Lying about 80 kilometres off Thailand’s east coast, amongst the Ang Tong group of islands in the Gulf of Siam, is the island of Koh Samui. From the minute you arrive, whether by ferry or air, you will be enchanted by the place. From practically every point on the island, you are granted a stunning view of the sea. The airport must rank as one of the most beautiful in the world. Its gardens burst forth with year round flowering glory and greenery. The ferry docks lead you straight onto palm fringed shores or quaint villages.
Koh Samui has the best choice and variety of direct beachfront accommodation for every budget. There is a vast range of lodgings from rustic bungalows to luxury resorts and everything in between. One can enjoy the same proximity to the sea by paying anywhere from US$15 to US$500 a night. This pleasing array is perhaps the biggest draw of the island.
The local population, consisting mainly of Buddhist Thais, is very friendly. Until the recent arrival of tourism, coconut farming and fishing were the main sources of income. Both are still practiced today, though to a lesser extent and the pleasant aroma of charring coconuts can still be smelled on many parts of the island.
The largest and most popular beaches on Samui are Chaweng, Lamai and Maenam. Although dotted with bungalows and resorts, due to the length of these beaches, they never feel too crowded. For those seeking quieter spaces, there are many other beaches to choose from such as Natien, Tongsai Bay and Taling Ngam.
Other than the beaches or water sports, entertainment comes in many forms. From boat trips, waterfalls and snake shows to temples, petrified monks and strange rock formations, there’s something for everyone. The choice of nightlife and shopping in Chaweng are superlative.
The best time of year to visit Koh Samui is during the dry season from February to late June. From around March through to October, temperatures regularly reach 35 Celsius. The rainy season is from November to February and temperatures during this time are around 25 Celsius. Despite the odd shower here and there, there’s still plenty of beach weather. From July to October it sometimes rains off and on, but is still pleasant as the sun pokes through and rainbows are often seen. September and October can be nice times to visit as crowds and prices tend to decrease.
Originally settled about 1500 years ago by fishermen, its existence was first recorded by the Chinese only 500 years ago. Chinese ceramics found in old shipwrecks near the coast of Samui, show that China was trading with Samui as far back as 1500 AD.
Probably the most dramatic episode in the history of the island was the short Japanese occupation during World War II.
For many years Koh Samui survived solely on its coconut production and fishing. It was only through trade of these items that other products from the mainland made their way to Samui and her neighbours. Every month boats from Bangkok would call to collect the coconuts. As there were no jetties or a central community, the Bangkok boats would circle the islands while local fishing boats ferried their goods out to them.
Monkeys played an important role in coconut harvesting and continue to do so today. Trained monkeys climb the coconut trees and toss down nuts under command of their owner. This has become a popular tourist attraction and shows are performed around the island as well as occurring naturally. Monkeys riding on the back of motorbikes or trucks on their way to find coconuts are a common and delightful sight.
Koh Samui is a living, working island with distinctive local habits and customs. The first settlers that landed here were Chinese traders and Muslim fishermen, and both of these groups still inhabit the island today living peacefully alongside their Thai cousins. Local markets like the one at Lam Din, behind Chaweng, the Nathon fresh food market, and Hua Thanon fishing village are good places to get an authentic taste of local life. Tourism may be the main source of income on Koh Samui, but scratch beneath the surface and you will find a proud and vibrant local culture. Below are some suggestions for those who are looking for ‘the real Samui’.
Thai Festivals are an important part of daily life on Koh Samui. The larger celebrations are Chinese New Year in February, Songkran (Thai New Year) in April and Loi Krathong (Festival of Light) in November. These all involve processions, temple festivities, food fairs and live performances. There are also regular food and cultural events staged by the Tourism Authority in Nathon, the island’s capital. Check TAT promotions for details.