One of Thailand's famous resort islands in the Gulf of Siam offers a lot of options for the family — as well as fabulous beaches.
Legendary as a party island, Koh Samui is also a great destination for the family. There’s lots to do on this 247-square-kilometer island in Thailand’s Gulf of Siam, whether you and your kids are into watersports, nature treks, or just hanging out on the beach. Chaweng Beach, the island’s busiest and most populated area, is heavily commercialized and foreigners seem to outnumber the locals. There are other parts of the island, though, that retain a more traditional setting, where it won’t be difficult to remember that you’re in Thailand, a friendly and fascinating country in Southeast Asia.
“Sawadee” is the Thai way of greeting, and it is usually accompanied by a wai (pressing palms together on the chest). Nearly 95% of Thais are Buddhist, so keep in mind that they are a very gentle and dignified people. When visiting their temples including the island’s famous Big Buddha, dress appropriately and practice respectful behavior.
The Thai people also love their King and the Royal Family, and you’ll see evidence of this all around Thailand. During my trip to Koh Samui, the King’s sister passed away. Even on the island, you could see how people were saddened by the news. Government offices closed temporarily, and the Thai people chose to stay in during an otherwise festive holiday season.
Around Samui: Fun for all Ages
Chaweng Beach is the heart of Samui’s tourism (note: koh means “island” and is usually omitted in local conversations). This five-kilometer stretch of soft white sand is jam-packed with a dizzying array of establishments. Accommodations range from chic designer hotels to massive colonial-style properties to quaint boutique resorts and native huts for rent. Beachfront restaurants compete for real estate in the narrow shoreline that (sometimes) separates diners from the sea. Every few hundred meters there is a booth for jet-ski rental, dive and snorkel trips, and every tourist’s favorite pastime, the Thai massage. Because the Thai massage focuses on pressure points, children can even enjoy its benefits — start off with an inexpensive foot massage and you’ll see for yourself.
Behind Chaweng’s main row, there is a paved road that is equally bustling, if not more so. Cars, motorbikes and foot traffic navigate this narrow space that contains the open-air markets, mini-malls, boutiques, coffee shops, restaurants, bars, travel agencies, Starbucks and McDonalds. Despite this overwhelming amount of activity, there is actually a system that ensures everything is kept safe and in order. Tourism police patrol the streets and all the beach vendors wear official vests. Promoting and regulating its tourism industry has always been Thailand’s strong suit. In a place like Chaweng Beach, you’ll be glad for it.
Other parts of the island are more tranquil, and visitors who prefer seclusion usually head to Mae Nam. Just 20 minutes away from Chaweng by car, this area shows a more rural side of Samui. The fishing community is still alive, right alongside new developments like private beach resorts. Mae Nam is near the Fisherman’s Village at Bhoput, reputedly the best spot to catch the sunset and enjoy fresh seafood.
The great thing about Samui is that the island is large enough to be diverse — this means that there are enough activities for every member of the family. I highly recommend moving away from the beach and going in either of two directions inland for some nature and adventure tours or to the nearby islands. See the Butterfly Garden or the Samui Aquarium (housed in the Samui Orchid Resort). If you have more time and a sense of adventure, check out the Magic Statue Garden. It’s a garden deep in the jungle that was built by a Samuian fruit farmer.
Most tourists just go to Na Muang Waterfalls, which is easily accessible and stunning for the purple rock faces surrounding the cascades. Finally, don’t miss the Big Buddha, Samui’s most famous landmark (pictured at left). This 12-meter-tall (36-foot) Buddha sits proudly at the northeast point of the island and is visible from several kilometers away.
Koh Samui: Family Friendly Hotels
Queen Boutique Place
469 Moo 3 (or say soi Bellini)
This boutique resort in the heart of Chaweng is perfect for small families who want to enjoy modern amenities, some seclusion from Chaweng’s busy road, and very affordable rates (rooms are under $100). The rooms are stylish and clean, and the hotel is just off the main road and a short walk away from the beach. There’s wireless internet in the lobby, along with a little cafe. On the same soi (street), there’s a popular California Fusion restaurant called Betelnut and an Italian restaurant named Bellini’s, a favorite among the locals.
(near the Chinese Temple)
Barely a month old when I stayed there, Hutcha is a cozy resort tucked away inside Mae Nam. The individual villas have a modern Asian aesthetic, including an open-air (but still private) bathroom. Every bedroom opens out to a lanai where you can lounge around in front of the klongs (canals) that weave around the resorts’ footpath. It’s a tranquil setting that offers a fresh, quiet perspective on Samui. The beach is easily accessible, and from there you can try windsurfing or wakeboarding, as this side of the island gets more wind and bigger waves. The resort also has a pool, free WiFi, and a restaurant that serves delicious Thai cuisine. Fair warning: staying in Mae Nam requires a commitment to enjoy the area’s seclusion. Otherwise, regular cab rides to Chaweng can be very expensive, averaging 800 baht ($24) roundtrip.
Banana Fan Sea
201 Moo 2
Chaweng Beach Rd.
This tastefully designed beachfront resort is the classic luxury Thai accommodation. Villas are set amid a lush tropical garden; you can dine by the sea at Baitong restaurant, which has scrumptious seafood and offers traditional Thai cooking classes, and there are a pool and jacuzzi that face the beach. A full range of services is available, including babysitting and Thai massage, which you can have on the sand. A host of watersports activities are provided, and should you want to go on a tour of the island, the resort will easily arrange it for you. It’s a great choice for a resort, one that will make you feel like you’re getting the best of Samui.
There are over 5,000 resorts and hotels in Samui, so if none of these suit your needs, look around for more options online. Try www.kohsamui.com/.
Eating out is one of the best parts of visiting Thailand. Even if your tolerance for spiciness is low, there are so many flavorful Thai dishes, especially when the seafood is fresh. My two best meals in Samui were in two completely different restaurants.
The first was at Eat Sense (11 Moo 2, Chaweng Beach; 66-7741-4242), the most famous seafood restaurant on the island. Dine on a romantic beachfront terrace with low lighting and chill-out music; if you’re bringing along the little ones, it’s best to go early. Their crispy fish is excellent -it would be wise to make a reservation, as the place is so popular.
The other top choice was a no-frills traditional Thai restaurant called Lucky’s. This nondescript eatery on the beach just has wooden tables and benches, but the food is amazing. They had the best tom kah gai (coconut soup with chicken), and fish so fresh they could have fished it out of the sea just before my meal.
Fisherman’s Village in Bhoput is another must-visit destination, especially if you can’t get enough of seafood.
Getting There & Getting Around
Most tourists enter Samui through Bangkok. Only Bangkok Air 66/02-265-5678) flies directly from Bangkok to Samui and back. During peak season, air fares can go up to 4,000 baht ($150) one-way. There are 16 flights a day each way, but Samui is such a popular destination that they fill up fast, especially on weekends. There are alternate ways to get to Samui, such as flying into the Suratthani airport, which is still in mainland Thailand. Crossing over to Koh Samui takes one to two hours by frequent ferry. There are also flights to Samui from other destinations, such as Phuket.
Most visitors don’t rent a car, but there are a few options for getting around Samui’s 50-km circumferential road. The easiest and most expensive is by taxi. Fares are predetermined by zones. The minimum you’ll pay for a cab ride is 200 baht (around $7) even if you’re just going two blocks away. Most tourists rent a motorcycle for a day for 200 baht, but unless you are an experienced motorcyclist, it’s unsafe to navigate through Samui traffic. The best way to travel distances you can’t walk is to hop on a songthaew -a red covered-roof pickup that plies a set route around the island. Think of it as a bus, only cooler. Fares start at 30 baht.
While the island is busy year-round, the best time to go is from February to April, when the sea is calm. June to October is monsoon season, so it’s best to avoid traveling around these months -you never know when a storm will hit and ruin your vacation. Also, pick accommodations on the island according to your needs. If your family plans on just doing some leisurely swimming, stay on the eastern side of the island like on Chaweng or Lamai beach. If you prefer to do some surfing or windsurfing, head to Mae Nam or Bho Phut (on the north side), where conditions are ideal — bigger waves and more wind. The north side is also the take-off point to nearby islands.
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