Ko Samui and Ko Tao are two tropical islands that hang out in the warm tropical waters of the Gulf of Thailand. The tourist websites flaunt the islands as the ultimate tropical paradise, for those who want to wash away their cares on palm-fringed beaches. Are these Thai islands worth it, or is the praise just hype?
Ko Samui (or Koh Samui) is Thailand’s third-largest island. It’s the biggest in the archipelago that includes the party island of Ko Phangan and Ko Samui. The islands are easily reachable by boat from the mainland city of Surat Thani. Ko Samui is also full of fancy resorts.
We didn’t stay in the fancy resorts, because we’re not rich. Instead, we headed to the supposed back-packer haven of Mae Nam on Samui’s northern coast.
I didn’t see any backpackers. We ended up in a hotel full of European retirees. We were both well into our 30s at that point and were easily the youngest in the hotel by like 30 years.
And that’s fine. Old people deserve a nice beach vacation, too. In truth, I think I prefer to be surrounded by the elderly than a bunch of drunken teenagers. With one exception that you can read about below.
Ko Samui is also famous for having some rocks that kind of look like a penis and a vagina. I’ve seen these rocks mentioned on almost every blog post about Ko Samui. Our hotel even gave us postcards with pictures of the genital rocks on them. So, uh, you know, if you’re into that sort of thing…
What I Didn’t Like About Ko Samui
Genital rocks aside, I actually had a pretty good time on Ko Samui. However, I’ve had a pretty good time almost everywhere I’ve ever been, with the glaring exception of Phoenix, Arizona.
Even though Ko Samui was much nicer than Phoenix, there were still a few things about it that rubbed me the wrong way.
Ko Samui is Overpriced and Over-Touristed
First of all, Ko Samui is way over-touristed. I guess that’s the problem with beautiful tropical islands: they tend to attract tourists like a dead fish attracts flies. With tourists come fancy resorts, hotels and everything that goes along with that.
Sometimes touristy places can be fun. There are other islands in the world that have done a great job balancing tourism while maintaining their local charm. It felt like you really had to go out of your way to find the local charm in Ko Samui.
Finally, I just want to rant a moment about the music you find in these tourist spots. We walked along the beach on Ko Samui and ran into a group of Thai musicians setting up on stage. I was excited, since I like music, and got myself hyped up to possibly catch the next big thing in Thai rock music.
Instead, the band played a generic medley of boomer-friendly classic rock hits. I don’t even mind the music, and the band was talented. But I’ve heard Creedence Clearwater Revival a million times before. I don’t need to hear it again on a Thai beach.
I’ll never understand why people will travel thousands of miles just to do, eat, and listen to the same things they do, eat, and listen to at home.
Ko Samui is also expensive. I understand that islands cost more since you need to send everything by boat, but it really felt like the expense wasn’t worth it. The food was pretty mediocre. Our hotel was fine, but nothing to write home about.
Ko Samui Is a Little Boring
Aside from being expensive and touristy, there wasn’t that much to do on Ko Samui. Or maybe I should say the things to do weren’t that easy to get to.
I get that part of the appeal of being on a tropical island is just wiling away the hours on the beach doing nothing. That’s great. And Ko Samui actually isn’t a bad place to do that.
However, I like to mix my beach time with actually doing and seeing stuff. Maybe it has to do with being American. We get such limited time off from work, I feel like I need to be super active every day so I don’t let my precious vacation time go to waste.
There were plenty of things to do on Ko Samui, but almost all of them seemed to require either signing up for a rather expensive tour or else renting an overpriced, not-entirely-safe scooter to get to.
The island isn’t very walkable, with the exception of maybe the nice beach walk from Mae Nam to Ban Tai. The public transportation felt difficult to navigate (which is weird, since there aren’t that many roads) and taxis were way overpriced.
The Crazy Rude Topless Woman
To be completely fair to Ko Samui, the island itself has little to no control over who gets to visit it. But sometimes you come across another tourist whose awfulness spoils the whole place. Old Crazy Tits, as I call her, was one of those.
I’m not sure where she was from, from her accent I’d guess Belgium or France or something. She was probably in her mid-60s, but maybe younger. Years of sunbathing had wrinkled up her skin like a raisin and probably made her look far older.
Public nudity is generally frowned upon in Thailand. This woman didn’t care. She’d strip down to nothing but her bikini bottoms and plant herself on the middle of the beach in front of God and our hotel every day. I don’t want to body shame anyone, but you should at least try to respect the cultural norms of the places you visit.
We also constantly heard her snapping at the hotel staff. She lorded over the beach like a despot and treated the local people like they were her serfs.
The poor staff bent over backwards to cater to this woman. She replied with nothing but short rude comments and complaints. She was constantly demanding and never satisfied. Maybe she was more like some old colonial master from the long-lost days of French Indo-China.
She wasn’t just rude to the people. There were a handful of dogs that ran around the hotel and the beach. They were very clean and very friendly. This woman would shout and kick at them any time they approached her beach throne.
The only good thing I can say about Old Crazy Tits was that she motivated me to leave bigger tips when I ordered food and drinks from the hotel restaurant.
The Sea Lice
Needless to say, we avoided this woman as much as we could. When she took over the beach, one of our only routes of escape was towards the water.
I’m not a huge athletic swimmer, but I do enjoy frolicking in the waves when I can. In fact, hanging out in the water is one of my favorite things to do on a beach vacation.
Unfortunately, in Ko Samui, every time we went in the water, we’d come out covered with itchy stings. Sometimes they could be a little painful, but mostly they were just annoying and went away after an hour or so out of the water.
Turns out we were the victims of sea lice. Thankfully, sea lice aren’t actual lice. They’re tiny jellyfish larva that float in the ocean and torture unsuspecting swimmers.
I don’t know if these jellyfish larva are permanent residents at Ko Samui or what. We were probably just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Also, there were no serious side effects. Still, the presence of sea lice made swimming on Ko Samui pretty unpleasant, to say the least.
What I Liked About Ko Samui
Not everything on Ko Samui was unpleasant. There’s a lot more to the island than sea lice and a crazy old European woman.
Despite its flaws, Ko Samui is still a handsome island. The beaches, while not that nice to swim in, were very nice to look at. The interior of the island is also quite attractive, too. There are some nice jungle-roofed hills to explore.
We took a lovely walk up a nearby hill away from the beach into a cute Thai village surrounded by green grass and towering palm trees. There were plenty of wandering ducks and farm animals.
Ko Samui is also the home to the Samui Elephant Haven, which was a fantastic little elephant sanctuary. I wrote a whole other post about it here, and I highly recommend visiting.
These few good things weren’t enough to keep us on Ko Samui for very long, however. We decided to leave earlier than planned and head to Ko Samui’s little brother, Ko Tao.
Ko Tao is a much smaller island, located a short boat ride past the party island of Ko Phangan. It was supposedly much more relaxed and catered to a younger, hipper crowd. Ko Tao is also famous for its snorkeling and scuba diving. It sounded like a great alternative.
What I Didn’t Like About Ko Tao
Unfortunately, the online hype about Ko Tao ended up being nothing more than just… hype. It was totally fine, and I did like it better than Ko Samui. In the end, though, Ko Tao left me feeling overwhelmingly underwhelmed.
Ko Tao is Over-Touristed and Way Too Hip
Ko Tao is much smaller than Ko Samui. There’s really only one town here, and it’s full of hip bars, tattoo parlors, dive shops, and lots of cool kids strutting around. You can eat pizza or tacos or burgers and even do some yoga or CrossFit while you’re there.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these things, but none of them have anything to do with Thailand. Also, I can eat get much better pizza or burgers or CrossFit classes in the States. I get that sometimes you get homesick when you’re traveling, and you want a taste of home. But you don’t need an entire damn town devoted to being reminded of home.
To Ko Tao’s credit, there actually was some pretty awesome Thai street food on the island. It was a short walk out of town, up the hill, and just down the road from the CrossFit place. We ate there every day, snacking on pad thai, watching the cool young twenty-somethings strut down the street with their yoga mats.
More Annoying Other Tourists
Aside from pretending to be a trendy American foodie district, Ko Tao is famous for its pub crawl. We chose a hostel up a hill and away from the main drag, hoping that distance would put us far enough away from the drunken shenanigans.
It almost did. There was a group of backpacker bros who would hang out in the common room every evening, drinking hard liquor and having a good time. I’m guessing they were pregaming for the pub crawl because we never heard them after about 10 pm.
Every morning, however, we’d come downstairs and find the common area strewn with empty bottles and dirty shot glasses. It looked like the aftermath of that party that motivated you to never have a party at your place again.
I want to be clear: there’s nothing wrong with drinking and having a good time. The problem is leaving a huge mess for someone else to clean up. The problem is treating the local people like they’re your servants.
What I Liked About Ko Tao
Thankfully, it was pretty easy to get away from the messy party bros. Ko Tao had some good points, too.
The beaches on Ko Tao were absolutely gorgeous. Maybe some of the nicest beaches I’ve seen outside of the Caribbean. And there weren’t any sea lice, either!
Also, the snorkeling around Ko Tao was absolutely fucking fantastic. There’s a nearby island called Koh Nang Yuan, with a perfect white sandbar beach and all the coral and colorful fishes you could hope for right off the beach.
We went there on a snorkeling tour, that also took us to other spots around Ko Tao. It was awesome, and probably some of the best snorkeling I’ve ever done. I did accidentally kick a fish, which I feel kind of bad about. In my defense, I think it might have been chasing me.
Koh Nang Yuan was great, but be warned: they don’t allow plastic bottles of any sort. You have to buy anything you need on the island, which can get kind of pricey. There’s literally a guy at the dock that will inspect your bags.
The plastic bottle inspector caught us trying to smuggle in a big plastic bottle of water and confiscated it. It was embarrassing. We didn’t bring any cash (what were we gonna do with cash on a snorkeling tour, bribe an octopus?) so we were very thirsty by the end of our time there. Still totally worth it.
Should You Go to Ko Samui or Ko Tao?
Would I go back to either island? Short answer: no, I probably wouldn’t. The better question is maybe, should you go to Ko Tao or Ko Samui? Maybe.
I didn’t make it down to the beaches near Krabi in Southern Thailand, so I can’t say if those are any better. Most of my island/beach experience has been on the Caribbean side of Central America and those beaches easily blow both Ko Samui and Ko Tao out of the water. However, if you’re going to Thailand anyway…
Aside from the Samui Elephant Sanctuary, I’d say Ko Samui is pretty skippable. Ko Tao has some pretty awesome beaches and some wonderful snorkeling. It’s also apparently a great place to go scuba diving if you’re into that sort of thing. If you’re going to go to either island, make it Ko Tao.
For me, though, Thailand gets a lot more interesting the further away you get from the beach. There are some absolutely mind-blowing national parks and some fantastic cultural sites. It’s also, generally just a fun, easy place to travel around. I even had fun in Bangkok.
Overall, Ko Samui and Ko Tao are pretty overrated beach destinations. Aside from Ko Tao’s snorkeling, they’re both pretty mediocre at best. If you’re in the neighborhood and looking for something mediocre, then by all means check them out. But, if you’re short on time and/or cash, you can probably find a better island vacation elsewhere.