Koh Samui has experienced an impressive transformation from being a destination favoured by backpackers who were looking for a spot off the beaten track, to becoming one of Asia's most coveted high-end lifestyle destinations catering directly to a select crowd of visitors from around the globe. The island is teeming with activity, from the fine dining venues that open up in new hip areas along the coast, to the boutique resorts and spas that rival those in the most established travel destinations in the world.
Yet Koh Samui is much more than just fine dining and luxury resorts. The island has a long history as a coconut farming and fishing island and you only need to venture a little off the main beaches to experience a more laid back lifestyle and see local Thais go about their daily business. The commercial town of Nathon, where the ferry to and from the mainland and neighbouring islands dock, is still very much a typical town as you would find them anywhere in the country and a great opportunity to experience something beyond the ordinary.
For those wanting to get close to nature, Koh Samui offers a great variety of outdoor activities. The hilly and forested interior is perfect for trekking and hiking and there are some impressive waterfalls to boot, amongst them the picturesque Namuang Waterfall. The base of the waterfall features some unique rock formations and for those with a little sense of adventure, there is a rocky path leading to the top from where you will have great vistas over the greenery below.
If trekking and hiking is not your idea of fun, Koh Samui is also home to some of Thailand's most beautiful beaches, some of which are still void of mass commercialisation. While the most well known beaches of Chaweng, Lamai and Bophut are fun and good for entertainment, head south or west for natural beaches where locals can be seen collecting shells and crabs during low tide.
One of the first things you will notice when you arrive at Koh Samui whether by plane or on a chartered yacht is the Big Buddha towering 12 metres on the top of a hill overlooking Chaweng Beach. While the religious monument has long had a special place in the hearts of local Thais, more and more foreign tourists have also started to visit the Buddha and adjoining temple with its market place selling religious souvenirs, t-shirts, relics and other items.
A range of watersports are also available on Koh Samui, scuba diving and snorkelling being the most popular. The waters around the island are full of underwater life and there are several dive schools offering day trips to pristine sites nearby where both divers and snorkellers can experience the high diversity of fish and corals. Not a diver yet? Don't worry, you can take your diving certificate in just a few days with one of the many professional schools on the island.
The southern part of the Gulf of Thailand is the perfect cruising grounds for motor vessels as well as sailing yachts. The season is longer than that on the west coast due to the somewhat sheltering effect of the mainland. Sailing is possible most of the year except from around late August to early December when the monsoon hits the Gulf and the seas can become a little rough.
The waters immediately surrounding Koh Samui are full of smaller uninhabited islands such as the Five Islands to the west and the Ang Thong National Marine park to the northwest. Comprising of 42 islands, the Ang Thong archipelago is perfect for both on water and inland exploration. The area is home to a rich variety of exotic wildlife, dramatic limestone cliffs, breathtaking view points, hidden caves and inland salt water lakes. Board a kayak and explore the edges of the limestone cliffs piercing the waters or camp overnight on a secluded beach on a remote island.
A little to the north of Koh Samui lies Koh Phangan, famous for its full moon parties. The area around Haad Rin on the southeastern tip of the island is very much geared towards this monthly event but venture out from this commercial centre and you will find beautiful untouched beaches, laid back seafood restaurants and excellent spa and yoga retreats. The island is also home to more than 20 temples each with its own characteristics and charm.
Koh Tao is the next island to the north. This is the smallest and least developed of the three islands and visitors come here mainly to explore the many dive sites surrounding the island. Yet Koh Tao offers much more than just diving. The island is small enough to sail around in one day, exploring the small bays and secluded beaches or discovering onshore attractions of untouched nature and stunning views of the Gulf. The main beach, Sairee, is also home to some cozy bars and restaurants.