Pros & Cons of Koh Samui, top Thailand beachfront destination

PROS of Samui, the boutique beach destination

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Koh Samui was named in our Global Beachfront Awards as the top 'beachfront' destination on the planet, meaning its 240 plus true beachfront accommodation establishments is more than in any other beach destination. But does having more hotels on the beach make it perfect for everyone?

With more beaches than one can count here, the many different atmospheres found on this diverse island gives it a long list of advantages. Yet those do not make it perfect for everyone. Here we give a look at what we think are the major positives for a beach holiday on this island.

big mountain in the middle keeps green views and backdrop

Samui is a big mountain rising out of the sea, with little flat land around the three sides where most beach accommodations are found. The only area big enough for extensive rice fields hangs off the south. The huge central mountain provides a rugged, green backdrop to virtually every beach on the island. It also prohibits the over-development of the island's interior, Phuket-style. Development height limits apply on the mountain, too. Samui is thus guaranteed a permanent green heart, and, if the development limits hold, green backdrops forever. It will prove a powerful long-term marketing advantage for the island – when most other beach resorts in Thailand will have only concrete buildings behind their beaches.

many small unseen beaches make great escapes

Samui's huge central mountain runs right to the coast in many places, and as its ridges and rocky lines tumble into the sea they form many little coves and bays. Many of these have quaint little beaches, and some are so difficult to access they remain largely unseen. But they make sensational locations for romantic, boutique resorts. These hidden beaches, and the beautiful beachfront resorts they host, are among the most beautiful places on Samui- yet most visitors see few or none of them. For a peek at some of the more beautiful hidden beaches, look here; Silavadee Pool Spa Resort, Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui, Kamalaya Koh Samui and Banyan Tree Samui.

many excellent boutique resorts, and more coming

Samui is rapidly emerging as Thailand's 'boutique island'. It's an interesting transformation, for in the 1980s Samui was the country's 'backpacker island'. Today most of the old rustic beachfront bungalows have gone, redeveloped into up-market resorts. While there are a number of large, mass market establishments here, but the number of small, well-designed resorts following the 'boutique' theme with unique design and architecture is surprisingly high. Samui definitely has more boutique beachfront resorts than any other place in Thailand. Among them are some especially interesting and creative beach hotels. To see a few of them check out The Library, on Chaweng Beach, Poppies Samui Resort, at the quiet far south of Chaweng, Zazen Boutique on Bophut and Sala Samui at Chong Mon.

Samui can be a fun, fun place

The northeast corner of Samui is generally considered the 'fun' zone, where the greatest concentration of hotels, restaurants, beach bars, discos and various other entertainment establishments are found. Chaweng is the main focus, and is thus the busiest and most active area on the island. Lamai village has a fun nightlife scene behind the south sector of beach, while there are many restaurants and a few bars and entertainment places in Bophut's famous Fisherman's Village. The younger set looking for fun and nightlife invariably head to this corner of the island, while those seeking a quieter stretch of beach can look to any number of other beaches. And many of those staying on quiet beaches also venture into Chaweng for an evening on the town.

easy, quick to get to and from Bangkok

Samui has the contradictory advantages of being an island quite far from anywhere, yet just an hour away from Bangkok. Those flying into Thailand's Souvannaphum airport can take one of the hourly air connections directly from Bangkok to Samui with Bangkok Airways. In peak season there may be two flights an hour. It's somewhat more expensive than other flights within Thailand, though, prompting many younger travellers to use the overnight bus and boat connection. But the regular flights do make Samui very accessible, and those who need a quick beach escape can certainly get in and out of Samui quickly.

wide range of accommodations from cheap to 5-star

Samui might be speeding up the boutique and high-class resort scale, leaving behind its backpacker roots, but there are still many good value, budget beachfront accommodations on nice beaches. Virtually all of the major beaches still have cheaper rooms. Even places like Chaweng and Lamai, where we see 3- and 4-star resorts lines up wall-to-wall, still have cheaper beds. Also, there are quieter corners like Lipa Noi Beach, Maenam Beach West and Lamai Beach North where budget is the norm.

Thus, with top-notch 5-star resorts like Four Seasons Koh Samui and W Retreat, Samui can boasts an amazing variety of beaches, resort styles and prices – from really cheap and basic, to luxury 5-star with world-winning style.

Most Samui resorts really are true beachfront

With over 270 true beachfront accommodation establishments, Koh Samui took the Global Beachfront Destination Award 2013 – the destination with more true beachfront hotels than any other on the planet. The island is lucky in that the great majority of beach hotels here have been able to build right on the beach. The reason is simple; the ring road that runs right around the island rarely encroaches on the beach, leaving space for accommodations on virtually every patch of sand here.

However, Koh Samui has seen most beachfront land on the popular beaches already covered with accommodation, and new hotels are forced into locations well back from the beach. At Chaweng and Lamai, in particular, many new hotels and guest houses open each season – all in the backstreets. Neither beach has an empty plot.

True Beachfront estimated that of all accommodations on Koh Samui in 2013, approximately 75% were then beachfront, though that percentage is constantly falling as new hotels can't find beach land at any price. By 2017 our estimate had fallen to about 60%.
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Some of the other pages about Koh Samui, and other beach destinations in Thailand, might prove helpful:

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and now the CONS – negative reasons Samui is not for everyone

While Samui is hugely popular, and the number of visitors climbs each year, no beach destination is perfect for everyone. In addition to reading our list of PRO & CONS, first-time visitors should look carefully at photos of all of the different beaches here. Samui has lots that is positive and negative for different people, so every first-time visitor should also check photos carefully to find the beach that best suits their personal tastes.

shallow sea can never become as clear as the Andaman

Koh Samui lies in the southern reaches of the Gulf of Thailand, a relatively shallow body of water partially trapped between the land masses of the Thai-Malay peninsula on the west, and Cambodia-Vietnam in the east. The millions of tons of refuse and black water washed into this Gulf by tens of millions of Thailand can never be completely flush away. And sediment in shallow waters can be stirred by storms and currents.

Thus, the water quality and clarity in the Gulf of Thailand can never be as good as that found in a deep ocean. No Gulf destination enjoys the kind of brilliantly clear water that the Andaman Sea delivers to the islands off that coast.

That does not mean the water around Samui is not clear and clean. It can be quite good, and diving here is also 'quite good'. But it's simply not possible for any enclosed, shallow body of water to be brilliantly clear nor match the best.

Samui's famous beaches are getting quite crowded

Visitors to Samui should do their research before booking into one of the famous beaches like Chaweng and Lamai. Those in search of a 'fun' or 'active' beach where things happen, where you can meet lots of interesting people and enjoy a vibrant night life will love these busy beaches. Just be sure you know what to expect, for some advertising still suggests that these beaches are quiet, peaceful getaways – when they are not. These are beaches with quite a lot of people on the sand in high season. Crowded? By Thai standards, yes. But compare them to some European or Chinese beaches and we see only small groups hanging about.

But Samui is quite large, with scores of beaches and differing beach environments. There are many bays, coves and beaches here that remain virtually deserted, even in the peak seasons. For a really quiet, tranquil corner of Samui look at Ban Taling Ngam on the lonely west coast and Laem Sett Beach at the southeast corner.

ugly development with cheap shop-houses everywhere, few trees

Thailand is proud to be one of the world's freest countries – and free its citizens really are. One of the freedoms they claim is that to develop their land in any way they see fit, with no regard to the laws or the common good of society. And certainly without consideration of the visual environment or the kind of world they are creating for future generations.

Thailand is following a particularly destructive, free-for-all model of urbanization. It generally begins with cutting down all trees and scraping away anything that resembles a natural environment. The few zoning laws that decree a certain portion of land should be left green are ignored. Building height limits and other legal controls on Samui are broken brazenly with under-table payments.

Samui is on the same sad, one-way journey to urban misery that now blights the suburbs of Pattaya, Phuket and Bangkok . Happily, most of the island still remains under coconut plantation, and yet is to be affected. But we can see the island's future in the creep of the concrete cancer as it devours the northeast corner of the island.

Bangkok Air monopolizes the air routes, charges highest prices

Airfares into Samui are generally the highest on any route in Thailand. Bangkok Airways, which runs virtually all flights, also owns Samui airport and uses its near-monopoly to keep Samui fares high. In peak season Bangkok Airways planes touch down on the island's runway about every half hour through the day and evening. A couple of other airlines, including Thai Airways, have landing rights but their few arrivals here generally follow the higher price schedules.

Some regular Samui travellers or residents resist what they see as unfair pricing by taking the much cheaper flights to nearby Surat Thani on the mainland, then catch an hour-long ferry ride to the island. Budget travellers have a few options, including train to Surat Thani and the ferry, or a bus ride from Bangkok directly onto the island (buses cross on the large vehicular ferries). A popular, if longer route is sold as a bus-boat package, bussing passengers to Chumporn from where they join a high-speed, island-hopping ferry that stops briefly at Koh Tao and Koh Phangan before arriving in Samui after a comfortable, five-hour ocean journey.

Chaweng's narrow, over-crowded one-way road system

A one-way road sounds like a minor issue, but for some it can turn into a major annoyance or even a serious obstacle. Chaweng's one-way road system affects scores of hotels along a two-kilometre long sector that includes the great majority of Chaweng's beachfront resorts. Visitors who don't plan to drive, or come and go from their Chaweng resort often, will not be affected much. But those who wish to drive about the island, or come and go often, will suffer from this unfortunate result of poor planning.

The one-way system forces traffic onto a long, circuitous route when trying to get in or out of the resorts here. In high season the road is often clogged with traffic, doubling the time and the problem. Then, come November-December when the heaviest rains occur, the road floods often and triples the misery here. It's all because a narrow road has to serve so many resorts, so much commerce and huge numbers of people –the result of poor planning from the start.

by John Everingham

no professional yacht marina, poor marine infrastructure

Samui lies in an attractive ocean surrounded by a number of island neighbours, and has water links to many other Thai beach resorts. Its potential as a boating and maritime playground is quite large - something that would add a completely new dimension to the island. But boating has yet to take off due to the lack of a truly safe anchorage for the kind of expensive motor and sailing yachts that are common in Phuket.