It’s no secret that “paradise lost” was found a while ago, back when an infrastructure boom hit Thailand’s shores in the mid-1990s. These days, few Thai islands can be described as “untouched” but what the diminutive, circle-shaped isle of Koh Samui lacks in secrecy it makes up for it beauty. There are still pockets of pristine natural environments among the sleek, big name resorts – and within their boundaries, there’s notable design sensitivity to the very elements that made the island such a paradise in the first place. In short, it is possible to kick quietly back in Koh Samui while avoiding the crush of crowds. Here’s how to do the island right.
Thailand has clusters of idyllic islands on either side of the thin, peninsula-like stretch of Phuket province; Koh Samui floats in the Gulf of Thailand to the east. It’s the country’s second largest island but it takes only about an hour to circle its entirety. You can get around the island in a number of ways: taxi, motorbike taxi, rental cars or songthaew, the ubiquitous open-sided mini-trucks that are usually brightly coloured and packed to the hilt with backpackers. Travellers can reach the island via plane from Bangkok (flight time is an hour and 10 minutes) or by boat from one of the four mainland ports (Don Sak is the most commonly used). High-speed services to Koh Samui from Don Sak take around 45 minutes and slower ferries arrive within about an hour. Weather-wise, the best months to visit Koh Samui are between late December and April when the sun is strong and the rain is rare. Between May to September, rain arrives in the form of short, strong showers in the afternoon or evening and from October and November, you'll be washed out frequently.
Didn’t come to Koh Samui to ‘do’ anything at all? You’re in the right place. If you do get the urge to hop out of your hammock for an afternoon or two, here are a few ideas.
Ang Thong National Marine Park
From Koh Samui’s western edge, you’ll get a glimpse of the puff-like emerald domes of islands sprinkled within the catchment of Ang Thong National Marine Park. Nature buffs should aim to get closer – there’s more than 100 square kilometres to explore and possible methods include snorkelling, hiking and kayaking, all a few hour’s boat ride from Koh Samui (depending on the tour company).
Stretch it out with a yoga session
Before wellness was something we dedicated our Saturdays to, Koh Samui was leading the charge, with retreats opening as early as 1999. Now, you can barely swing a yoga mat without running into some form of wellness activity so do as the visitors do and book yourself in for a sweat session. Vikasa Yoga Retreat, on the island’s eastern shores, is holistically dedicated to restorative yoga retreats – if you’re not staying with there, you can still partake in daily classes – where the walls are open to nature and enroll in a meditation or candle-gazing class. For a change of scenery from Samui’s sandy shores, Sun Art Centre offers classes in an outdoor space set in the hills of the island, overlooking lush jungle.
Snorkel on surrounding islands
Five kilometres south of Koh Samui is Koh Taen, a noticeably underdeveloped island where population numbers are believed to hang in the 20s. This beautiful, forest-blanketed island draws small numbers of curious tourists for its shallow and colourful reefs and it’s one of the best (and most easily reachable) snorkelling spots near to Koh Samui. If you have the time to venture a little further out, head north for Koh Tao (meaning ‘Turtle Island’ for its shape) where the dwindling numbers of Green and Hawksbill species can still be spotted—the former at the site dubbed Twins and the latter at a spot called White Rock.
Cook the classics at InFUSION
Not sure how you’ll survive without constant forkfuls of delicious local food once you return home? Learn the classics and take the taste of Thailand with you by signing up to a class at popular cooking school, InFUSION. Participants can choose to pluck their ingredients from market or the school’s organic garden, bursting with jackfruit or dragonfruit, as part of their course. Naturally, you’ll enjoy the fruits of your hard-earned labour; menus will likely include specialties such as green curry or som tum mamuang, a spicy, herbal green mango salad.
Like many other corners of Thailand, Koh Samui is a mecca for luxury travel with a wellness focus. Big-name properties have their own lush oases on the island; Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui flies somewhat in the face of the ‘”do nothing” holiday philosophy here with complimentary yoga sessions, Thai language lessons and snorkelling, for starters. (In addition to infinity pools and direct access to the beach, of course). The Library draws the influencer set for its cool, clean lines and blood-red crimson infinity pool but has the design chops to satisfy any visitor who wants to play house among seriously chic interiors and seemingly endless mod cons (pillow menus, mood lighting, rain showers and in-room Jacuzzis). If you want to recapture the privacy some of the wider island has lost, Cape Fahn is exceptional: it’s actually a private island retreat just off the north-east corner – a three-minute ride from Koh Samui’s edge.
Eat & drink
Is there such a thing as a bad meal in Thailand? Only if you’re very unlucky but there are certainly examples of the sublime on Koh Samui. Spots such as the balcony-bordered Saffron at Banyan Tree Village know how to meld authentic Thai flavours with a little modern flair (the zesty larb that swtiches out the traditional pork mince for fresh tuna is one such example). The chic, white-washed The Page – The Library’s chic on-site eatery – also offers “old-world” Thai made Instagrammable (no soup bowls of delicious yet sloppy looking curry here). Our advice? Order the eight-course samab Thai, which serves up dishes such as beef marinated in coconut milk.
For more casual dining, Bang Por, in the island’s north-west, is an area you could pick a place, any place, and come out a winner. It’s right on the water so, naturally, anything involving seafood is a winner.
Nightlife isn’t as crazy as nearby Koh Phangnan gets around the full moon but bars along the island’s Chaweng Beach don’t seem too dissimilar thanks to the cocktail-sipping tourists that wander the main drag. Choose a place with a view set back from the street for a more relaxing, castaway-style sundowner, such as the stunning Woo Bar at the W Hotel. With seating areas immersed in a pool like floating lily pads, it’s an unbeatable place for a sunset view and a cocktail – the Paint Your Life comes infused with lemongrass and green herbs.
Relaxed treehouse-esque The Jungle Club, perched in the hills of the island, has stunning views over the Gulf of Siam from its wooden balcony area. Expect the full Thailand treatment at this casual eatery; if you’ve managed to avoid beanbags and Bob Marley booming from the speakers so far, you’ll have to embrace it for this spectacular view.