Ko Samet’s blessing is also, some would say, its curse: It’s a sizable island located just a few hours from Bangkok . The weather there is usually dry, and it’s got plenty of good-quality beaches. These attributes have generated a lot of development in recent years, and some of it is now trending upscale, causing some to be nostalgic for the days when it was a much quieter, more backpacker-centric destination.
Nevertheless, much of the island retains a laid-back vibe and still contains some excellent, if increasingly crowded, beaches. Since the island is close to the mainland, don’t expect pristine waters. Much of Ko Samet is highly developed, and unobstructed views of the ocean—free of hotels, guesthouses, bars, and restaurants—can be hard to come by. Samet definitely pales in comparison to some of Thailand’s more popular island destinations, but it’s an excellent place to go if you’re looking for a place you can travel to quickly and easily.
Ko Samet is usually populated by an eclectic mix of visitors, from young Western backpackers looking for an inexpensive spot to enjoy the beach, to Bangkok residents, both Thai and expat, on quick weekend getaways. Unlike many of Thailand’s other beaches and islands, there’s not too much to actually do in Samet other than relax and enjoy the cold Singha beer. Unless you’ve got a stack of novels or enjoy just chilling out for days on end, Samet is best enjoyed as a short break, instead of a weeklong vacation.
The vast majority of beaches and resorts are on Ko Samet’s eastern shore. The northeastern coast, in particular, is densely packed. Though for convenience the island is broken down into about a dozen beaches, each with a different name, if you’re on the east coast you won’t really notice that you’ve passed from one beach to another. For the most part it’s one continuous strip of beach, broken up by occasional headlands.
If you want to stay on one beach and hang out on another, don’t worry about the inconvenience unless they’re on extreme opposite ends. The island is only a few miles long and since there is a mostly dirt road that runs along the entire coast just behind the beach, getting from one beach to another, on foot or otherwise, is easy.
Hat Sai Kaew, located on the northeast part of the island, is the Grand Central Station of Ko Samet’s beaches since it’s closest to the main ferry pier, and it’s also the island’s nicest beach. The name means Diamond Sand Beach, and although you won’t see any diamonds here, the sand is soft and light. The area surrounding the beach is clustered with various hotels and restaurants, and if you want to play on a personal motorized watercraft or ride a banana boat, this is the spot for you. This long stretch of beach is very popular with Thais and families.
Ao Phai is located on Ko Samet’s east coast, south of Hat Sai Kaew and north of Ao Nuan. This is one of the most popular areas, with a wide beach that can become crowded during the day.
The relatively cloistered Ao Nuan, a bay just down the coast from Hat Sai Kaew, is a good choice for those who’d like more secluded surroundings. The beach is actually a very small, curved bay backed by trees. In terms of activities, there are no water sports here except swimming.
Ao Wong Deuan, midway down the east coast, is a very popular beach and has lots of places to eat and sleep. However, there is also a lot of ferry, motorboat, and Jet Ski traffic, which makes it less than ideal for swimming in the gulf.
Ao Prao is the only developed beach on the west side of the island and is home to a handful of high-end resorts. The upside of Ao Prao is that it’s quieter than most of the other beaches. You won’t be disturbed by Jet Skiers or speedboats, and the west-facing view means good sunsets when the weather cooperates. The downside is that the beach itself isn’t spectacular. The sand is rougher and darker than that on Hat Sai Kaew, and it’s shallow for a long stretch, meaning you have to do a lot of walking to get to a swimmable depth.
Ko Samet is a pretty laid-back spot, and the nightlife seems to follow that trend. Most of the bars adjacent to the beach in Hat Sai Kaew and Ao Wong Deuan set up mats on the sand lit with candles. Come nightfall, everyone just grabs a mat and hangs out drinking and listening to music. As the night wears on and the buckets of beer and mixed drink are consumed, the party scene tends to get a little more energetic. A few of the beach bars, including Ploy Talay (Hat Sai Kaew) have fire dancing displays with techno music.
There are facilities on Ko Samet that offer scuba diving, snorkeling, and other water sports. Many resorts also rent kayaks by the hour or for the day. Hat Sai Kaew and Ao Phai have concentrations of shops, but most diving and snorkeling here is going to be mediocre compared to other parts of the country. The surrounding waters are just too turbid to offer good visibility. Banana boating and even parasailing are also common on Ko Samet and you can arrange them right on the beach.
If you decide to stay overnight, keep in mind that Ko Samet is popular year-round. Be sure to reserve in advance of arriving if you’ve got a specific hotel or resort in mind. Since weekends draw such a high number of visitors, there’s decreased demand during the week, and discounts are often given. Also, rates are often increased in the high season months.
There is not a lot of standout food in Ko Samet, and no real restaurant scene to speak of. Most people either eat at their resorts or grab roti on the beach or another quick, inexpensive snack from one of the vendors on the beach or the road behind it. Many resorts and bars have very casual open-air restaurants right on the beach (basically just mats or tables in the sand) and serve popular Thai and Western dishes such as papaya salad, noodles, club sandwiches, and french fries.
Ao Nuan (Ao Nuan, no phone, no reservations, 500B) is the place to go if you want to rough it on the beach and get away from it all. Bungalows have little more than a bed, but there’s a restaurant/bar to hang out in at night.
Naga Bungalows (Ao Hin Khok, 03/864-4035, 500B) is the sort of one-stop-shop that relaxed travelers who aren’t too picky will appreciate. There are a variety of rooms, a big restaurant, and even a proper bar, and although the rooms themselves are not directly on the beach, they are just a couple of minutes away. The on-site bakery is a big draw and the food in general is better than typical resort fare.
Though Tubtim (Ao Tubtim, 03/864-4025, www.tubtimresort.com , 600B basic concrete bungalows with fan, 3,000B air-conditioned wood bungalow) started out decades ago offering just basic thatched-roof beach huts, a series of renovations means that there are now a variety of different accommodations options, from very basic older bungalows in the back of the complex to stylish wooden bungalows with direct beach views. Aside from lots of options, what probably keeps expats and locals returning again and again is the friendly attitude of the staff and the fact that Tubtim is the only resort on the beach, meaning you and other resort guests are likely to have it all to yourselves.
Vongdeuan Resort (Ao Wong Deuan, 03/865-1777, www.vongdeuan.com , 1,500B) has two room options: bungalows set back off the beach and teak houses closer to the water. Some of the bungalows are done in a rustic beach style with thatched roofs, while some look like small, contemporary houses.
Samed Grand View (Hat Sai Kaew, 03/864-4220, www.grandviewgroup.net , 2,000B) is a well-kept, tidy place right in the thick of things in Hat Sai Kaew. The bungalows, some of which are all wood and built in the traditional Thai style with angled roofs, have air-conditioning and clean, new bathroom fixtures.
Samed Villas (Ao Phai, 03/864-4094, www.samedvilla.com , 2,000B) has semi-attached, modern bungalows facing the beach. The decor of the small resort is generic but pleasant, the bathrooms are spotless, and the air-conditioning cold. The lobby and open-air restaurant areas are comfortable and have a nice view of the ocean, and the beach itself is very neatly maintained. Though it’s not located on a private beach, it feels somewhat secluded and a little more “grown up” than some of the other resorts on the island.
Tonsak Resort (8/5 Ko Samed, Mu 4 Tambon Phe, Hat Sai Kaew, 03/864-4314, www.tonsak.com , 2,000B) has wooden bungalows and a restaurant/bar close to the beach. The bungalows are wood throughout, imparting a log-cabin-on-the-beach vibe, complete with tables made out of tree trunks and tree stump chairs.
For something a little cooler and more stylish than most of the competition, Lima Coco (Ao Prao, 02/938-1811, www.tubtimresort.com , 2,600B) is the only option. Rooms and public spaces are colorfully decorated though not over the top. Rooms range from clean and basic to luxuriously fitted, depending on how much you’re willing to spend. The large covered public space is great for big groups who want to hang out together in the evening. Though room rates are pricey compared to the east coast, Lima Coco is actually the most economical resort on the west coast’s Ao Prao and benefits from that beach’s lack of crowds.
Ao Prao Resort (Ao Prao, 02/438-9771, www.samedresorts.com , 5,700B) has hillside bungalows and is next to a scenic beach on the more secluded west coast of the island. The rooms are sumptuously appointed with dark-wood furniture and large bathtubs. There’s also a restaurant, Seaview, that serves up tasty eats—both Thai and international cuisine—as well as liquor and wine.
The upscale Le Vimarn (Ao Prao, 03/864-4104, www.kohsametlevimarn.com , 7,000B) is one of the nicest resorts on Ko Samet. In addition to private bungalows, furnished with mostly wooden furniture and breezy textiles, the property has a large infinity pool and a spa—both rare sightings on the island. Le Vimarn feels more secluded than most resorts on Ko Samet.
You catch a ferry to Ko Samet from Ban Phe, the mainland gateway for the island. Tickets can be purchased from the tourism information center (located on the pier, 03/889-6155, daily 7 a.m.-5 p.m.) and cost 50 baht for the 30-minute ride. Boats go to Ko Samet frequently during the day but do not usually leave until full, so if you get there early you’ll wait around for an hour or more.
The last ferry leaves Ban Phe at 5 p.m.; if you miss it, you can also arrange for a private speedboat to take you to the beach of your choice. The boats cost 1,200-1,600B, transport small groups, and deposit you directly where you’re going. If you arrive late in Ban Phe, speedboats are not supposed to travel the route at night, however many people persuade one to bend the rules and pay on the high end of the scale to do so.
Ko Samet’s main pier, Na Dan Pier, is located on the north side of the island. There are also ferries that run throughout the day from Ban Phe to Ao Wong Deuan on Ko Samet’s east coast. Visitors should check with their hotels on Ko Samet to see which pier is best. Some hotels can arrange for private speedboats as well.