Insider Guide: Best of Koh Samui
Experiencing the best of Koh Samui is no easy feat.
The most popular island in the Gulf of Thailand is best described as a confusing version of paradise. Koh Samui's beaches, bays, tourist strips and villages each have their own distinct personalities.
Some are sleazy. Some over-saturated. But most are fabulous.
Whether your idea of the best of Koh Samui beach break is getting lost in the tropics with your partner or getting hammered every night and sleeping it off on the beach, this wrap-up of the best of Koh Samui covers it all.
Print and go -- Our traveler-friendly one-page guide here: Best of Koh Samui
Four Seasons Koh Samui Resort
Koh Samui has become pool villa central in the last five years, with the swanky Four Seasons leading the development charge through erstwhile coconut plantations.
All of the resort's 40 one-bedroom villas and 14 one- to five-bedroom residence villas come with a private infinity pool. Highly recommended if swimming in the buff is your thing.
Designed to bring the outside in, each villa rocks panoramic, best of Koh Samui views of Laem Yai Bay and nearby Koh Pha Ngan.
There's also a forest spa, a white-sand private bay, kids' club, beachfront pool and all the other stuff one comes to expect from a property that sits atop the branded-hotel food chain.
Bonus for location nitpickers: Four Seasons Koh Samui Resort's position in the northwest corner of Samui makes it a good option for those who don't want to be smothered by the action, but still want to venture out for nightlife.
Four Seasons Koh Samui Resort, 219 Moo 5, Angthong; +66(0)7 724 3000; from 31,000 baht ($990)
The W has built its reputation on hipster style, but this gorgeous waterfront property adds a twist of tropical elegance to the formula.
Infinity pools, breezy public spaces filled with colorful art and massive views everywhere make immediate impressions.
Rooms come with usual amenities, but upgrading to one of the nicer room categories -- ocean view escape, ocean front haven, extreme wow ocean haven -- is worth it.
There are also "jungle" category rooms with views of lush forest.
This isn't your average W.
W Retreat, 4/1 Moo 1, Maenam; +66 (0)7 791 5000, from 24,000 baht ($820)
Zazen Boutique Resort & Spa
To avoid the ubiquitous, ho-hum Thai-style resorts, check into Zazen. This boutique resort has Moroccan-inspired décor, open bathrooms, a peaceful beachfront vibe and friendly staff.
The resort's Le Salon de Ti is a bay-view tea lounge with Louis XVI-style furniture, crystal chandeliers and a funky framed mirror that doubles as a TV. What every good hotel needs, really.
Zazen is a good option for foodies as it's in Bophut, near the famed Fisherman's Village and seafood restaurants that rank among the best of Koh Samui.
There are also plenty of pubs in the area, which is blessedly sleaze-free.
Zazen Boutique Resort & Spa, 177, Moo 1, Bophut; +66 (0) 7742 5085; from 7,150 baht ($224)
Though the luxury hotel industry has spread its pricey, posh tentacles over the island, there are still some worthy budget options that prove you don't need to spend thousands to get million-dollar views.
The Jungle Club, with its chilled, unpretentious vibe, features cliff-perched bungalows and sublime sundowner spots that present 180-degree views across Chaweng and out to Samui's offshore islands.
Jungle Club's decent choice of fan-cooled accommodations range from huts to private mountain lodges. Family-friendly facilities make it well worth the accident-in-your-pants-scary drive up a steep hill to the entrance.
Jungle Club, Chaweng Noi beach, near Soi Panyadee school; +66 (0)81 894 2327; from 800 baht ($27)
Chef Stephen Dion's French Mediterranean expressions at H-Bistro bring metropolitan flair to the beach, earning the restaurant a spot on any best of Koh Samui list.
Dion has cooked for royalty in the past. Lucky commoners can now also enjoy his epicurean creations, crafted from quality imported ingredients.
Pair it all with a vintage bottle from the extensive wine list.
Appetizers start at 300 baht and main courses at 810 baht.
The expat duo behind this immediate favorite that opened in December 2012 "decided Samui was lacking a down to earth eatery where the atmosphere is warm and welcoming, without the food dropping in standard."
The came up with The Larder, a no-fuss, no-pretension Euro gorumet restaurant that feels good in its own skin -- and if you have a little beach sand on yours, that's cool -- while serving chicken breast and liver pate, Spanish chorizo and potato minestrone, and Serrano ham with soft-boiled quails eggs, glazed cauliflower and wild rocket.
Fine food, island vibe. Can't beat it.
The Larder, 9/144 Moo 2, Chaweng; +66 (0)7 760 1259; moderate
Proving that you can stick to tradition and pull in the crowds, Shambala Restaurant is a laid-back eatery featuring several Thai classics.
The original recipe for the signature massaman was acquired (ripped off?) from an old man in the local market. The rich curry flavors infuse the meat and potato with a spicy kick to provide the culinary coup de grâce.
Shambala Restaurant, Bangrak; +66 (0)7 742 5577; inexpensive
Orgasmic by Chef Wally
Chef Wally is something of a celebrity chef on Koh Samui, having established what is now one of the island's best known resort restaurants at Zazen Boutique Resort and Spa.
Striking out on his own, he created Orgasmic, a sexy Mediterranean eatery overlooking Bophut Bay that has required reservations since day one.
Filled with unique Mediterranean creations, Royal Thai cuisine and organic vegetarian delights, the rich menu is something of a culinary sensation for a small island in Thailand.
Orgasmic by Chef Wally, Located beachside between Bophut and Bang Rak; +66 (0) 8 6276 9101; moderate
Krua Chao Baan
A best of Koh Samui beachfront feast for locals and visitors in the know, this established restaurant is a well-kept secret among lovers of fresh local seafood.
The vast menu includes interesting southern delicacies like "Gaeng Som," a popular local sour curry, as well as a full list of Thai favorites and excellent fresh seafood choices.
The red snapper with chili and mango salad is a particular treat at Krua Chao Baan, as are the tiger prawns in tamarind sauce, if available. Everything goes well with coconut juice straight from the tree.
Don't worry about stuffing your face -- you can always work off the calories by going for a post-meal paddle in the restaurant's kayaks, offered free of charge.
Krua Chao Baan, driving south from Lamai, on the left-hand side by the beach, around 1 kilometer before you reach Hua Thanon fishing village, near Silangu Temple; +66 (0) 7741 8589; moderate
Starfish & Coffee
With its warm Mediterranean décor and beachside terrace in the heart of Bophut Fisherman's Village, Starfish, as it's known, is always abuzz with hungry holiday-makers.
An eclectic, occasionally quirky menu of Thai and Western dishes complements the restaurant's fresh daily seafood offerings, the latter displayed on ice out front and cooked fresh to your taste.
A distinct French influence also guarantees a good wine selection and some desirably dangerous desserts, such as the ever-popular mango and sticky rice.
The restaurant is named after the Prince song, but opens at noon so don't expect to get your butterscotch clouds and tangerines here for breakfast.
Starfish and Coffee, on the main beachside strip in Bophut Fisherman's Village; + 66 (0) 7742 7201; inexpensive
An idyllic seafront setting right on Big Buddha Beach is but one of many qualities that make Ocean 11 one of Samui's most celebrated restaurants.
The carefully crafted menu of Mediterranean and Italian delights is paired with a hand-selected wine list and tempting, ever-changing specials.
This cool combination has not only catapulted Ocean 11 to the top of the fine dining list on Samui, but has kept it there for a number of years.
Attentive service adds to the experience, and the simple but refined surroundings may even make you want to dress up a little for dinner.
In the end, though, it's all about the food, which in this case includes succulent imported steak and lamb, mouth-melting fresh seafood, homemade pasta and a goat-cheese salad you'll want to share, if only to make your dining partner jealous.
9Gems is a newcomer to the Samui wine and dine scene that's part luxury villa, part upscale lounge.
There's fusion food, tapas and cocktails, all served hillside, with great views over Chaweng Lake stretching to the beach.
Miami Vice meets Buddha Bar, this best of Koh Samui place offers the white linen-clad brigade a sassy place to splash some cash. Cocktails start at 350 baht (excluding service charge and tax).
9Gems Lounge, Chaweng Lake; +66 (0)77 256 125; moderate
On the edge of Chaweng Lake, the 20-plus-year-old Reggae Pub hosts a nightly live cover band polished in the art of crowd pleasing, and box set classics.
Reggae Pub, 3/3 Moo 2, Chaweng Beach; inexpensive
Green Mango Road
A few clubs in Chaweng manage to regularly fill their dance floors. For the best of Koh Samui nightlife in one area, check out Chaweng's Green Mango Road, which has an aircraft hangar-like club of the same name.
Another top club to hit on the Green Mango strip is Solo, popular with the late-night crowd and known for bringing in a regular rotation of quality DJs from around the world.
Green Mango Road, Chaweng Beach; moderate
The Koh Samui reincarnation of the popular Bangkok club of the same name, Q Bar is another popular Chaweng venue.
Always a safe bet for a good night out, this club brings in top DJs and has a well-stocked bar manned by skilled bartenders who know their drinks.
Believe it or not, it's family friendly. Q Bar Samui has its own kids room, where the young ones can play pool and watch cartoons while mommy and daddy get some alone time.
Q Bar, 147/57 Moo 2 Bophut Sub-District; +66 (0)7 796 2420; moderate to expensive
You can stay at this beachfront resort -- and long stretch of pretty beach it occupies is a lure -- but what this place has really become known for locally is the "bar" part of the name.
Great outdoor beach parties are kept lively with good drinks and better DJs. Crowds of travelers from around the world converge here to do everything from chill on lounge chairs and take in the sunset to dance and meet potential new friends at night.
Ark Bar, on Chaweng Beach, just north and opposite the Green Mango strip; +66 (0)7 796 1334; moderate
In kiteboarding, the pros use wind and waves to perform stunts that make your toes curl. Learning to kiteboard takes energy and commitment.
But you can still nurse a hangover and give it a go.
Koh Samui is one of several Thailand beach destinations that attracts fans of the sport, due to the island's optimal wind conditions. For lessons, hit up the Samui branch of Kiteboarding Asia.
Kite Boarding Asia, 310 Moo 3, Angthong Road; +66 (0)81 591 4592
The Ang Thong Marine Park is reachable on a day trip, but deserted enough to offer unspoiled Crusoe charm.
"The Beach" may have been filmed elsewhere, but it was this 42-island archipelago that provided the inspiration -- a truly stunning spot to snorkel, dive, lie on the beach or kayak.
One of the park's islands, Maekoh, has its own emerald inland lake, with steps that put thigh-busters worldwide to shame.
Most hotels and Koh Samui travel agencies offer a variety of Ang Thong tours.
At Santiburi, carts are mandatory and absolutely necessary as this course takes you up, down and around, in the process offering fantastic views that challenge you to keep your mind on the game.
Royal Samui Golf, Lamai, Chaweng; +66 (0)7 745 8449
If the thought of heading out on a group tour with a dozen other pleasure-seekers makes you cringe in horror, charter your own private boat with Samui Ocean Sports.
Sail to Koh Pha Ngan for the day. Island hop. Crank up the tunes on the iPod while the skipper catches the wind then drop anchor in a quiet bay for a swim and a Thai feast before absorbing the sunset as you open a bottle or two to toast your good fortune.
Don't forget to throw a few photos of your day onto Twitter. What point is there in holidaying extravagantly if you can't rub it in the faces of your followers?
Samui Ocean Sports, 123/117 Moo 1 Bophut; +66 (0)81 940 1999
Because Samui is essentially a sand island, the water right off the shore can be murky. In other words, the island's dive options suck.
But there are inspiring snorkeling and dive trips a short cruise away in the Gulf of Thailand.
For the real deal, join one of many snorkeling and diving trips that leave Samui daily for nearby islands like Koh Phangan and Koh Tao and the Ang Thong Marine Park.
For snorkelers, the waters around the much photographed islets at Koh Nang Yuan, off Koh Tao, are often fishbowl clear.
Sail Rock is another much visited world-class dive site halfway between Koh Phangan and Koh Tao, one of the few places in the world where you can dive with whale sharks. Sightings generally occur between March and August.
Koh Tao itself has more than 30 dive sites and considerably more schools and operators.
With so many dive courses and trips on offer it's wise to choose the more established, professional operators who maintain their equipment and follow international standards of safety.
The 100 Degrees East Dive Team limits the number of divers/snorkelers per trip and heads for less-visited areas or gets to the popular ones early to avoid the masses, varying the choice of location based on prevailing weather conditions and visibility.
100 Degrees East Koh Samui, 23/5 Moo 4 Bophut; +66 (0) 7724 5936
Not all the action in Samui takes place over water. You can also fly through tropical treetops strapped into a harness while snatching glimpses of the glistening coast below.
The jungle hike to the top of the six zipline runs that make up Canopy Adventures is sweaty but part of the appeal, with the rides set in one of Samui's least spoiled patches of forest, near Mae Nam.
There's even a waterfall with a swimming hole to cool off in after the ride, which costs 1,900 baht per person.
Canopy Adventures, Samui Ring Road at Maenam Soi 2; +66 (0) 7741 4150-1
Almost as ubitqutious as 7-Eleven is the Koh Samui spa. One of the best of Koh Samui spa options is Tamarind Springs, with its unique forest spa concept.
The steam cave is infused with a mix of herbs that stimulates blood circulation and helps cleanse the body and clear breathing passages.
It's a great way to soften the muscles before a massage.
Or, just spend a few hours switching between the steam cave and rock plunge pool, living out your Flintstones fantasies.
Price: 1,500 baht for an unlimited "Steam and Dream" treatment (excluding service charge and tax).
Tamarind Springs Spa, 205/7 Thong Takian; +66 (0) 7742 4221
Magic Buddha Garden
Hidden in the mists of Koh Samui’s hillside jungle, the Magic Buddha Garden is a mystical anomaly that was created by local septogenarian fruit farmer Nimm Thongsuk.
Uncle Nimm built statues and sculptures along a mountain stream that portray various deities and mythical creatures.
It's one of those oddball, best of Koh Samui attractions that's worth including on an island tour, in addition to the usual Big Buddha and Grandfather/Grandmother (penis/vagina) rock stops.
One way to efficiently take in the highlights of Samui is a full day eco-safari tour. For 1,700 baht per adult you get an eight-hour trip around the island.
Island Safari Tour, 43/2 Moo 1 Bophut; +66 (0) 7742 5563
Tong Krut fishing village
Tong Krut fishing village on the southwest coast of Samui is a rare snapshot of the island's past.
Traditional beach shacks line the shore, with longtail boats leaning on the sand.
A handful of modest restaurants serve some of the best fresh seafood in the Thai Gulf -- straight from the sea to the plate.
Let's be honest. The main thing tourists looking to experience the best of Koh Samui want to know about are the beaches, not the culture.
Picking which strip of Samui sand to rest your butt on depends on whether you want white sands with no crowds or want to lay in front of a ratty-looking beach bar run by locals who never seem to tire of listening to Bob Marley.
For action, the busiest strip of sand in town is Chaweng Beach, which has the most concentrated accomodations and the best nightlife. Though over-crowded, it's a nice beach with the prerequisite white sand and turquoise waters that drew all those tourists in the first place.
Second on the popularity scale is Lamai Beach. Not as busy as Chaweng, but with plenty of hotel options and a lovely beach, it's an alternative for traveling families who want to be in the thick of the action but without the wild nights.
Other good options include Choeng Mon, Bophut, Lipa Noi and Maenam, all of which have resorts and bungalows to suit different budgets.
If views of the neighboring Ang Thong National Park are preferable to fine sand, there's Taling Ngam, which sits in a remote corner of Koh Samui. Keep in mind, this one is really far from the action.
Firefly also connects Kuala Lumpur with the island.
Most hotels provide airport transfers, but for a slightly cheaper option there's an official airport taxi counter, where you pay the fare in advance.
The cabs aren't metered so, for example, it's usually 400 baht for a 10-minute ride to Bophut. It's 100 baht in a shared mini-bus if you're not on a tight schedule.
Ferries connect mainland Surat Thani with Koh Samui, with buses from Bangkok's Southern Bus Station making the trip to Samui regularly.
If you plan to do more than laze on the beach, the easiest way to get around the island is by car. The airport has several rental counters-- Avis, Budget, Hertz, Europcar --each offering a fleet of sedans, SUVs, mini-vans and jeeps.
A small sedan will set you back around 1,500 baht per day. Local companies such as TA Car Rent usually have lower rates and flexible car drop-off and return locations.
Motorbike rentals are popular with tourists for 150-250 baht per day depending on the bike's condition. Keep in mind, the island has one of the highest road fatality rates in the country. Legend has it the only activity that's deadlier is sitting under a coconut tree.
A safer way to get around is to flag a converted red pickup (songthaew), the island's non-scheduled public transportation. Prices range from 30-80 baht per ride for short distances.
For longer distances, the rule of thumb is 100 baht per beach you want to travel to (for example, 300 baht from Chaweng to Bophut).