It takes nearly 24 hours of travel to get from San Francisco to Koh Samui, but every hour is worth it. Think white sand, palm trees and amazing food. The island is perfectly sized for exploring via motorbike, but it's still big enough to get lost. It's the definition of tropical paradise. Hot sunny days with a light breeze, occasional downpours that offer up a perfect excuse for an afternoon nap, and super friendly people. Getting here takes effort, but the payoff was almost immediate. When we pulled up our villa and were greeted with cool wash clothes and iced tea, I felt welcome and immediately relaxed.
Our friends found Villa Kalyana online and booked it for their destination wedding sight unseen. It was better than the pictures, the staff was super friendly and the food was amazing. I'm still craving the papaya salad. The villa was a great jumping off point for exploring the island, but was also perfect for spending a lazy day. Located on the southern part of the island, the villa sits on a protected cove, has a wide, sandy white beach, and two swimming pools.
When to go: All the travel sites say to avoid the monsoon season in October and November, and that the high season is December, January, February and August. We were there the first week in August and it felt like we had the place to ourselves. We'd stop for lunch and be the only people at the restaurant. Maybe it's just never crowded, but beaches, shops and streets were pretty much tourist-free. We had one really rainy afternoon, but other than a day or two with quick showers, it was mostly sunny.
Where to stay: We stayed in a private villa on the south side of the island, but adventured around and got a good sense of the whole place. I'd highly recommend the Villa Kalyana to anyone traveling with a group (wedding, birthday, family reunion, whatever)! The place was stunning and the staff were unbelievable. Super friendly, great food, amazing location. It felt like a dream.
If a private villa isn't an option, don't worry. There are tons of options ranging from under $10/day to hundreds or thousands of dollars per day. Some of the nicest hotels we saw were on the northern part of the island, but there are rental properties everywhere. We passed the W on a boat on our way to Ang Thong Marine Preserve, and it looks fabulous. Another famous, and costly, resort is the Intercontinental. Again, we saw the private villas and sweet pool from the sea, and it looks amazing. The Intercontinental was actually the first big hotel on the island, and it's beautiful.
One thing to keep in mind is that Chawang is definitely a city, so if you're staying in town be prepared for traffic and local crowds. The other thing to remember that even though Koh Samui is an island, getting around can take awhile. Going from the villa into Chawang to go out at night took about an hour via taxi van. The roads are crowded and it was really easy to get carsick. I would also stress that riding the scooters at night is probably not a safe choice. The Thais drive on the left, there aren't any street lights on the highway, and even in the daytime it's easy to get lost. Take the taxi, just pop a couple of Dramamine before you get in.
Where to eat: Roadside restaurants with great views and fresh food! Get Thai food. You're in Thailand, get Thai food. We ate at a different beachfront restaurant every day for lunch, had consistently amazing food at great prices, and never got sick. Even with the language barrier, the people were friendly and attentive. If you're looking for spicy, you might not find it. Our hosts at the villa told us that even if non-Thai's ask for spicy, the chefs prepare things pretty mild. If you were persistent you could get a dish of cut up peppers, but no hot sauce or super spicy anything. I'd also recommend getting seafood. You're on an island. It's super fresh and tasty! Thai Snapper was our go-to and we ate it almost every single day.
What to do: Lay on a beach, take a day trip to the Ang Thong Marine Park, take a scooter out and explore the island, visit the Fisherman's Night Market (every Friday night in Bophut), eat some Thai food, go to the beach, get a message. Do it all! Koh Samui is really affordable, and a week is a great amount of time to really get a sense of the island. I was terrified of riding the scooter in the beginning, but it was super fun and made every day feel like an adventure. There are message places all over the island, but most hotels and rental properties can arrange for a masseuse to come to you. We rode past a ton of beaches while exploring on the scooters, and most were nearly deserted. We spent all of our beach time at the villa, but the west east sides of the island looked beautiful. The island was formerly a coconut plantation, so look out for plenty of neatly planted coconut palms. The people also grow rubber trees, a bunch of fruits, and do subsistence farming. Many people have water buffalo in their yards.
One thing we were interested in but didn't get to do was visit the Tamarind Springs Forest. It's a natural hot spring in a cave that's run by a luxury spa. Their are daily and half-day packages, and it looks super romantic and peaceful, and is definitely on our list for our next visit! We also missed the Giant Buddha and the elephants on Koh Samui. I heard that the elephants are not in a sanctuary, are not kept in the best conditions, so we avoided this well-known tourist stop. Always do your research before supporting any sort of animal show, trek or psudo-preserve. On the motorbikes, we did see signs for cobra shows, tiger shows and a jungle safari. We skipped all of them, and just enjoyed riding around and exploring.
There are temples hidden away everywhere, strange tourist shops with faux-everything, and tons of fresh produce. We spent some time wandering around Nathon, and found some bubble tea, a few beautiful temples, and plenty of fay-bans. We're not really into traditional souvenir shopping, but there are little stands everywhere.
On Friday night, after a very rainy and stormy afternoon, we headed north to explore The Fisherman's Village and night market. It was teeming with fake make-up (which is terrifying--check out this Refinery29 piece about all the crazy chemicals that go into those fake eye pallets and lip kits!) fake technology like Bluetooth speakers and headphones, fake beats by dre, and the always classic fake purses. Instead of spending $40USD on something fake, I spent $10 on a fish pedicure. It was really weird, very ticklish, and totally worth it!
What to pack: Light-weight fabrics, sunscreen, a kimono or cover up so you can stay out of the sun, and flip flops. It can get really hot, and breathable fabric will be your best friend. I had no trouble wearing cotton, but I hardly wore my denim shorts. There are mosquitos everywhere, and we all got eaten alive even with bug spray. If you're bringing a straightener or curling iron remember you'll need a plug adapter and with a voltage converter. But, it was seriously so hot I only did my hair for the wedding we attended, and it only lasted 15 minutes before the humidity took over.
Final verdict: I would highly recommend Koh Samui for anyone traveling in Southeast Asia. It's pretty easy to get to if you're already in the region, and the tropical vibes are perfect for a few days of relaxation. Getting there is where you'll spend the majority of your money, since everything on the island is super affordable. One word of advice, keep ordering the Thai food! Several members of our group ate Italian, sandwhiches or sushi and wound up sick, but it seemed that everyone who stuck to Thai food was fine. FYI, the local Thai pharmacies sell all the normal over-the-counter medicines, and the hospitals are world-class. Koh Samui is pretty perfect, rent a motorbike, and enjoy!