Last week we spent six nights on Koh Samui, the second most popular island destination in Thailand. To be honest, we weren’t all that impressed with Koh Samui. Being such a popular tourist desintation we were expecting it to be developed but we weren’t expecting it to be THAT developed. There’s not an inch of coastline that doesn’t have some development on it. Even the headlands are lined with hotels. In between it’s wall to wall eating places, souvenir shops and businesses supporting the tourism trade.
I think perhaps our recent week on the Perhentians have spoiled us for any island that isn’t under-developed and offers snorkeling in crystal clear waters 3m offshore.
Still, Koh Samui has a lot to recommend it – lovely beaches, not too hectic despite the development, friendly helpful locals and amazing food (albeit overpriced in comparison to the exact same dishes that you could order in Chiang Mai for a quarter of the prices although it’s a touristy island so that is not surprising). And we did have a fantastic week. Here’s a snapshot of our week.
Lazy days by the swimming pool
We stayed on Mae Nam Beach, a 15 minute drive from the main tourist beach of Chaeweng at a small place called Phalarn Inn. The family room’s need a renovation but it was huge and everything else was lovely, particularly the owner and the restaurant.
We spent a lot of time in the pool. Mornings, lunch time, afternoons. Even during heavy rain. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover the children are now part fish. Noah and Hayley had a lot of fun with Bubba Cole in the pool … when Hayley wasn’t playing doctor and hairdresser with Drew Gilbert and her watering can.
I have to say I’m still rather in awe of Drew’s ability to remain calm in the face over everything, whether it’s jumping into the pool and realising his beloved iPhone is in his pocket or having water constantly tipped on him by a 4 year old. Neither resulted in swearing, yelling or pleas for time out.
I’m still not sure what is more impressive – the lack of swearing over the drenched phone or his patience with Hayley.
Nights markets and beers
On our second night we stumbled across a night market in Mae Nam. New swimmers for me, Nemo balloons for the kids and tasty treats for all before discovering a new German restaurant to eat dinner in. Thanks to the beer involved our recollections of the night are something like this …
Actually our recall of a lot of the week is like this. What can we say, the Gilberts were great company over beers once the kids had gone to bed.
Waterfalls 2, Burns’ 0
In an attempt to see more of the island than just the hotel’s swimming pool we got directions to the nearby Hin Lat waterfall that we’d been assured was a short 5min walk from the carpark. Unfortunately we went to the wrong waterfall without realising it. After someone had the bright idea of walking up the stream rather than by the path, which turned into a scramble up hot rocks with kids, we went back to the path and continued to walk and walk before eventually the sun got the better of Bubba Cole.
(Actually it got the better of all of us but lets all just pretend the reason we didn’t make it to the waterfall was because of the baby )
A few days later Colin, I and the kids went to the right waterfall. The promised 5 min walk actually turned into a good 45min jungle hike with lots of rocks and tree roots to clamber over and – as we discovered after Noah came back running and screaming – scorpions. After the scorpion incident the kids were understandably freaked and we again we made the mistake of thinking it looked easier to walk up the creek. This time Hayley was the one that melted down. Thinking it was only a five minute walk we’d only brought one water bottle and no snacks. She was “tired and hot and STARVING”.
We returned to play in the stream after a few more melt downs along the way, while the boys continued onto the falls. Which they assure me were less than spectacular anyway.
It turns out the promised 5 minute walk at Hin Lat waterfall was only to the stream and temple at the start of the walking track where you can feed large cat fish in the murky water and drink coffee from possibly the coolest mobile coffee vendor I’ve ever seen.
Dining out at Chaweng Beach
Despite how developed and touristy Chaweng Beach is we actually really enjoyed it. It’s a cleaner, calmer version of Kuta in Bali with less touts and scooters. An added benefit is the beach is shady in the afternoon, the sand is fine and the water is shallow for a long way out so it’s a great place with young kids. I’m not sure I’d stay here but it’s certainly a nice beach to visit. Mae Nam beach at the western end where we were staying was very steep, course sand and the water got deep quite quickly, so we really only ended up there twice, preferring to head into Chaweng Beach.
We ended up at Chaweng Beach three times for milkshakes, swims and dinner.
Koh Samui – so what’s our verdict?
If nice resorts, reliable internet and electricity, great customer service and lots of dining out options are a must for your holiday, and you don’t mind nice but not idyllic beaches, than Koh Samui is perfect for you. The bonus of being so developed is there are a couple of shopping centres with AC and fast food chains, which is always nice when it’s hot outside and the kids are tired of local foods.
For us the biggest negative was the overpricing of tours. We came to Koh Samui hoping to do some diving and snorkelling but just couldn’t justify the ridiculous costs the tour boats were charging to take you to the nearest snorkelling locations. A day trip for the four of us, including lunch, snorkelling and a short kayaking trip would have cost $150 AUD. Two dives would have set me back a similar price just for me. Even just catching a boat to another island without a tour was expensive.
We decided to save our money and go back to the Perhentians where snorkelling is the cost of hiring a mask and a dive the same price as a pizza.
Taxis were also expensive – it was far cheaper to rent a motorbike (or two) for the day than catch a return taxi anywhere.
Food was overpriced but you could find reasonable options if you looked around. We ate in a lot of different places and didn’t once have a bad meal. If you want to splurge, try John’s Garden Restaurant near Phalarn Inn. The massaman curry was amazing.
We really enjoyed our time on Koh Samui and would happily go back but it wouldn’t be our first pick of islands in Asia. I asked the kids and they said if they had to pick their perfect pirate island it would be the Perhentians in Malaysia, so that’s where we would be looking for our Treasure Island rental. The isolated beaches, limited development and snorkeling right off shore are fantastic, even if it means you have to compromise on food and service! If you want somewhere half between the over-development of Koh Samui and the isolation of the Perhentians, try Koh Lanta in Thailand or Langkawi in Malaysia.