Koh Samui is only behind Phuket in terms of popularity and visitor numbers for Thai resorts. And there is a good reason for this, despite years of chronic overdevelopment the island retains much of its natural beauty and picture postcard beaches. Traveling to and from the island is easy with regular international and domestic flights bound for the island, as well as regular ferry connections from Surat Thani.
There is a large selection of accommodation across the island to suit different budgets, although the trend is to develop more and more luxury resorts. The main beach is Chaweng, which is a long stretch of beautiful white sand. The city of Chaweng is highly developed with resorts that span most of the beach and shops, bars and restaurants line the streets behind. Quieter beaches are located along the north of the island. Bophut has a more rustic and familiar atmosphere, although the beaches are not as beautiful.
There is plenty to do to take care of Samui, whether you choose to rent a car, bicycle or use local transportation. (WARNING – If you have chosen to rent any equipment, be it a car, a motorcycle, a jet ski, etc., do your research in advance and use only reliable renters. It is known that there are many scams operating in Thailand where the renter will try to charge you an exorbitant price is equivalent to repairing small scratches that you probably have not put there. Such situations have become ugly. Do a Google search to find out more about this).
So here is a rundown of the main activities:
Visiting temples – One of the highlights of most people's visits to Thailand is visiting some temples and Samui is no exception. The most famous is the Big Buddha on the Big Buddha beach. A short climb to the top of the temple offers beautiful sea views. There are also some rather deceptive fortune telling machines and you can buy a brick to help build new temple buildings. Another well-known temple is Wat Khunaram which contains the mummified body of a local monk. Located along the southern part of the ring road, it is worth a stop.
Hin Ta – Hin Yai – This is a rather eccentric stop, a few miles south of Chaweng beach. The ring road runs along the edge of a rocky cliff and you come to a small detour which is signposted. This takes you to a small village and parking lot, with some tourist souvenir shops. Then follow a short path to some rocks and a little beach. Two rocks stand out like a sore thumb (Hin Ta and Hin Yai, literally Nonno Rock and Nonna Rock) which have the shape of male and female "private parts"!
Animal attractions – In the far southeast corner of the island you will find the zoo and the Tiger aquarium, which are a good way to spend a few hours, especially if you have children. Both are quite interesting and have some shows during the day. These are part of the Samui Orchid Resort. The Na Tian butterfly garden offers good photo opportunities for butterfly and orchid lovers, but not everyone's cup of tea! There is also a crocodile farm near the airport.
There are regular monkey shows in the monkey theater, across the ring road from Bophut beach. Monkeys demonstrate how they are used to collect coconuts and there is also an elephant show. Monkeys are also a regular sight on the constant flow of motorcycles traveling along the streets of Samui (fortunately only as passengers!). Elephant rides are available at various points on the island, usually indoors as it offers ideal terrain for trekking.
Natural Attractions and Tours – The most famous waterfalls on the island are Na Muang 1 and 2. These are easily accessible, if not the most spectacular. Na Muang 1 is the lower of the two and is located next to a small parking lot, there is no need to walk. Na Muang 2 is a little higher and requires a walk. There are many natural scenic spots around the island that offer good photographic opportunities at the sea, especially at sunset. One of the best known is a stop north of Hin Ta – Hin Yai, around Lamai beach. The interior of Samui offers some good trekking routes, if it's your passion.
Beaches are, of course, the main attraction of Samui. As I said before, Chaweng is the main beach, it is the longest and the sand and sea are superior to the rest of the island. It is also the most developed with many shops, pharmacies, groceries and rowdy night clubs. Lamai borders Chaweng and is a little quieter. A popular and most relaxed spot in the north part of the island is Bophut beach. It is a more family-friendly beach with a more rustic village with a few shops and restaurants. Off the island – There is the usual choice of nautical activities including jet skis, banana boats, etc., mainly off Chaweng.
Ferries operate from Bophut pier to nearby Koh Pha Ngan. This is the island famous for full moon parties and you can organize a one night stay on Koh Pha Ngan through Samui agencies. You can also get to Koh Tao, which is renowned as a diver's paradise. The beautiful Ang Thong National Marine Park is accessible from here and is worth a day trip. You can also camp overnight, but there are no accommodations in the park. I have some photos of this spectacular location on my website.
Miscellaneous – There is a Muay Thai stadium in Chaweng city, if that's your thing. There are also some sports activities such as go-karting and shooting ranges. If you are brave enough to rent a car, taking a ride around the island ring road is an interesting way to spend a day.
All in all, Samui has a lot to offer for all tastes and budgets. Although remember that this is now an international destination and prices are generally higher than in the rest of Thailand and it is overdeveloped in parts. Despite this, it retains much of its natural beauty which makes people return from time to time.