Once-sleepy Koh Samui may not be Thailand’s most visited holiday island (that distinction goes to Phuket), but it is the uncontested leader when it comes to upscale accommodations—and all the trappings that go with them.
When I was a child, there was nothing here,” my driver Tom tells me as we cruise along the cliff-hugging road on Koh Samui’s east coast. Born and raised on the southern Thai island, the 36-year-old remembers a simple childhood centered on farming and family. “I used to walk the five kilometers to school every morning, then the same back in the afternoon. Once I got home, I helped with the chores and then played in the fields. Occasionally, everyone in the village would gather at the house of the one person who had electricity to watch a football game on TV.” While the richer islanders often sent their children to finish high school on the mainland, families that couldn’t afford the expense—like Tom’s—had to put their kids to work. “I didn’t mind it, everyone helped everyone else. You have to realize that for a very long time, Samui was cut off from the rest of Thailand. We had to look after ourselves.”
Up until the 1970s there were no paved roads on Koh Samui, and it was only in 1989 that the island’s Samui Airport was built. Fishing and farming were the mainstays of the local economy, making for a strong culture of self-sufficiency. When backpackers first started arriving on rickety wooden ferries from the mainland, they rented rooms from villagers, which led to the construction of simple beach huts, then guesthouses, and eventually high-end hotels. Now, Koh Samui is arguably Thailand’s most luxurious island destination, besting Phuket (where I’ve lived for the past four years) with an impressive stock of big-name hotel brands—Four Seasons, InterContinental, Banyan Tree, W, Conrad, et al.—and a crop of sophisticated beach clubs, design-centric shops, and restaurants that wouldn’t look out of place in Bangkok.
Bill Barnett, the managing director of Thailand-based hospitality consultancy C9 Hotelworks, has been a regular visitor to Samui for more than 30 years. “In the 1980s it was idyllic—bungalows, fresh fish for dinner, no nightlife,” he tells me. “The only full-moon party was sitting in the hammock and staring at the stars.” One of his theories for the island’s successful growth as a destination over the past 30 years is its geography—a blindingly obvious reason once he points it out. First, Samui is less than half the size of Phuket, and its center is mountainous, squeezing the population to the coastal edges. By default, the land available for development is restricted. Secondly, it’s only accessible by plane or boat, meaning the number of daily arrivals is limited, and on top of that, Samui Airport is privately owned by Thai airline Bangkok Airways, with very few other carriers flying in. While Phuket has a bridge connecting it to the mainland—which in recent years has led to a sea of tour buses bringing the island’s roads to a near standstill—Samui’s accessibility is more exclusive, appealing to well-heeled travelers. Phuket may be home to the original Aman resort (Amanpuri) and other fine boltholes like Trisara and Sri Panwa, but it caters to a much broader spectrum of tourists, as any visit to the notorious party town of Patong will attest. I’m keen to discover just how divergent the two islands’ paths have become.
My 55-minute flight from Phuket lands around lunchtime, and I’m immediately whisked to Vana Belle, part of Starwood’s Luxury Collection. Overlooking the ocean at the southern end of Chaweng Beach, the 80-room property occupies a prime piece of real estate, with rooms—many boasting picture-postcard views of the sea—cascading down the hillside toward an enticing freshwater pool, a wonderfully secluded spa tucked away in the trees behind the resort, and Panali, a beachside Italian restaurant. The bad news is my room won’t be ready until 2 p.m., as the hotel is fully occupied. I’m apologized to profusely, but being full is obviously a good problem for any hotel to have. While I wait, I get to talking with Jodie Clark, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing, who moved here from Bangkok just over a year ago. “Samui felt much slower paced, a little quaint in some respects,” she tells me of her first days on the island. “I sometimes yearn for the city landscape, yet when I’m away, I miss the fresh sea air and the slower pace of life. You always want what you can’t have, right?” As for her take on Samui’s rising status as a luxury destination, she says that it’s definitely grown since when she first came here as a tourist five years ago, which she attributes to its stunning beaches, amazing views, and some of the best dining she’s had in Thailand. From my position reclined on a plump sofa in the breezy lobby, refreshing drink in hand and gazing at the sun-flecked water beyond, it’s all too easy to agree with her.