaweng beach (15 minutes taxi from the airport) is the busiest part of town with many restaurants, bars and shops, and naturally is the most popular choice of place to stay.
- Lamai beach (30 minutes from airport) is Cheweng’s cousin with a slightly more relaxing and quiet vibe. The streets are still filled with a good number of restaurant options. We stayed in Lamai this time, and thought it was a nice change of pace from Chaweng.
- Agoda.com is a good website to making hotel reservations with the most robust hotel options in Asia, including Ko Samui.
- While there are taxi services at the airport, I recommend arranging car transportation in advance. It is easy to look up private car services on Tripadvisor or other travel forums, and confirm price and pick-up time with a driver via Facebook, Whatsapp or WeChat. Our 30-minute ride from Koh Samui Airport to our hotel in Lamai beach cost about 400 Baht (US$12).
- In my experience, Ko Samui doesn’t require a ton of planning in advance. Many of the activities on the island, such as day trips to An Thong National Park or ATV/quad bike, can be reserved on the day before, which also gives you the flexibility to observe weather forecast before reservation.
- Chaweng and Lamai is filled with manned booths and shops (acting as resellers) which allow you to reserve for day trip activities. Many of the programs from various vendors are similar, so there is no significant concern over scam / vastly different service.
- I recommend walking around town and compare options from a couple of shops, and go ahead and reserve a package that makes sense to you. Hotels offer reservation services as well, but generally with a mark up.
- Almost all of these activities provide transportation to and from the hotel. When you make a reservation, you will asked to pick a date/package and confirm pick-up location. Depending on where your hotel is, you will be notified with the estimated pick-up time.
- You will then pay in cash on the spot, and receive a receipt and a phone number that you can call if you have questions. Keep the receipt with you for check in.
- On the day of pick up, the driver will wait outside of the hotel at the designated. They may attempt to have the hotel staff call you in the hotel room to notify you.
Koh Samui can be reached with a direct flight domestically from Bangkok (1hr) and Chiang Mai (2h), and internationally from Hong Kong (3h), Kuala Lumpur (1 hr 30 min) and Singapore (1hr 40 min). Travelers from outside of Asia will generally connect through Hong Kong, Bangkok or Singapore, since there are multiple daily flights on these routes.
Except for a couple of flights on operated by SilkAir and Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways has a near monopoly over air traffic in Koh Samui. As a result, Bangkok Airways typically charges slightly higher prices (thus the cabin is also never too full).
Our itinerary from Hong Kong looked like this:
- Outbound: Bangkok Airways (PG) Flight 806 / Departs 5:05pm from HKG / Arrives: 7:30pm at Koh Samui Airport
- Inbound: Bangkok Airways (PG) Flight 805 / Departs: 11:35am Koh Samui / Arrives: 3:55pm at Hong Kong International Airport
Our flight from Hong Kong on Bangkok Airways was smooth. Since the plane was only about 40% occupied, there was plenty of space for everybody. Service was satisfactory, and the cabin crew was friendly. Most importantly, both flights were punctual!
Bangkok Airways Airbus A319
Chang beer on board!
No one was sitting in the exit rows, which were very spacious
Bangkok Airways Airbus A319 cabin
En route to Koh Samui during sunset
A tarmac shuttle, rather than a jet bridge, is used in Ko Samui Airport
Where we stayed
We stayed at Manathai Hotels and Resorts on Lamai Beach. The hotel looked fairly new, with pale yellow colonial-like architecture, and a long stretch of outdoor entryway where some of rooms in two-story townhouses are located on both sides. Interestingly, an additional part of the hotel is on the other side of main road, with a restaurant, an outdoor pool with sunbathing beach chair and access to the beach.
A standard double room ran at about US$65 per night per room, but since there were three of us, it cost an additional $40 per night for a third person. Disappointingly, the standard room we got was very small (I didn’t even bother to take a picture). The room would have certainly have been fine for 2 people, but for 3 people it was too crowded. I have found this to be the case in parts of Southeast Asia, where adding a third person to a room is disproportionally expensive.
On the positive side, the complimentary breakfast served in the morning was amazing: made-to-order omelette, fresh fruits and a variety of western and asian hot food options. Service was excellent and attentive — the servers were extremely friendly and spoke fluent English.
There are about 10 restaurants (mostly Thai) right outside of the hotel. There are a wider variety of shops and restaurants (including a Tesco super market) within a 5 minute motorbike ride, and Lamai Night Market is about 10 minutes away.
Manathai Hotels and Resorts entrance (day and night)
Manathai Hotels and Resorts swimming pool 1 (day and night)
Manathai Hotels and Resorts swimming pool 2 and beach
Breakfast fresh fruits
Getting around with motorbike
While taxi service is abundant in most part of town, motorbikes are the best way to get around. You can go anywhere with a scooter and park basically anywhere on the street (unless obviously designated as no parking).
Renting a motorbike in Ko Samui is easy and affordable. The process was quick and casual: I basically picked my bike, negotiated and paid, and was out of the door within a couple of minutes. The initial offer for my scooter was 250 baht ($7) a day, and I was able to knock down the price to 150 baht (US$4.5) a day since we committed to rent 2 bikes for at least 3 days.
Thai and foreigners alike ride scooters to get around, and it only takes 2 hours or so to go around the entire island. While the official rules technically require riders to have a license, the enforcement of this rule is extremely lax according to my read on various online forums. This was indeed the case: there were barely cops out on the street, and rental shops don’t checks for license, either.
Note that the shop will mostly require you to put down a deposit or a passport as a security guarantee. In my case, I put down my second (seldom used) passport, which I’m not concerned about even if I lose it. However, if you are uncomfortable having someone take away your primary passport (which I would), I would bring some extra cash instead.
This was my first time in full control of a motorbike, which was quite exciting. My biking skill is fairly average, so I practiced riding in a parking lot for 10 minutes. Initially I was going fairly slow on the road, but I quickly gained confidence, and riding became an instant joy. I loved the freedom, and riding felt amazing with the sea breeze!
Filling up the tank cannot be easier. In addition to regular gas stations, there are shops on essentially every street that sell gasoline in plastic bottles for 40 Baht (US$1.25). We used about a bottle a day, so gas cost was pretty minimal.
You will see motorbike rental everywhere
Practicing in the hotel parking lot
I did struggle a bit with parking
2 highlights from the trip
An Thong Marine National Park (40km west of Koh Samui)
A quintessential day-trip for snorkeling, hiking and kayaking. Tours are sold in virtually all corners of town, ranging from 1500 to 3000 baht for a day trip (depending on program, duration and boat type). For example, a slower boat may cost 1500 baht would take 1 hr 45 mins to get to An Thong from Samui, while a fast boat that costs 2000 baht would only take 1 hour (we opted for the latter). We signed up for our tour at a booth in the Central Festival Samui mall.
The day generally starts with pick up at the hotel, check in at the harbor and a light breakfast before getting on the boat with a dozen other people. On the way there, you would get a quick introduction of the tour and receive a life vest for the activities. For our particular tour, we started with snorkeling (we saw pretty amazing coral reef and marine life), then we went on land and did a short hike up to get a good view of the marine park. After quick buffet lunch and a short break, we kayaked for an hour to wrap a great day out in the ocean and returned to harbor.
Quad bike / ATV (all terrain vehicle)
My personal highlight, as I have not done anything like this before. For a thrill seeker, quad bike is an amazing adventure to explore the largely undeveloped forest in the center of Koh Samui. The ride goes up and down hill, and through puddle of mud and unexpected creeks.
We signed up with Samui Quad Bike for a 2-hour package, which costs 2600 baht (US$74) per adult and includes pick-up/drop-off at the hotel. My mom didn’t want to ride her own so paid 1300 baht to ride in the back of my dad’s bike.
We rode on a rainy day, but that wasn’t an issue.
Our ATV guide
Places we visited / things we did
For the convenience of your next trip, here are a rough list of places we visited.
- Ang thong National Park (must go)
- Samui Quad bike (must do)
- Lamai Beach (classic)
- Lamai Night Market (classic)
- Chaweng Beach downtown (classic)
- Local chain supermarket Tesco (they sell everything)
- Fishermans’ Village in Bophut (this place is worth a visit with many shops and restaurants… Cocktails are sold on the street!)
- Grandmother and Grandfather Rocks (Hin Yai & Hin Ta)
- Na muang waterfall (it’s a nice little hike, but not very impressive)
- Ride our scooters around the entire island, stop for snacks and street food (fun and relaxing)
- Food, food, more food (see below)
Tom Yum Gung
Street side nutella banana pancake
Mojitos for 60 baht (80 baht for “big cup”)
Very questionable sushi (out in the open)
Iced coconut smoothie with jelly
Grandfather stone (What does this look like??)
Hike up to see Na muang waterfall
Koh Samui is a ideal place to relax for a few days with your family or loved one if you are into beaches, good food and cheap massages. It makes for an ideal long weekend getaway if you are based in Asia. If you are coming from elsewhere in the world, you may want to consider including Ko Samui as part of your broader trip in Southeast Asia.
Do you have plans to go to Koh Samui?