Thailand: Koh Samui and Koh Tao

Koh Samui is the biggest of the three islands located on the east coast of Golf of Thailand (Koh Tao and Koh Phangan are the other two), which I visited in several different occasions. It was my first stop in Thailand in 2015 for the 7-day Vipassana silent meditation retreat and I went there a couple of more times thereafter to extend my Thai visa while living in Koh Phangan. So this is the compilation of my reviews in different times of the year.

Samui is a smaller version of Phuket and is not different than other developed resort towns that eventually lost their authenticities :/
With its international airport and plenty of ferry connections, the island gets a wide array of travelers from budget backpackers to luxury vacationers. I heard there were more than 1,000 hotels and guesthouses on the island, in addition to several fancy beach clubs, restaurants, gyms, tattoo shops, modern coffee shops and boutiques. Not to forget the new developments near the airport area for fancy villas that sell from $50k to millions of dollars. You figure the loss of coconut tree forests in those areas, which also create a serious concern for the increasing need for sufficient infrastructure.

The best way to travel on the island is via renting a scooter or car. This is a short video I recently made from a day long visit to Samui from Koh Phangan on our scooter:

Things to do in Koh Samui:

Go to the beach!

  • Chaweng: It is the home of the best white sand beach on the island, it is also the lively hip area with shops, restaurants bars, nightclubs and seaside resorts with swimming pools, which may become super useful. For instance one time I was there in July, the beach was very crowded and the water was choppy and cloudy.
    However, when I visited again in May, the water was perfectly warm and quiet. The beach was not full of tourists and I very much enjoyed the serenity.  Note: If you want to use one of the hotel pools, you’re not rejected for not being a guest but keep in mind you may end up paying a fee of 500 baht/day.
  • Lamai Beach: This is the part of the island that’s more laid back and less crowded. Not far from Lamai it’s easy to find waterfalls, night market, tours leaving for Ang Thong National Marine Park, and you can snap a picture of the famous Grandfather and Grandmother Rocks (apparently named like this due to their shape of vagina and penis). I wasn’t able to see these shapes even though I squinted hard to make them up from a bunch of rocks I was pointed at.
  • Fisherman’s Village: Located on the north coast, this is one of the best-known attractions on Ko Samui and home to a popular Friday Walking Street Market. To be honest, there is no fisherman on sight and the area has been filled with 5 star resorts and restaurants, chic beach bars, art galleries and fancy boutiques. It is a nice place to hang out for a sunset drink and feel like you are in a mediterranean country rather than Thailand.
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Fishermen’s Village
  • Ang Thong National Marine Park tour: 

I was able to purchase a ticket for the Ang Thong National Park tour in my guesthouse as a group and we ended up paying 2000 Thai baht pp. It was totally worth paying for this all-day boat trip to visit this beautiful national park. The views were amazing and kayaking was fun. The views from the different viewing points were worth the climb even though it wasn’t an easy one. So bring water and comfortable hiking shoes to go up to see these fabulous islands in aquamarine water!

Ang Thong National Park
Beautiful Ang Thong National Park 
  • Visit temples!

    Buddhist Temples (Wats) and Chinese Shrines are the other beautiful attractions of Koh Samui. Like in the rest of Thailand, Buddhism is the religion followed by the majority (over 90% of people) and I’ve found some of the most amazing temples in KS among all I’ve visited in Thailand.

    • Wat Phra Yai (Big Buddha Temple): a massive 15-metre seated Buddha overlooking the sea.
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Big Buddha Temple
  • Wat Plai Laem: This beautiful temple is very close to the Big Buddha temple and is surrounded by a lake, which is full of hungry fish. Besides the Buddha, it also features an 18-arm image of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy and Compassion in Chinese Buddhism.
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Where to stay in Koh Samui

It’s hard to believe that the bungalows were the only accommodation option on the island once upon a time. Now Koh Samui is super developed and you can find a place to stay for a very decent price in a guesthouse or hostel or pay over $100 USD to stay in a 5 star resort. But still the rates for the 5 star resorts are not comparable to the western world prices. If you are into luxury resorts, check out Anantara or Centara Beach Resort that caught my eye while cruising around the island.

On my first visit, I stayed at Chill Inn Hostel for 300 baht/night in a dorm room. The owner Shane and his girlfriend were such awesome people and they made all of their guests feel welcomed with their super friendly and helpful attitudes.
I enjoyed staying in the cafe and hanging out with them and other travelers, watching sunsets over cocktails and eating food from their modern Thai menu.
On my second time, I spent a few nights at New Hut Bungalows since I needed more privacy after the vipassana retreat. I paid 300 baht/night for a private bungalow right on the beach. The rooms with fan were tiny and basic but sleeping with the ocean sound was priceless!
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New Hut Bungalows on Lamai Beach

How to get to Koh Samui

When traveling from Bangkok to Koh Samui you have three options, by bus, by train or flying.

Samui has its own airport but there are only a limited number of airlines to choose from. Most flights to/from the island are operated by Bangkok Airways and Thai Airways.

Budget airlines such as Air Asia and Lion Air only fly to Surat Thani on the Thai mainland.

Ferries and catamarans run from Surat Thani or Donsak (port) several times a day. Boats also connect to Ko Tao and Koh Phangan from Samui. You can try Ferrysamui.com to find the ferry schedules and make your booking. Your airline would also sell you the bus+ferry combo on the plane. But don’t worry, even if they don’t, you will see a lot of people outside the baggage claim who will help you with that.

So the cheapest way to fly (around $50 from Bangkok) , would be by landing at Surat Thani airport and take the bus + ferry combination (around 300 baht=$10) to get to Koh Samui. You need to be mindful that the ferries stop around 6 pm so calculate your travel time accordingly to be on the last ferry unless you want to spend a night in Surat Thani (which I don’t recommend) or take the super slow night ferry. I use Skyscanner.com to compare prices for all domestic and international flights and do all my bookings. It’s been working great so far!

Lastly, I heard people taking the overnight train from Bangkok to Surat Thani but I don’t have any experience with that so the Thairailways website might be helpful for that.

 

30 day tourist visa extension in Koh Samui immigration office

If you entered Thailand with a 30 or 60 day tourist visa, you can extend it an additional month in local immigration offices. I did mine a few times in Koh Samui very smoothly. In the last one, I arrived at the new immigration office in Koh Samui at 8:30 and there were 3 ppl waiting already. They took our application forms and passports and gave a queue number at 8:35. My passport was stamped by 8:50 and within a few minutes I was on a motor taxi headed to the ferry station to go back to Koh Phangan. Easy as cake!
How to apply:
  • Fill out the application form
  • Attach one passport picture
  • Give a copy of your passport’s id and visa (+departure card) pages
  • Pay 1950 baht to apply for a 30 day extension.

There’s a place that take photos and make copies right on the spot for 100 baht.

Note: Pay attention to overstay as it will cost you 500 baht per day to a maximum of 20,000 baht to pay when leaving the country.

Vipassana silent meditation retreat at Dipabhavan Vipassana Meditation Center on Koh Samui 

Vipassana Retreat. I must have walked thousands of steps around this statue while practicing walking meditation day and night!
Vipassana Retreat. I must have walked thousands of steps around this statue while practicing walking meditation day and night!
A little info about Vipassana (insight meditation):
Vipassana means to see things as they really are and is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation.
“This meditation is a rational method for purifying the mind of the mental factors that cause distress and pain. This simple technique does not invoke the help of a god, spirit or any other external power, but relies on our own efforts.

Insight meditation is concerned with the present moment— with staying in the now to the most extreme degree possible.

During the 7 day retreat, we woke up at 5:00 am and our days consisted of a 1 hour yoga class in the mornings to stretch our bodies to be ready for the day long sitting and walking meditations as well as lectures until 9:00 pm.
One of the things I liked most in the retreat was that we ate once in the morning and once around noon, which was the only food that we were served besides the afternoon tea (and occasional fruits). It was amazing to discover that only such a small amount of food was enough to survive and we didn’t need to stuff our faces with or think about food all the time.
I also enjoyed the daily talks with our witty British monk who shared his transition from the modern world to the monk-hood, some basic buddhist principles, methods of meditation, the much needed sitting techniques and the 1-1 Q&A opportunity we were given.
The 7 day silence period was very healing (especially after the noise of New York City), the nice jungle setting of the ashram and the sattvic food served twice a day.
If you are feeling ready to do this, you can find more info on their website: http://dipabhavan.weebly.com/meditation-retreat.html

KOH TAO (or Ko Tao)

Ko (Island) Tao (Turtle) = Turtle Island! KT is a super popular place to learn to dive in Thailand due to the notably inexpensive scuba certification centers. But thanks to its beautiful and abundant underwater habitat, it’s also a great place for snorkelers like me who are too lazy to learn to dive 🙂

I was in Ko Tao in June with my boyfriend and it was the very beginning of the high season so the island was pleasantly crowded. The weather was not too hot and the seas were flat calm. The hotel prices were still off season so we got a nice sea view bungalow on a hill for $40 a night.

Ko Tao is a short ferry ride from Koh Phangan and Koh Samui and some people do day trips between these islands but I would recommend to spend at least 2-3 days in KT to do a day long snorkeling trip and discovering the different beaches of the island on your rental scooter. If you are up for a diving certificate, that takes 3.5 days.

img_5902To keep in mind, the island is pretty challenging for new scooter drivers with lots of steep hills and dirt roads to reach to the secluded beaches and take in the spectacular views of the island along the way.. If you are not experienced, this island is not the place to test your riding skills out. Considering the numbers of the accidents happening every day, sharing a taxi would be a wise decision.

Since we know there are scams around renting a bike in Thailand, we checked some reviews and  rented our scooter from Oli’s motorbike in Mae Haad where the ferry port is located. They seemed like good people and we had a pleasant experience.

Also to remember Koh Phangan is home to the full moon party, so Ko Tao fills up straight after each party with young partiers. So if your trip is near the full moon, it’s better to get there a bit before the full moon party.

Things to do in Ko Tao

Dive into the underwater world! If you’re newbie, you can sign up to get your PADI or SSI Open Water certification on the island. There are so many schools that provide this, which result in competitive prices.

One of the highlights of my trip was the 1 day snorkeling tour we did from 10 am- 6 pm with Oxygen Diving. It was already awesome to be in the beautiful aquamarine water all day and I got to swim with sharks and turtles! The 600 thb we paid for this was very well worth it.

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Snorkeling trip! The water was so clean, aquamarine, and full of little different types of fish and baby sharks!

Here is a quick snapshot of the golden beaches of Ko Tao:

John-Suwan view point and Freedom Beach:

These two are next to each other. We rode our scooter there but you can also take a taxi (approx. 300 thb from Sairee Beach).

There is a entrance fee of 50 thb to get into Freedom beach then another 50 thb once you start walking on the path. The 15-ish minute climb up to the view point was pretty steep but the view was so rewarding! I went with my flip flops that added an extra layer of adventure to my trek 🙂 Hiking shoes and water bottle would definitely make your life easy. After the amazing view, I recommend going down to Freedom Beach for a swim, so beautiful and peaceful.

There is also a restaurant cocktail bar on the beach, which offer rental snorkels for 100 thb.

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Jon-Suwan viewpoint (be ready for a 15 min steep hike to reach this amazing view)

Besides this, you can find nightlife (mostly for the young crowd), a nice restaurant scene, challenging hikes, scenic lookouts and tempting golden beaches!

Some of my recommendations are: 

  • The Factory
  • Barracuda
  • Banyan
  • Good Vibes
  • WTF
  • Beer Garden
  • Yin Yang Thai restaurant
  • Had Tien Resort

I really enjoyed visiting Ko Tao and it has the most beautiful scenery I’ve seen in Thailand so far. You may have heard about the mysterious murders on the island that have happened in the last few years so unfortunately there’s definitely an evil side of the story as there is everywhere in the world. If you stay away from the drugs & alcohol scene  and make conscious decisions for yourself, nothing bad would happen.

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