Say ‘Koh Samui’ and immediately a vivid picture of a true paradise island comes to your mind. Idyllic beaches, crystal clear waters, lush tropical greenery dotted with white, yellow and red stars of frangipani flowers and spiced with fancy boutique hotels, island-style parties raving through the night, colourful local markets and modern swish malls – it is all about Samui. Definitely more upscale than its neighbours, party-rocked Koh Phangan and diving-crazy Koh Tao, Koh Samui still caters for everybody. And while it is a great place for pampering yourself in world-class spas and resorts, savouring the freshest seafood dishes in candle-lit romantic restaurants, Koh Samui welcomes travellers of all budgets and styles, from modest backpackers looking for simple pleasures of the beach life to discerning upscale holiday-makers.
From Suratthani to Koh Samui
Suratthani is the main starting point on the mainland for your sea travel to Koh Samui. Wherever you start you journey from – be it Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket or Hua Hin – you will not avoid Suratthani on your way to Koh Samui – unless you prefer a longer and more expensive route via Chumphon, Koh Tao and Koh Phangan, which is in fact quite an illogical thing to do if Koh Samui is your first island destination in the Gulf.
Ferries for Koh Samui leave from Donsak Pier, about 65km northeast of the city. You can buy tickets to Koh Samui from Donsak, but unless you arrive by one of the buses which drop off their passengers right on the pier (e.g. Yellow Bus), it is not a good idea as you will need to organise transport from Suratthani train station, bus station or town to the pier.
From Donsak to Koh Samui
Phantip Travel sells tickets for large Seatran ferries leaving from Seatran pier in Donsak. These large car ferries take 1½ hour to reach Koh Samui where they dock at Nathon pier. Tickets cost from THB250 to TH300.
Seatran Discovery starts from the same pier in Donsak but heads to Bangrak Seatran pier on Koh Samui (THB400, two hours). It is especially convenient if you are planning to stay in the northern part of the island, i.e. Big Buddha beach.
From Suratthani Town to Koh Samui
The most convenient way to get to Koh Samui from Suratthani Town is to buy a joint ticket with Phantip Travel or any other operator offering similar service. Buses or minivans normally pick up their passengers at the bus terminals at Kaset 1 or Kaset 2 markets in the city centre and bring them to Donsak where travellers board the ferry heading to Nathon pier on Koh Samui. Prices are more or less the same (from THB250 bus+ferry) and the whole trip takes about 3½ hours including waiting time at the Donsak pier.
Note though that if you arrive to Suratthani by train from any of the northern destinations, including Bangkok, it is not absolutely necessary to get from the station to Suratthani first. Several operators offer transfer from Suratthani railway station in Phun Phin to Donsak and Koh Samui, and buying such a combination ticket saves you both time and money. The only reason why you may need to call to Suratthani proper first is if you arrive with the morning or one of the afternoon trains from Bangkok (#43, for example) and need to spend the night in Suratthani or want to explore the province – which boasts a couple of worth visiting national parks – before heading to Koh Samui.
Note also that many interprovincial buses now use the long distance bus station located 7 km west of town on the way to Phun Phin, but sometimes you can ask the driver to drop you off in the city instead. If not, use orange coloured songthaews to get from the bus station to the centre of the city (THB15).
From Suratthani train station to Koh Samui
Do not be misled: Suratthani train station is located in the town of Phun Phin, 20 km west of Suratthani and about 90 km west of Donsak Pier from where ferries to Koh Samui leave. If you arrive to Suratthani by train from any of the northern destinations, including Bangkok, it is exactly where you are going to get off your transport.
The fastest transfer from Suratthani train station to Koh Samui is offered by Lomprayah which sells joint bus+high speed catamaran tickets (THB500). The trip from Suratthani train station to Nathon Pier on Koh Samui with Lomprayah takes 2½ hours only. There is one departure a day from the train station at 8.30am, which gathers passengers arriving from Bangkok by night trains (#83, 85, 167, 173 or 41).
There is a slower and cheaper service by Phantip Travel which sends three morning buses a day – at 7am, 8am and 9am. Total travel time to Nathon Pier from Suratthani train station with Phantip is about four hours, but tickets cost THB300 only.
From Suratthani airport to Koh Samui
Several airlines flying between Suratthani and Bangkok include transfer to Koh Samui in their ticket price. If it is not your case, check Lomprayah and Seatran Discovery, both of which sell combination bus/van+ferry tickets from Suratthani airport to Koh Samui. Pricewise and service-wise both companies are very much alike: tickets cost from THB600 to THB700, but Lomprayah catamaran docks at Nathon Pier on Koh Samui, and thus the whole journey takes a bit longer than three hours; and Seatran Discovery circumvallates the island reaching the northern Bangrak Seatran Pier, which takes longer (from 4½ hours to 5½ hours depending on the departure time). There are four departures a day from Suratthani airport with Lomprayah (8.30am, 10.50am, 1.30pm and 4pm) and three – with Seatran Discovery (8.30am, 10.45am, 11.20am).
From Koh Samui to Koh Phangan and Koh Tao
Though located in the same part of the Gulf, the three neighbouring islands, Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao, differ greatly in atmosphere, character and activities on offer. It is a good idea to compare all the three as soon as you find yourself in the lower part of the Gulf. If you are short of time, consider at least visiting Koh Phangan which lies quite close to Koh Samui: Lomprayah and Seatran Discovery whisk you from Koh Samui to Koh Phangan in mere 20 or 30 minutes. Sea travel to Koh Tao, further up the Gulf, requires over two hours, but it is a must-visit island if you are planning to join the army of happy PADI or SSI certificate holders.
From Koh Samui to Koh Phangan
There are three Seatran Discovery ferries a day from Bangrak on Koh Samui to Koh Phangan (THB400) at 8am, 1pm and 4.30pm. Lomprayah sails from Maenam peir on Koh Samui to Koh Phangan (THB400) twice a day at 8am and 12.30pm. Both arrive to Thong Sala pier. If the sea is mossy and you are prone to seasickness, opt for Seatran, which cuts through the wave opposite to Lomprayah catamaran which actually rides the swell.
There are also private ferries operating between Big Buddha pier on Koh Samui and Koh Phangan. They are a bit more expensive but on the days when Full Moon Parties are rocking Koh Phangan, are a welcome alternative.
From Koh Samui to Koh Tao
After calling to Koh Phangan, both Lomprayah and Seatran Discovery proceed to Koh Tao reaching the island in about two hours. They moor at Mae Haad on Koh Tao and sell tickets at about the same price (THB600-THB650).
There are two more options for hopping between Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao which are Songserm and Raja ferries. Both are much slower and cheaper: choose them only if you really need to spare a few baht.
Can I transport my car to Samui?
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.
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.