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There’s much more to little Koh Samui than lazing by the beach. From perfect cocktails to paddling piglets, here’s Culture Trip’s guide to spending an unforgettable week in paradise.
Only an hour’s flight south of bustling Bangkok, Koh Samui is one of Thailand’s most celebrated escapes. Its name derives from the Chinese word saboey, meaning ‘safe haven’, a nod to the island’s past as a refuge for sailors. Today, that legacy continues to bear fruit for world-weary tourists, who lap up the island’s bounty of beautiful beaches, spas and marine life. After a week on these powdery shores, you’ll never want to leave.
Note that certain popular activities on Koh Samui are only available on specific days of the week. This itinerary assumes a Monday to Sunday schedule, so feel free to readjust according to your own timeline.
With almost everything needing to be imported, prices on the island are substantially higher than the rest of Thailand; most restaurant meals or taxi rides will cost you double what you pay in Bangkok. However, you’ll still be able to enjoy yourself without breaking the bank. Hostels cater to backpackers on a shoestring budget, and bars frequently tout drink promotions to get people inside. If you’re in need of essentials, there are numerous convenience stores dotted around the main strip.
Koh Samui is developing fast, with large hotel chains cropping up like coconut trees. Unlike the party hostel bohemia that is neighbouring Koh Phangan, Koh Samui errs on the side of luxury, catering to a more grown-up clientele with a little more cash to burn.
Backpackers should make a beeline for the bouncing party hostels and fire-spinners that line Chaweng beach, while those looking for peace (on a budget) will appreciate the quieter corners of Lamai and Bophut.
Koh Samui is small, with most of the action concentrated in three main neighbourhoods; Chaweng, Bophut and Lamai. Basing yourself in any of these areas means you’re in walking distance to bars, restaurants and a stretch of sandy beach.
However, should you wish to venture further, you’ll either need to hail a taxi (either from the street or from the popular GrabCar app), or take the helm of a scooter and brave the winding island roads. You can rent these from hotels and specialist shops. Please note that motorbike accidents are the leading cause of death in Thailand and Koh Samui’s roads are not particularly well-lit at night – so think twice before taking the plunge.
It’s practically criminal to visit Thailand without getting a massage, so first it’s off to Navasana Spa to banish your jetlag. Opt for the 90-minute Signature Massage, which combines Hawaiian and traditional Thai techniques; priced at a lavish 2,000 Baht, it’ll dig as deep into your knots as you’ll have to into your pockets. It’s probably going to hurt, but you’ll soon feel reborn – as the staff say, “First pain, then relax”. It’s wise to book in advance.
After you’ve allowed the lemongrass oil to soak in, it’s a short taxi ride to The Social Samui for cocktails at sunset. Order an Electric Soup cocktail (coconut rum, ginger, chilli and kaffir lime) and nab a hammock chair overlooking the glimmering Gulf of Thailand.
Ang Thong National Marine Park comprises 246 square kilometres (95 square miles) of azure ocean and karst islets, said to have inspired Alex Garland’s novel The Beach (1996). This stunning seascape is reason enough to visit Koh Samui, allowing you to get up close with hawksbill turtles, Kuhl’s stingrays and psychedelic coral reefs. Book a day tour from the mainland, which includes lunch, kayaking and snorkelling gear. Scuba divers can opt for specialist excursions to Hin Yippon and Koh Wao dive sites, home to staggering underwater limestone formations and secret caves.
Once you’ve got your land legs back, hail a taxi from your hotel to feast on the sensory overload of Chaweng Night Market (5pm to 11pm, daily). Gorge on crispy pork pad thai; steaming noodle soups with fresh squid; and spicy prawns drizzled in sweet tamarind sauce (seafood comes highly recommended on Koh Samui). After you’ve had your fill, waddle five minutes north to riotous Chaweng Walking Street to bargain for souvenirs.
People flying into Koh Samui often spot Wat Phra Yai’s ‘Big Buddha’, a 12-metre golden statue perched on a small rocky outpost. This temple complex is covered in beautiful reflective tilework, built in 1972 to cater to the island’s increasing population (and tourist numbers). The statue itself represents Buddha in the Mara posture – resisting earthly temptations on his path to enlightenment. Take off your shoes, dress respectfully and climb the staircase to the viewing platform, where stunning panoramas of Koh Samui await.
Complete your tour of Koh Samui’s biggest landmarks and venture 30 minutes south to Hin Ta and Hin Yai (Grandfather and Grandmother Rocks), which resemble male and female genitals. After a snigger, you’ll find the real attraction here is the beautiful ocean view, with waves crashing against the shore.
It may seem unusual to seek Italian food in Thailand, but Pepenero is one of Samui’s most popular dinner spots. Make room for cold cuts imported fresh from the homeland, delicious wine and some of the best gorgonzola and truffle pappardelle you’ll find anywhere on earth.
Koh Madsum, aka Pig Island, is home to dozens of semi-domesticated swines who spend all day napping under palm trees, cooling off in the sea and gorging on bread, living an envious life even by most human standards. The pigs are said to have swum here from neighbouring Koh Taen, according to their caretaker and owner of the island’s only beach bar (you won’t find pork on the menu here). Book a day tour through Lub D Hostel to meet the piggies up close and squeal with delight as they shove their snouts into your pockets on the hunt for snacks.
Once you’ve refreshed in your hotel, hail a cab to Bangrak for movie night at Chi Samui, where cinema classics are projected against a five-metre HD screen across from a swanky swim-up pool bar. Be sure to order some shrimp tacos to share.
Both activities only available on Thursdays.
Friday night means trendy Fisherman’s Village comes alive with stalls, hawkers and performers jostling for elbow space in the weekly Walking Street market (5pm to 11pm). Sift through handicrafts, Chang beer vests and faux Prada handbags before grabbing refreshments at Coco Tam’s. This gorgeous beach bar is popular with hip young locals, with a design inspired by traditional bamboo houses. Seat yourself on a beachside beanbag, order a round of beers and watch fire spinners twirl flames in a blaze of glory – be warned that they can get up close and sometimes ask for audience participation!
If you’ve timed your trip right, your night may coincide with the legendary Full Moon Party on neighbouring Koh Phangan. The day of the week varies from month to month (when the full moon is up), according to this calendar. Many hotels, hostels and tour companies offer ferry rides to the event, with a return trip back in the wee hours. Be sure to check the legitimacy of your operator, as riding drunk across the ocean at night in a speedboat can be incredibly dangerous.
Experience the mesmerising art of traditional knife painting at KoKo Gallery, where talented artists scrape oil paints into beautiful landscapes. You can order a custom souvenir from Koko himself and pick it up in 48 hours. Prices hover between 100 and 200 baht and you’ll be doing your part to support local artisans.
Saturday night finds lively Chaweng Beach Road in full swing. Backpackers, beer girls and bar veterans spill out of establishments pumping EDM, revealing a side to Koh Samui not unlike Bangkok’s Khaosan Road. For dinner, brave a ‘Thai Spicy’ Red Curry Duck at Khaw Glong, cooked fresh with ingredients sourced from the local market. There’s a bit of a wait because it’s become so popular, but trust that the punchy food is well worth it.
After you’ve had your fill, head for the beach bars that line the shore. ARKbar is a legendary vodka-bucket-touting hangout, while next door Elephant Beach Club offers a more subdued alternative with ambient music and lounge chairs. Meanwhile, drag fans will adore the fierce, high-kicking queens of Paris Follies Cabaret.
Wash off the weekend with a day at Tamarind Springs Forest Spa. Built into a hillside grove, a luxurious reception gives way to a winding rainforest complex of plunge pools, all-natural scrubs and several massage pavilions. The best part may very well be following the walkways surrounded by dense jungle, inspiring a child-like sense of adventure. Gigantic granite boulders house two steam rooms, where patrons sit in quiet contemplation as condensation drips from the cavernous stone walls. A rejuvenating end to your week in Koh Samui.
Andrew was hosted on this trip by Outrigger Koh Samui Beach Resort, which offers the perfect introduction to Koh Samui’s renowned hospitality. Only 10 minutes from the airport, guests enjoy a private beach, overlooked by a pool and complete with a restaurant.