Best of travel: Ko Samui is more than a backpackers’ paradise

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To tide us over until we’re able to travel again, we’re republishing classic travel stories from our archives. Today we revisit Laura Millar’s exploration of Thai island Ko Samui’s more luxurious side.


The taxi taking me on the ten-minute journey from Ko Samui’s tiny, open-air airport terminal to my hotel on Chaweng beach, one of the island’s most popular resorts, slows to a crawl when it hits Chaweng Road. The main artery into this area, the route comes to life after sunset when a host of raucous Irish and Aussie pubs, Thai and international restaurants, and beauty salons and massage parlours vie for trade.

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Dance music pumps out of drinking dens, with clumps of inebriated youths sucking on buckets of Thai whisky mixed with Red Bull, while glamorous creatures in skimpy outfits and high heels try to entice customers into cabaret clubs. It’s loud, and it’s fun, and if I were only a few years younger I’d be hopping out of the cab and partying with the best of them. Except I’m not, and I’ve just been on a 12 hour flight, and my back hurts, and all I want to do is lie down in a darkened room.

The car makes a left turn somewhere just after McDonalds and pulls into the driveway of my destination, The Library. Despite being just off the strip, it exudes an air of peace and quiet, and its design is an almost comedic contrast to the laid-back hostels and hotels I’ve already passed. These seemed largely Thai in style, all teak wood and white cushions, but this feels like I’ve arrived in downtown Milan, or Berlin.

Part of the Design Hotels group, floors are made of polished, poured concrete or lacquered black or red planks; buildings – including the 26 suites, restaurant, gym and, aptly, library – are cube-shaped, with floor to ceiling glass; the pool is a striking shade of scarlet. I fall gratefully into my room’s futon-like raised bed, the only sound being the late-night chirping of birds outside. Welcome to Ko Samui 2.0.

Samui, only a 45-minute flight from Bangkok, is actually Thailand’s second largest island. This, however, isn’t saying much, as you can circumnavigate it in a car in just over an hour, its interior is largely made up of forest and jungle (where coconut and durian plantations thrive), and the population is around 60,000.

But just thirty or forty years ago, there was even less here; proper roads didn’t exist until the 1970s, and the airport wasn’t even built until the 80s. Intrepid travellers had to get here by ferry from Bangkok (which took 11 hours) or (quicker) from Surat Thani, on Thailand’s east coast. Their persistence would have paid off, as they’d have found an unspoilt, undeveloped paradise, with few hotels and an abundance of nature.

Slowly, things started to change. One of the most notorious events to be born here, which started to bring partygoers in their thousands, was the Full Moon Party; it started as a small beach celebration on nearby Ko Pha Ngan (a 40 minute ferry ride away), in 1985, and swiftly turned into a global phenomenon. Up sprang the bars and budget hotels, and Samui became a tick on every backpacker’s to-do list.

But before you dismiss it completely as Thailand’s answer to Faliraki or Fuengirola, there’s much more to this island than meets the eye – no matter how long ago your partying days were.

For those who have retained their schoolboy (or girl) sense of humour, these are some rather interesting natural formations, which, let’s not, er, beat around the bush, look exactly like male and female private parts.

Standards have risen, and you can now find cool cocktail bars, fine dining restaurants and more. Luxury hotels have, it has to be said, helped; over the past decade, brands such as Banyan Tree, Four Seasons, Six Senses and Le Meridien have all staked their claim on a slice of Samui’s coastline. And with The Library – an independent boutique hotel owned, uniquely, by a local entrepreneur – sitting on a prime section of powdery white sand, fringed by the obligatory palm trees overlooking perfect turquoise water, I can see why it appeals to grown-ups who no longer want to slum it, and can afford not to.

Beyond the beach, however, there is much to impress. I start with a visit to Wat Phra Yai temple, informally known just as Big Buddha. It sits at the end of a small causeway, easily spotted from the air by visitors coming in to land. Sitting at the top of a modest flight of steps (which feel less modest when you’re climbing them in the punishing humid heat) is an impressive 12m high, gold, seated statue of Buddha. The views out to sea from his elevated perch are breathtaking.

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Less contemplative is the site of Hin Ta and Hin Yai on Lamai beach, also known as the Grandfather and Grandmother rocks. For those who have retained their schoolboy (or girl) sense of humour, these are some rather interesting natural formations, which, let’s not, er, beat around the bush, look exactly like male and female private parts. A popular local draw, they make for a few fun photos, and, as you can also get some amazing homemade coconut ice cream from one of the little stalls lining the path down to the seafront, this one’s a win-win.

If you feel like being at one with nature, or at least the incredible bath-warm waters of the Gulf of Thailand, head to the Ang Thong National Marine park, an archipelago of 42 islands full of waterfalls, cliffs and mangroves, perfect for diving, snorkeling, kayaking, or just relaxing on the pristine sand. The park’s beauty even scored it a mention in Alex Garland’s iconic novel, The Beach. Or you could head into the mountains for a spot of zip-lining through the coconut palms. You might just meet some backpackers while you’re there, though.

Still, at least now you know where to stay to escape them properly.

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