10 ways to spend a weekend in Koh Samui
Escape the usual tourist traps and make the most of your Thai weekender with a little local knowledge and a lot of enthusiasm, writes Kawai Wong
Get to grips with getting around: one piece of advice any local will give you is not to get on a motorbike - not even if you are a MotoGP champion. The island's sandy tarmac is hell to negotiate. Besides, it is impossible to predict when stray dogs and drunk drivers will be on the road. On average, two road deaths occur every day, making traffic here among the deadliest in the world.
Yellow taxis are an option. Be warned: the meter is only a decoration, so be ready to bargain or bring plenty of cash.
Songthaews - Thai tuk tuks - are not a bad idea. They are relatively cheap (from 20 baht per ride) and efficient (just knock on the roof at your stop).
If you rent a car, photograph the condition of your vehicle and read every clause on your rental agreement before setting off. It is better to leave a cash deposit instead of your passport, as some merchants do swindle. TA Car Rental (samuitacarrent.com) is trusted by most residents as it is one of the oldest companies on the island with honest pricing. Good luck.
Choose a home for the weekend: what are your three wishes for a Samui weekend? If it's sea, peace, and a spot of relaxation, then Hansar Samui (hansarsamui.com) is for you. Every room has an unobstructed view of the ocean, and it is mesmerising to sit on a rocking chair on the balcony and watch as planes fly past Koh Pha Ngan to land at the airport a 20-minute drive away. You can also use the hotel's 30-metre isotonic swimming pool (the island's largest), spend 300 baht (HK$74) on a beach massage or unwind at the Luxsa Spa.
Have a Malibu-style weekend brunch: Samui has three fabulous weekend brunches - and there is no better way to see and be seen. Every Sunday at 11am, the fit and toned turn out for Nikki Beach (nikkibeach.com/kohsamui), Beach Republic (right; beachrepublic.com) and KC Beach Club's (kcbeachclub.com) buffet, champagne and swimming pools. It's hard to tell them apart, but as a rule of thumb, Nikki Beach is known for laid-back clientele, Beach Republic for its punchy soundsystem and KC Beach Club for its profusion of G-strings.
Party with the islanders: Chaweng is to Samui what Lan Kwai Fong is to Hong Kong. Unless you're up for eardrum-splitting cheesy pop songs and buckets of Thai whiskey, most residents shy away from the Green Mango Club (full of underaged drinkers) and Ark Bar (best left to fresh-off-the-boat boozers). Secret Garden (secretgarden.co.th) near the Big Buddha, however, offers live music every Sunday. Jazz, rap and pop performances start from 5pm, drawing painters, photographers and scuba divers who have recently arrived from nearby quays.
If you are moving on, drop in at Q-Bar (qbarsamui.com). This luminescent cube, visible from all angles on eastern Samui, is a stylish haunt. Bartenders in waistcoats mix your drinks to acid jazz, with a performer-slash-saxophonist adding atmosphere to the dazzling view of Samui lake.
Enjoy beach cinema and fire dancing: strolling along the trendy Fisherman's Village, you cannot miss the Elizabethan gate, manicured lawn and some romantic swing chairs that welcome you to Coco Tam's (99/1 Moo 1, Bophut), a small beach bar turned ultimate chill-out destination. A dozen queen-sized bean bags line the beach, where locals enjoy pina coladas while watching rom-com videos. Bartenders here also fire dance between showings - and if you fancy learning, just ask.
Get fit in mind, body and soul: Koh Samui is famous for its world-class wellness retreats. Absolute Sanctuary's (absolutesanctuary.com) forest seclusion attracts wound-up people from all walks of life including Take That member Jason Orange. Kamalaya Retreat (kamalaya.com) in the south has excellent sleep enhancement therapies and aqua fitness classes. Vikasa (evolutionofyoga.com) offers holistic yoga, meditation and organic food - which are sure to put you on the path to heightened consciousness.
Go shopping: Koh Samui's two million coconut trees provide food, fuel, coconut shell lamps and a great after-sun remedy (oil). Look for these and more along the island's many Walking Streets, where hawkers sell anything from hand-painted notebooks to hand-sewn voodoo dolls. Your best bets are Chaweng Walking Street (South Chaweng, off Beach Road, open 4pm-midnight, closed Fridays and Sundays), Mae Nam Walking Street (Mae Nam centre, open 5pm-midnight on Thursdays) and Fisherman's Village Walking Street (Fisherman's Village, Bophut, open 6pm-midnight on Saturdays).
For party clothes, Try-ouT boutique (Moo 2, Chaweng Beach Road) offers glam, beach-friendly womenswear and handmade silver jewellery by Belgian designer Ann Florizoone. For something more casual, Colombian designer Bara K sells printed tunics, bikinis and shorts at his shop, Chandra (14/39 Chaweng Beach Road).
The best sunset view: to get a bird's-eye view of Chaweng and Lamai bay, leave your car at the entrance of Jungle Club (jungleclubsamui.com) and phone for a vehicle to take you up the treacherous hill. Get there before sunset to secure a bamboosala, or open pavilion, bolted on the precipice. Sip cocktails and watch as the bays fade into darkness.
Nathon town's aptly named Sunset Restaurant (175/3, Moo 3, Preeda) has the ideal location for a front-row salute to the sun. Alternatively, go to the Five Islands Restaurant (thefiveislands.com) in the southwest, where you can sip the island's best lemon grass cocktail while gazing at the Five Islands and the Ang Thong National Marine Park - the inspiration for Alex Garland's fictional locale in The Beach.
Perhaps as a parallel to the plot, precious birds' nests on the island are guarded by armed men.
Eat like a local: Thais graze from street to street, dropping 10 baht on fruits or satay wherever they go. Food carts that sell everything from fried fish to pancakes congregate at 5pm near the edge of Nathon pier, and the Lamai and Mae Nam markets. The feasts don't stop until late at night.
For a quick sit-down bite, try Krok Lanna, a spartan restaurant on the junction between Plai Laem Soi 4 and the Ring Road. It's often full of locals chowing down 40-50 baht mango salad and barbecued meats, which are considered the island's best. For green curry and fried rice, go to Choeng Mon restaurant on Plai Laem Soi 12. It's easy to spot - the bamboo salas are lit with Christmas lights. For picky palates, visit H Bistro (101/28 Moo 1, Bophut) and sample the signature slow-cooked dishes of the king of Jordan's former personal chef, Stephen Jean Dion. Highlights include wagyu beef and pineapple pockets filled with coconut sherbet.
Snorkel on Koh Matsum: the shallow, sandy bottom of the Gulf of Thailand limits Koh Samui's marine biodiversity, so there's not much use bringing a snorkel. Ask where the fish are, and locals are likely to point at Koh Tao, which is a good two-hour ferry away.
But you don't have to go that far. Koh Matsum is an uninhabited island with a brimming coral fringe that attracts tropical fish. Its relative anonymity means you'll only find fellow sunbathers on the powdery white sand at weekends. Drive to Thong Krut's Thong Tanote beach and charter a tailboat from Negrito Restaurant (4170 Road, Thong Krut). The boat costs 1,700 baht for the day and carries up to eight people. Do load up on drinks and snacks, as Koh Matsum has no facilities.