644 km (400 miles) S of Bangkok to Surat Thani; 84km (52 miles) E from Surat Thani to Koh Samui
The island of Koh Samui lies 84km (52 miles) off the east coast in the Gulf of Thailand, near the mainland commercial town of Surat Thani. Since the 1850s, Koh Samui has been visited by Chinese merchants sailing from Hainan Island in the South China Sea to trade coconuts and cotton, the island’s two most profitable products.
Since the 1970s though, the islands early merchant visitors have been replaced by a strange, camera-toting breed whose patronage has swollen the ranks of hotels and guesthouses to a phenomenal number along the popular beaches. Once a popular hippie haven of pristine beaches, idyllic bungalows, and thatched eateries along dirt roads, Samui is now an international resort area with all of the attendant comforts and crowding. If you came here as a backpacker in the past, you may not want to come back to see McDonald’s outlets where hammocks once hung, or large Walmart-style shopping malls where once island jungle grew. Koh Samui’s reputation as the “alternative Thai island” drew so many visitors in search of a utopian version of “the beach” that an international airport was opened in 1988 and now greets up to 20 packed daily flights. Fine hotels and large resorts are popping-up all over the island and any comparison with Phuket, once a far more luxurious west coast cousin, are apt.
Koh Samui is still in some places an idyllic tropical retreat with fine sand beaches and simple living — in fact many Western visitors are settling-in for their retirement on the island and talk of good real estate deals and vacation time-shares is all the buzz. You can find whatever you might want on Samui, from rustic hideaways to luxury resorts to rockin’ nightlife.
The high season on Koh Samui is from mid-December to mid-January. January to April has the best weather, before its gets hot. October through mid-December are the wettest months, with November bringing extreme rain and winds that make the east side of the island rough for swimming. August sees a brief increase in visitors, a mini-high season, but the island’s west side is often buffeted by summer monsoons from the mainland.
More than two million coconuts, reputedly the best in the region, are shipped to Bangkok each month — a massive island industry. Much of the fruit is made into coconut oil, a process that involves scraping the meat out of the shell, drying it, and pressing it to produce sweet oil. To assist farmers with Koh Samui’s indigenous breed of tall palm trees, monkeys are trained to climb them, twist loose the ripe coconuts, and gather them for their master.