Where: Koh Samui, an island off the east coast of Thailand.
When: I visited Koh Samui in February 2009. This page was updated in November 2013.
Why: I visited Koh Samui as part of my 30th birthday adventure where I travelled from Bangkok to Singapore.
I spent five days in Koh Samui and for me that was enough. Koh Samui is a great place for relaxing, diving and partying, but for actual ‘things to do’ there’s not that much there – and I wanted to go play with the rest of Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.
Koh Samui is a beautiful, tropical island, just off the east coast of Thailand. It’s a gorgeous paradise of white sandy beaches, lush, jungle covered mountains and deep blue seas. And yet, out of everywhere I went in Thailand, Koh Samui was my least favourite place, possibly because it was the least Thai place I visited in Thailand.
Please don‘t get me wrong, I liked Koh Samui and it is an incredibly beautiful island, well worth a visit; I just never really warmed to it. Maybe it’s because it was full of couples or because I had to fight not to get ripped off a lot, I’m not sure. Looking back, I can’t imagine why I didn’t warm to this tropical paradise. I’ll have to go back to find out.
There’s not a huge amount ‘to do’ on Koh Samui apart from relax and enjoy being in Thailand. There’s many ways to relax and party here. Koh Samui would be a great place to have a one or two week holiday, but I was backpacking and was looking for something else.
I’d love to go back though…
Travelling in Thailand teaches you to believe in serendipity.
I’d originally planned to travel by train from Kanchanaburi to Bangkok, and then to catch the night train from Bangkok to Surat Thani/Koh Samui. I was going to leave my main bag at Bangkok train station, but decided not to at the last minute as I didn’t have enough time and I didn’t trust the security at the bag drop. It’s a good thing I didn’t as the train from Kanchanaburi was delayed by two hours, so going all the way back to Bangkok would have meant I would have missed my train. But luckily, because I had all my bags with me after all, I was able to change trains at Nathon Parang, I caught my sleeper train further down the line and I got to see the largest Chedi in Thailand.
The night train to Surat Thani was amazing! The guards carried my bags on to the train for me and took me to my bunk. Each of the bunks had clean bedding, a space to store bags and a curtain so you could have your own little area. The bed was OK, comfort wise, but the air con in our carriage was broken and so was on full and it was freezing!
If you take a sleeper in Thailand try to get a lower bunk, as the lower bunks have windows and convert into chairs. I was in an upper bunk and couldn’t sleep (I was too excited and too cold), so I spent a lot of time in the seated carriage, or hanging out with the guards at the carriage ends, by the open doors. I looked in the restaurant car, but I was a bit scared to go in, as this was full of the cool kids having a party and I felt a bit intimidated on my own.
Travelling down through Thailand on the train at night was magical. Hanging out the open window as we rushed through country stations, the warm breeze blowing through my hair, watching the lights on the paddy fields go by, drinking a beer and eating strange deserts. Sellers would regularly walk through the train with food and drinks, and I sat in the seated car with my feet up, reading rubbish and feeling the air change as we sped south through the night.
The fare from Bangkok to Surat Thani in a sleeper car was 678 bht (about £13).
When I woke, it was to a completely different landscape: the flat planes of central Thailand had been replaced by limestone bluffs and palm trees. I watched the dawn, wrapped in my comfort blanket, curled up on a comfy reclining seat. I shouldn’t have been watching the dawn from the train, but once again, the train was two hours delayed – something I was very grateful for as it meant I got a bit more of a lie in.
To get to Koh Samui you have to get off the train at Surat Thani, get a bus to the ferry at Don Sak pier and then a ferry over to the island. There were loads of buses waiting at the station and the guides showed me which bus to get on. The bus and ferry cost 100 bht (£2), and the total journey took about two hours. The ferry journey was beautiful and there was a shop and comfy seats on board. I remember being exquisitely happy on that ferry, although that might have been connected to the lack of sleep.
I think it was the lack of sleep which left me stuck at the ferry port, because I hit Koh Samui and had no idea of where to go or how to get there. I’d heard that Chaweng was the main resort, but didn’t want to pay the exorbitant price the taxi driver was trying to charge me (1000bht/£20: more than it had cost me to get there from Bangkok), and I was too scared to get a bike taxi; so I ended up waiting two hours for one of the mini-bus trucks which run around the island.
There was a bus/truck thingy waiting for passengers at the ferry terminal. He didn’t want to run with just me though, so he spent ages waiting for more passengers, with me in the back. Eventually, he very kindly ran me up to the main road and flagged down another truck/bus for me; and this took me all the way to Chaweng.
In Chaweng I then spent forever trying to choose somewhere to stay. Eventually I found somewhere OK, that wasn’t too expensive and I fell into blissful sleep.
The next day I moved to a wonderful hotel in Lamai.
For comprehensive information on travelling by train in Thailand, including timetables and prices, visit the brilliant Man in Seat 61 website.
Koh Samui has the most wonderful, relaxed, thatched, open air airport and you can fly here from a number of destinations in Thailand and South East Asia, including on an Asia Air flight from Kuala Lumpur. www.samuiairportonline.com.
There aren’t any buses as such on Koh Samui; instead there are fun open truck/buses which run on set routes, which you just flag down and jump on. Big tip though: agree a price before you get on. Decide what you are prepared to pay and then stick to it. The one time I forgot to do this I was charged 600 bht to go from Chaweng to Lamai, the same as it had cost me to get from Bangkok to Koh Samui.
You can also hire scooters, but if you do, be careful. I saw many people with the Thailand Tattoo on their leg (which are the scars where people had fallen off their bikes).
You can also get motorbike taxis and real taxis. Again, agree a price before you go.
What I did on my holiday
Absolutely bloody nothing, apart from laze by the pool, read books, eat food and drink beer. So, I’ll tell you a bit about the resorts in Koh Samui instead.
Chaweng is the main resort on Koh Samui. It is on the east coast of the island; on the far side to the port. Chaweng is based along one main street, which is full of shops and bars and restaurants. There is a beautiful beach and lots of luxury hotels. There’s a Starbucks and even an Ice Bar.
I only had a day in Chaweng before I moved to Lamai, and then I popped in once or twice whilst on my way to other places. I spent most of my time there looking for a hotel (I eventually managed to book one online in an internet cafe, rather than in person). I then slept by the pool and on the beach, and I went for a nommy BBQ dinner in a great Australian BBQ restaurant.
Chaweng mostly seems to be made up of beach front resorts, bars, cafes, travel agents and a few shops. The beach is very nice though.
I didn’t dislike Chaweng, I just found it a bit too busy, a bit too resorty and not very Thai. Also, I found the hotels quite expensive for what they were offering, and so I moved to Lamai.
Like Chaweng, Lamai is based along one street, which runs parallel to the beautiful beach. The main road runs around the resort, further uphill. I stayed just off the main road, uphill from the main strip.
Lamai also has a long strip of bars, shops and restaurants, but I personally found it to be a bit more individual than Chaweng. There was a Norwegian bar and lots of Thai-run bars. It seemed as if more Thai people lived in Lamai. There was a Mai Thai boxing club to the west of the resort.
Lamai for me was all about the Serenity Hotel and Spa, which you can read about in the Where I Stayed section.
Big Buddha Beach
Big Buddha Beach is so called because this is where there is a big Buddha. Big Buddha Beach is to the north of the island and this is where you get the ferry to Koh Pha Ngan/Koh Phangan for the full moon/dark moon/quarter moon parties.
Visiting the monastery (Wat Phra Yai) at BBB was the one touristy thing I did whilst staying on the island. The Buddha is huge and interesting, the setting beautiful, and visiting this working temple was fascinating. There was a lagoon next to the temple, which had strange avatar statues dotted around it. There were dragons and mermaids, old men and gods.
At the temple, one of the monks tied a piece of string around my wrist after I gave a donation, which I wore for three years (it was pulled off my wrist by a kindergarten student on my first day of teaching in South Korea). I miss my piece of string.
To be honest, I haven’t really got a lot to say about Bo Phut as I was only there for an hour. It seemed like a nice, lazy, oldy worldy kind of place.
I got a bit stuck in Bo Phut. I’d been half-heartedly trying to get to Koh Pha Ngan and had heard the boat left from Bo Phut. I was aimlessly travelling round the island on the taxi-truck-buses and ended up here, with no idea where here was and, more importantly, no idea how to get back.
I found the most wonderful relaxed cafe in the centre of the village though, and I lazed here for an hour with an ice coffee. The cafe overlooked the pier and I hoped the boat to Koh Pha Ngan would appear but it didn’t; so I just chilled out, read my book and watched the boats coming in and going out again. Then I wandered around the shops and stalls in the village centre for a bit.
I spent ages waiting for a truck taxi, but none came, so I started to walk back to Big Buddha Beach. Luckily, before I had walked too far, I met a nice British couple who were also lost, and we shared a very expensive taxi back to Chaweng.
What I didn’t do on my holiday
Koh Samui is a place for relaxing. It’s a place to lie by the pool or on the beach and to do nothing. There’s not really that much to ‘do’ here, it’s just a nice place to be…
There are also lots of bars and restaurants on Koh Samui, so it’s a good place for a party.
The full moon/dark moon/quarter moon parties take place on the neighbouring island of Koh Pha Ngan. You can get a ferry here from Big Buddha Beach. There are a number of companies who organize trips to the parties or you can make your own way there. For more information and a party schedule, visit fullmoonparty-thailand.com.
Apparently Koh Samui is a good place for diving, with crystal clear water and coral beds.
Finaly, Koh Samui is a good jumping off point for the more tranquil, isolated islands of Koh Tao and Koh Pha Ngan. I hear that Koh Tao has amazing diving and is a great place to stay for peace and serenity and getting away from it all. According to Wikitravel, there are three boats a day to Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Tao, and these depart from Big Buddha Beach/Nathon pier.
The catamaran service is run by Lomprayah. Find out boat times and ticket prices (in English) on the Lomprayah website.
The express boat is run by Seatran. They run two boats per day to Koh Tao and Koh Pha Ngan. Get times and ticket prices from their website.
Where I stayed
Samui Lagoon Bay, Chaweng
When I arrived at Chaweng, after my sixteen hour train/bus/boat/truck/truck journey, I spent ages trying to find somewhere to stay in the resort: I asked a few hotels about prices directly and when I got too hot and tired I decamped to the internet cafe and tried to book something from there. The cheapest okay place I could find was the Samui Lagoon Bay, one of the hotels I’d wandered into. To be honest, many of the hotels could have been fine, but I was just exhausted and so unable to make a decision about where to stay, so I ended up here.
The Lagoon Bay was an okay hotel though the room did cost more than I wanted to pay (£32/ room/ night). However, they did have a pool, they were by the beach and the room had a huge bed. After a twenty four hour journey, that’s all I wanted.
I think had I stayed in one of the hotel’s beach huts, I might have stayed at this hotel for longer, but my room was in the main block and was a bit clinical.
To be fair, there was nothing wrong with this hotel it just wasn’t what I was looking for. In some ways, it was quite beautiful: there were wooden-walkways over cool pools with fish in them; beautiful steamy jungle gardens; a pool by the beach and really friendly staff. It had a good location towards the south end of Chaweng, away from the main drag but close enough to walk to. I think the Lagoon Bay was more of a couples hotel though and it wasn’t what I was looking for.
The hotel has a very basic website at samui-lagoon-bay.samuihotel24.com/en.
Serene Hill Resort and Spa, Lamai
The Serene Hill Resort and Spa was exactly what I was looking for though. For £20 a night I had my own teak bungalow, up in the hills, overlooking Lamai, and pretty much the whole of the Serene Hill Resort and Spa to myself. There was an infinity pool, a spa, beautiful tropical breakfasts, attentive staff, free lifts into town and cute kittens. It was wonderful!
I was planning on staying in a beach hut (and if I go back I think I might just do that) but I was seduced by the infinity pool and the waterfalls and the towels shaped like elephants and the huge bed and the luxury bungalow suite, situated up amongst the trees.
I have a poster of the view from my Serene Hill suite, overlooking the sea, the steamy jungle and the resort of Lamai, so that I can wake up to that view every morning. (See photo at the top of the page).
The only bad things about the Serene Hill was that it was built on a very steep hill and the resort was a little out of town, though they did offer a transfer service and chauffeured me into the centre of the resort whenever I wanted to go in.
This was my favourite hotel of my entire trip and it was an absolute bargain!
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is my own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
If you think I’ve missed something important or have got something wrong, please let me know in the comments section below.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.