Koh Samui—Thailand's second largest island after Phuket—boasts a relaxed setting with picturesque beaches, serene waterfalls, and luxurious spas, along with several sacred spaces. You’ll also find quirky (and free) attractions, a thriving food scene, and a bustling village, making it the perfect destination for budget-minded travelers who are looking for more than just a quiet tropical getaway.
What to Do & See
Similar to the rest of Thailand, Koh Samui’s top attractions include its stretches of white-sand beaches and lush tropical landscapes, as well as its fair share of sacred temples and statues.
Ang Thong Marine National Park, a protected area that comprises more than 40 islands, is a must-do day excursion. Many Koh Samui charter companies offer a range of boat options to fit any budget and group size; travel time to the park is about one hour by speedboat or two to three hours by a slower (cheaper) boat. There, you can snorkel, hike, sea kayak, dive, or just relax. Ang Thong became popular among backpackers after appearing in The Beach by Alex Garland, even though the movie of the same name starring Leonardo DiCaprio was filmed on Koh Phi Phi Leh.
Sitting just off Koh Samui, the giant Big Buddha Temple, known as Wat Phra Yai, is a welcome sight for visitors landing on the island. The 39-foot-tall seated golden statue was built in 1972 and serves as a mecca for Buddhist devotees and tourists alike. Take note: Since it is a religious site, you'll need to dress appropriately and cover your shoulders and knees. While the temple is free to visit, there are plenty of surrounding souvenir shops that will gladly take your money. Connected to Koh Samui by a causeway, the temple is about two miles north of Samui International Airport, two miles east of Bophut Beach, and less than five miles from Chaweng Beach. Close to the Big Buddha, you’ll also find the Buddhist temple compound known as Wat Plai Laem; it includes an impressive 18-armed statue of Guanyin, the goddess of mercy and compassion. Again, it’s free to enter, but donations are accepted.
Other sights include Fisherman’s Village in Bophut, which features boutiques, restaurants, and hotels, as well as a budget-friendly market every Friday with stalls selling souvenirs and treats; Hin Ta and Hin Yai, rock formations on Koh Samui’s south coast that are known as grandpa (Ta) and grandma (Yai) and look like, well, male and female naughty bits (or so say locals); and the Mummified Monk at Wat Khunaram, the body of a monk who died in a seated meditation position, now enclosed in a glass display case.
Where to Eat & Drink
Although the influx of tourists into Thailand has caused some meal prices to jump, snagging an affordable bite is still totally doable in Koh Samui, whether via street food stalls, traditional restaurants, or beach-side seafood shacks, like the favorite Haad Bang Po. There, grab a seat in the sand and try the red snapper, prawns, and coconut soup for just a few bucks. In addition to the seemingly boundless casual eateries across the island, there are plenty of upscale options that may be pricey by Thai standards but are still somewhat affordable for a vacation splurge. For example, at Six Senses Samui resort’s award-winning Dining on the Rocks restaurant, you can order a la carte or take a “culinary journey”—prix fixe menus that start at $87.50 (without wine) and $150 (with). Plus, the waterfront restaurant offers 270-degree views of the gulf.
When to Go
For the best combo of weather and deals, head to Koh Samui during the hottest months (April, May, and June). Yes, it’s hot and humid, but sunny and not as congested with tourists. For even better deals, travel during the wet season (from May to October). These are the rainiest months, but there’s still a chance of scoring some sunshine.