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

By Cruise Critic Staff

Port of Koh Samui

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.

About Koh Samui


Pro

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

Con

Typical tourist attractions, insistent hawkers and large crowds should be avoided

Bottom Line

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


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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).

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.

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 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.

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.

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. 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.

Shopping

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.

Best Cocktail

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.