Just as Phuket was starting to welcome tourism in the 1970s, another island on the east of the mainland came on to the radar. Koh Samui (usually referred to simply as ‘Samui’) initially found a market amongst backpackers and low budget tourists. As word spread about this small gem of an island just half the size of Phuket, so the developers moved in. Like Phuket, the 1980s and 90s saw a major increase in the quantity and quality of accommodation. Now, the beaches and hills of Samui are dotted with many 5–star hotels, resorts and and spas catering to wealthy jet-setters.
Despite this up-market development, the island still offers accommodation to suit all budgets. Much of it also retains the laid-back charm of a blissful paradise, with lush tropical vegetation, swaying palm trees, quaint villages, idyllic beaches, coconut plantations and orchards yielding a plethora of local fruits.
Samui’s climate is similar to the rest of the country – warm and hot between February and May, slightly cooler with a smattering of rain from June till the monsoon rains arrive (roughly from mid-September to mid-November), and then the cooler winter season takes over until the heat really starts again in February. But even the rain tends to respect those who come for sun and sand, as the showers, whilst heavy, will generally last only an hour or so.
The island’s sandy white beaches and warm crystal clear water are the main attraction for many visitors. Situated on the east side of the island, Chaweng Beach is the most popular. It is also the longest with more than 4 miles of powdery white sand. As with most of the main beaches, it is bordered by hotels and guesthouses, as well as the usual paraphernalia of restaurants, cafes, bars, discos, tailor shops, boutiques and souvenir shops. Here, too, you will find dive shops where you can rent equipment and join one of the day and night dives around the long reef just off the beach, or to other popular diving destinations like the Angthong National Marine Park and the many offshore islands.
A little further south you come to the less crowded Lamai Beach with its mile-long strip of sand. On the north of the island, Maenam, Bophut and Choeng Mon beaches are also popular with locals and tourists alike. Cheong Mon is close to one of the main attractions, Wat Phra Yai, the island’s best-known temple, usually referred to as the ‘Big Buddha’.
For the adventurous, Samui offers two crocodile farms, a snake farm, half a dozen stadia which occasionally feature fighting buffaloes, and a beautiful Butterfly Garden in the southeast. If you are feeling fit, a couple of kilometers from the Butterfly Garden is a 163-step concrete stairway leading up to the shrine housing four symbolic footprints of the Buddha.
A visit to ‘Grandfather and Grandmother Rocks’ (Hin Tai/Hin Yai) at the south of Lamai Beach will at first sound like a rather boring waste of time. But visitors flock to photograph these rock formations, for they just happen to bear an uncanny resemblance to male and female genitals!
The best way of getting to Samui from Bangkok is to fly direct to the island’s airport. Unfortunately, only two airlines fly the route – Bangkok Airways and Thai international – and the lack of competition results in fares being on the high side. If you are on a budget, an alternative is to take one of the low cost carriers to the nearest point on the mainland, Surat Thani, and to proceed from there by bus and one of the regular ferries over to the island. Thai Air Asia has a useful service which bundles the bus and ferry trips into the cost of the air ticket.
For those with more time on their hands, there are overnight train services to Surat Thani. Combined train and ferry tickets can be purchased at Bangkok’s main rail station at Hualamphong. Or you can make the 12-hour trip from Bangkok by regular bus service, including overnight.
Once on Samui, there are a number of regular bus services to get you at least close to your destination. For greater flexibility, it’s better just to hire a motorcycle or car. You will be asked for a deposit and a copy of your passport. Note that there are sometimes scams in operation, so never leave your passport with anyone and always have a photocopy of your personal information page available. Alternatively, take one of the many taxis. Use of the meter is an exception, unfortunately, and drivers will sometimes quote outrageous prices, especially to get you to the ferry pier. Be prepared to bargain.
Samui’s gay nightlife is centered largely in the Chaweng Beach area. Most bars and clubs are gay-friendly rather than exclusively gay. Here you are likely to meet up with some of the many Thai gays who work in the island’s extensive hospitality industry. Samui also has a number of discos, popular cabaret shows at the Moulin Rouge and Starz Cabaret where the staff are mostly gay, and several gay saunas with all the usual facilities. For after-dark cruising, Chaweng is also your destination, but please remember that this is always at your own risk. Also, as the number of gay venues keeps increasing each year, keep an eye on our listings page for the latest information.
Unlike Bangkok and Pattaya, most of the bar boys you meet on Samui will not be associated with a particular bar or club, and so you may have to negotiate with them on your own, but the price should not be any more expensive than in the cities. On the other hand, you may strike it lucky and meet up with a handsome hotel worker looking for company on his night off!
One event which attracts a major influx of young and not-so-young guys and gals is the hugely popular Full-Moon Party. This takes place each month on the crescent-shaped Haad Rin Beach on nearby Koh Phangan, just a short 25-minute speedboat ride from Bophut and Big Buddha Beaches. Any number from 10,000 to 30,000 arrive at the beach, all hot to party the entire night away from dusk until around noon the following day. Thai and international DJ’s play all types of music to whip the crowd into a frenzied party spirit, but the beach is dotted with small tables where you can cool off and meet new friends. So popular are these parties that a core of regulars fly in from as far away as Sydney and Dubai. Dates are easily checked on the internet.
So, if you are looking for the attractions of a bustling metropolis, Koh Samui is not for you. If instead you want to experience an island paradise where you just kick off your shoes, commune with nature and happily take life as it comes, this island is the perfect destination.
We’d love to see you there!
cc: 2012 GayThailand.com
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