If somebody told you to imagine a tropical paradise filled with palm-fringed beaches, pristine dive sites, luxury resorts, and beautiful Buddhist temples, you would probably come up with somewhere like Ko Samui. This gorgeous Thai island seems to have been made for tourism, with sun, sand, and stunning views.
Ko Samui is heaven for beach lovers, with hundreds of places to relax, swim, snorkel, or indulge in water sports. It's the kind of place where everyone feels welcome, and everyone falls under its bewitching influence.
Whether you want to party all week or get away from it all under the tropical sun, Thailand's Ko Samui is one of the world's greatest vacation destinations.
There's no question about Ko Samui's main attraction: the beach. The 247-square-mile island is ringed with beaches, including busy, more developed spots like Chaweng, and the less frequented beaches of the north, like Mae Nam and Bang Rak. Wherever you stay, you will be just a short motorbike or bike ride away from an inviting shoreline.
Ko Samui is also a world-class destination for divers. You can see barracuda at the Samran Pinnacles, loggerhead turtles and manta rays at nearby Ko Kradan, or just snorkel over the dazzling corals at Ko Tan.
Ko Samui also has its share of religious attractions, most notably the impressive 49-foot-tall Big Buddha Temple (Wat Phra Yai), and the serene setting of the Secret Buddha Garden, with its collection of beautifully carved sculptures.
Some other spots in Thailand have succumbed to mass tourism and lost much of their charm - but that's definitely not the case with Ko Samui. In fact, as visitor numbers have risen, the island has moved into a different gear, offering incredible luxury vacation packages at 5-star resorts like Vana Belle or Banyan Tree.
You'll have no trouble tracking down craft gifts when you visit Ko Samui, especially if you pay a visit to Bophut. Here, the locals have started a lively evening market (or "walking street"), which takes place every Friday and is crammed with carvings, artworks, clothes, and jewelry.
Ko Samui is warm and usually sunny, pretty much all year round. However, if all you want is a tan, schedule a trip between December and April. After that, although the weather remains hot, rain is much more common. Then again, between May and September, room rates drop and there's still plenty to do. May is a great month to visit if you intend to do some wildlife spotting at Ko Tao.
Samui International Airport (USM) enjoys a daily connection with the capital, Bangkok, which is operated by Bangkok Airways, while SilkAir run flights from Singapore, and there are also flights from Penang, Phuket, and some Chinese destinations as well. The best route into town is to take a minibus (฿120), or you can pick up a car rental from branches of Sixt and Budget.
Although you can't take the train to the island of Ko Samui itself, you can catch a train from Bangkok to Surat Thani, and take the ferry from there. Expect the boat to cost ฿300, while the train from Bangkok will cost around ฿850, and you can buy tickets for both legs as part of train and boat packages.
If you are driving to the ferry ports at Surat Thani or Chumphon from Bangkok, the journey will take at least eight hours. The route is fairly simple. Just follow Route 4 southwards along the coast. This stops at Chumphon, which is one of the departure points for Ko Samui, while Surat Thani is about an hour further along Route 41.
Buses from Bangkok to Chumphon or Surat Thani are the cheapest way to make the journey (at around ฿450 for the trip). Buses are operated by the Thai government, have air conditioning, and take around nine hours. The bus station is located in Nathon, on the west coast of the island.
The island is full of luxury resorts, family-friendly beach hotels, and backpacker hostels, so every visitor will find something to suit them. Some of the best high-end options include the Four Seasons Resort (which is situated in exquisite surroundings), the traditional-style Centara Grand Beach Resort Samui (which was once the summer palace of Thailand's king), and Chiva-Som International Health Resort, which is comfortably the island's finest spa hotel.
Chaweng - Ko Samui's beating heart, Chaweng is the most developed resort on the island, with a wide range of beachfront hotels, great nightlife, and plenty of restaurants. It's a little bit more action-packed than other neighborhoods, but if you love to dine, dance, and socialize, it's the place to stay.
Bang Rak - much more laid-back than Chaweng, Bang Rak is in the north of the island and is home to the massive Big Buddha statue. But there's more than hulking stone icons to enjoy. Bang Rak has fabulous beaches like Bophut and is conveniently sited for the airport and ferry port.
Mae Nam - if you want to get away from it all in a tropical haven, Mae Nam is the neighborhood to visit. Blessed with 5 miles of perfect beach, Mae Nam has calm waters, a relaxed vibe, and enjoys some of the most beautiful sunsets you are likely to ever see.
The main public transportation option on Ko Samui are songthaews (scheduled minibuses). They aren't exactly buses, but they aren't quite taxis either. Passengers just enter, ask the driver if they are going their way, and pay there and then. Fares are low, at around ฿50 for most short hops.
Taxis in Ko Samui are supposed to use a standard meter, with a meter drop of ฿50, then a charge of around ฿18 per mile after that. However, make sure that your driver has applied the meter before you depart, as not all will do so. If not, try to negotiate a price based roughly on the metered rate.
You can bypass having to get around via taxi altogether by renting your own vehicle. There are plenty of rental outlets on the island, including international companies like Sixt, Budget, and Hertz. Rates should be affordable, at approximately ฿250 per day.
The best place to shop on Ko Samui is the walking street in Bophut (every Friday between 5 pm and 11 pm), where you'll find an array of local craft stalls and great street food. There's a similar market every Monday next to the Centara Grand Beach Resort in Chaweng and one at Mae Nam beach every Thursday. If you want to visit a glitzy modern mall, head to Central Festival Samui in Chaweng, which hosts international brands like Uniqlo, Esprit, and Rip Curl.
Most of the beaches and resorts on Ko Samui will have a small grocery store, with companies including Big C, Tesco Lotus, and Makro all represented. Groceries won't be overly expensive, with a gallon of milk costing ฿180 and 12 eggs around ฿50.
There aren't many better places to sample the range of spicy, creamy, fruity, and just plain delicious tastes that characterize Thai food. If you adore seafood, Bang Po Seafood is the place to head, where the gourmet food is matched by a picturesque seafront location. Dining on the Rocks at the Six Senses Resort offers panoramic views from its terraces, while every table enjoys its own treehouse dining area at Tree Tops. Meals should be fairly reasonably priced, at between ฿100 and ฿300 depending on the eatery you choose.