Now that Thailand is welcoming vaccinated travellers, writer Michael Turtle gives the lowdown on an island favourite, Koh Samui.

When Alex Garland wrote his 1996 novel The Beach, he set it in the Gulf of Thailand, with the tropical islands south of Bangkok the perfect place for a story about a search for an idyllic hidden paradise. These days, it’s hard to imagine there could be an undiscovered community of backpackers on one of the islands here, but thankfully you can still find your own paradise.

The largest destination in the gulf, Koh Samui, with its rolling mountains of tropical jungle and palm-shaded villas, is a tranquil alternative to the more crowded Phuket on the west coast. And, with its own airport and direct flights from the capital, it’s much more accessible than neighbouring Koh Phangan or Koh Tao. Whether it’s nightlife, relaxation or family fun, there are plenty of things to do on Koh Samui and it’s no surprise it’s become one of the hottest destinations in Thailand.

Beaches

While none of them are “the beach”, there are more than 40 beautiful sandy stretches around the 50 kilometres of the coastline and these beaches are the island’s main attraction. Chaweng is the busiest, with fast-food restaurants and massage parlours on the main street, lounges and beanbags on the sand… plus even more massages. Nearby, Lamai is more relaxed but still has plenty of shops and restaurants. To find a bit of isolation, head to the beaches on the west coast, such as Lipa Noi or Bang Por, where palm trees reach out towards the turquoise water.

Marine park

You’ll find even more beautiful beaches in Ang Thong Marine Park, a protected area of 42 islands off the coast of Koh Samui. These pockets of limestone rise from the sea with dramatic cliffs and peaks of thick green jungle. Some have stunning cave complexes to explore, while others are famous for their bright white sand. All but two are uninhabited and most people will visit the marine park on a speedboat tour that stops at several locations and includes time for some snorkelling.

Fisherman’s Village

The waters around Koh Samui were once an abundant source of fish and, although there’s not much of an industry left these days. Fisherman’s Village is the legacy of those who came here when it was the lifeblood of the island. Quaint historic buildings still stand along the narrow alleys and many of them house trendy cafes and restaurants. It’s a wonderful place to visit for the heritage and the shopping, with dining options offering beautiful views along the waterfront.

The temple

While a relaxing holiday by the water is the main reason people come to Koh Samui, there’s also a rich cultural side to the island – and one of the best places to see this is at the Big Buddha. Officially known as Wat Phra Yai, the iconic temple is built on a small island connected by a causeway, with a 12-metre-high Buddha statue glinting in the sunshine at the top of a long flight of stairs. Around it are other sacred buildings visited by local worshippers, while at the entrance there’s a large bazaar with Buddhist souvenirs. 

The other temple

Nearby, another Buddhist site called Wat Plai Laem receives fewer visitors but is actually more visually spectacular. On a platform in a lake, a 30-metre-high colourful statue of a Chinese-style Buddha has its mouth open wide in laughter, while a few metres away, another platform supports a similarly sized statue of the goddess of mercy, Guanyin, with 18 arms protruding from her body. This modern temple was built in 2004 and, although flashier than the traditional religious sites, has become an important landmark on Koh Samui.

Street food

New luxury resorts in recent years have brought a fresh range of fine dining to the island, but they’re generally only found within the walls of upscale accommodation. To find local dishes, head to the markets where a couple of dollars will get you some amazing street food. The easiest option is Chaweng Night Market, which is open six days a week. Smaller markets at some of the more remote beaches will offer more authentic cuisine, but they are often only open one night a week.

Jungle tours

Beyond the coast, away from most of the accommodation and other development, the mountains of Koh Samui are covered in lush verdant jungle, with waterfalls, scenic viewpoints and coconut plantations. You can drive the inland roads yourself to discover some of the rugged landscapes, or join an ATV (all-terrain vehicle) tour that will head off road to some hard-to-access spots. 

An island of relaxation can also be an island of adventure and that’s one of the joys of Koh Samui – discovering your own idyllic hideaway within your holiday.

Take me there

Fly: Qantas is offering flights in May and June from about $1300 return from Sydney, which travel via Singapore or Bangkok and then on to Koh Samui with Bangkok Airways.

Essentials: For vaccinated travellers, Thailand has now dropped quarantine and testing requirements. You will still need to apply for a Thailand Pass as least 3-7 days prior to departure, and provide proof of medical insurance and your vaccination certificate.

Explore more: tourismthailand.org | samuitourism.com

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