Koh Samui has long been a favourite destination for tourists due to expansive beaches and dense jungle peaks. Given its relatively easy accessibility, the island commands an estimated two million visitors annually. Here’s the inside scoop on what the locals themselves recommend to enjoy the best of Koh Samui without the crowds.
Drive the shortcut
Koh Samui’s perimeter is framed by one long road encircling the whole island, which comes with all the usual trappings like traffic and dusty air. But the island’s jungle-dense interior is still largely untouched, with just small bits of development and makeshift routes to offer access. An exception is the ubiquitous “shortcut” between Mae Naam and Lamai. The road, once narrow and often slick with mud and sand – at times impassable even for 4×4 vehicles – cuts through the island, winding up its peaks and cutting through generations-old rubber and palm plantations. Recent facelifts have widened and paved the road, making it far easier for anyone to explore. Some parts of this 15-kilometer stretch are steep, and the pavement can become slick after one of the island’s flash rainstorms. If you’re driving yourself, 110cc scooters are just fine, but you’ll want a 125cc at minimum for two people.
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Khun Si Waterfall
While driving through the palm forests along the shortcut from the Mae Naam entrance, you’ll come across a gently curving stretch of elevated road that opens up to expansive, panoramic views of the western coast stretching onward into the sea. Soon after, signs begin to appear for Khun Si Waterfall. The falls are reachable by a short hike down the slope, with several small rapids that pool beneath the cliffs. Near the entrance of Khun Si is a great little bar stocked with the essentials. Chat with the owners behind the bar. One was a former DJ working on Koh Samui who found a deep love for sustainable farming, and he’ll happily show you their blossoming farm, packed with every herb imaginable, fruits and vegetables – even finding success with those which don’t typically agree with the Thai climate.
Tour local craft beer
Thai beer is effortlessly dominated by a few brands recognizable to anyone that’s spent even a short time in the Kingdom – notably Chang, Singha, Leo, and Tiger. But craft breweries are on the rise both in Thailand and across the region, even if their products aren’t yet widely available. Head down to The Beer Masons in Chewang, a craft beer bar offering an enormous selection of craft brews from around the world, including several local to Thailand and the surrounding southeast Asian region. The friendly owners make beer tasting an art form, eager to suggest a selection of options based on your palate and taste.
Help preserve paradise
Those stunning Samui beaches you enjoy are maintained almost entirely through volunteer efforts. One such effort is the local Trash Hero group, a chapter of the global NGO of the same name. The group meets weekly at a beach around the island to conduct a short beach clean, often ending with free beer, food, or even a sunset yoga session for participants. It’s a great way to meet other travelers and locals, and feel good about your footprint on this island paradise. Check their Facebook page for details, such as the weekly meeting point.
Play with rescue dogs
It’s estimated there are approximately 8.5 million street – or soi – dogs across Thailand, a situation caused by a combination of issues like owner abandonment and unmanaged sterilization efforts. After a history of using euthanization or sale of dog meat to Chinese markets to manage the population, the country over time adopted a firm pro-life dog policy, with shelters popping up nationwide in the last few decades. Samui’s Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation is one of the larger operations, caring for around 350 dogs and 100 cats in residence for a wide range of reasons, and the center relies on animal-loving holidaymakers who can help cuddle and socialize with the animals. Give the center a call ahead of time so that the staff can accommodate your help, and they’ll even arrange transport if you don’t have your own. Reach the center on either number: +66 077 413 490 or +66 01 893 94 43.
Check the events calendar
For its size, Koh Samui has a surprisingly large, multicultural population hailing from all corners of the world – and the island’s events calendar matches this diversity. There’s the enormous Thai festival and holiday schedule to celebrate, along with special – sometimes quite unique – events like the early-year Samui Swine Classic or Hyzenbrownie Open, both disc golf tournaments, to April’s Jellyfish Petting Zoo. Or check out periodic green farmers’ markets and the growing momentum of music festivals arriving island-bound.
High in the hills is the Gulf’s only 18-hole golf course, offering exquisite, sun-drenched views of Samui’s north coastline. The club provides full cart and caddy service, and rentals for shoes and clubs in the likely event those didn’t make it into your checked luggage. The breezy patio restaurant provides light meals and drinks to cap off a round.
Learn to kiteboard
While most tourists take to the water by scuba, kayak, snorkel, or the ubiquitous banana boat, during certain times of the year conditions are ripe for curious adventurers to harness some wind power. The gentle breeze that sweeps through the Gulf offers the perfect environment for beginners to hone their craft, and Samui’s shallow coastlines and lack of rocky reef, limit much danger. Kiteboarding Asia offers private or two-for-one lessons from experienced instructors, running their operations from November to March in Eastern Lamai, and May to August near Bang Rak to ensure the top conditions all year round.
Make some massive friends
Elephants are a national treasure in Thailand, but the society’s relationship with the animal has been tenuous over time. From demanding logging labour to exploitation by tourist-facing activities like riding, today’s Thais are increasingly aware of the special nature of their beloved elephant. There are sanctuaries around the country which rescue overworked individuals and help them to lead long, happy, healthy lives. They also work to change the status quo of how these animals are treated. Samui Elephant Sanctuary is the best one on Koh Samui, a branch of the now famous Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. The quiet center is conveniently located near Fisherman’s Village, and staff provide background information about the elephant industry in Thailand, the story of each of their rescues, and plenty of time for you to interact and feed as many bananas as you can to the eager residents. Group sizes are kept intentionally small to ensure the elephants themselves are comfortable and that guests have the most personalized experience possible.
Explore Magic Buddha Garden
Hidden away in Samui’s hillside, a local fruit farmer spent decades building statues and sculptures dedicated to Thai deities and Buddhist mythical creatures until his death at age 91. Shrouded in jungle and framed by trickling streams, the grounds have several now-abandoned structures that once housed travelling monks, adding to the hidden sanctuary’s ancient ruins-like atmosphere. Nearby, there’s also a waterfall artificially created by the former groundskeeper, which today bears his name – Nim Thongsuk.
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