Back in 2012 during his first trip to Thailand, Alex spent two weeks basking in the island glory of Koh Samui. So when we were plotting out our Southern Thailand itinerary, it was a no-brainer for him to go back, this time with me in tow.
We planned our stay to coincide with Christmas and New Year’s, giving us a total of ten days on the island. It sure seemed like a long stay when we booked it, but it’s amazing how time flies when it seems like you’re doing nothing at all. Coming off of our very active week in Koh Tao, we arrived in Samui on December 23rd mentally and physically worn out, in need of some recharging time.
Samui is the largest of the three Gulf islands and also the most built-up. There are hotels to fit every budget scattered across the island, from luxury resorts to backpacker digs, and the different beaches and their surrounding towns have different vibes, so every corner of the island is totally different.
We stayed on Chaweng Beach on the east side of the island. Chaweng is popular with a young party-friendly crowd - there are tons of hostels and budget guesthouses overflowing with groups of pals on holiday. There are some nicer resorts and restaurants as well, and we saw some families and even people with young kids, but it’s definitely a very lively and festive beach. It’s pretty touristy, but to be honest so is a lot of Koh Samui. The reason we stayed at Chaweng, in addition to it being where Alex stayed the last time we were here, was for its proximity to good nightlife and because the actual beach is gorgeous - a big change from Tao’s itty-bitty patches of sand.
Another popular beach area is Lamai, which is just south of Chaweng also on the island’s east side. There are some nice, upscale hotel chains like the Le Meridien over here, and the surrounding neighborhood is laid-back with lots of casual bars and restaurants. Mae Nam, on the north side of the island, also seems like a nice area, again with lots of good restaurants including my favorite spot on the island (see food recs at the end of the post for more info). If you rent a scooter you’ll be able to explore beyond whatever beach you stay at, and because Koh Samui is pretty giant as islands go, we really recommend doing so.
We stayed at Penzy Guesthouse and would recommend it. It’s a budget guesthouse (no dorms) run by an American and Thai couple, and they are wonderfully friendly, helpful, and always down to chat or offer recommendations. Our room was spacious and clean and we had a small balcony overlooking the mountains. Fun fact: this is the same guesthouse Alex stayed at five years ago! If it ain’t broke why fix it? It doesn’t have the most social atmosphere, but considering the amount of noise the party hostels down the street made at all hours, we were really thankful to be away from the chaos. We also appreciated that Penzy (the owner) seems to know everyone - she was able to get us a motorbike, ferry bookings, and transport to and from the full moon party on Koh Phangan for super cheap. If you stay there, put your faith in Penzy because she won’t let you down.
We spent most of our days being extremely lazy - now that I’m putting together this blog I’m starting to realize just how little we did despite the fact that we spent ten full days on Samui. To be honest, I touched on this a little in our Bangkok post but we were still suffering from some pretty serious travel burnout. Koh Tao soothed it a little, because we were so busy we hardly had time to think, but once we got to Koh Samui and had the option to do nothing, we instantly took it.
Because of that, unfortunately we failed a bit at the ‘travel blogger’ aspect of our stay, so for that I’m sorry. Our laziness was compounded by the fact that it rained every single one of the ten days we spent on the island, so although we had a scooter we were unable to really go anywhere. And when I say ‘rain’ I really mean ‘is this a monsoon?’ Seriously, I’m talking about torrential, wake-you-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night downpours. We were only able to go to the beach once, and even then we got rained out after less than an hour.
So what did we do? Well, mostly we ate a lot. We found that food at touristy restaurants was generally more expensive here than on Koh Tao, while local places were around the same, which is probably due to the fact that the average hotel prices here are much higher and it’s less backpacker/budget traveler oriented. The overall quality of food, we felt, was lower here than on Tao or the mainland, but since we spent most of our time on Chaweng which is super touristy we didn’t exactly test that hypothesis as much as we probably should have. Still, there are some gems to be found in between the Hard Rock Cafes and Hooters (yes, really) of the world.
Some of our favorite restaurants around Chaweng included Baci for yummy pizza, Hungry Wolf for amazing burgers and Thai-fusion eats, and Khaw Glong for incredible Thai food (they take bookings and we recommend making one, it’s tiny and gets crowded). There’s also an outdoor food court/hawker centre near the mall (not in the mall) with a couple dozen vendors to choose from. Most hawkers sell a variety of Thai seafoods, but there’s also an incredible kebab stall and some good smoothies to be found, and it’s really affordable and quick. In addition to the food court, there’s a walking street and a night market that both have lots of hawker stalls selling classic Thai foods from Pad Thai to satay and more for cheap.
We love hanging out in cafes and trying local coffee, but there aren’t that many good ones to be found near Chaweng - it’s mostly chains, sadly, and there’s even a Starbucks in Central Festival mall. But the Coffee Club (also a chain and also in Central Festival) served delicious, albeit expensive, coffee.
As I said, due to the weather and our lack of motivation, we rarely ventured past Chaweng for food which we definitely regret. When we did, though, we found some real treats. Our absolute favorite restaurant on the island was Prava on Mae Nam Walking Street. It’s run by a Thai-American couple and serves everything from healthy veggie bowls to breakfast burritos, curries, and beyond, and it’s all healthy enough that you feel good eating it. It felt great to kick a bad hangover with a big bowl of veggies and a green juice. We definitely recommend this one.
The other thing we did a lot of in Samui was go out. The nightlife on the island is really fun, if a little trashy. There’s a whole strip of popular bars in Chaweng, and the most popular of them (for good reason) is the Green Mango, which is were seemingly every tourist in Samui ends their night of partying with loud singalongs and aggressive dancing. The buckets aren’t cheap, though, so we recommend pregaming so you can avoid blowing your budget once you get inside.
We also spent one night at the Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan. We arranged a ferry through Penzy, and it included free pickup right from the guesthouse. We attended the party on Christmas Day. Technically it wasn't the full moon - the real party (during the actual full moon_ would occur the following week on Jan. 2, but during the holiday week there are 'full moon' type events constantly, regardless of the moon's phase. We opted for the Christmas party as we were meeting up with some friends from our hostel in Koh Tao.
To be honest, I wouldn't really recommend it. We had a blast with our friends, but the atmosphere wasn't all it's cracked up to be. Maybe because it wasn't really on the full moon, it wasn't quite up to standards, but we really didn't enjoy ourselves (and we love a night out). The music wasn't great, the taxis were a huge ripoff (moreso than elsewhere in Asia) and the vendors were overcharging us for drinks. Perhaps we're just too old for this kind of thing, but it was just not fun. I felt maternal instincts kick in as I saw packs of college-age girls stumble around incomprehensibly with blank, glassy eyes, and I heard so many people shrieking about stolen phones and lost cash that it honestly made the whole evening kind of uncomfortable. When we got back to Samui the next morning, we made a pact to never do anything like that ever again.
To be honest, that was pretty much it as far as Koh Samui went. Travel burnout is real. It just comes with the territory when you’re moving around nonstop for a full year. It’s okay to just let yourself exist sometimes, even if it means missed opportunities in a new place. Koh Samui is full of adventures that we didn’t get a chance to experience, but both Alex and I really needed some time to give our bodies and minds a break from the constant, awesome yet challenging stress of traveling. A vacation from a vacation, if you will.
And maybe saying we needed a break from our yearlong break sounds like the kind of thing a whiny avocado toast-wielding social media-loving millennial would say, but guess what? That’s exactly what we are.