Golden Buddha in Koh Samui
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Koh Samui Overview
Just 25 years ago, Koh Samui was a sleepy backwater, 310 miles south of Bangkok in the Gulf of Thailand, where inhabitants made a living from fishing and coconut farming. What a difference a couple of decades make. Thailand's third-largest island (koh actually means "island" in Thai, and many locals leave it off of the name) was "discovered" in the late 1980's by the backpacker crowd, who spread the word about its white-sand beaches and clear waters. Budget lodgings replaced beach shacks, and luxury resorts, tourist operators and souvenir hawkers soon followed.
Today the population is more than 50,000, with 1.5 million tourists visiting per year. Cruise ships put in (most require tenders) at Nathon (or Na Thon -- either way, the "h" is silent), the island's old commercial center, which is also a ferry port. Though maligned in guidebooks, the town can make for a relaxed afternoon off of the ship, with its old Chinese shophouses built by itinerant traders, restaurants, Thai massage spots and stores. For the more adventurous, there are plenty of beaches and sights around the 95-square-mile island (including Grandmother Rock and Grandfather Rock, which are known for their slightly X-rated shapes).
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Other Asia Cruise Ports:
Bangkok (Laem Chabang) • Beijing • Cochin • Da Nang • Hanoi • Hiroshima • Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) • Hong Kong • Kelang (Kuala Lumpur) • Kobe • Koh Samui • Langkawi • Mumbai (Bombay) • Nagasaki • Osaka • Penang • Saipan • Seoul (Incheon) • Shanghai • Sihanoukville • Singapore • Yangon (Rangoon)
While you'll find the usual mixed drinks most anywhere, Singha beer is Thailand's preferred brew, and one (or five) is a great way to stay cool in Samui's heat. Nonalcoholic fruit shakes (usually made with fruit, ice and sugar syrup) are also an island specialty -- our favorite is mango.
Samui's coconut plantations provide raw materials for some of the most fun and useful souvenirs, from kitschy carved coconut-husk monkeys to more elegant coconut-wood serving utensils and bowls. You'll also find basket work, cheap cotton beachwear and Thai silk -- though if you're going elsewhere in Thailand, this may not be the best place to buy silk items.
Most locals who interact with tourists speak at least some English, and business signs are often in both Thai and English. When locals greet you, they'll hold their hands palm-to-palm, as if praying to you. No, you're not a god. Don't let it go to your head. Just simply return the gesture. If you are a woman, "hello" is "Sah-wah-dee-kaaah!" If you're a man, it's "Sah-wah-dee-krop!" "Thank you" also differs according to the speaker's gender: "Kahp-koon-kaaah" for women and "Kahp-koon-krop" for men.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Thailand's currency is the baht. For currency conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. While dollars and euros are readily accepted on Koh Samui, ATM's are also plentiful. You'll find bank ATM's within easy walking distance on both of Nathon's main commercial streets, which run parallel to the shore, though there are more choices on Thawi Ratchaphakdi Road. There are additional ATM's throughout the island, at banks and the ubiquitous 7-Elevens. Credit cards are usually accepted by larger businesses but it's a good idea to ask first. For the best conversion rate, make sure your credit card purchases are charged in baht, not converted to dollars.
Where You're Docked
The port at Nathon consists of three piers, so be sure to note a landmark at the foot of your pier so you're not watching the day's final tender sail away from the wrong one. Once off the pier, you're in the center of town, with all the basic services you'll need.
There is no cruise terminal at Nathon, but as you exit the pier, the harbor road offers up a Coffee Island that will provide both caffeine and free Wi-Fi fixes. Head to the right along the harbor (Chonwithi Road) for a 7-Eleven (with a mailbox), an Internet facility and a bank ATM; keep going for three blocks, and you'll hit a beach -- though not the cleanest, due to all the nearby marine traffic.
If you go straight ahead from the center pier, there will be a pharmacy in the first block (left side). The second street inland from the harbor has old wooden shophouses (the best ones are to the right); peek inside, and you'll see ancestral photos hanging in places of honor. The third street in from the harbor is the main commercial street, Thawi Ratchaphakdi Road, with multiple banks, a Watson's pharmacy, restaurants, shops and Thai massage spots. There are also shops selling all sorts of Thai products, including clothing, shoes, T-shirts, woven bags and souvenirs. There's even a fascinating storefront featuring temple offerings. Going right on Thawi Ratchaphakdi Road, you'll also find a covered food market, which is most lively in the morning, and the gateway to an interesting little Hainanese temple, both on the far side of the street.
On Foot: All of Nathon town is walkable from the pier, but to see the island's renowned beaches and other attractions, you'll need transportation.
By Taxi: Taxis, van drivers and tour companies will all be waiting at the pier, clamoring for your business. Prices are negotiable, so be sure to bargain. It's also a good idea to have a short conversation with your potential driver to confirm that you can communicate. Expect to pay around $20 per person for a full car or van to tour Samui's sights for the day; drivers will charge more per person if there are just a couple of you.
By Bus: Songthaews, small open-air trucks with benches, circle the island's ring road. You can flag one and negotiate a fare, which should be 60 baht or less, depending on how far you're going.
Watch Out For
If you visit a public beach, you'll be greeted by a parade of hawkers selling food, clothing, crafts and pedicures. Most are friendly, but it can get a bit tedious. If you agree to a pedicure or foot massage from one of the roving suppliers, be absolutely certain that you set the price ahead of time and both parties are clear on the amount. There have been some reports of problems with this, though we didn't experience any.
Shorts and bare arms aren't considered appropriate at Thai temples, so be sure to dress conservatively, or carry a shawl to throw around your shoulders.
Don't drink the local water; ice cubes, however, are usually safe and made with purified water.
The unlabeled liquor bottles you see displayed for sale along the roadside aren't homemade local hooch -- they contain gasoline. It's sold that way by roadside entrepreneurs as a convenience for scooter-riders.
Koh Samui's big draw is its beaches. Take a dip or get a Thai massage at one of the stands on the beach (around $10 or less for one hour). Many restaurants offer beach chairs and waterfront service.
Grandfather Rock and Grandmother Rock are named for their resemblance to certain -- ahem -- anatomical parts. They're located at the far southern end of Lamai Beach. You can see them from shore or on a tour boat. We all have certain friends who will appreciate a postcard with these landmarks.
There are several waterfalls on the island's more mountainous interior, including the tallest, twin Na Muang Falls, which are an easy taxi trip from the port. The water cascades over purple rocks, with the first falls easily accessible from the road and the second reachable by hiking or getting a lift on an elephant. There are also food stalls along the entrance walkway.
Wat Phra Yai and its 79-foot-tall golden Buddha statue offer good views of the northern coast and out over the water -- if you're willing to climb an impressive flight of 72 steps. There are shopping stalls at ground level with clothing and crafts, plus carts selling tasty Samui crepes, which are worth ordering just to watch the show as they're made.
Wat Plai Laem isn't far from Wat Phra Yai and is home to an 18-armed Buddha and voracious fish in the surrounding lake. (Buddhists consider it an act of merit to feed them; food is for sale.)
Creepy but popular, the mummified monk at Wat Khunaram is sitting in the lotus position, exactly as he was when he died. He's in a glass case to the right as you enter.
If temples and scenery aren't your thing, you can take in attractions like the Samui Monkey Theater, Samui Snake Farm, Samui Aquarium and Tiger Zoo or Samui Butterfly Garden, depending on which critters appeal to you.
Been There, Done That
Snorkelers can enjoy a trip to Ang Thong National Marine Park with a company like 100 Degrees East or In Sea Speedboat. The trip is best arranged in advance, and to maximize your time, be sure transport is by speedboat. It's a popular area, so it can be crowded during some times of the year. Scuba and kayaking can also be arranged.
Spa options abound on Samui. Go for a traditional Thai massage (like a combo of pressure points, physical therapy and wrestling). Plenty of basic massage shops line the streets in Nathon ($7-10 for a massage), or for a more upscale option, book at seaside Ban Sabai (a two-hour massage is 1,800 baht). But if you're up for something really different, head to a fish spa, where little finned friends nibble the dead skin off of your feet or entire body -- not for the ticklish! Try Dr. Fish. (200/16 Moo 2 Chaweng Beach Road, Tambon Bophut; Opposite Top's Market and Al's Resort)
Take a lunchtime Thai cooking class at highly regarded Samui Institute of Thai Culinary Arts. The three-hour class costs 1,950 baht and includes at least three dishes with a different Thai curry each day. (46/6 Moo 3, Chaweng Beach)
Golfers can swing some clubs at several locations on Koh Samui. They're listed at this golfing Web site. Online reservations for the top two courses can be made via Samui Golf.
Best Beach for Those Who Don't Want to Get Away from It All: Chaweng Beach is the island's most famous crescent of sand, crammed with restaurants, pubs, souvenir hawkers and hotels. Less than an hour's drive from the pier (depending on traffic) it's a prime place for beach activities like jet-skiing and banana boating, and there are also plenty of spots for beachside massages. On the downside, all that activity means it's a far cry from the tranquil "island paradise" atmosphere that originally drew travelers. The sand has a gentle slope, so the stretch of shallow water is perfect for those who like to splash rather than swim.
Best Beach for Relaxing: Choeng Mon Beach is the quintessential palm-fringed paradise, located on the island's northeast peninsula, not far from the Big Buddha. Also about an hour's drive from the pier, it's a quieter scene, though there are still hotels located along the 1/2-mile stretch of sand. But because the hotels are up-market, it tends to be less rowdy and a better spot for families. If you feel like being active, rent a kayak and paddle out to the islet that sits just offshore.
Best Beach for Local Culture: Bophut Beach's sand is a bit coarse, narrow and steep, and the water is sometimes a bit murky, but it has the advantage of being near Bophut fishing village, where you can still spot old Chinese shophouses, despite a recent spurt of development. Many of the shophouses have been converted into restaurants and trendy boutiques. Located about 40 minutes from the pier on the island's north shore, this is also a popular departure point for snorkeling and scuba trips.
Seafood is plentiful and is a top choice for dining on Koh Samui, whether it's grilled, steamed, fried or in a curry. Steamed whole fish is often prepared with garlic and ginger, while curries can turn up the heat with fiery peppers. Most restaurants know that farangs (foreigners) like things a bit less spicy, though. Thai basil and lemongrass are other accents you'll encounter in the local cuisine.
Thais eat with a spoon in one hand and a fork in the other, using the spoon to lift food to their mouths. No worries about needing to master chopsticks!
Street food vendors set up carts south of the pier in a large parking lot next to the water. Noodle dishes, grilled fish, skewers of meat, larb (a salad of minced meat or fish) and green papaya salad are typical offerings, at rock-bottom prices. As always, be very cautious about hygiene when eating at street vendors. We always look for carts with a long line of locals. There are also roving food vendors on the beaches, and carts in the vicinity of other attractions, like the Big Buddha and Na Muang Falls.
The Sunset, about a 10-minute walk south of the pier, has outdoor tables under shady trees and pergolas with a view of the water. Follow the harbor road (Chonwithi Road) until it makes a 90-degree turn inland, and you're at the restaurant. The menu has both Thai and Western dishes, with seafood playing a starring role. We had a savory mackerel curry, but there's a wide choice of Thai favorites, like pad thai and larb. Ingredients are fresh, portions are abundant, and there are nice touches like orchids that grace the drinks. (175/3, Moo 3, Tambon Angthong; +66 77 421 244)
Spirit House is a calm oasis, just footsteps from the hubbub of Chaweng Beach. Located in a resort and spa complex, the restaurant is set in a converted temple, nestled in greenery and surrounded by a lotus pond, waterfalls and canals. Duck curry is a specialty, and you'll also find pad thai noodles and larb. In addition, the menu features fusion dishes like beef fillet with lemongrass and black pepper sauce. They offer cooking classes, as well. (155/60 Moo 2, Chawengg; noon to 10:30 p.m.; +66 77 414 101)
Pla Pla at the Four Seasons Resort is a quick 15-minute drive from the pier, perfect for those who want a splurge meal in a gorgeous, serene setting. The restaurant has both terrace and beach dining on the resort's private swath of sand, with a menu offering a range of dishes, including Thai, European and even pizzas and burgers. Thai specialties include seafood coconut soup (kati talay), deep-fried fish with sweet chili sauce (pla tord) and grilled calamari salad. If you don't want to haggle with shoreside taxis, the hotel will send a limo (1,070 baht each way) or a taxi (300 baht each way) to fetch you. (219 Moo 5, Angthong; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily; +66 77 243-000)
Staying in Touch
The i7NET Internet Café is on Nathon's harbor road (Chonwithi Road), about a five-minute walk south of the piers. It's a hole in the wall, frequented by young gamers, but we found the high-speed connection to be excellent, and the computers (with American-configured keyboards) worked well. It'll cost you about 60 baht per hour. (+66 77 236 091) Many cafes, including Coffee Island, just off the pier, offer free Wi-Fi if you have your own device, though we found the connections to be slow.
Best for First-Timers: Most lines offer half-day and full-day Samui highlights tours, which will typically include a visit to the Big Buddha, one or more additional temples, a waterfall, a demonstration of how trained monkeys scamper up a tree to pluck coconuts and possibly a trip to a coconut processing facility, where you'll see how coconuts are husked, cracked and grated. Full-day trips typically offer a buffet lunch at Chaweng Beach.
Best for Beach Bums: A popular option is an excursion to a high-end resort's private beach area (usually at Chaweng, but sometimes Bophut), where you have clean sand, loungers and umbrellas at your disposal. Some tours also include lunch at the resort and day-use of a hotel room. But considering that most resorts and beach restaurants are happy to have you set up camp in their area if you purchase food or drink, you can save money by organizing your own transportation to a beach.
Best for Intrepid Explorers: Trips by four-wheel-drive vehicle into the island's mountainous interior usually include an elephant trek in the jungle and demonstration of coconut-harvesting by monkeys. Most trips also visit Na Muang Falls.
Best for Foodies: Koh Samui is known for its Thai cooking classes, and many resorts and restaurants offer lessons. A few cruise lines offer classes as packaged shore excursions, too.
For More Information
On the web: Thailand Tourist Board.
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Asia.
The Independent Traveler Message Boards: Thailand and Asia.