Koh Samui (Home to the Diamond)
Of the three habitable islands, Samui is the largest and also the most developed, therefore offering the most luxury options with regards to accommodation. That’s not to say you can’t find a quite beach to string your hammock, particularly along the quieter south and west coast. There’s plenty to see and do on Samui, whether you’re looking for action, adventure, beach, nightlife or shopping. Accommodation ranges from backpacker to ultra-luxury resorts as well as private villas for rent, making Samui the perfect island for you to base yourself for a Gulf of Thailand holiday.
However, when you’re feeling adventurous, from Samui it’s easy to take day trips or short exploration breaks to the neighbouring islands of Koh Phangan and Koh Tao as well as the marine park for a change of scenery.
The Angthong National Marine Park
The marine park is located north and west of Samui, and is within sight of Samui on clear days. It covers an area of 102KM₂, 18KM₂ of which is landmass in the form of 42 islands and limestone massifs, reaching 10-400m above sea level. Previously a hide out for pirates, Angthong is now patrolled by the Thai navy, and was established as a national park in 1980.
The islands of the park are covered in beach forest, mangrove forest and limestone forest areas, and are home to an abundant bird life as well as Asian Long-tailed Monkeys, sea turtles, tortoises, lizards, pythons and wild pigs. An abundance of sea life is at home in crystal waters making for good snorkelling conditions, although the best snorkelling is around Koh Tao, or near Koh Tan just off Samui. Tall limestone massifs with jagged rocky overhangs that lead through to hidden lakes, make it easy to imagine this being a perfect pirates’ refuge. Hike up a wooden path on Koh Mae (Mother island) to an amazing view across to the Emerald Lake (Thale Nai). Angthong, and in particular, this lake, was the inspiration for the book and movie ‘The Beach’, starring Leonardo Di Caprio, and in fact half of the movie was shot on location here, as well as at islands on the Andaman Coast. Or hike up paths with ropes and steps, leading to a lookout on the main island of Koh Wua Talap (Sleeping Cow Island), offering stunning views across the whole park. Angthong is also home to a sea gypsy village on Koh Paluay.
Koh Phangan, 20km away from Samui, is about two thirds the size of Samui, but is not as developed, mostly due to the fact that it’s more mountainous and not all beaches can be reached by road – but taxi boats take visitors from bay to bay.
Koh Phangan is most famously (or infamously) known for its monthly Full Moon Parties held on Had Rin Beach, where tens of thousands of party revellers enjoy live deejays, fire shows and ‘bucket’ cocktails. If this party scene is not for you, don’t be put off from visiting the island as the rest of the month it’s a tranquil location, and the effects of the Full Moon Party are not felt further afield than Had Rin beach.
Koh Tao and Koh Nangyuan
Koh Tao (Turtle Island), 70km from Samui, is mostly visited by divers, as it’s home to some of the best dive and snorkelling sites in the Gulf of Thailand. Several dive schools operate from here and the choice of accommodation is growing, although there are fewer high-end resorts than on Samui. Most roads are still dirt, and there are no big supermarkets around, and little in the way of fine-dining. For this reason, many prefer to stay on Samui, as a day trip to Koh Tao is only 1.5 hours away.
Koh Nangyuan is a small private island about 15 minutes by boat from Koh Tao. Actually, it’s three small islands connected by a white sandy beach, surrounded by crystal clear water, teaming with sea-life and ideal for snorkelling.
Koh Tan, Koh Matsum and the Five Islands off Koh Samui.
Samui is neighbour to a few small islands in the south-west. Firstly, There're the Five Islands. They're known locally in Thai as ‘Koh Si Koh Ha’, meaning ‘Four Islands-Five Islands’, as one is hidden behind another. They're home to swifts, known for their famous nests which are the main ingredient in birds’ nest soup. The birds are protected as their nests sell for thousands of US dollars. Sea Gypsies are the only human inhabitants of the Five Islands, their small wooden homes perched on rocky outcrops – much like nests themselves. These gypsies are employed to guard the nests from poachers trying to get their hands on this 'precious' commodity.
Koh Tan, a few hundred metres off the coast from Taling Ngam fishing village, is a small, mostly unspoilt island, known for its good snorkelling. Here you'll see giant clams, coral and various tropical fish living in and around the protected reefs. Koh Matsum is just south of Ko Tan and its long white beach makes it a popular spot for a day trip and picnics with the locals. Koh Tan is known throughout the region as the island without dogs. According to local legend, any dog that has been taken to live there has quickly lost its mind, but oddly the local dog population seems unaffected by this fate. Well, actually, it's the high-pitched calls of bats in the caves that drive the dogs mad, but a good story, none-the-less.