A Visitor's Guide to Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, and Surat Thani Province
The city of Surat Thani is a main transit point for those en route to some of Thailand's most famous islands: Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, and Koh Tao. From Bangkok, visitors can reach Surat Thani by plane, train, or bus - though the latter two are long overnight trips. A number of flights arrive in Surat Thani and Koh Samui each day. As a bonus, air travel in Thailand is inexpensive, making hopping to the islands simple and convenient. There are also regular ferries out to the islands.
1 Koh Samui
This resort island is the biggest draw in Surat Thani Province, rivaled only by neighboring Koh Phangan. Popular among foreign visitors for its beautiful beaches and lush resorts, Samui offers Thai hospitality in a tropical setting that makes for a fun and relaxing vacation. Many visitors favor Samui for the opportunities to do yoga and meditation retreats as well. The island is easy to reach from Bangkok, as several flights fly directly here every day (there is also an airport in Surat Thani, from which visitors can reach other parts of the province). Picturesque fishing villages dot the island, as well as coconut and durian plantations, and waterfalls hidden in the dense jungle. Motorbike or bicycle is the preferred way of getting around, and a great way to see the island.
Koh Samui offers every kind of water sport: diving, snorkeling, windsurfing. Before taking a course, check that the diving school belongs to one of the two international associations regulating the safety standards of the equipment and quality of instruction.
Wat Hin Ngu
Near the village of Ban Hua Thanon is Wat Hin Ngu, built on stone cliffs. Once a year (around mid-March) a fair combined with a temple festival takes place in the temple grounds, drawing thousands of people from the surrounding area.
Koh Samui Beaches
A number of beautiful beaches line the island coast, providing variety and serenity in equal parts. To the south of Ban Han lies Laem Set beach, which has a beautiful coral garden off the coast and unusual rock formations. To catch the sunset, head north of Ban Thong Thanot to Phang Ka beach for a spectacular view.
At Lamai Beach, there is a rock formation colorfully described as "Mama and Papa Rocks," referring to their anatomical likeness to their names. It is located between Ban Hua Thanon and Ban Lamai, the busiest beaches on Koh Samui.
2 Koh Phangan
Surat Thani's other major draw sits a stone's throw from Samui. In fact, you can see one from the other's shores. Koh Phangan is where the monthly Full Moon Party is held, an event that overshadows the islands more genteel charms. While it is advisable to avoid Haad Rin, the Full Moon beach, there are many beautiful locations on the island that offer quiet, respite, and great underwater exploration.
Koh Phangan Beaches
Like Koh Samui, Koh Phangan has beaches that are a tourist draw. Semi-secluded Haad Yuan beach provides a nice alternative to the madness of Haad Rin, especially as this remote beach can only be reached by boat or a particularly adventurous off-road driver (there are no roads connecting these two).
A little easier to access, Srithanu is located about 30 minutes from the pier and main tourist area. It provides a perfect balance of comfort and quiet with several good restaurants and small seaside bungalow resorts. It's easy to find transportation to other parts of the island, but quiet enough that you feel you have a little piece of Phangan (almost) to yourself.
Divers will want to make it a point to check out this popular diving site, known for being one of the best areas in Thailand for swimming with a range of exotic fish, eels, and even whale sharks, if you're lucky.
3 Editor's Pick Ang Thong National Marine Park
Both Koh Samui and Koh Phangan are part of this breathtaking archipelago of 42 islands. If you take only one tour while on vacation in this area, make it one around Ang Thong. There are many tour companies that offer one-day packages, and you can typically arrange these through your hotel or guesthouse. Most include a boat tour through the islands with stops for snorkeling, kayaking and a bit of hiking to viewpoints where you can admire this amazing island chain. Limited accommodation is available in the park. Be sure to keep your camera handy and get a spot above deck because you won't want to miss the once-in-a-lifetime photo ops.
Admission: 200 THB for adults (foreigners), 100 THB for children (foreigners). Does not include tour package prices.
4 Koh Tao
Some might say the main reason to visit Koh Tao is to either go diving or get your PADI scuba diving certification. Like other islands, Koh Tao is beautiful and home to a number of dive schools close to some of the best diving spots you'll find anywhere in Thailand or Southeast Asia. It's also relatively cheap to get certified here, especially compared with other parts of the world, which is why so many flock here to learn to navigate undersea depths. Though it's certainly no off-the-beaten-path destination, Koh Tao is less tourist-laden than both Samui and Phangan.
- Travel time to the islands varies depending on where you're going and the type of boat you take. On a high-speed catamaran from Donsak Pier, the trip takes roughly an hour to Koh Samui, 2 hours to Koh Phangan, and roughly 3-4 hours to Koh Tao.
- If you arrive at the Surat Thani airport, you'll need to take a bus to Donsak Pier (about an hour drive). Tour operators eagerly await your arrival outside the airport and you can easily catch a bus from there.
- When you arrive at Samui, Phangan, and Koh Tao, you'll be at Nathon or Maenam Pier, Thongsala Pier, and Maehaad Pier, respectively. You'll likely find a number of tuk-tuk (essentially motorbike taxis with a bench strapped on) or songthaews (covered pick-up trucks that serve as public transportation) waiting at the pier. If you walk past the main crush of drivers clamoring for your attention, you can usually negotiate a better rate from drivers outside the crowd. Be prepared to pay between 100 and 300 baht, depending how far away your hotel or guesthouse is from the pier.
- All of the piers are near some of the larger towns on the islands. Maenam is a short drive from the Samui airport.
- Ferry rides between Samui and Phangan take only half an hour, making it easy to jump back and forth and see the sights on both islands.