Although it is not a huge island, Koh Samui is big on holiday activities. Visitors never lack things to do, whether on land or at sea, and it doesn't matter if you plan to stay on the island for a week or retire there, you'll find diversions galore to keep you inspired. Outdoor activities on Samui generally come with a beach or jungle backdrop, making all things sparkle with colour and life. If you are not content to merely sit and watch the waves, gaze at the sunsets or get a massage, here’s a list of more active things to do on Samui.
Known worldwide as a dive destination, the Gulf of Thailand attracts divers from around the world who seek beauty and peace under below the surface of the sea. There is little diving immediately off the island’s shores due to limited visibility and a lack of underwater fauna and flora. However, a good number of divers go to Samui to train, beginning their lessons in a swimming pool, then heading just offshore to hone skills that can be used a little deeper down. Numerous companies on the island offer PADI certificate courses, from introduction courses right up to instructor level, although its best to pick one with a strong reputation and fully qualified instructors. Once certified, nearby Koh Tao offers a broader palette of colourful marine life to observe and photograph, and hence has become the region's top dive destination. Named “Turtle Island” in Thai due to its historical abundance of hawksbill and green sea turtles, (they’re still around, though not as plentiful), the island has several coves and dive sites that shelter thousands of tropical fish. Depending on seasonal tides that carry plankton to the area, there are even occasional sightings of visiting pelagic whale sharks. Check out the Samui dive websites to gauge when life down below is teeming, and drop into to dive shops for reports on visibility and sea life
Notable open water sites for fish and larger marine species include Sail Rock and Chumphon Pinnacle, both of which are accessed by speedboat from Samui, taking a little over an hour to reach. Diving right off of Koh Tao is very popular too, with Mango Bay, Twin Peaks, Japanese Garden and Green Rock among the favourite places for swimming with a variety of underwater species. Large grouper, parrot fish, sergeant majors and trigger fish are common amongst the coral gardens in most locations, with both soft and hard corals to view close up. High speed catamaran services shuttle divers and island hoppers twice a day from Samui to Koh Tao or speed boats can take students and pros directly to most of the top dive sites. Lunch is usually included in day trip dive prices.
Snorkelling is another favourite way to get wet off Samui and can be done from almost any beach on the island, although heavy sand content means there is little to see off the busier beaches like Chaweng or Lamai. Snorkellers can look forward to more marine life among coral formations in hidden coves along the island’s eastern shore, specifically near Chaweng Noi at Coral Cove or down off the southwestern tip of the island. The small island of Koh Taen, off the west coast is also home to a modest coral reef and can be reached by local fishing boat. For a much livelier underwater scene, take a ferry to Ang Thong Marine Park’s 42 islands, just a 90-minute trip from Samui, or much faster by speedboat. Koh Nangyuan, a site near Koh Tao (which also has plenty of snorkeling right off the beach), offers a fun but sometimes crowded beach strip between two small islands with plenty of good snorkelling around the coral formations ringing them. Wear plenty of sunscreen and even a long-sleeved shirt, especially if you’re not already tanned. It takes very little time to get serious sunburn and even if you don’t notice it as you excitedly follow your finned friends about under the surface; you'll certainly feel it once the damage is done.
For a wild time on rather than under the waters of Samui, try a jet ski session. Very popular, jet skis are available for hire on the beach at Chaweng, its southern sister Lamai, and also the smaller and quieter Choeng Mon and can also be hired through companies that will deliver one to your beach. This is obviously not recommended for the pounding you will get when breezier weather brings choppy or white-capped seas (when the jet ski operators sometimes shut down), but a fun activity that only costs a few thousand baht. It is best done in pairs or groups, just in case of a rare engine stall, although operators will go in search of you if you don’t return in the allotted time (for most, in half an hour). Jet skiing affords a view of surrounding coastline that visitors rarely see and also allows some close-up viewing of coral reefs that are less accessible for snorkeling. However, avoid getting very close to shore rocks, as waves or swells can toss you onto jagged coral edges and any damage to the jet ski will charged at premium rates.
Kayaking is another favourite sport for active Samui visitors, as it offers a chance to explore close-up the many mini-coves and inlets along the coast that can’t take a larger vessel, or are inaccessible by road. Although you can go at your own pace, keeping an eye on weather is prudent, as storms can whip up quickly, especially from September through November. Many villas have their own kayaks for guests to use, or they are for rent along many of the island's beaches. Smart kayakers use a lot of sunscreen and take plenty of liquids to offset the dehydration that accompanies exercising in the tropical heat. Using a waterproof container to carry a cell phone adds another level of prudence, but this depends on how far out of sight you plan to go. For easy paddles, Choeng Mon beach offers a splendid kayaking area, with the option to circle its two small outlying islands if the seas are calm. The southern end of the bay is also good place to “surf” in on swells, but this must be done during higher tides to avoid some coral outgrowths just under the water. The island's south and west coast beaches are also good for kayaking, although again caution is suggested to avoid broaching the craft. More avid paddlers can take a day trip to the Angthong Marine Park and kayak around the uninhabited islands nipping in and out of limestone caves along the way.
Taking a boat trip off of or around the island is a fun way to enjoy Samui’s coastal splendour from a unique perspective. Numerous companies offer sunset or moonlight cruises, usually including snacks and drinks. Group prices are very affordable depending on the length of the cruise and yachts can also be chartered privately of the ultimate marine tour. Be sure to ask what safety measures are in place, where the life jackets are kept, and always double-check the “head count” of passengers after any stop-and-swim sessions. Burmese junk cruises offers leisurely trips to nearby Koh Phangan for off-gangplank swimming, or trips around Samui on a real (and rather spectacularly renovated) vessel. Another company, Samui Ocean Sports offers skippered sailing vessels, as do Sunsail, while motor boats of all sizes and luxury levels are also available, with or without crew, depending on the company and size of group. Check with any of the island's many tour companies and make sure the vessel comes is recommended by people you trust to ensure a well-organized and safe tour. It's also best to make sure refund and reschedule arrangements are written down and guaranteed, for the occasional weather-cancelled trip.
For the ultimate jungle thrill, take a canopy ride, where you’re suspended in harness and shoot down a wire that takes you through lush vegetation at tree-top level. The best rides involve a good hike up to the start platform — so strong shoes for trekking — and also require a climb up several ladders to get to platforms. The reward is the adrenaline rush you get when flying along through a tropical scene that will boggle any city-dweller’s brain and certainly rouse the senses. Kids can also enjoy the rides, which are very safe, but again, pacing, heat-taming drinks a-plenty, suntan and insect repellent are very handy things to take a long.
Another option of for thrill seekers on Samui is ATV adventures and dune-buggy tours — a great way to explore the island's less visited hinterland. It's always highly recommended to exercise caution when negotiating sharp and hilly terrain with these machines but the companies that run the jungle-crossing vehicles and maintain the trails generally have English-speaking crews that emphasize safety first, including the provision of good gloves, helmets, leg- and arm-protection gear for motorcyclists, with some training before operation. Trips can take couple of hours or can even be day-long adventures with a restaurant stop midday.
Golfers thrill to the cascading green turns and ledges naturally occurring along the island’s jungled hills. Santiburi Samui Country Club has a spectacular 18-hole championship course perched on a hillside overlooking the northern coast, with package options that include a caddy and buggy. Samui's other course, the mountainside-hugging Royal Samui Golf & Country Club is not for the faint-hearted either, thanks to steep fairways, but the scenery is unmatched for rich colours and constant life. There's also a more gentle nine hole course at Bophut HIlls and a number of driving ranges around the island to get your swing into shape.
Elephant riding is at its most casual on Samui, as there are virtually no dangerous animals to worry about and the trails head through well-trodden, but still engaging forests of jungle foliage. Some of the eco-tourism oriented groups also help to keep the environment clean, making travel through streams and rock-laden countryside more pleasant. Tours last anywhere from an hour to a half-day. Older trekkers might find the see-saw rocking of the perched seat for two a little tiring, but most riders and certainly youngsters adore the sway. Care of these gentle giants is always debated fiercely, but one sees generally fair treatment on Samui, if not pristine facilities. There are also monkey shows around the island, notably one along the road bordering Samui International Airport’s access entryways. Just across the airport, there is a popular Crocodile Farm and snake show with cobras. Another crocodile ranch is found at the south end of the island, at Namuang Waterfall II, made all the more interesting with the dramatic show including a lady who puts her head inside the mouth of a crocodile.
Head south to see marine life and exotic birds on exhibit at the Aquarium in Hua Thanon, along with some large jungle cats, in not particularly stunning condition. For more local flavour, there is a songbird competition held weekly near Bophut, with cash prizes going to those birds who most impress the judges with their cheerful chirping. Caged and felt-covered birds are often seen being carried preciously along to such events on motorcycles or in pickup trucks.
Many sight-seeing tours of Samui include the animal shows above, as well as trips to the temples around the island, with most tours including the amazing Big Buddha statue, resplendent with its bright gold paint and red carpets. There’s another lovely temple in Plae Lam, five minute’s drive from Big Buddha on the island’s northern coast. It boasts ornately painted structures that extend out over carp-filled temple waters - as artistically engaging as it is peaceful. Waterfalls are also a strong draw for a cool dip and can be found in several locations off the island’s main ring road.
by MAX VEE