Once just a quiet island happily going about its business of coconut farming, Ko Samui is now one of the most popular vacation spots in Thailand. Filled with palm trees and rimmed by white-sand beaches, the island has all the ingredients necessary for a gorgeous holiday retreat. If you’re arriving by plane to Ko Samui, the moment you step off the airplane and onto the tarmac you’ll understand what the island is all about. There’s no steel or glass at the international airport. Instead, it’s a group of thatch-roofed huts where you check in and pick up your luggage. To get to and from the planes, passengers are taken by open-air buses akin to large golf carts. If you’re arriving by ferry from the mainland, you’ll get to enjoy the spectacular view of the surrounding islands during the 90-minute ride.

If you plan on seeing more than one of the islands in the archipelago, give yourself at least a week, especially if you want to get some diving in.The island is not all huts and coconut trees, however. Since its debut as a budget destination, Samui has grown up. Although there are still beach bungalows to be found, there is also a large selection of five-star resorts as well as lots of spas and retreats and a dining scene that gets better every year. Thanks to a ring road that circles the entire island, there’s plenty of built-up infrastructure, and you’ll have easy access to things such as medical care and rental cars. Every beach has at least one Internet café, and many hotels and cafés in more built-up beach areas have Wi-Fi. The development hasn’t come without a price. Although the beaches are still beautiful, parts of the island can seem like a messy, incoherently developed mass of cheap concrete buildings and tangled power lines. Covering nearly 260 square kilometers (100 sq mi), Samui is a large island and can sometimes feel like a small city instead of desert paradise.

On the shore of Ko Pha-Ngan, Thailand.

On the shore of Ko Pha-Ngan, Thailand. Photo © Rafal Cichawa/123rf.

Just north of Samui, Ko Pha-Ngan is still mostly a backpacker haven, with a good selection of inexpensive places to stay and plenty of cheap drinks and all-night partying. The island’s famous full-moon parties, which seem to take place every weekend regardless of the lunar phase, are what has given Ko Pha-Ngan this reputation, although there are more high-end resorts opening up and attracting a different type of independent traveler. The physical landscape of the island, with gentle hills covered in trees and white-sand beaches, is as beautiful as Samui, and perhaps even more so, as it’s less developed. Part of this is certainly due to the fact that there are no flights to the island. If you are visiting Pha-Ngan, you’ll need to take a ferryboat from Surat Thani or Ko Samui, making it a good choice if you have the luxury of time but not money. Ko Tao, the northernmost main island in the archipelago, is still largely a base for divers but shares the same topography as its larger neighbors.

History of Ko Samui and Ko Pha-Ngan

The island of Samui was first officially recorded by the Chinese around 1500 in ancient maps but was probably settled more than 1,000 years ago by mariners from Hainan in southwest China. While the mainland was a part of the Srivijaya Kingdom, Samui and neighboring islands were not a significant part of the kingdom. Until the 1970s, Ko Samui was just a simple island relying on ample coconut trees and fishing for commerce. During World War II, Ko Samui was briefly occupied by the Japanese, but otherwise it stayed below the radar.

Three decades later, the island and neighboring Ko Pha-Ngan arrived on the backpacker trail and slowly grew from quiet tropical refuges to international tourist destinations.

Planning Your Time

Many visitors to the gulf spend all of their time on Ko Samui, and it’s easy to do so with direct flights to the island from Bangkok. There are few cultural and historical sights to visit, as the island has really only developed around the travelers that have come to visit in recent decades, but there are plenty of beach activities to fill your time. If you plan on seeing more than one of the islands in the archipelago, give yourself at least a week, especially if you want to get some diving in. Hopping from Ko Samui to Ko Pha-Ngan to Ko Tao is simple but time-consuming, and there are frequent ferryboats between the islands.

If you’re flying into nearby Surat Thani and taking a ferry to Ko Samui, expect to spend about half a day getting from the airport to the ferry pier and then to the island itself. It’s not as convenient as flying into Ko Samui, but you may save yourself quite a few thousand baht. There are only two airlines—Bangkok Airways and Thai Airways—that fly into Ko Samui from Bangkok. Bangkok Airways, which owns the Samui airport, is known for great service and convenient flight schedules, but not cheap prices. Since Thai Airways started flying to Samui a few years ago, many thought prices would go down. So far, they haven’t, so travelers on a budget usually opt to take one of the low-cost carriers to Surat Thani and transfer from there.

Travel map of Ko Samui, Thailand

Ko Samui

Travel map of Ko Pha-Ngan, Thailand

Ko Pha-Ngan

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Phuket & Ko Samui.