Think that all of the Thai islands are the same? Wrong! Say ‘goodbye’ to the karst formations and oceanic vastness of the Andaman Coast and get some privacy with a glamorous touch on arguably the most beautiful and stylish island of the Gulf, Samui. Crystal clear waters and idyllic beaches, lush tropical greenery and modern ‘island style’ shopping molls, fancy jewellery shops and colourful local markets – you name it – Samui has it all. No wonder that the third-largest island in Thailand, Samui has become popular amongst both luxurious holiday makers and backpackers on a budget who can each find the experience, accommodation, activities and entertainment that they come for. Whether it is candle-lit dinners on post-card beaches, wild and adventurous partying through the night, treks through forests and jungles or days spent oiled up on the beach, Koh Samui is the right choice to get it.
Getting to Samui from Phuket
Both Phuket and Koh Samui are an exceptionally popular destination for travellers, and as such, travelling from the Andaman Coast to the islands of the Gulf and vice versa is straightforward and affordable for those who are not content to fly to their destinations.
From Phuket to Samui via bus + ferry
Depending on the way you travel, your journey from Phuket to Samui can take anywhere from 6½ hrs to literally the whole day. To ensure a seamless and confortable trip, it is a good idea to opt for a joint bus+ferry ticket offered by Lomprayah or Phantip 1970.
Lomprayah operates the fastest – and the most expensive – service from Phuket to Koh Samui. There are two buses a day at 7am and 10am. Buses depart from Lomprayah’s office in Phuket Town and go straight to Laem Thuat pier in Donsak, where passengers board the catamaran heading to Koh Samui. The whole trip takes about 6½ hrs, including ¾ hr from Donsak to Nathon pier on Koh Samui. Tickets cost THB 1250 per person.
Phantip 1970 is the main budget operator between Phuket and Samui. The company offers quite a comfortable journey at a reasonable price (THB 450 per person). They provide standard AC buses with a toilet onboard and make at least one pit stop for a meal at a gas station with a number of forecourt shops. Normally the buses are ok, though some unexpected unpleasant surprises (e.g. an older back-up bus instead of the usual one) do sometimes happen. The bus departs daily at 9am and heads to Donsak without calling to Suratthani. Phantip uses a slower Seatran Discovery ferry which covers the distance between the company’s pier in Donsak and the Seatran Bangrak pier on Koh Samui in about 1½ hours. Though Phantip declares that the whole trip takes 6½ hrs, it sometimes lasts longer, and instead of arriving at 3.30pm be ready to reach Samui in the evening.
Tip: To be on the safe side, book your accommodation on Samui in advance to avoid cruising the dark villages in a hope to find a decent place to stay if you do arrive later than expected.
You can also take a bus from Phuket to Suratthani. The trip lasts about 4½ hrs and costs THB 230 per person. In Suratthani head to the pier in Donsak by yourself or buy a bus+ferry ticket from Suratthani to Samui with Lomprayah, Seatran Discovery or Phantip 1970. The cheapest one will cost you THB 250 (Phantip 1970, 3½ hrs). At the end of the day it is not going to be much cheaper but it will be much longer for sure. Note that governmental buses sometimes detour to Krabi on their way to Suratthani to pick up passengers, which makes the whole journey considerably longer.
Note: The government obliges all the interprovincial operators to pick up passengers on their way on Saturday and Sunday. If you are travelling during the weekend, be ready for a longer trip.
Can I get to Samui from Phuket by car?
It is easy to get from Phuket to Koh Samui with your own car. Though an island, Phuket is connected with the mainland with the Saphan Thepkasattri, a 700m bridge, which linked the northernmost tip of Phuket to Phang Nga Province in 2011. It runs parallel to a smaller Saphan Sarasin which was built in 1967 to replace the ferry connection with the island and now serves as a pedestrian beach. The whole trip from Phuket to Donsak pier in Suratthani province (270 km) will take you about 3½hrs–4hrs.
In Donsak, there are two operators which provide car transportation to Samui. Seatran leaves from Donsak on the mainland delivering passengers and their vehicles to its pier in Nathon. Raja ferry, also from Donsak, heads to its own port in Lipa Noi on the western coast of Samui. Choose port-wise as both services are equal in price and quality. Note that you may have to make a long queue to board the ferry with your car while heading back to the mainland. To avoid this, book your ticket in advance. Another important thing is that you cannot transport your car from Samui to the nearby Koh Phangan directly; you will need to sail back to Donsak and then make a new journey to Koh Phangan instead.
Samui is a perfect starting point to explore its two neighbours, party rocking Koh Phangan and diving crazy Koh Tao. A number of ferries ply the route between the three brother islands daily. The service offered differs in trip length, cost and level of comfort, so you can easily choose what suits your taste and budget best. Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao all differ in size, atmosphere and activities on offer. Visit all three of them to have a truly unforgettable and diverse vacation.
From Koh Samui to Koh Phangan
Koh Phangan lies within an easy reach from Koh Samui. Lomprayah and Seatran Discovery take sheer 20 minutes to get to the island; there are slower Songserm (30 min.) and Haad Rin Queen (50 min.) ferry boats, too. All the boats – except for Haad Rin Queen which calls on Lipa Noi– depart from Thong Sala Pier. Buy your ticket to Koh Phangan either with Lomprayah or Seatran Discovery here.
From Koh Samui to Koh Tao
Lomprayah and Seatran Discovery both take from 2 hrs to 2 ½ hr to cover the distance between Samui and Koh Tao.
Getting around on Samui
Koh Samui is large and you will need a way to get around easily, since doing it on foot is very limiting and uncomfortably hot, but there are many far better options available depending on how you like to get around.
Taxis (songtaews) are a great way to travel long distances on the island, or if you want to go out partying and know you shouldn't drive yourself around. While they are convenient and can get you everywhere from anywhere, this is probably the most expensive option, as you can expect to pay between 50 and 100 THB a person which adds up quickly.
Motorcycles are a fantastic way to get around. Motorcycles (and bicycles, too) can be rented from almost every resort on the island. Rentals are cheap, petrol is cheap, and they give you the freedom to go just about anywhere you want to go as you explore the island’s natural wonders. A word of caution though, you will undoubtedly see many tourists about with bandages and scrapes on their arms and legs, almost all of the time these are caused by accidents on scooters. You should be able to find a scooter for less than 200 THB a day. Most of the rental shops insist that you leave your passport behind. While this is a bit unnerving, it is also standard practice throughout Thailand, so be very careful with your scooter if you want to avoid any trouble.
Where to stay
Hat Chaweng is packed with all kinds of accommodation to suit any budget. It is the epicentre of the action, and the northern part of the beach can be quite noisy. Hat Lamai is another popular choice attracting holiday-makers both with its long stretch of white sand and a good choice of restaurants, bars and shops along the main road. In between the two beaches hides a little gem of Crystal Bay with – as the name suggests – crystal clear waters embraced with imposing boulders of a small bay. Hat Bang Rak (or Big Buddha Beach) leis relatively close to the airport (you may hear some noise), but the white sand of its western part compensate for it. Bo Phut is of particular interest not because of the beach but thanks to its trendy boutique hotels peppering Fishermen’s Village where strong Chinese influence can be felt even today. Families often opt for Mae Nam with its gentle sea. The West Coast is not a good choice if you come for the sea, but the sunsets are exceptional there.
Tip: Do not spend all your time on Samui on one and the same beach; try at least a couple of them and you will be rewarded with the diversity which this island has to offer.
Besides usual diving, snorkelling, kayaking, jungle-trekking and waterfalls find a couple of hours to visit the only rum distillery in Thailand, Magic Alambic. They produce Caribbean rum with a variety of natural flavours (obviously, they have coconut rum, too). They offer tasting sessions and sell rum, too (600-700 THB per 700ml bottle). Located in Baan Bang Kao. Travellers with the little ones in tow will love Paradise Park, which is a considerably large petting zoo, which is also one of the best viewpoints on the island.