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A Visitor's Guide to Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, and Surat Thani Province

The city of Surat Thani is a main transit point for travelers en route to some of Thailand's most famous islands: Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, and Koh Tao. Diving, snorkeling, swimming, and basking on the picturesque jungle-backed beaches are popular things to do here, as well as boat tours around the sublime seascape of Ang Thong National Marine Park.

From the Thai capital of Bangkok, you can reach Surat Thani by plane, train, or bus - though the latter two are long overnight trips. Regular ferries also run out to the islands from Donsak Pier, about 65 kilometers from Surat Thani town, as well as between all three islands - the trip between Koh Samui and Koh Phangan takes only half an hour, making it easy to island hop and see all the sights.

1 Koh Samui

Koh Samui
Koh Samui
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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 warm Thai hospitality in a quintessential tropical setting. Many visitors also favor Samui for its relaxing yoga, meditation, and wellness retreats. Picturesque fishing villages dot the island, as well as coconut and durian plantations, and waterfalls are hidden in the dense jungle. Motorbike or bicycle is the preferred method of transport and a great way to see the island.

Koh Samui offers every kind of water sport, including diving, snorkeling, and windsurfing. Other popular things to do on the island include Thai cooking classes; visiting the beautiful temples Wat Plai Laem, Wat Sila Ngu, and Big Buddha Temple (Wat Phra Yai); boat tours around the stunning seascape of Mu Ko Ang Thong National Park; and basking on the beautiful beaches.

Official site: http://www.kohsamui.com/

Koh Samui Beaches

Koh Samui Beaches
Koh Samui Beaches
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Koh Samui's beaches provide variety and serenity in equal parts. Chaweng Beach is one of the most popular on the island - and the most developed. It's home to luxury resorts like Vana Belle, A Luxury Collection Resort and Anantara Lawana Koh Samui Resort. Chaweng Noi, to the south, is one of the top-rated beaches in Thailand.

On the less developed southeast coast lies Laem Set beach, home to the holistic spa resort, Kamalaya Koh Samui. In a lovely natural setting, this peaceful, palm-fringed slice of coast has a beautiful coral garden off the coast and unusual rock formations. To catch the sunset, head northwest to Phang Ka beach for a spectacular view.

At Lamai Beach, Koh Samui's second largest resort area, look for the distinctive rock formations colorfully described as "Grandpa" (Hin Ta) and "Grandma" (Hin Yai), referring to their anatomical likeness to their names. You can stay right on the beach here at the four-star Rocky's Boutique Resort, while the five-star Banyan Tree Samui offers sumptuous villas overlooking the bay. Northeast of here, Silver Beach (Haad Thong Ta-khian) is a picturesque, palm-lined cove flanked by smooth granite boulders, with great snorkeling in the calm bay.

On the island's north coast, Bophut beach is right by the old Fisherman's Village, with its Chinese shophouses, funky boutiques, and popular Friday night market, and to the northwest, peaceful Maenam Beach offers dreamy views of Koh Phangan. You'll find an appealing range of accommodations here, from affordable backpacker bungalows to mid-range boutique hotels, like Code, and five-star resorts, like the Santiburi Koh Samui and the W Koh Samui.

2 Koh Phangan

Koh Phangan
Koh Phangan
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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's coast is more rugged than Koh Samui, with huge granite rocks and jungle-cloaked mountains rising behind the beaches. Most of the development clusters along the south and west coasts.

Koh Phangan is where the monthly Full Moon celebration is held, an event that overshadows the island's more genteel charms. If you're seeking tranquility, it's best to avoid Haad Rin, the Full Moon beach, and choose one of the many beautiful locations on the island that offer quiet respite and lovely underwater scenery. Diving and snorkeling along the colorful coral gardens are popular things to do, and you can also take a bike or cultural tour around the island.

Koh Phangan Beaches

Koh Phangan Beaches
Koh Phangan Beaches jeeheon / photo modified
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Unlike the many wide stretches of flat beach along Koh Samui, Koh Phangan's coastline tends to scallop into sheltered coves, flanked by outcroppings of granite and backed by lush hills. On the island's relatively quiet east coast, Thong Nai Pan Noi and Thong Nai Pan Yai are among the most popular beaches - Noi in particular tends to be cleaner and has plenty of food stalls. Accommodation options here range from budget resorts to the five-star Anantara Rasananda Koh Phangan Villas and the four-star Buri Rasa Koh Phangan.

On the island's northwest coast, Haad Yao, Hat Salad (Salad Beach), and Haad Son, also known as "Secret Beach," are great options, with decent snorkeling a short kick from shore. Accommodation options here are mainly budget and mid-range resorts, like the Green Papaya Resort at Salad Beach and the Sunset Hill Resort, perched high on the hills overlooking Secret Beach.

Just to the south, Haad Chao Phao, about 30 minutes from the pier and main tourist area, provides a perfect balance of comfort and quiet with several good restaurants and small seaside bungalow resorts, like Seaflower Bungalows. 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.

For a truly secluded experience, Bottle Beach (Hat Khuat) on the island's north coast is an excellent choice, but it's best accessed by longtail boat - unless you don't mind a hike through the steamy jungle along a rutted dirt road. Accommodation here is fairly basic, like the beachfront bungalows at Bottle Beach 1 Resort.

3 Editor's Pick Ang Thong National Marine Park

Ang Thong National Marine Park
Ang Thong National Marine Park
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Both Koh Samui and Koh Phangan are part of this breathtaking archipelago of 42 islands. If you take only one tour while you're on vacation in this area, make it one around Ang Thong. Many tour companies 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 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 find a spot above deck, because you won't want to miss the breathtaking photo ops.

4 Koh Tao

Koh Tao
Koh Tao
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From the air, Ko Tao looks like mounds of granite boulders cloaked in green, drifting on a jade-green sea and linked by dazzling sweeps of white sand beach. Besides dreamy, tropical scenery, diving is the big attraction here. Colorful coral reefs lace the clear waters that are home to some of the best diving spots in Southeast Asia. Vast schools of fish, brightly-colored sea anemones, stingrays, and even whale sharks are among the sea creatures spotted here, and the island is a popular and relatively affordable place to obtain PADI scuba diving certification. Though it's certainly no off-the-beaten-path destination, Koh Tao typically has less tourists than both Samui and Phangan. Accommodation consists mainly of villas and bungalows that peek out from the jungly slopes, with breathtaking views of the bay, like Monkey Flower Villas and The Place Luxury Boutique Villas

Official site: http://www.kohtao.com/

5 Sail Rock

Sail Rock
Sail Rock Remko Tanis / photo modified
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Divers will want to make it a point to check out this popular diving site between Koh Tao and Koh Phangan, marked by a huge limestone rock jutting 10 meters out of the water. This famous wall dive, with a maximum depth of about 40 meters, is known for being one of the best areas in Thailand for swimming with a range of exotic fish, and even whale sharks, if you're lucky. You can also see giant black coral; moray eels; and large schools of fish, such as batfish, snapper, and trevally. Another feature is the vertical chimney swim-through. Sail Rock is suitable for all levels of divers, depending on conditions.

Where to Stay in Surat Thani Province for Sightseeing

We recommend these great-value hotels near the beach in Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, and Koh Tao:

  • Poppies Samui: luxury Koh Samui resort, beachfront setting, tropical gardens, Thai-style cottages, thoughtful touches, complimentary breakfast and arrival gifts.
  • Buri Rasa Koh Phangan: mid-range Koh Phangan resort, traditional thatched buildings, cooking classes, free use of kayaks, outdoor pool.
  • View Point Resort: affordable Koh Tao villas, small beach, stunning sea views, smiling staff, infinity pools.
  • City Dance Hotel: budget Koh Samui hotel, opposite Chaweng Beach, near restaurants and entertainment, trendy feel.

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