Koh Samui is rightly said to be a tropical paradise, dotted with designer hotels, surrounded by azure waters and featuring beaches stretching on beyond the horizon. But the island is much more than that: its thriving food scene is among the best in Thailand, while its eclectic clubs and bars allow it to compete with legends such as Phuket and Pattaya. Read our guide to Koh Samui and explore the island’s many faces, from the cultural to the thrilling.
Koh Samui’s gastronomic scene is an inspiring example of honest collaboration and deep-rooted dedication to local flavors. Despite fierece competition, chefs around the island collaborate with each other, and their restaurants compose a harmonious foodscape of flavors, cuisines and approaches, from international gourmet delicacies to simple yet irresistible grilled seafood.
Many local people on the island joke that Thai food is the same anywhere you go, be it a sophisticated fine-dining venue or a simple shack by the side of the road. And while there is a hint of truth in this, every restaurant on the island has its own, unique ambiance. For a simple meal on a budget, drive down to Relax Café, a tiny terrace eatery with deliciously creamy curries and a local atmosphere (opposite the 7/11 on the road between Chaweng and Choeng Mon). For something finer, head to Tree Tops at the Anantara Chaweng, the ultimate restaurant for romance with private tree-top dining chalets, or the nearby 9Gems for a more laid-back, hip vibe with lounge music, panoramic views and slick after-dinner cocktails. Those wishing to get away from Thai cuisine should try Ochos, the much raved-about steakhouse at the Akaryn Resort and Spa, where Chef Coco creates marvels out of fresh, succulent cuts.
For the best of the day’s catch, head to the Fisherman’s Village in Bophut. It may seem like a tourist trap, but the restaurants and lounge bars that line the beach offer a quaint environment with great dining options. Make sure you don’t miss out on local lobsters, crabs and tiger prawns, sold at prices incomparable to those found in Western restaurants. Krua Bophut is one of the village’s more upscale venues, with a menu abounding with Thai and seafood delicacies. Pick a seat on the wooden deck surrounded by tall palm trees and enjoy the view over the Gulf’s peaceful waters.
The island’s street food infrastructure is not as rich and multilayered as in Thailand’s bigger cities, but markets are usually abound with grilled meat vendors, coconut juice and ice cream stalls and, most importantly, fruit stands. Pick up a few mangoes and enjoy their full-bodied flavor by the side of a pool.
Art and Culture Aficionados
Rather predictably, Koh Samui’s art scene revolves around small, commercial hole-in-the-wall galleries selling ‘real fakes’ – mass-produced reproductions of famous paintings or simple, decorative works to hang in the guest bedroom. There is hope on the horizon, however, with a couple of original artists’ studios located towards the southern exit from Chaweng, where the paintings are of a much higher quality.
The one gallery that’s definitely worth visiting is Cameron Hansen, which used to be located in one of the wings of the eclectic Library hotel in Chaweng. The gallery has recently moved to Hansen’s home and organic produce farm, Island Organics. The eponymous photographer takes beautifully composed, insightful photographs of Asian cultures, landscapes and history.
Apart from its modest art world, Koh Samui also has a more authentic, cultural side to it, which is best seen from the top of the Wat Phra Yai (Big Buddha Temple) on Ko Phan, near Bophut. Although it’s a spot frequented by tourists and souvenir vendors, the landscape around it is stunning, and dotted with hill-top pagodas that glisten and sparkle in the sun, even from a distance. Drive up to one of these, or take a trip to the nearby Wat Plai Laem, a complex of modern Buddhist temples dominated by a huge sculpture of 18-armed Guanyin, a bodhisattva associated with mercy and compassion. Still used as a working temple, Wat Plai Laem is a unusually tranquil spot in the heart of bustling Koh Samui.
Laid-Back Beach Lovers
Beach lovers are spoiled for choice on this tropical island. Almost every town and village has its own beach, and many hotels take care to protect and keep their private stretches of sand pristine.
At Chaweng, beach lovers will find fine, white sand and shallow, turquoise waters. The best part of the beach depends on the season and. Chaweng is the perfect family beach complete with palm trees and massage shacks offering a stunning view over the picturesque ocean. Koh Samui has plenty of other beautiful beaches too, but the best way to explore them is to rent out a scooter and start discovering.
With their hilly landscape, numerous waterfalls, dense jungle and open waters, Koh Samui and its surroundings lend themselves to ground and underwater exploration.
Rent one of the scooters offered everywhere on the island and drive around, stopping at beaches, sights and other attractions; the drive is a thrill in itself. Longer drives are best done in a jeep: take a trip down to the very south of the island, and visit some of the jungle waterfalls that lie just outside Lamai. Only the most adventurous visitors should attempt the climb up to the actual waterfall, as the forest track leading up to it is steep and dangerous.
Also picturesque is the underwater world around Koh Samui. From snorkeling in Coral Cove and in the accessible waters off Koh Samui, to scuba diving in some of the deeper parts of the Angthong Marine Park, the marine life in these parts of Thailand is bountiful. More experienced divers should take advantage of Sail Rock, a spot that’s particularly rich in marine life of all sorts and where visibility often reaches 20 meters or more.
Koh Samui may boast long, sandy beaches, delicious food and fantastic diving, but in recent years it has become best known for its party scene, which wakes up in August and stays strong until March; but there are plenty of party options in-between, too.
Most of the clubs on the island play a mix of electronic, pop and trance rhythms, and have similar playlists; it doesn’t particularly matter which spot you pick. The center of Chaweng has a dedicated block that’s home to a bizarre mix of cabarets, seedy bars, Irish pubs and huge, overcrowded night clubs.
Those looking for something more relaxed should make their way to the beach, which comes alive at night with loud music, party people and those infamous buckets filled with high-percentage spirits. The Ark Bar is as legendary as it is loud, and it draws in the most hardcore crowds of the island who dance on the beach well past midnight.
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