Nestling in the Chumphon island archipelago some 700kms from Bangkok, the island of Koh Samui is a mix of party-central beaches and quieter sandy strands. Popular for decades as a tropical holiday destination, it’s also a favourite for beachside weddings. The island is one of Thailand’s largest, set in the azure sea 80kms from the mainland. Its least laid-back beaches, Chaweng and Lamai, boast the clearest waters for swimming, snorkelling and scuba diving, and are crammed with bars, clubs and accommodation. Many couples from all over the world travel here as well for a scenic, tropical Koh Samui destination wedding.
How to get to Koh Samui
Getting to Koh Samui’s small airport from Bangkok is straightforward via hourly flights, and the daily flights from Phuket are popular with visiting island-hoppers. There’s also a twice-daily service from Chiang Mai International Airport, and the several routes from Kuala Lumpur and Penang are useful for international long-haul visitors wishing to avoid Bangkok’s international airport. By Thai standards, the flights from Bangkok via Bangkok Air or Thai Airways are expensive, although the former occasionally advertises cut-price offers on its website.
Visitors from a number of Western countries can get 30 days’ visa free entry on arrival at Koh Samui airport. An alternative air/ferry trip is offered by Nok Air from Bangkok’s secondary Don Muang Airport, arriving at Chumphon on the mainland and linking with a high-speed catamaran to the island. A similar Nok Air service arrives at Surat Thani and is linked by road to the ferry port.
Budget travel to Koh Samui starts with Lomprayah’s VIP bus from the capital to Champhun, connecting with the catamaran service and taking around 11 hours at a cost of 1,250 baht. It’s a scenic experience, and the boat trip includes brief stops at Koh Tau and Koh Phangan islands. The most romantic route from Bangkok to the island is Lomprayah’s fast, long-distance catamaran ferry.
It’s possible to travel from Bangkok to Koh Samui via a combination of train, bus, and ferry, but trains in Thailand are definitely the slowest option although they’re the most economical choice. The train runs down along Thailand’s coast to Surat Thani station, connecting with a local bus to Donsak ferry port for the 90 minute crossing to the island’s Nathon Pier port. Downsides during the high season include crowds on the smaller ferry, one of two available, but the larger Seatran ferry gives more amenities including an air-conditioned deck.
What to do There
Beaches and nightlife are major draws for the hordes of younger visitors who arrive during the high season, with Chaweng and Lamai the all-time favourites. Less well-known are the quieter northern beaches, suitable for families with young children and those looking for sunset romance and traditional Thai life.
Coastal lowlands, remote fishing villages and inland tropical rainforests cloaking granite peaks give getaways from the crowds and a glimpse into the flora, fauna and village life on the island. Glittering temples are hubs for the island’s 90 per cent Buddhist population, and local festivals welcome visitors.
Seeing and doing here invariably focus on watersports, with scuba-diving the most popular, especially around the coral beds at Laem Set and Thong Takhian. Bhoput Beach, refreshingly less developed than Chaweng, hosts the best diving tours as well as a good selection of smaller bars, local restaurants and shops. All the usual on-sea rather than undersea sports can be had at the larger beaches, including jet-skiing, water-skiing, canoeing and boat hire.
For relaxing, enjoying the balmy weather and refreshing dips in the ocean, Mae Nam and Choeng Mon beaches are perfect. Ringed with pretty cottage-style accommodation, they’re great for a romantic stay. For swimming and spectacular views, Big Buddha Beach is the place, and for a truly Thai experience, a visit to the 200-year old Chinese style ‘Old House’ owned by Grandpa Si and Grandpa Maen Hancharoen is a must.
Temple viewing at its best includes Wat Khunaram Ko Samui with its famed and much revered mummified former abbot, a meditation master believed to have achieved enlightenment and known for predicting his own death. In complete contrast, the oddly-named Grandfather and Grandmother Rocks at the far edge of Lamia beach are a must-see for their strong resemblance to male and female genitalia!
The island tradition of buffalo fights attracts a good number of spectators, although they’re unscheduled and take place all over Koh Samui at village level. Locals known the dates and are happy to give directions. The Secret Buddha Garden, perched on the island’s highest point and created in 1976 by a former fruit-grower, is a haven of shady tropical jungle, rocky outcrops and fascinating sculptures of deities and humans. Stunning views add too the effect, and the songs of birds fill the air.