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Koh Samui (Photo:lkunl/Shutterstock)
3.5 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating

By Andrea M. Rotondo
Cruise Critic Contributor

Port of Koh Samui

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.

About Koh Samui


Pro

With luxury resorts facing a beautiful beach, Koh Samui has a sophisticated feel

Con

Insistent hawkers and large crowds are a drawback for many tourists

Bottom Line

A relaxing day spent in idyllic surroundings is enhanced by inexpensive food and beachside massages


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Port Facilities

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 an ATM; keep going for three blocks and you'll hit a beach -- though it's 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) and a French bakery and Irish pub where the road deadends. The second street inland from the harbor has old wooden shop houses (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, which has 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 are on the far side of the street.

Good to Know

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.

Getting Around

On Foot: All of Nathon town is walkable from the pier, but to see the island's best 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.

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, 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.

Language

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.

Food and Drink

Seafood is plentiful and is a top choice for dining on Koh Samui, whether it's grilled, steamed, fried or served 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 need 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 from 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, including the Big Buddha and Na Muang Falls.

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.

The Sunset: Located about a 10-minute walk south of the pier, this restaurant 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, including pad thai and larb. Ingredients are fresh, portions are abundant, and there are nice touches such as orchids that grace the drinks. (175/3, Moo 3, Tambon Angthong; +66-77-421-244.)

Kob Thai Restaurant: The ambience at this restaurant near Lamai Beach in a gorgeous garden setting can't be beat. The restaurant serves authentic Thai cuisine. Order a special set tasting menu or several a la carte dishes. The sweet and sour pork shouldn't be missed nor should the mango and sticky rice dessert. (Soi Haad Lamai 3; open daily, noon to 10:30 pm.)

Pla Pla: A quick 15-minute drive from the pier, this restaurant in the Four Seasons Resort is 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 shore-side taxis, the hotel will send a limo or a taxi to fetch you. (219 Moo 5, Angthong; open daily, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; +66-77-243-000)

Le Salon de Ti: Lunch and dinner are served daily, and afternoon tea is offered on Saturdays and Sundays, at this restaurant in the Zazen Boutique Resort. (177 Moo 1)

Shopping

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.