This is the most popular tourist destination on the Western Gulf coast, which isn't surprising, considering Koh Samui's gorgeous beaches, perfect weather, and sparkling blue, almost turquoise, water. Koh Samui has seen rapid development since the 1990s, and you'll encounter hotels in all price ranges. Koh Samui is half the size of Phuket, so you could easily drive around it in a day. But Koh Samui is best appreciated by those who take a slower, more casual approach. Most people come for the sun and sea, so they head straight to their hotel and rarely venture beyond the beach where they are staying. Every beach has its own unique character, and with a little exploration you may find the one for you. Koh Samui is a delight to explore, and it's one of the few destinations where having a car can come in really handy. A drive along the coastal road will provide one beautiful view after another; the interior of the island isn't as scenic. Chawaeng Beach, on Koh Samui's east coast, is a fine stretch of glistening white sand divided into two main sections—Chawaeng Yai (yai means "big") and Chawaeng Noi (noi means "little"). Travelers in search of sun and fun flock here, especially during the high season. You'll find the greatest variety of hotels, restaurants, and bars here. During the day the beaches are packed with tourists, and the ocean buzzes with jet skis and banana boats. At night the streets come alive as shops, bars, and restaurants vie for your vacation allowance. But despite the crowds, Chawaeng is no Pattaya or Patong—the mood is very laid-back. A rocky headland separates Chawaeng from Koh Samui's second-most-popular beach, Lamai. Its clear water and long stretch of sand were the first place on the island to attract developers. If you are young and looking for fun, there are more budget accommodations available here than in Chawaeng, and there are quite a few happening clubs. Almost every visitor to Koh Samui makes a pilgrimage to Lamai for yet another reason: at the point marking the end of Lamai Beach stand two rocks, named Hin Yai (Grandmother Rock) and Hin Ta (Grandfather Rock). Erosion has shaped the rocks to resemble weathered and wrinkled private parts. It's nature at its most whimsical. Laem Set Bay, a small rocky cape on the southeastern tip of the island, is just south of Lamai. It's a good 3 km (2 miles) off the main road, so it's hard to reach without your own car. On the west coast of Koh Samui, Na Thon is the island's primary port and the spot where ferries arrive from the mainland. Na Thon is home to the island's governmental offices, including the Tourism Authority of Thailand. There are also banks, foreign exchange booths, travel agents, shops, restaurants, and cafés by the ferry pier. There are a few places to rent rooms, but there's really no reason to stay in Na Thon—nicer accommodations can be found a short songthaew ride away. A few other places on the northern edge of the island are worthy of exploration. On the very northwestern tip of the island you'll find Laem Yai. It's also a rather underdeveloped area—for now—that's dotted with a few mega-resorts. But there are also many tiny hole-in-the-wall seaside restaurants with delicious seafood at outrageously low prices. East of Laen Yai is Mae Nam, a long, quiet beach, suitable for swimming. Several inexpensive guesthouses and a few luxurious resorts share the 5-km (3-mile) stretch of sand. Mae Nam is also the departure point for boats bound for Koh Phangan and Koh Tao. A small headland separates Mae Nam from the north shore's other low-key community, Bophut. Bophut has a bit of nightlife—central Bophut, known to everyone as Fisherman's Village, has a beachside strip of old houses that have been converted into restaurants, bars, and boutiques. Quaint and romantic, Bophut has a devoted following of return visitors who enjoy its quiet vibe. On the northeast coast of Samui lies Choengmon Beach. A few guesthouses, a handful of luxury resorts, and some restaurants are scattered along the shore of this laid-back beach. The sand is firm and strewn with pebbles and shells, but adequate for sunbathing.
You'll find the most nighttime action in central Lamai and on Chawaeng's Soi Green Mango—a looping street chockablock with beer bars and nightclubs of all sizes.
Samui Butterfly Garden
Near Laem Set Bay you'll find the Samui Butterfly Garden, 2 acres of meandering walkways enclosed by nets that take you through kaleidoscopic clouds of butterflies.
About 4 km (2½ miles) from Lamai, at the small Chinese fishing village of Baan Hua Thanon, the road that forks inland toward Na Thon leads to the Coral Buddha, a natural formation carved by years of erosion.
The island's ultimate spa experience is at Tamarind Springs. Many different treatments are available, from hot oil massages to herbal rubs to the "Over the Top" massage package, which lasts 2½ hours. The spa employs the latest treatment methods, including the use of Tibetan singing bowls. The plunge pools, hot tubs, and tearoom are built harmoniously into Tamarind's boulder-strewn hillside.
On the inland road to Na Thon lies the village of Baan Thurian, famous for its durian trees. A track to the right climbs up into jungle-clad hills to the island's best waterfall, Na Muang. The 105-foot falls are spectacular—especially just after the rainy season—as they tumble from a limestone cliff into a small pool. You are cooled by the spray and warmed by the sun. For a thrill, swim through the curtain of falling water; you can sit on a ledge at the back to catch your breath.