Just 25 years ago, Koh Samui -- located 310 miles south of Bangkok in the Gulf of Thailand -- was a sleepy backwater 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 1980s by the backpacker crowd, who spread the word about its white-sand beaches and clear waters. Budget lodgings quickly replaced beach shacks, and luxury resorts, tourist operators and souvenir hawkers soon followed.
Today, the population is more than 62,000, with an additional 1.5 million tourists visiting per year. Cruise ships anchor at Nathon Pier on Ang Thong Road, the island's old commercial center, which is also a ferry port. Cruisers tender from their ship to the pier. Though maligned in guidebooks, the town can make for a relaxed afternoon off the ship, with its old Chinese shop houses built by itinerant traders, plus 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.
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, 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 and water 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.
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, ATMs are also plentiful. You'll find bank ATMs 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 ATMs throughout the island, located 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.
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. 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.
Samui's coconut plantations provide raw materials for some of the most fun and useful souvenirs for sale on the island, 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).
Central Festival Samui: You'll likely visit Chaweng Beach, and when you do, you'll have easy access to Central Festival Samui (209/1-2, Moo 2, Bophut), a three-story, open-air atrium shopping mall. Brand names such as Uniqlo, Adidas, Esprit and Jim Thompson have stores here, and you'll also find restaurants where you can buy snacks such as soft pretzels, ice cream and coffee.
Classic Gems: Also located on Chaweng Beach Road (opposite Centara Grand Beach Resort, 46/1-3 Ruck Samui Building), this jewelry shop has been here since 1998 and has a good reputation as a reliable vendor selling certified gemstones. Shop for necklaces, bracelets, brooches and rings.