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Koh Samui - Incredible Island Idyll
Rising dramatically from the blue-green, bathtub-warm waters of the Gulf of Thailand, Koh Samui is the country’s second largest island. Over a million travellers wash ashore here each year in search of everything from inexpensive fun in the sun to lavish luxury at an exclusive spa-resort. The rainforest-covered island plays host to a number of fascinating natural and man-made attractions—from wondrous waterfalls to mummified monks, lively beach resorts to tranquil fishing villages, sacred shrines to sultry sex shows—the variety of things to see and do here reflects the increasingly cosmopolitan crowds curious to sample this piece of paradise.
Bustling Beaches or Quiet Coves
The postcard-perfect beaches of Koh Samui are famed for their pure-white sands, crystal-clear waters and high-spirited soirees under the glow of the full moon. Featuring more hotels, bars and restaurants than anywhere else on the island, Chaweng Beach is a popular choice for younger travellers in search of sun, sand and notorious nightlife. Laid-back Lamai Beach is less chaotic but still offers an array of sleeping, eating and shopping options to suit all budgets. At the heart of tranquil Bophut Beach is the Fisherman’s Village, one of the island’s best-loved attractions and home to Chinese shophouses, cosy guesthouses, authentic eateries and bargain-filled boutiques. If resort-studded shores are your idea of hell and you desire to feel deserted, head to one of Koh Samui’s many hidden, off-the-beaten-track beaches where tropical tranquillity awaits. Maenam Beach on the island’s north coast is an idyllic plot of island that promises a Robinson-Crusoe-esque experience.
With looming limestone karsts, dense rainforest, mysterious mangroves, cascading waterfalls and secret lagoons, the 42 islands that make up nearby Ang Thong National Marine Park are a must-do day-trip. The inspiration behind the cult-classic ‘The Beach’, the protected area houses a staggering array of animals, birds and marine life, and allows for world-class snorkelling, diving and deep-sea fishing. One of the islands, Koh Wua Ta Lap, features simple beach-front bungalows and tents, affording travellers the chance to spend a night castaway under the stars. Brave the steep trek to the island’s highest point to enjoy a breath-taking panorama of the entire park—but be warned—the thunderous waves of monsoon season make this part of the world inaccessible for around a quarter of the year. To avoid disappointment (or severe seasickness), plan to hit Koh Samui between February and April, when the surrounding sea is at its stillest.
Beyond the Beaches
A fascinating abundance of attractions lays beyond the island’s breathtaking beaches, including sites of historic and religious significance and areas of intoxicating natural beauty. The island’s most photographed landmark is probably its 12-meter-tall Big Buddha Shrine. Shimmering brightly on the horizon, the giant golden statue is visible for miles around and an array of market stalls and food stands have sprung up around it to accommodate the influx of Instagrammers. Of the island’s plethora of wondrous waterfalls, those at Na Muang are perhaps its most picturesque. Follow a natural staircase of roots and rocks up to an inviting natural pool that provides some welcome respite from the relentless humidity. Why not rent a moped and explore some of the island’s more off-beat attractions, such as the mummified remains of a highly-revered monk, the nail-biting manoeuvres of a snake handler or the stunningly serene, Secret Buddha Gardens.
Island Shopping at its Finest
Like so many places in Thailand, Koh Samui is a shopaholic’s paradise, offering visitors everything from baht-busting bargains to credit-card-crunching purchases. Featuring an eclectic array of shopping options, from vibrant village markets and quirky boutiques to climate-controlled megamalls, there is almost nothing you can’t buy here. Set over three storeys, Central Festival Samui is the island’s largest shopping centre, offering mainly genuine products at fixed prices. While this might not be the place to pick up a great deal, the sheer relief of the powerful air conditioning might have you browsing for hours. To release the inner-haggler, head to Lamai Night Plaza where dubious copies of just about everything—from rings and watches to t-shirts and trainers—change hands for a knocked-down rate. Every Friday evening, the usually sleepy Fisherman’s Village becomes a vibrant walking street, brimming with colourful market stalls selling traditional handicrafts, antiques and jewellery for ludicrously low prices.
Where to Stay on Koh Samui
Whether you are looking for a romantic resort by the beach or a backpacker pad close to the best parties, the perfect hotel is not hard to find. The island’s most popular promenade, Chaweng, offers a wide range of activities and experiences; from neon-lit go-go bars and classy cocktail lounges to traditional cookery schools and extreme jungle adventures, meaning that hotels here are amongst Koh Samui’s most expensive. Neighbouring Lamai, while slightly smaller, offers a lot more by way of budget accommodation, including large bungalow resorts catering to backpackers and others who want little more than a mattress to doze on between parties. A cluster of boutique resorts colour the coast of Bophut, offering a little more sophistication, while in the island’s northeast corner, at Choeng Mon, a smattering of high-end hotels and upmarket resorts lie dotted around the otherwise mostly undeveloped coastline.