With plenty of sights to see, a gamut of activities to do, and an abundance of amazing places to relax, chill-out, and enjoy – Koh Samui proves that life is more than just a beach; it’s a party!
by Rich Kantita.
We landed on the east coast of Koh Samui, eager –like most passengers of the plane –to jumpstart our trip. It was my first time to visit, and I was really excited to discover what makes this island, a so-called gem of the South, very popular. As my friend and I were to find out later, Samui is more than just a major tourist destination. Life here is more than just a beach; it is one big party! No wonder some people are already calling it, the “Ibiza of Asia.”
Prior to touchdown, I did a Google search and learned that Samui doesn’t have many cultural places to visit. Unlike most areas in Thailand where within every few kilometers there’s usually one temple, Samui–despite its size–does not have that many of temples nor historical monuments, for that matter. Still, there are plenty of sights to see and an abundance of outdoorsy activities to do. This island of great natural beauty is teeming with amazing places to indulge in the view, relax, chill-out, and enjoy. I was determined not to miss out on the best it has to offer.
Sights to See
Several temples made it to our must-visit list. These include Wat Phra Yai Ko Pan, where a Big Buddha can be seen across a small island separated from the mainland. Built in 1972, this Big Buddha sits majestically on the edge of this island (Bophut, Ko Fan), as if watching over everything around it. The veritable spiritual heart of Samui is a popular attraction and is in the bucket list of almost every Samui traveler.
Wat Khao Hua Jook (Chaweng, Sanam Bin Road) and Laem Sor Pagoda (Laem Sor Road, Taling Ngam) are also great to visit, if only for their distinctive traditional architecture. The former, which houses a replica of Buddha’s footprint, has a vantage point where one can enjoy a panorama that reaches out to neighboring Koh Phangan and Koh Tao, from a viewpoint located over 90m above sea level. The latter is a chedi that sits right by the beach and delights with its beautiful, bright yellow-golden garb. The Laem Sor temple underwent renovation after the residing monk died a few years ago but remains a significant religious symbol among the locals. There are a few more temples to visit around the island, if you want to do so.
Sightseeing in Samui is not complete without mentioning one of the island’s top attractions, the iconic twin rock formation called Hin Ta-Hin Yai (Lamai Beach, Thaweerat Pakdee Road). This odd creation of Nature depicts human genitals, one of the male and another of the female, which make a lot of people curious to see them. “Hin” in Thai means rocks. “Ta” means grandfather and “Yai” means grandmother, definitely a more polite way to call them. Few people can resist taking selfies with them, if only because they make fun conversation topics back home.
But Samui island life is more than just the temples or Hin Ta-Hin Yai. Being in the moment, just inhaling the fresh exhilarating sea breeze is priceless enough, but there’s more to explore indeed. And we wanted to see what’s beyond the world-famous white beaches.
Hitting the Road
One of the best decisions we had made prior to going to Samui was hitting the road with a rented car. It’s been said that taxis on the island charge crazy fares. Taxi fare starts at THB 100, but you can end up paying over THB 500 just to get from the airport to your hotel. In fact, getting from one end of Samui to another takes approximately 40 minutes, give or take, and with a GPS, getting to know Samui is on your fingertips.
As we drive up and down the zigzag road from Bophut to Lipa Noi, the ever-so-blue ocean sneaked up on us. “That’s a beautiful spot for some pictures,” I said pointing to where the ocean seems to be right at our fingertips. “Of course,” my friend replied as the car comes to a halt, “that’s the viewpoint of the island.”
We saw a white cemented-walkway stretching out along the cliff. There was a steep stairway leading down to the rocks that look toward the gulf. We climbed onto the rocks from the artificial path to the top of large rocks formations, and enjoyed the photo ops. After getting our picturesque shots, we made a dash for a well-deserved coconut drink. As we were drinking the coconut juice, I was thinking, “I could stay here forever.” But of course for now, I am just here to explore and experience. And there’s really so much more to do.
Among the most recommended “must-dos” is a walk to the Fisherman’s Village in Bophut. We decided to go there. The locals had warned us about the traffic, especially on a Friday, but we didn’t think it would stretch out all the way from the center of Bophut and beach road to up toward The Wharf, the boutique outdoor shopping plaza! Imagine this heavy traffic, from 5:30 p.m. to around 10:30 p.m., every Friday, when the walking streets come alive with some of the most happening activities on the island.
Certainly, the walking streets offer that authentic Thai weekend market feel: stalls, vendors, and all, to all foreigners. But it’s not just that. What makes this experience more awesome is the unique mystique that embraces visitors, thanks to the traditional Chinese shophouses that have been converted into trendy boutiques and apparel shops, and hip bars and chic restaurants, that enhance the quaint ambiance of this former sleepy fishing village. And this is not even the island’s “party central” yet. The title goes to Chaweng, Lamai, and not surprisingly, the smaller beach areas such as Lipa Noi, which is seemingly also coming of age as a party hub.
The island appears to be sedated during daytime, probably because most people have been busy the night before, and most tourists are into some outdoorsy activities both in the mainland and beyond. Samui by day is different from Samui by night. But during weekends, the parties start early – with the brunches. Brunch parties are among the most common activities on the island during the weekends, and they attract a great crowd.
Beach Republic, the “red, white and all things funky” hotel in Lipa Noi, offers a fun Sunday brunch by the beach. With DJs providing a good vibe and the buffet of food and cocktails here, your Sundays couldn’t have been better spent than here. Another amazing brunch, also in Lipa Noi, can be enjoyed at Nikki Beach Samui, the well-known brand from Miami known for celebrating the high and good life. Their Sunday Brunch definitely lives up to discriminating expectations. There are other great Sunday Brunches on the island of course.
For others, daytime parties are even more luxurious and exclusive. They rent out private yachts or luxury speedboats to catch the peaceful waves of the ocean. These travelers, which include some of the world’s jetsetters, carry their exclusive lifestyle with them. They lay low under the sun to get some golden tan, enjoy their private champagne party away from the crowds, and prepare for a glitzy evening later. Several islands and islets surround Samui, and just sailing around them until sunset can add a very special touch to any vacation.
And when dusk falls and night owls gear up to unwind the streets of Samui get busier with characteristic vibrancy. The neon signs light up, the loud music begins to blurt, and a frenetic energy engulfs the island, especially in the areas of Bophut, Lamai, and Chaweng.
Chaweng Beach, for those who have not been there yet, is like Khao Sarn in Bangkok but with more breezes, more sand, and that inescapable tropical island verve. There are plenty of bars and clubs to hop around and try. One highly recommended party place is Cha Cha Moon Beach Club (077 300 222, Chaweng-Choeng-Mon Road), where various amazing DJs come to spin. Not far from it, across the road, is Solo Bar (077 300 466, Chaweng-Choeng-Mon Road), with some fantastic live music and DJs in a very cool mixture.
Then there is Bar Ice (077 484 933, Chumchon Chaweng Yai Soi 4), located across the curve of Central Festival, where you can bask in -7° Celsius. At the newest addition, The Beach Bar Koh Samui (081-978-2448, Chumchon Chaweng Yai Road) right by Sheraton beachfront, people can let their hair down, sip some nice cocktails and go where the night takes them. With a private beach that isn’t as crowded as those in Chaweng, The Beach Bar is enjoyable both day and night.
These places are considered the newer incarnation of legendary Samui hotspots that include ZIco’s at Centara Grand Samui, Reggae Pub, and Green Mango. And we have hardly touched the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.
Most visitors do not even have to leave their Samui hotels to enjoy a pleasurable wine and dine experience as almost all of the resorts have F&B outlets they are justifiably proud about. But we can’t resist mentioning our relatively newer discoveries:
The Jungle Club (081 894 2327), which offers some of the best panoramic views of Chaweng Beach during the day, is a low-key, very bohemian, hilltribe designed resort and restaurant. Good for relaxation and an afternoon burst of sunlight, their cuisine is Thai and French with a special ‘The Jungle BBQ’ every day.
One of the most authentic Thai restaurants in Chaweng is Galanga (077 963 213). But be warned if your taste buds are still unacquainted with the spiciness of Thai food because Galanga does not adapt food to foreign palates. The very fresh, very mouthwatering seafood selections are just indescribably luscious.
The Five Island Restaurant (077 423 577), now in a more accessible new location, does not only offer a better side of the beach at Lipa Noi. But also sticking to what they are good at, the menu is fixed, offering same good range of Thai and European mix.
Dine in the private home of Chez Francois (096 071 1800), where guest are in for an exclusive dining experience. There’s no menu as the chef whips up something new and interesting every day. This culinary experience is not only for the thrill of an amazing taste but the excitement of what will be served.
Rockpool (80/32 Moo 5, Bophut, 077 234 500) is located at the Kanda Residences, a luxurious and private villa. This white and turquoise blue-themed restaurant is breathtaking, and the all-day dining menu by a Michelin star chef, Lucas Leonardi Varin, is exquisite. Chef Lucas brings to the table an overall meal experience that must be felt, seen, and inhaled for total enjoyment.
Sunset view is better with a nice selection of divine food and wine tasting, especially at The Cliff Bar and Grill (077 448 508), a ‘Wine Spectator Award of Excellence 2014’ winner. Head chef Sergio Martelli creates a worthwhile dining platter taking inspiration from Spain, Portugal, and Italy. It has something that you may not find elsewhere on the island – the “Tapas Passion.” Seafood here is a must, and we recommend the Seafood Platter.
Brunch it out like the British at The Larder (077 601 259). They say that Bloody Mary is the cure for the long weekend happy hours and The Larder knows to help you out with their Sunday Roast and free Bloody Marys for an hour-and-a half. Moreover, the menu is as intriguing as their specials. Taking it back-to-the-basics as they call it: Taco Belle, Scotch egg, Pastafarian, and Mussellini are only some to truly whet your appetite.
Japanese food is very popular in Bangkok but not as much on the island. But we hit the jackpot at Tai by Red Snapper (077 963 889) at the Central Festival. Tai by Red Snapper gives Japanese food a twist, which can only be explained by the satisfied stomach.
Jahn Restaurant (49/8-9 Moo 4, Hillcrest Rd, Tambol Taling Ngam; 077-915-888), set atop a plunging cliff with dramatic views of the Taling Ngam coast, is the flagship restaurant of Conrad Samui. Atmosphere is elegant, but soft and muted, and thus does not steal the thunder from the main stars of the restaurant, which is the food. Now regarded as one of the best restaurants in the kingdom, it is not really a Thai restaurant because while the flavor profile and most of the ingredients used are local, the presentation and attention to detail are worthy of any Michelin-star restaurant in Paris.
Inevitably, the party can only continue for so long. Thankfully, Samui is also known for its holistic centers, considered some of the best places in Thailand to recharge and rejuvenate. I’ve heard about the Tamarind Spring (080 569 6654), as well as some of the famous spas operated by the leading five-star resorts. There are several detox places, health and wellness centers, and relaxation retreats. If you came here for some recharging and rejuvenation, great places are easy to find and enjoy.
Kamalaya Koh Samui (077 429 800), a holistic center and wellness retreat, is definitely one of the gems. Kamalaya offers a program that incudes yoga, spa, detox, and more. It has a fitness center for stress and burnout, and offers many other alternatives. Winner of the “Destination Retreat of the Year,” “Best Destination Spa:” by The Conde Nast Traveller, among many other awards, Kamalaya is a good initiation to the wellness and wellbeing options available on the island, which are many.
Shop well, party well, and then sleep well. Samui is all about living well, and it is home to many amazing luxury and boutique hotels and resorts, as international award-winning bodies testify. Here are some that we visited and fell in love with:
Nikki Beach Samui (96/3 Moo 2, Lipa Noi Beach, 077 914 500) offers spacious suites, villas, and a penthouse on the calm side of Lipa Noi Beach. But do not expect the same calm on the Ocean Club .The Nikki Beach brand is synonymous with parties and at the center of it is Ocean Club. Nikki Beach hosts some of the best nightlife experiences such as the notorious White Party. Their DJ line-ups attract high-end tourist and partygoers all-year-long.
Another well-known place to stay to be in touch with the nightlife is Beach Republic (176/34 Moo 4, Lamai Beach, 077 458 100). Its penthouse offers an ocean view while cooling off in the private pool and a private Jacuzzi while you’re at it. Whisgar Samui is located in the Beach Club area. Its red cabana, flag, and couches–alongside the funky beat played by the house DJs–bring a fiery fun spirit to the resort.
Closer to the airport but still quite exclusive and luxurious is the Tongsai Bay Resort at Bophut, which stretches over 25 acres with everything a guest might need such as tennis court, swimming pool, gift shop, toga room, bistro bar and restaurant and gym. The rooms are expansive, with private pools, sea views, and amazing outdoor living areas that you might not want to leave the property. The two restaurants are worth mentioning as it offers a great sunset and beach view with selection of Thai, Chinese, and Western dishes.
Sheraton Samui (86 Moo 3, Chaweng Noi Beach, 077 422 020) blends a very Mediterranean-like design with Asian touches to create one of the most beautiful settings on Samui. At the entrance, very captivating lanterns hangs in the center of the lobby expressing a good feng shui. With high ceilings that allow fresh breeze and architecture that brings out the best of the island. Sheraton Samui is already a winner. But it only gets better at the restaurant and poolside. Long Talay, the restaurant on the beachfront, is easily the highlight of the hotel.
One of the most modern, luxurious resorts on the island is Hansar Samui (101/28 Moo 1, Bophut, 077 245 511), which stands right at the edge of The Wharf. Anyone who walks by will notice the photogenic infinity pool that is embraced by the U-shaped resort. The rooms are chic and modern with touches and details that give it a luxurious feel. Famous as a place of wedding proposals, Hansar Samui can easily sweep away couples off their feet with its romantic mien.
Mövenpick Resort (57/7 Ang Thong Rd, 077 421 721), at Laem Yai Beach, offers privacy and relaxation. One of the newest developments on the island, the boutique resort has a lovely vertical pool that cascades down to the beach, most tempting during hot sunny days. The beachfront restaurant, The Terrace, offers a great sunset view, which complements its classic Thai dishes for dinner. Make a visit during the daily happy hour and the weekly special themed dinners.
Climb upscale with Vana Belle Koh Samui (9/99 Moo 3, Chaweng Noi Beach, 077 915 555), one of Starwood’s Luxury Collection. ‘Vana Belle’ translates to the ancient Sanskrit word for ‘beautiful forest,’ which was brilliantly incorporated in the resort’s design. Vana Belle built different statues of the creatures around the resort, as inspired by “Himmapan,” a mystical forest where mystical creatures live. The stunning resort lives up to expectations of a luxury collection resort indeed and the 24-hour on-call butler service with personalized service will make you weep upon check-out.
Conrad Koh Samui (49/8-9, Hillcrest Rd, 077 915 888) sits right at the tip of Samui’s “tail,” and it only gets better from there. Private pool villas look out to the changing colors of the sky and endless ocean where you hope to find the mainland of Surat Thani beckoning. Whether at the lobby or the restaurant of the poolside, you will enjoy exquisite views, as if the ocean is entirely yours. The villas include a private pool that overlooks the island giving them an even more majestic disposition.
There are dozens of very luxurious, very private villas on the island that can accommodate only up to 10 adults, with direct beach access, and endless fun and luxeperience enjoyment possibilities. Visit luxuryvillasamui.com to find some great deals for the perfect Samui vacation.
It is in this high-note that we leave you to let you carry on with your own Samui holiday. Enjoy! – with additional info by Percy Roxas.
Approximately 62,000 people live within the 252m² -land area of Koh Samui hat is divided into seven different districts. The main areas include Bophut, Chaweng, Lipa Noi, Taling Ngam, Mae Nam, and Na Thon, which is famous for its seafood port. The most modernized region, with Central Festival being the only shopping center in the island, is Bophut. Residential areas are located around the areas of Lipa Noi and Mae Nam, but one will not fail to notice the rapid growth of real estate development for luxury living and vacation homes around the island.
Booking a flight – Only two airlines fly into Samui: Bangkok Airways and Thai Airways with tickets that can go up to over THB 5,000. An alternative is to fly into Surat Thani and then cross the ocean by a ferry. Seatran Ferry Pier or Donsak Pier operates 5:30 a.m.-6 p.m. daily. There is a shuttle service from the Surat Thani Airport to the pier every hour. To check the schedules, visit www.seatranferry.com or www.ferrysamui.com
Renting a car or bike – There are many websites specializing on vehicle rentals, including rentalcars.com, sixt.com, avis.com or thairentacar.com. Prices range from THB 690 to THB 2,000 per day. Gas costs about THB 700-1,500 full tank approximately. As for motorbikes there are a few local rent/buy/sell stores. You can also rent online with motorbikes costing about THB 800 – 2,000 per day.