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Curious about the overflowing amount of ultra-luxurious beachfront resorts and the ever-high airfares to Koh Samui, I investigate why and when this tiny island became the luxury mecca of Thailand.

Koh Samui is no doubt the shinny pearl of Thailand. With more luxury resorts than any other of the country’s island getaways, Koh Samui offers an unlimited choice of infinity pool vistas with equally endless opportunities to empty your wallet. The island also tops the world’s ranking for the highest number of beachfront hotels of any other beach destination at 270, topping Riviera Maya and Crete at 250 and 197 each, according to The beachfront Club, a website aimed at showing how close hotels and resorts are from the beach. Formerly a photographer who spent his time plotting ways to show hotels away from the beach as if they were right on it, he started this platform to make amends.

Koh Samui beachfront resorts

Intensity Map from Thebeachfrontclub.com

Most of the locally owned and ran resorts were taken over by chains such as the Sheraton, Le Meridien, Renaissance or Intercontinental between 2010 and 2012 and the island has seen a luxury boom since. Renovation projects and relaunch campaigns followed suit and today, Koh Samui is part of the well-traveled Thai circuit.

In 2014, about 44% of the visitors arriving by plane were coming as part of a tour and spend an average of 4,5 days on the island. Visitors come, 10% each, from the UK, Germany, Russia and Thailand (Source)

Koh Samui’s appeal

After almost five years in Singapore, I had yet to visit this exclusive destination. Why? Bangkok Airlines has understood the type of customer traveling from Singapore and offers invariably high fares in their “boutique airline” flights. Even with Business Class seats going for as high as $1,000 for the 2h flight, the flight is always full. To me, the usual $600+ return weekend fares on Economy never looked appetizing. For that amount, I can go to Bali or Phuket and stay at a very decent place, all in. Singapore Airlines is even more expensive. Admittedly, the airport is clean, pretty and even offers drinks and snacks in the Departure Lounge, to everyone.

Conrad Koh Samui

Conrad Koh Samui

I never understood what the high fares were all about. And, after I visiting, I still could not understand it.

Sure it is pretty, but there is little culture or sights to speak of and the beaches are unimpressive – mind you I am a spoiled brat when it comes to fluffy white sand beaches and crystalline waters. But nonetheless, the lucky few who visit this 13 kilometer island go there not in search of culture or nature, that they can find elsewhere in Thailand, they go to relax by the pool of a swanky hotel and to be pampered and served at the raise of a finger.

Koh Samui made a clear bet for the luxury and high-end segment and it understood that, most of them, don’t plan to leave the confines of their resorts anyway. So why bother to promote the area when what matters is the view, the infinity pool villa and the food? And let’s not forget the spa, hand in hand with a nurturing getaway. Koh Samui definitively lacks a sense of place. From the luxury of your own private infinity ocean pool you could be anywhere.

This is why, although many of my friends had been to Koh Samui, before I did any research, I did not have a single point of interest in mind when thinking of Koh Samui, there just isn’t a sight or a well-known place that is a must-visit. When Googling, the most common image is Nangyuan Island, near Koh Tao, 2h by speedboat from Koh Samui. That makes sense since Ko Tao was named the 5th best island in the world and the Number 1 island gem in Asia by TripAdvisor in 2015.

Other draw-backs 

On the same TripAdvisor ranking, Koh Samui came in 4th place in Asia, climbing up from 9th place in 2014. But why?

Since the airport opened in the 90s, Koh Samui has been a rather accessible island with regular flights from Thai and regional low-cost airlines and easy ferry connections to mainland for overland travelers. As one of the few and larger islands in Thailand with its own airport, Koh Samui is the entry point to a wider range of islands in the Southeast part of the country.

It is indeed true that a large proportion of visitors to Koh Samui venture out to Koh Tao, Ang Tong Marine Park, Five Islands and other islets that are less than 2h away by speedboat.

Diving in Koh Tao is extremely popular and it regularly appears as one of the eagerly recommended places to learn by fellow travel bloggers. On a sailing tour to Ang Thong you will spot hordes of Korean and Japanese tourists suited up in neoprene lugging around heavy dive tanks from the beach to the water in those early open water dive sessions.

Koh Phangan, and its well-known full moon parties and debauchery, are a mere 20min away by speedboat. I went there a couple of years ago, admittedly at too old an age to truly appreciate its value, and laughed and giggled at the many confusing if funny scenes, from people having sex on the beach to others peeing nearby. A clearly happy party-goer making a butterfly shape on the sand and too many confusing signs advertising buckets of alcohol for $15 and mushroom cakes made it clear that I was a decade too late for any of that to make any sense to me.

Why you should still visit

There seems to be a clear differentiation between the backpacker trail, with the many cheaper accommodation options and the local street food, and the ubiquitous luxury resorts which, except for the views, could be anywhere.

For those looking for genuine Thai hospitality and off-the-beaten-track areas, try looking for the Southeast part of the island where thick coconut forests prevail instead of cleared out flat beaches. Chaweng, the popular beach on the Northeast, is chockfull with noise, bright neon lights, plastic souvenirs and Same-Same vests. You could be in Phi Phi, Phuket or Khao San Road, in what looks like the globally aligned version of a Southeast Asian beach. It may be remarkably familiar and convenient, you just know what to expect. But it is also soulless and void of any sense of place.

As per the luxury segment, you will be well tended to. Butlers, buggy rides at the ring of a button, champagne sunsets and fine dining are all wide-spread. You could also be in Phuket, minus the traffic plus the hideout feel of a private bay.

Culture will be less prominent than in other parts of Thailand but that may be fine to the 1 million visitors filling the many flights a day. Your choice to make.

  • A gorgeous spot if you want to relax at the resort, and some of them are quite spectacular but as you say it’s probably not the place for those looking for the Thai culture, natural beauty or stunning beaches that first time visitors might be anticipating.

  • A great overview for an island I’ve heard only a little about. Hope to go visit Thailand and explore one of these days.

  • Nomadic Boys

    No offence but if Koh Tao and full moon party island are the main draws for coming here, that’s a major put off. We came to Koh Tao in 2012 and fell in love, then returned 3 years later and were so disappointed by how much it had been ruined. Phangan just made us feel old ahahaha! This sounds like Seminyak in Bali – great for a bit of getaway/retreat like luxury.

  • Having been to Thailand, but not the beaches in the south, I’d only heard of Koh Samui. I knew that it was a place where high-end beach resorts reigned, but I didn’t realize how devoid of any culture it was. Not being much of a beach person, I’d look to stay somewhere with more of an emphasis on culture.

  • Definitely not my cup of tea. Although I’ve never heard of it before, these islands full of resorts never really convince me to visit, luxury or not.

  • I’m actually in Thailand now and was considering a trip to Koh Samui. Thanks for all of the helpful information – lots to consider and so many lovely Islands to choose from here.

  • Lesley

    As an American traveling for more than 20 hours to get to Thailand, I never understood why someone would visit a resort without a great beach or cultural aspects but not everyone is going for the culture. Sometimes it is nice to just relax in complete luxury.

    I’m in Thailand right now but I didn’t consider Koh Samui.

  • Koh Samui may be the luxury treat for those who have been several times to Thailand already and want to hide away from the crowd. Definitely not something for me, I like to explore more of the Thai natural beauty and its rich culture.

  • Megan Claire

    Honestly doesn’t sound like my kind of destination. Thankyou for the very real and honest review – I think I much more prefer a more authentic experience when you’re making the effort to travel overseas, because really you can spend the money on a luxury retreat somewhere a lot closer by – every destination seems to have their own version of a luxury beach escape.

  • Melody Pittman

    Luxury and impeccable service certainly makes my ears perk up. Thailand has so much beauty that i wouldn’t even know where to begin. I like the remoteness of this place but would probably stay somewhere closer to more action. Loved the well-labeled map you threw in, that was helpful in understanding the location of everything.

  • Brianna @ The Casual Travelist

    While I prefer nice accommodations I don’t like to be sequestered away on a resort that could be anywhere in the world. I travel to get a sense of the destination.

  • Wow! 270 beachfront hotels on a 13km island! That’s crazy! Based on your description, the island is definitely not on my list. Probably more suitable for honeymooners – although I cannot understand the island’s attraction if it doesn’t have anything else much to offer other than hotels…

  • TravellingMom

    That looks spectacular, though some of the activities aren’t my scene. I think I can handle a resort with my own butler service, though I would want to stay far, far away from the naked, party crowd.

  • Karilyn (NoBackHome)

    I had always wanted to go to Koh Samui, but once we arrived I was a bit disappointed. I was shocked to see SO many foreigners everywhere, not just the tourists, but foreigners living there, a bowling alley, grocery stores, etc. It just did not have the charm of island life I had imagined. We have a beautiful hotel though – away from the backpacker area with gorgeous views which helped make up for the initial disappointment.

  • Nancy

    I am about to spend Christmas at one of the pool villas at the Four Seasons Koh Samui. I am excited to experience all that the island has to offer. It sounds like the Four Seasons has a lovely beach and lots of family activities.

  • Joe Ankenbauer

    I haven’t been to Koh Samui, but it’s going on my list! There are so many islands in the area, my list keeps growing and growing! Can’t wait to get started on checking them off!

  • Jenna

    I’ve heard a ton about Koh Tao, but not much about Koh Samui. Sounds very interesting–we don’t normally stay in luxury resorts, but it is fun to splurge every now and then! Would be a cool place to just check out for a couple days of relaxation–that map certainly does look like it is chock full of only beachfront luxury hotels. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Sonal Kwatra

    I have been to Thailand 4 times but never visited Koh Samui. I always thought it would be too expensive and full of resorts. I usually end up visiting the nearby Phangan and Tao islands. However, I may visit Samui as well based on your recommendations. 🙂

  • Charli & Ben

    I have to say the thought of so many resorts piled onto such a tiny island doesn’t appeal to me. Having said that I can see how the pristine sands and palm-fringed shores would appeal! An insightful piece, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • GoatsOnTheRoad

    Everywhere has it’s drawbacks, unfortunately. Koh Samui seems worth visiting despite the few cons it has!

  • I went to Koh Samui a year ago and was really disappointed. The Chaweng Beach was dirty and full of trash. The other beaches were better but I think the development on Koh Samui has already started to take its toll on its beaches. The government has to do something about the garbage situation.

    -Sherwin
    http://www.nomadilogue.com

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