Koh Samui is an island in the Gulf of Thailand. It's about an hour flight south of Bangkok. We spent a week here as the 'beach' portion of our vacation. For the most part, we spent our time on the beach, in the water, occasionally in the pool and went into 'town' for dinner. Further down this page and towards the end of our week we decided to be more adventurous and went on a snorkeling trip that was perhaps too adventurous.
Koh Samui airport is unlike any other we've seen. It's set up more like a small village with several large palapas for the arrival and departure areas. The entire airport is open-air and it is privately owned so the vast majority of flights in are from Bangkok Airways (who happen to own it).
After considerable waffling about where to stay on the island we finally settled on Coral Bay which is on the crescent of beach just north of Chaweng Beach. Chaweng is one of the more popular beaches on the island with considerable nightlife. We weren't really looking for nightlife but we wanted to be relatively close to restaurants. This area is extremely quiet (so much so that some people weren't fond of it). It was basically exactly what we were looking for. There are sandbars a long way off the island's coast so you can walk a ridiculously long way from shore and still be ankle deep in places.
Chaweng Beach is full of vendors selling food and jetski rides and the usual beach sort of stuff. The cove north of it only had a handful, mostly selling fruit or jewelry. Our favorite beach vendor was this guy (or woman?) selling inflatables. We never actually talked to him or her or bought anything but it's quite the show.
The coastline of Koh Samui is generally settled and mostly lined with resorts. There are no high rises however and most of the hotels we saw in person were scattered across a large area of hillside and jungle. At Coral Bay there were a lot of birds and lizards. We became particularly fond of a giant tokay gecko who lived on our front porch.
A few times we took a song-thaew (pickup truck) into central Chaweng for the evening. There are a huge variety of restaurants there. There were also quite a few scattered along the road out towards our hotel. It's an island so you'd expect more seafood. We did see a lot of fish, including this one, which was described to us as 'white snapper'. The restaurants out by us were generally quite good.
As previously mentioned we did take a day trip snorkel boat out to Koh Tan, another smaller island south of Samui. Our boat operator of choice was booked on the day we wanted to go so we made the questionable decision to just go with whoever had space. That led us to this boat which wasn't in great condition to start with and later hit a rock on the way to Koh Madsum leaving it not very seaworthy. We limped back across the gulf to the port on the south side of Samui with black smoke pouring out of the engine room. It was a bit disconcerting.
The reef at Koh Tan (sometimes Koh Taen) was really nice. Our guide said visibility wasn't as good in mid-summer as at certain other times of year but there was a huge variety of coral and sea life. This is a blue spotted ribbontail ray trying (and failing) to hide from me.
There isn't much on Koh Tan itself but if you were staying there it would be possible to walk out to the reefs across a long shallow sandbar-filled lagoon.
Koh Samui, Koh Tan, Koh Madsum and other islands make up the Chumphon archipelago which isn't far from the Thai mainland. The mountains in the distance here are on the mainland portion of Thailand in the Surat Thani region.
Koh Madsum is a private island, it's the kind of place all the snorkel and dive tours stop at because then you're a captive audience and I'm sure they all get a kickback from the restaurants there. That said, we've been to many worse versions of this around the world. Madsum is pretty and has a lovely view of the bay. For a slightly exorbitant price you can rent a lawn chair or a kayak here, or buy a beer. Bring cash if you're planning to buy anything. You can also just hang out and enjoy the view.
The beaches themselves at Madsum have no shade at all. It's beautiful sand and water but pretty strong sun, especially if you're stranded there for several extra hours because the boat that brought you is trying not to sink.