In 1971 two tourists arrived on Thailand’s third-largest island via a coconut boat from Bangkok and stumbled upon paradise – white-sand beaches with palms blowing in the wind and clear green seas sparkling in the sunlight, against a picture-perfect background of lush green hills and brown roads interspersed with rough wooden structures.
More than 30 years after the first rough-hewn hut went up on Ko Samui, the island and the archipelago that includes 80 smaller islands, has become the Asian travel market's most enigmatic chameleon – as attractive to fire-twirling backpackers as to flashpackers toting Louis Vuitton. On the map alongside places like Goa and Bali, Samui has polished its reputation as a hippy island paradise that remembers to provide the best of the creature comforts from home. In the last five years, Samui has become as popular as Phuket, and at times as trendy. If it's nightlife you're after, the full moon parties held at Ko Pha-Ngan legendary, while snorkelling and nature enthusiasts will enjoy Ko Tao.
The Ko Samui of today is changing however, and the cheap fan bungalows are increasingly hard to come by. Most accommodation is either mid-range or top-end, beachfront properties boasting beautifully decorated rooms, crisp white sheets, lush gardens and lavish pools.
Despite its upmarket trend, Ko Samui still offers something for everyone. There are crowded beaches where young boys peddle coconuts and mangoes to oil-slicked, bikini-clad tourists, and jet skis churn up whitewash on clear seas. There are isolated spots where serenity and seclusion are the name of the game and you can escape the sun in simple air-con cottages and check out the latest MTV video. There are cheap food stalls and top-class restaurants, crowded modern shopping strips with Starbucks, McDonald’s and store after store featuring knock-off Von Dutch T-shirts and Gucci sunglasses; as well as stretches of rough dirt roads and ramshackle huts. Western bars dish up burgers and chips and pump classic tunes from giant speakers late into the night. Lady-boys and beautiful girls in strappy sandals and tight skirts seek out customers in side alleys, while drunken Westerners pound the keyboards at late-night internet cafés.
Some travellers plan to stay a week and three months later are still entranced. Others look around, say ‘it’s done’, and move on. Popularity doesn’t come without a price – more people means more traffic, more noise and more rubbish. Whatever your opinion, however, no one can deny Ko Samui is a beautiful place. You’ll have to visit for yourself to decide whether it’s worth staying.
The best time to visit is during the hot and dry season, from February to late June. From July to October it can be raining on and off, and from October to January there are sometimes heavy winds. On the other hand, many travellers have reported fine weather (and fewer crowds) in September and October. November tends to get some of the rain that also affects the east coast of Malaysia at this time. Prices soar from December to July, whatever the weather.
Tourism on Ko Lanta, like the rest of Krabi province, has exploded only very recently. In the early 1990s only the most adventurous travelers visited the island, staying in only the most basic accommodation costing the likes of 50-100baht a night. Nowadays, however, the place has turned into one of the major destinations for visitors to Krabi. The development however, is still nothing on a par with the likes of Phuket or Ko Samui.
· Ko Lanta National Park covering a total area of 135 square kilometres, Mu Ko Lanta National Park is located in Amphoe Ko Lanta and consists of many islands. The two major islands are Ko Lanta Yai (เกาะลันตาใหญ่) and Ko Lanta Noi (เกาะลันตาน้อย)
· Lanta Old Town It's one of the region’s most culturally diverse with Chinese merchants, original Thai fishing families and an ancient Sea Gypsy community. Many years ago, Ko Lanta's Old Town acted as the port and commercial center for the island and provided a safe harbor for Arabic and Chinese trading vessels sailing between the larger ports of Phuket, Penang and Singapore.
· Khao Mai Kaew Caves These Caves, located in the centre of the island, house impressive stalactites and stalagmites, some of the caves are just very large and one contains a pool.
· Sea-Gypsy Village Known to the Thais as Chao-Le, sea gypsies have occupied the area for hundreds of years settling along the coast in stilt-built houses erected in the sea. They are unique in that they mix very little with the general population, speak their language and have their very own supernatural and traditional beliefs and rituals.
· Orchid Nursery Farm This farm is for those who like flowers. The Orchid Nursery Farm is located at Long Beach (Pra Ae beach).