Koh Samui and Phuket are two of the most popular islands in Thailand – and for very good reason. Both places offer pristine beaches, zingy Thai food and some astonishing holiday villas. But which of these tropical islands should be top of your travel wishlist?
To help you make a decision, we’ve compared Koh Samui and Phuket side by side, giving you a quick guide to life on both of the islands. Whether you want to know which place offers the best weather, the most family friendly activities or the shortest transfer time from Bangkok, you’ll find the answers here.
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On Thailand’s Andaman coast and connected to the mainland by a bridge, Phuket is the country’s largest island. It’s more than twice the size of Koh Samui but has around 10 times the population; some 600,000 people call it home. There’s also an international airport, which sees a steady flow of tourists arriving throughout the year. All of this means that Phuket feels much more developed than Koh Samui, with plenty of busy areas.
Large hotel complexes and high-rise buildings line the main beaches, but there are still some phenomenal stretches of unspoilt sand. What’s more, a few areas still have little or no beachfront development, allowing you plenty of space to soak up the sun. Head inland and you’ll also find waterfalls, nature reserves and a few patches of lush jungle.
Over in the Gulf of Thailand, Koh Samui is a smaller, sleepier alternative to Phuket. It’s home to just 65,000 permanent residents, but the population rises condsiderably when short-term visitors are taken into account.
In recent years development on Koh Samui has been strictly regulated, and local rules state that no coastal building can exceed the height of a coconut tree (though, as anyone who knows Thailand will tell you, these rules aren’t always followed). Nevertheless, the palm-edged beaches in Koh Samui often have a quieter, more authentic feel than those in lively Phuket.
If you’re in the market for a bit of pampering, Koh Samui offers an abundance of opportunities to relax and take advantage of international spas. Yoga classes, massages and beauty treatments are all easy to find on Samui as the island seeks to position itself as a world-class wellbeing destination.
Things to see and do
Beach life is mighty appealing but if you can tear yourself away from your hammock you’ll find that both islands have plenty of fun things to see and do. Here are some of the highlights on each island.
Koh Samui has just one 18-hole championship golf course but its reputation extends far beyond the island’s shores. Set near Maenam, the Santiburi Country Club has spectacular views towards the coast and the neighbouring island of Koh Phangan.
Phuket has plenty of excellent places to play golf. Caddies (usually local women) are obligatory, and can give players advice about the courses.
Try sailing or kiteboarding
Fans of kiteboarding and windsurfing will love Koh Samui. Its beaches provide the perfect setting for lessons all year long. When the seasons change and the weather becomes unfavourable, lesson are relocated to the other side of the island. Just west of Koh Samui, the Ang Thong National Marine Park boasts some of the best snorkelling spots on the globe. If you’d rather not leave Koh Samui, head to Bophut, on the island’s north coast. Its clear, shallow waters are perfect for snorkelling, as well as swimming and kayaking.
There’s a big sailing and nautical scene in Koh Samui thanks in part to the annual Samui Regatta which is held in May or June. Based at Chaweng Beach on the east coast of the island, the event was founded to establish Koh Samui as a leading sailing destination. There are lots of social events that take place throughout the week including gala dinners, fundraisers and concerts.
Phuket, meanwhile, is the ideal destination for scuba diving and snorkelling – especially from November to April, when the sea is at its calmest. The waves pick up from May through to October, providing decent conditions for surfing. Other options include sailing, windsurfing, kitesurfing, sea kayaking, waterskiing, jet skiing and wakeboarding.
Hit the beach
Both islands are renowned for their idyllic beaches and captivating views, but there’s a lot more to coastal life than sunbathing and swimming. Head to Patong on Phuket where you can enjoy a beachside massage, sizzling street food, and an array of clubs and bars.
The beaches on Koh Samui are generally smaller and quieter, though Chaweng is a lively spot night and day. For pure tranquility head to one of the beaches in the island’s far south, which are still untroubled by tourist crowds.
Koh Samui is known for having some of Thailand’s best coconuts; drive around the island and you’re sure to see the lush groves. Pick up a bottle of artisan coconut rum at the Magic Alambic Distillery, the only accredited rum distillery on the island. It’s located between Laem Sor and Laem Sett, and is well worth a visit if you are partial to either coconuts or rum.
Phuket is renowned for its rubber production and these trees used to cover 40 percent of the island. Nowadays tourism is the main industry, and the island is full to bursting with family friendly attractions, including a handful of themed amusement parks. However, if the mood takes you, you can still tour one of the island’s plantations and watch the rubber tappers at work.
Koh Samui and Phuket are both ideal for anyone who wants to get in shape during their trip to Thailand, or simply give their body a bit of a pampering.
Koh Samui has a more relaxed feel and is less developed, making it a great option for meditation sessions and beachfront yoga classes. Phuket’s high-end hotels, on the other hand, offer world-class beauty treatments and soothing traditional Thai massages. Whichever island you choose, you’re sure to find a little piece of heaven.
Eating and drinking
Koh Samui’s thriving food scene is ranked among the most diverse in Thailand. From authentic Thai meals and street food vendors to sophisticated dining experiences including English, Italian and French cuisine, Samui caters to all tastes and budgets.
Phuket also offers a wide range of food, including upscale options, but generally speaking the island is better known for its lively bars and nightlife. The island’s best restaurants tend to be found in Chalong.
When to go
The weather should be an important consideration when deciding whether to visit Phuket or Koh Samui. Phuket’s weather is at its best from late-November to February, while the ideal time to visit Koh Samui is between January and March.
If you’re considering a trip around southern Thailand , try visiting in February or March, when both islands have warm, sunny weather without much rain or humidity. That said, there’s really no ‘bad’ time to visit the islands. The month-by-month guides below will give you an idea of what to expect.
January offers warm, sunny weather. It can still rain every day but clouds disappear quickly to reveal bright blue skies. February offers consistently great conditions expect blue skies and calm seas. Samui experiences its best weather in March, when you can enjoy perfect skies, calm seas, and plenty of warm sun. Temperatures increase in April, while May sees a slight increase in the amount of rain. In June, July and August humidity increases but it’s still mostly dry. Rain begins to creep in by the end of September (but this is often seen as a welcome relief), while October sees a significant turn in the weather – it becomes wetter with fairly rough seas, but it’s still warm enough for barefoot strolls on the beach. November is the wettest month on Koh Samui and the rains continue to the beginning of December. By Christmas, the drier, sunnier weather has returned.
In January, Phuket enjoys consistently great weather. It’s the least humid month on the island, with little rain and calm seas. February is by far the best month on Phuket when you can enjoy the hot, dry climate. March also has great weather but humidity increases and by April this can make some days feel quite stuffy. May sees the start of the rainy season in Phuket but there will still be plenty of good weather for you to enjoy. In June, July and August it’s wet with sunny breaks. It can also be hot and humid with rough seas; swimming is discouraged on many of the beaches during this period. September is the wettest month on Phuket and this continues into October, keeping prices down and the number of tourists nice and low. November is still rainy season in Phuket but the weather improves towards the end of the month whereas in December, you can enjoy calm seas and warm temperatures most days.
Located in the island’s northeast, Koh Samui’s airport is just minutes from the some of the best beaches. The airport itself – known as one of the most beautiful in the world – is definitely worth a closer look, if only to gawp at the vaulted ceilings and ornate Thai pillars.
From Phuket airport it can take around an hour to reach the south side of the island where the main tourist beaches are located. Due to the airport’s small size and single terminal, the queues at immigration can be quite long during peak season.
You can fly to Koh Samui and Phuket from London Heathrow, via Bangkok. The flight to Bangkok is around 11 hours 30 minutes, and the connecting flights to Koh Samui and Phuket take 1 hour 15 minutes and 1 hour 20 minutes respectively. You can also pick up connecting flights to the islands in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Hong Kong.
By ferry or car
Phuket is attached to the mainland by the Sarasin Bridge – it’s around a 12-hour drive from Bangkok to the island.
Koh Samui can only be reached by air or sea. Ferries connect the mainland at Surat Thani with Koh Samui, arriving and departing from Nathon, Lipa Noi, Bangrak and Maenam. Regular car ferries also make the crossing.
So which island should you choose?
Both islands offer plenty of things to do and choosing between the two can be tricky. Our advice is simple: if you’re looking for high-end shopping, vibrant beach life and cocktails at upscale resorts, head to Phuket. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that Phuket is undoubtedly more commercial, attracting large groups of package tourists (which could be a drawback, depending on the type of holiday you’re looking for).
Koh Samui is a better option for relaxed beach holidays. It’s also very popular with visitors but it has more of a chilled feel to it than Phuket. The island’s quiet resorts are ideal for families, honeymooners and groups of friends who fancy a tranquil break in a luxury villa by the sea. There’s a surprisingly lively shopping scene too, with a few luxury boutiques to browse. It’s also worth checking out the Fisherman’s Village at Bophut which has an eclectic, cosmopolitan vibe.
Overall, if vibrant nightlife and bustling, activity-filled days are your idea of heaven, Phuket would be your obvious choice. But if you’re looking for a more relaxed, intimate getaway Koh Samui is undoubtedly the tropical paradise you’ve been searching for.
If you have more than 10 days to explore Thailand, why not cover both islands in a single trip? There are direct flights between Phuket and Koh Samui, which are just 55 minutes apart.
Both islands have a great selection of luxury villas to choose from, including beachfront options with their own private pools. Here are some of our favourites.
Choeng Mon 4169
Set in an exclusive hillside estate, this villa will provide you with the perfect island getaway. With private beach access, an oversized saltwater infinity pool, breathtaking ocean views and a private meditation platform, you are sure to leave here feeling relaxed and rejuvenated.
This villa in Chaweng is in a league of its own. Set in tropical gardens and with its own waterfall, it features floor-to-ceiling windows and a 60 sq m infinity pool. You can enjoy sea views from its spacious sun deck.
Home to a sunken Jacuzzi, a centralised outdoor sound system and a poolside sala with stunning views over Andaman Sea, this six-bedroom villa is to die for. Facilities include a games room, a gym and a bar.Book now
Sea views flood into the glass-walled living area at this exclusive villa, which has its own home movie theatre and an extensive outdoor dining area. Perched on a hill, it offers amazing views over Patong.Book now