Thailand - Koh Samui
In my blog I identified the four stages of tourism.
- Stage 1 - Tourism has just started. The environment remains virtually untouched, locals are genuinely happy to meet tourists because tourism provides them with an income and a better way of life. The tourist infrastructure is very basic, which may suit some tourists but not others. Prices are the same as they are for Thais and thus very cheap. There are very few tourists.
- Stage 2 - As the location gets more developed, the tourist infrastructure improves - making things more comfortable and more convenient for tourists - but the good aspects still remain. There are more tourists but the numbers aren't excessive, prices remain cheap, the locals remain genuinely friendly and the environment suffers little damage.
- Stage 3 - Mass tourism commences and enormous numbers of tourists arrive. Much of the natural environment is destroyed to make way for hotels, shops and other things that tourists want. In some places the infrastructure cannot cope with the number of tourists and the environment starts to be destroyed. Prices rocket as a result of high demand and greed. Locals have become very jaded and start to resent tourists. The smiles are no longer genuine, but for show only. Thais from all over the country hear about these locations where naive farangs throw their money around and the streets are paved with gold. Many bad Thais arrive whose only intention it is to extract money from dumb tourists.
- Stage 4 - Mass tourism becomes so excessive and out of control that the authorities are forced to take action before the environment (or reputation) is completely destroyed. An attempt is made to return the location to Stage 3, but no further. These places will never see Stages 1 or 2 ever again.
Samui is one of the few places I have visited in Thailand when it was at Stage 1. On a trip to Thailand in 1987 very few people had heard of Samui, but my travel companion was a wannabe backpacker and suggested we go.
I didn't enjoy it because there was nothing there - no hotels, no electricity, nothing. The island was pretty, but there was nothing to do and the lack of any tourist infrastructure meant sleeping in a very rustic bungalow on the beach which was way below the level of comfort I am used to. We left and went to Pattaya, which I loved.
The best time to visit anywhere is when they are at Stage 2. Pattaya was at Stage 2 in 1987, but very quickly went to Stage 3 and then to Stage 4.
I returned to Samui in 2002 and it had developed to Stage 2. An airport had been constructed and the general tourist infrastructure was a lot more developed, but tourist numbers still weren't excessive. It was good because the balance was perfect. The tourist infrastructure was developed enough to make things comfortable and convenient, but there were none of the problems associated with mass tourism.
After I went to live in Thailand in 2003 I didn't return to Samui again, but I heard various accounts and the impression I got was that Samui was heading very quickly to Stage 3. These reports gave me absolutely no desire to return to Samui.
In 2018, now married to a Thai national and with two children, my wife told me she had a couple of days off from work and wanted to go to Samui. I wasn't keen, but I try to keep her happy and I was mildly curious to see what had become of Samui with my own eyes. The following account describes my 2018 visit to the island. It was a quick trip, but it was enough.
I went with exceedingly low expectations and none of those expectations were exceeded.
On my first trip to Samui in 1987 work had begun on the airport, but it hadn't yet opened. It opened in 1989 and is privately owned by Bangkok Airways. As you might expect, most flights belong to Bangkok Airways, but a few other operators use the airport. It is a small, attractive airport and the safety record is quite good, even though there have been a few incidents and accidents.
The airport is located 2km from Chaweng and the incoming and outgoing planes make a lot of noise over Chaweng.
From Samui it is possible to fly to other locations in Thailand, such as, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket and Pattaya. There are also direct flights to China, Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia.
Raja ferry to Samui
For my 2018 trip I used the Raja sea ferry service from Donsak port. The fare for my car and me, the driver, was Bt450 plus an additional fare of Bt140 for each passenger. Getting to Donsak port from Hat Yai took 4.5 hours (370 km) and the crossing takes 1.5 hours.
A strict timetable is not observed. I booked the 2pm ferry out and arrived at the port at around 12:30pm. We boarded the boat a little after 1pm and it left at 1:30pm, 30 minutes ahead of schedule.
Raja ferry car deck
On the way back I booked the noon crossing, but arrived at the port around 10:45am. The ferry company asks passengers to arrive an hour ahead of time. The boat left at 11am, one hour ahead of schedule. This was good for me because there was no need to wait around until noon. If you arrive early you will probably leave early. If you arrive late and miss your scheduled ferry I'm not sure whether they will put you on a later ferry or make you buy another ticket. It's always a good idea to arrive early.
You can book tickets in advance or just turn up at the port. If you book in advance you are guaranteed a place on the boat. If you simply turn up without a booking you may have to wait a long time. According to my wife, some people she knows waited all day. They got there in the morning and didn't get their car on the ferry until evening. I would therefore recommend booking in advance.
I read some very bad reports about customer service on the Raja ferry. I have to say that I didn't experience any problems and that it was a lot easier than I had anticipated.
Raja ferry outdoor seating area
Foreigners must realise that apart from the staff on the ticket counters, most staff won't speak any language apart from Thai. If they can't understand what you are saying they will just walk away. If you speak Thai, or are travelling with a Thai person, there shouldn't be any problems.
Raja ferry drinking water
A complaint I heard from a lot of Thais is that the A/C on the ferries doesn't work. This is correct and if you sit inside one of the rooms without any ventilation it gets very hot. However, if you sit outside or in a room with open windows there is a strong sea breeze and it doesn't feel hot.
Raja ferry missing table
Raja operates several ferries and apparently some of the newer ones are better in this respect. Both boats I sailed on were old and showing signs of age. There was a lot of surface rust, broken chairs and tables, and generally lots of signs of age and poor maintenance.
Raja ferry rust
To be honest, I don't think people care what condition the boats are in provided that enough maintenance is done to stop them sinking. They simply want to get to and from Samui as quickly as possible for the cheapest price.
Raja ferry lifeboats
The life jackets and lifeboats were also old, but presumably they still float and still do the job they are meant to do. The crossing in July was fairly smooth and I didn't notice anyone being seasick.
I appreciated the fact that Raja ferries do not charge exorbitant prices for snacks and drinks at the port and on the ferries. One of the (many) things I hate about travelling by plane is that you are ripped off when buying anything at airports and once aboard the plane.
The restaurant at Donsak port serves quite good food at reasonable prices and items sold in the minimarts aboard the ferries are also reasonably priced.
There are a lot of fairly affluent people in the Western world who believe that any place (especially an island in the tropics) with white sandy beaches and palm trees is 'paradise'. This stupid word, which really irritates me, appears endlessly in backpacker blogs and travel literature.
I would guarantee that anyone left alone on such an island would be begging to leave 'paradise' after a few days as a result of sunburn, mosquito bites and with only sand and salt water to 'soothe' their painful skin.
In other parts of the world poor people have lived for a long time on islands in tropical countries that have white sandy beaches and palm trees, but they certainly don't think of their homes as paradises. Their lives are difficult, full of drudgery, and they live just above the poverty line.
Samui in 2002 before mass tourism completely took over
At some point in time, the people of Thailand and other similar countries realised that areas they didn't think were very desirable were highly attractive to strange white-skinned farangs from far away. Thus began an enormous goldrush and because there is nothing higher in the Thai value system than money, it was completely unrestricted and unregulated.
The resultant mess is something that has occurred in several parts of Thailand, and actually, it doesn't take long to happen. In 1987 I witnessed Samui when it was barely touched. Since then I have had a pretty good idea what has taken place, but the trip in 2018 confirmed my suspicions.
This doesn't apply to the whole island. Driving from Chaweng to the ferry port I noticed some areas that still looked relatively untouched and attractive. Chaweng is the main focal point of the tourist industry and that is where most of the mess exists.
A road has been built, but it isn't in great shape and it was poorly finished. Sidewalks for pedestrians are non-existent, there is the usual mass of overhead electricity cables everywhere, and many of the buildings are extremely ugly.
When Thais do plan and build things properly they do a good job. Two examples on Samui would be the airport and the Central Festival shopping mall, but these two places are exceptions.
Even if Samui did at one point look like a 'paradise', it certainly doesn't now - at least not on the east coast.
Even in 1987 I remember that Chaweng beach was the liveliest place on Samui, but this is a relative term. On an island where the only action in most places in 1987 was coconuts falling from trees, it wasn't difficult for somewhere else to be livelier.
McDonalds in Chaweng
Nowadays, Chaweng resembles certain parts of Pattaya or Patong beach in Phuket, although without quite so much emphasis on Go-Go bars and prostitution.
The American fast food chains are there, as are the tattoo parlours, tacky T-shirt shops, and the other establishments that tourists expect in a Thai tourist resort.
Samui is firmly established on the banana pancake trail
Tourists can watch Thai boxing (pickup trucks with huge loudspeakers on the back roam around constantly blasting out advertisements for the next bout) and backpackers can fill their stomachs with banana pancakes. Samui island has long been an essential stop on the Southeast Asia banana pancake trail.
Whenever I walk around these tourist places in Thailand I actually find the experience quite depressing.
Central Festival arrived on Samui in March 2014. I live near to the largest branch of Central Festival in southern Thailand in Hat Yai, but the building isn't attractive. The branch on Samui is attractive. It's low level and very well designed.
However, when tourists travel half way around the world to the 'paradise' they seek, do they really want to spend their evenings in a shopping mall. Apparently, it seems that many do, which is very sad.
The problem with Thailand is that there is never any long term planning. Suddenly an area will become popular and everyone rushes in to buy land and set up businesses. Electricity is supplied via ugly overhead cables and the end result is just a big mess. I've seen this happen in many parts of Thailand, and now I've seen it in Chaweng.
Before my first trip to Thailand I had never been to Thailand (obviously), but I had a list of things in my head that I wanted to do and buy. I'm not sure where these lists come from, but all tourists have them. The problem is that most of the things on the list are cliches.
Thai Boxing, Koh Samui, Thailand
Before making a trip to Thailand in 2002 I mentioned it to a guy I was working with. His eyes lit up and he told me that I would have to buy a pair of baggy fisherman pants and go to all the backpacker spots that he was familiar with. These kind of tourist cliches make me cringe.
Baggy fisherman pants - a big tourist cliche
The only people in Thailand who wear baggy fisherman pants are backpacking tourists.
One of the biggest cliches - and I was reminded of it a lot in Samui - is Thai boxing. In my normal life in Thailand no one I know talks about or goes to watch Thai boxing. It's as if it doesn't exist.
I see it occasionally on a TV set when I am walking around, but the products advertised in the ad breaks make it clear which demographic Thai boxing is aimed at in Thailand. There are ads for fertilisers, tractors and M150 type energy drinks.
Thais who follow Thai boxing come from the agricultural sector and other low social classes and their main interest is gambling, not the actual boxing.
In Chaweng loud adverts are blasted out for Thai boxing continuously from roving pickup trucks. I understand that tourists must pay Bt1,500 to Bt2,500 to enter and that Thais enter for free, or for very little.
Thai boxing - another big tourist cliche
Many tourists go because they probably think this is something they must do in Thailand. You really don't have to and probably a lot of people will find it boring. Bt2,500 is a lot of money in Thailand, the equivalent of a week's wages for some Thais.
If you really want to see two men kicking the crap out of each other, by all means go, but don't think that you have to go simply because you are in Thailand. The vast majority of Thais have absolutely no interest in Thai boxing. In tourists hotspots, such as Chaweng, it is simply another way of extracting a lot of money from foreign tourists.
Lamai beach is where I stayed in 1987. There was absolutely nothing there at the time, apart from some very rustic bungalow accommodation on the beach and a few basic restaurants.
Lamai beach, Samui in 1987 - my travel buddy, John, who died of cancer a few years ago
It's still a lot quieter than Chaweng, but the beach is a lot busier and those rustic bungalows have long since disappeared. In 1987 I stayed a few meters from the sea for Bt100 per night. All the beachfront land is now occupied and you have to pay a large premium to stay in a hotel near the sea.
Lamai beach, Samui in 2018
Things To Do
The reason I disliked Samui in 1987 was that I found it boring. The island is (was) covered in millions of coconut palms, which looks very attractive, but what do you do?
Nowadays, with millions of tourists visiting the island, various man-made activities have been introduced and you hotel will be happy to arrange tours for you. I saw go-kart tracks, shooting ranges and other attractions that had been opened purely for tourists.
The coconut industry has always been big on Samui because there are so many coconut palms and there are actually schools that train monkeys to climb trees and fetch coconuts. I visited one such school in 2002, but in 2018 the prices were too high - Bt300 for adults and Bt100 for children. I looked around for the sign in Thai with prices written in Thai numerals, but there wasn't one.
There are elephant trekking tours and quite a few companies that offer off-road tours into the more inaccessible areas of the island. These tours aren't cheap - each costing somewhere between Bt1,500 and Bt2,000 - and if you are travelling with a family of four, or more, it's going to be an expensive vacation.
Mr Ungs Magical Safari Tours, Samui in 2002
I went on one of Mr Ung's off-road tours in 2002 and after doing a quick search on Google I see that his business is still operating. I can't remember what I paid in 2002, but I expect that now it is a lot more expensive.
These trips are a good way to see the island and you will see things that you wouldn't normally see.
Grandfather and grandmother rocks are a famous attraction in Samui. One rock is supposed to resemble male genitalia and another female genitalia. There is also a legend, of course. There always is.
Grandfather and grandmother rocks, Koh Samui
Grandfather and grandmother rocks, Koh Samui
Grandfather and grandmother rocks, Koh Samui
The obligatory legend that you always find at these places
The rocks are actually worth visiting and entrance is free. When I went in 1987 there was no one there. In 2018 there were a lot of tourists and also shops selling refreshments and souvenirs. If you go by car the parking fee is Bt30 and the road to the rocks is only wide enough for one car. There cars travelling both ways, which can make things interesting.
The Big Buddha on Samui is also worth a visit. I didn't go in 2018, but I have been before.
Full Moon parties on neighbouring Phangan island are also popular with certain types of tourist and tickets can be bought in Samui.
Let's all take drugs and jump up and down with our arms in the air
Our 2018 trip coincided with quite an important Buddhist holiday - kao punsaa, the start of the rains retreat/Buddhist Lent.
Thais making merit at Lamai temple
My wife wanted to go to a temple to make merit, so we went to Lamai temple. It was full of Thais making merit, but completely devoid of farangs.
While driving around the island I was struck by how many temples there are on Samui and how attractive many of them are. They predate the era of mass tourism, which tells me that the original people of Samui took their religion very seriously.
Everything in Samui comes from the mainland, therefore, everything is going to be more expensive than on the mainland because there are additional transportation costs.
Tankers boarding the ferry to Samui
For items used mainly by Thais, such as fuel, the additional cost is minimal. I filled my tank on the way to the ferry port for Bt30.41 per litre and again in Samui for Bt32.41 per litre, therefore an additional Bt2 per litre.
For anything that is in demand mainly from foreign tourists the mark up will be a lot higher, but this is usual for Thailand and not unique to Samui.
As I said above, taxi fares are high. It's a completely closed market and if you haven't got your own transport you have no option other than to pay the high fares.
Hotel room rates are also more expensive than similar places on the mainland. Construction costs in Samui must be high because everything has to be brought across on ferries. Also, there is lots of demand for hotels, which keeps costs high.
As is usually the case in Thai tourist resorts there are quite expensive restaurants, but you can also find cheap places to eat if you are on a budget.
Central Festival sells good quality items, but prices are high. My wife saw a swim suit that she liked for old four year-old son, but was put off by the Bt2,500 price tag.
I also think it's a shame when people travel halfway around the globe and buy international brands in shopping malls that are sold in their home countries. If you vacation in Thailand, you should buy things that are unique to Thailand.
A lady on Lamai beach was selling wind spinners that her husband had made from coconut husks and they were quite attractive, as well as being unique.
Central Festival, Samui
There was also a guy selling tablecloths with Thai designs. They were also quite attractive, but beware of prices. He told me he bought them for Bt500, but my wife thinks he bought them for a lot less.
He was selling them to tourists for Bt1,800, but said he would let me have one for Bt1,300 because I spoke Thai. I haggled for a while and the lowest price he would sell one for was Bt600, or one-third the price he was selling them to tourists for.
In Thai department stores you can't haggle. I overheard an Australian asking for the vendor's 'best price' in Central Festival, but you don't get any discounts. However, with street vendors, beach vendors and little Thai shops you have to haggle, otherwise you will overpay massively.
Thais are masters at squeezing money out of tourists and, as I found out in Koh Lanta some years ago, one of the most effective ways of doing this is to provide no public transport and charge exorbitant rates for private transport.
It wasn't a problem on my 2018 visit because I drove from home and had a car at my disposal, but many tourists don't have their own transport.
Old Merc for sale in Samui
I read on the Internet that taxis in Samui are the most expensive in Thailand. When it is quiet during the day they will use their meters, but at night they have fixed prices and these are a lot more expensive.
From my hotel to Chaweng took about 15 minutes driving myself. The taxi fare was Bt400 and my hotel offered a shuttle service for Bt100 per person. There are four people in my family, therefore this would also have been Bt400.
You can hire a car or motorbike and quite a few tourists do this, but driving in Thailand isn't for the fainthearted. The road on the east coast is very narrow, there are some very steep inclines, and it isn't in great condition.
It's also very busy and you should never forget that Thailand's roads are the second most dangerous in the world. There are very good reasons for this. Most Thai drivers are extremely impatient and have vastly overrated opinions of their own driving skills. Their driving is fast, aggressive and reckless.
There are good hospitals on Samui, as there are elsewhere in Thailand, but a motorbike accident will most likely ruin your vacation and if you go to the Bangkok Samui private hospital you can expect a very large bill.
Taxi service, Chaweng, Samui
Also, if you rent a vehicle, check that you are covered by insurance and that the insurance covers everything in the event of an accident.
On one occasion I rented a jeep in Khaolak, but didn't do any of these checks. There were no incidents, but after I returned the jeep I read the rental agreement. There was no insurance.
Had an accident occurred I would have been responsible for repairs to the jeep and any other vehicles involved. I would also have been responsible for any medical bills in the event anyone was injured. Further, while the jeep was being repaired (at my expense) I would have had to pay the company a fixed amount every day for loss of business.
By all mean consider renting a vehicle because it will give you a lot of flexibility and it will be cheaper than using taxis. However, make sure the insurance is adequate and if you have never driven in Thailand be extremely careful.
I have owned a car in Thailand since 2010. It has got to the point now where I detest driving so much that I will only drive when absolutely necessary. Driving standards in Thailand are appalling.
Hazards And Dangers
For tourists I would imagine that the biggest danger is road accidents, especially when renting motorbikes. Roads in all parts of Thailand are dangerous, but Samui is probably one of the most dangerous places of all for motorbike riders because of bad roads and higher than usual levels of lawlessness.
The east coast beach road is steep and narrow, there is a lot of traffic, a lot of big trucks, and Thais are terrible drivers. Renting a bike is a great way to get around and see the island, but Thailand has the highest motorbike accident rate in the world.
Sign on Lamai beach, Samui warning of jellyfish
I didn't see any in the sea, but I did see signs warning of jellyfish. They appear at certain times of the year when the conditions are right and the stings can be extremely painful.
In tourist areas of Thailand you always need to be wary of people trying to scam you. Most often it is Thais, but farangs in Thailand have been known to scam other farangs.
While keeping an eye on my kids as they were playing in the sea on Lamai beach some Thai men asked if I wanted to rent a jet ski. The situation may be better now, but jet ski rental has been used as a classic scam in Thailand.
First, they take your passport and then they give you a damaged jet ski that has been patched up with papier mache. They insist on taking a photo of you with the jet ski.
You whizz around in the sea for a while and this removes all the papier mache revealing the damage. When you get back to the shore they accuse you of causing the damage ... and they have a photo to prove it because there was no damage when you left (because it had been patched up).
They ask for a lot of money to carry out repairs and won't return your passport until you have paid.
Jet skis for rent in Samui
Of course, when asked about renting a jet ski I refused instantly. I have listed some of the well known scams in Thailand elsewhere on my site.
For longer term residents I suspect there are other hazards. Many years ago I met a guy who had been involved in a serious motorbike accident in Samui. Unfortunately, the vehicle that had caused the accident was being driven by one of Samui's influential people. It wasn't his fault, but he had to pay for everything.
In Thailand law abidance is inversely proportional to distance from Bangkok. When I am in taxis in Bangkok, taxi drivers stop at red lights and follow other traffic laws. This doesn't happen where I live in the provinces.
Samui is a 90 minute ferry ride from the mainland and one comment I have read over and over again is that the island is completely lawless.
It is always advisable in Thailand not to upset Thais because they are extremely vindictive. This would go up another level if you were to upset the wrong person in a place such as Samui.
There are lots of reasons why personally I wouldn't choose to live on Samui, and this is just one of them. Most tourists probably think that all Thais are as docile and polite as the staff in their hotel, but this couldn't be further from the truth. There is also a very dark, very wild side to Thailand.
Is Growing Mass Tourism Sustainable?
On the east coast of Samui all the beach front land has already been developed and a lot of development has also taken place on the inland side of the road.
Now that all the flat land is full, development is now taking place on the hillside. I give credit to the Thais for building property on a very difficult terrain, but I wouldn't feel very comfortable living on such a steep hill and these properties must be very difficult to get to.
Hillside construction on Samui island
The bigger question is whether all this development is sustainable. Samui is a big island, but it's not that big.
Fresh water comes from a couple of lakes/reservoirs that are filled with rain water, but if there is no rain they dry up. I understand there is a desalination plant, but the process is slow and expensive. There are also wells, but taking too much water out of the ground will reduce the water table.
What about waste? Thailand has a garbage problem on the mainland with several large garbage mountains and occasionally they catch fire. What happens to all the waste generated by millions of tourists on Samui?
Some people won't be happy until the entire hillside is completely covered with ugly buildings
And what about human waste? Thailand mainly uses septic tanks, but when the tanks are full they have to be emptied. I am not aware of any treatment plants on Samui. Is the waste taken back to the mainland.
Boracay island in the Philippines was closed to tourists for six months because of these problems. Mountains of garbage had formed and the sea was being contaminated with sewage. Samui hasn't encountered such problems yet, but will there be problems in the future.
Despite all the development that has already taken place, the ongoing development is relentless judging from the large numbers of concrete trucks that roam around the island.
Life is short and you should never concern yourself with what other people think. It doesn't matter what other people think and what they think is something that never concerns me. I am me, you are you, and other people are other people.
None of us think the same, therefore we need to think for ourselves about what it is we want from life. If we are always thinking about what other people think, we never lead the lives we truly want to lead and we can actually put other people in control of our lives.
As you can probably tell by now, I wasn't overly impressed with Samui in 2018. But that's just me. If it looks like the kind of place you would enjoy, go and have fun. You probably wouldn't enjoy the kind of places in Thailand that I enjoy. There is nothing inherently wrong with Samui, but there are now simply too many tourists and as long as tourist money continues to come in the Thais won't do anything to restrict tourism.
If you do decide to go to Samui, I just have one small request. After your amazing trip to the tropical paradise of Koh Samui, please don't start telling everyone how much you love 'Thailand' because if you only ever spend a couple of weeks at Chaweng beach each year you will never understand the first thing about Thailand.
The analogy I use is someone going to Disney Land or Disney World for a vacation and then returning with fierce opinions on America and Americans. Thailand, up to now, doesn't have any Disney theme parks, but it has its own theme parks in places such as Pattaya, Patong and Chaweng. That's all they are and they are nothing like the rest of Thailand.
Other Travelogues You May Be Interested In
Thailand is an incredibly photogenic country, both for its landscapes and its people. Regardless of whether you enjoy large Asian cities, beaches and islands, or rice fields and mountains, Thailand has something for you and it is a dream destination for photographers.
One of the great things about visiting Thailand is that hotels are plentiful and a lot cheaper than in most other countries. Each link on the right will take you to the relevant page on the Agoda website where you can see photos, read reviews, and book on-line. I use Agoda to book all of my own hotels in Thailand and the Southeast Asia region. Agoda hotel rates are usually always the lowest and I have received good customer service, therefore I am happy to recommend the company to other people. Here is some analysis I did regarding booking hotels in Southeast Asia.
Booking.com used to be more expensive than Agoda, but when I have checked hotel prices recently I have found their rates to be quite competitive. Unlike Agoda, you don't need to pay at the time of booking with Booking.com - you can simply pay at the hotel when you check in. Also, Booking.com show you total prices whereas Agoda show you a price and then add on 17% for tax and service charge.
If you want to compare prices between different on-line travel agents (OTAs) for a specific hotel, you can use a company such as HotelsCombined.
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