Traveling to Thailand: How to choose between Phuket and Koh Samui bangkok vs phuket
No visit to Phuket is complete without a trip to the Big Buddha. Photo/Getty Images
Looking for an island vacation in Thailand? Phuket and Koh Samui are two of the most popular destinations in the country, but how do they compare? Mark Daffey reports.
Before the pandemic, about 40 million tourists visited Thailand annually. For many, the promise of lounging on an island beach in the shade of coconut palms was enough of a lure to hop on a plane, with Phuket or Koh Samui most likely to be the final destination.
Fast forward a few years and Thailand’s tourism industry is back on track, with Phuket and Koh Samui leading the way. Not surprisingly; both islands offer a combination of relaxation and rest. Phuket is busier but offers more to do. Koh Samui is half the size of Phuket and is the more relaxed of the two, although the action is never far away.
So how do you choose between one or the other? This comparison test will help you decide.
Bangkok Airways owns the only airport on Koh Samui and was the only airline flying to the island at the time of writing. On the other hand, airlines from Australia, Singapore, India, Vietnam, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Switzerland, Denmark, Turkey, Kazakhstan and Russia fly directly to Phuket – the second busiest airport in Thailand after Suvarnabhumi in Bangkok. This, as well as the greater choice of accommodation, goes a long way to explaining why you might be able to secure a better deal on a Phuket holiday than Koh Samui.
The downside to Koh Samui is that Bangkok Airways’ route network is not that extensive. Most flights to the island depart from Bangkok, although there are also direct flights from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong. Bangkok Airways also connects Koh Samui with Phuket with hourly flights across the Malay Peninsula.
Don’t fly? The only alternative way to get to Koh Samui is by ferry that departs from the mainland at Donsak Pier in Surat Thani. Such obstacles do not hinder access to Phuket, however; drivers can simply drive over the Sarasin Bridge to the island.
Koh Samui certainly has more of an island feel compared to Phuket. It’s smaller, less developed, not as crowded and has one main ring road and nothing else. Phuket’s jumble of roads can be congested with traffic, especially in and around the congested Old Town district in the east.
In Phuket, the airport is located near the northern tip of the island, and most of the large resorts are located along the west coast. It takes an hour to drive to Kata beach or 40 minutes to the Old Town, while you can go around the entire coast of Koh Samui in 50 minutes. Koh Samui Airport is located in the northeast of the island, near the busy beaches of Chaweng, Lamai and Choeng Mon, where most of the tourist resorts are located.
Public transport is better in Phuket though. The Smart Bus travels the west coast from the airport, stopping at every resort along the way. Bus fares are a few dollars each, making this the cheapest way to get to the hotel. The closest equivalent on Koh Samui are its songthaews – pick-up trucks with two rear benches to seat up to 10 people – which constantly circulate around the ring road (plus wherever the driver chooses to go).
Verdict: Koh Samui
The optimal time to visit Koh Samui or Phuket is between the end of December and April. Monsoon season arrives in May, bringing frequent rains and rougher seas, especially in Phuket, which was hit hard by the 2004 tsunami. The heaviest showers fall from September to November.
Phuket wins this argument for me due to sheer numbers and the cleaner waters of the Andaman Sea. You’ll find most of Phuket’s resorts strung along the west coast. Club Med opened the first international resort on the island on Kata Beach in 1985. It and neighboring Karon are now popular with families as well as surfers.
Patong is arguably the flag bearer in the resort these days, attracting younger travelers lured by the promise of a sprawling beach to crash on after an all-night party. Kamala, Surin and Layang – favored by former residents – are more subdued, with world-class golf courses nearby that attract an affluent, active clientele. Mai Khao is a long, flat beach that is conveniently close to the airport.
The beaches of Koh Samui are mostly calm. Chaweng and Lamai are the most developed beaches on the island, and everything in both villages is within walking distance. Choeng Mon is slowly becoming the luxury beach town of Koh Samui, with honeymooners and families opting for this quieter beach on the north coast.
While many travelers might be content to spend their entire vacation lazing by the pool or beach, there are others who like to inject a little culture into their time on the road. In this, Phuket has an advantage thanks to its old town, where colorful colonial-era buildings contain elegant cafes, boutique hotels, Chinese shrines and museum houses, plus a cat cafe and several cannabis dispensaries (Thailand legalized cannabis in June 2022). Plan your visit so that you can come on a Sunday when Thalang Road turns into a pedestrian night market.
There are 29 Buddhist temples to visit in Phuket, but none are more impressive than Wat Chalong, where a 60-meter-tall stupa houses a bone fragment said to be from the Buddha himself. Phuket also has a statue of the Big Buddha which is 45 meters high and can be seen from many of the southern beaches of the island. It is a popular spot at sunset.
Koh Samui has its own Big Buddha at Wat Phra Yai, although it is “only” 12 meters tall, it is a scaled down version compared to Phuket. Inland, a statue of the 18-armed glowing goddess floats on the lake at Wat Plai Laem. Never seen a mummified monk before? Then head to Wat Khunaram, where the preserved body of a Buddhist monk who died in 1973 is displayed in a glass case.
The fishing village of Bophut is the closest equivalent to Old Phuket Town on Koh Samui, providing a glimpse of what the island was like before the arrival of tourism. It is not that historic, nor is it that well preserved. However, come here on a Friday night and you can enjoy a meal at a seafood restaurant before browsing the market stalls for Thai clothing, souvenirs and delicacies along Beach Road.
Theme parks and wildlife parks
Andamanda is Phuket’s newest water park (there are five), opening in May 2022. It is also the largest, featuring 27 water slides, Thailand’s first wave pool for surfing and a 550m lazy river on a 22ha plot bordered by hills in the jungle. It is open seven days a week and hosts full moon parties that last all night. Eventually, the facility will include a hotel with 300 rooms and a spa.
Inland from Kamala Beach, Phuket FantaSea is a theatrical dance, acrobatics, pyrotechnics, light and sound extravaganza that showcases Thai culture. It has been open to the public three nights a week since 1998.
Koh Samui lags far behind Phuket when it comes to theme parks, although it manages to compete on an equal footing with wildlife parks. Travelers can visit elephant sanctuaries, crocodile farms, cobra shows and tiger zoos on Koh Samui. In Phuket you can see tigers, elephants, monkeys and birds.
Deep in the jungle interior of Koh Samui are numerous waterfalls. In some you can swim; others are valued for their beauty. The Na Muang Twin Falls are popular on day trips because of their size and ease of access, and because the pools at the base of both falls are great for cooling off in the water. Hin Lad is the second largest waterfall on the island. Again, you can swim here.
Grandpa’s and Grandma’s Rocks, so named for their resemblance to male and female genitalia (try not to imagine it), are unusual rock formations at the southern end of Lamai Beach.
The last remaining true rainforest on Phuket is protected within Khao Phra Thaeo National Park, east of Thalang in the north of the island. This valuable wildlife sanctuary is famous for having a gibbon rehabilitation center and two small waterfalls, Ton Sai and Bang Pae, under which visitors can swim. All of them can be reached by a four kilometer long footpath.
By the way, Sirinat National Park is a pocket coastal park south of the airport. It is probably better known as a place to watch planes take off and land than for its white sandy beaches.
Verdict: Koh Samui
Almost every resort or travel agency in Phuket offers excursions to Phang Nga Bay. Home of James Bond’s island that appeared in the 007 movie The man with the golden gunit’s a stunning region filled with limestone karst that contains mysterious sea caves and hidden lagoons that are best explored by kayak.
Ever since Leonardo DiCaprio starred in the movie The Beach, travelers have been making their way to the Phi Phi Islands. Unfortunately, not so long ago the actual beach shown in the film in Maya Bay was so overrun with tourists that the authorities were forced to close it for four years. It is now open again.
Divers won’t want to miss a trip from Phuket to the Similan Islands for a chance to see cetaceans, manta rays and leopards. In addition to the main island, Phuket consists of 32 smaller islands. Most hotels offer diving trips to Koh He (Coral Island), not far from the southern tip of Phuket.
The islands and seawater west of Koh Samui are protected within the Ang Thong National Marine Park, home to some of the best diving in Thailand. Book a day trip here and you’ll get up close to turtles, Kuhl rays and coral reefs.
Phuket is the clear winner in this department, as it contains all the characteristics you would expect from a bustling city. The largest mega-shopping center on the island is Jungceylon Phuket in Patong. Expect to find souvenir shops, restaurants, cinemas, supermarkets and department stores, all in air-conditioned comfort.
Buy cheap Adidas runners or Nike tracksuits at Premium Outlet Phuket, north of Old Town. Other famous western brands are Levi’s, Timberland, Samsonite and Quiksilver.
You’ll find everything you don’t need – mostly fake – at the Phuket Weekend Night Market, which has been compared to Bangkok’s famous Chatuchak Market. Bags, watches, perfumes and shoes carry brand name labels at bargain basement prices.
There are more street vendors than shopping centers on Koh Samui. The Central Festival Samui mall in Chaweng is the only exception.
Whatever you say, Phuket has it, from tourist resorts to five-star resorts and luxury villas. In places like Patong, you’ll even find high-rise hotels, while Koh Samui’s planning laws dictate that no building can be taller than a coconut tree.
Escape the unnecessary distractions of Phuket with a stay at Avana+ Mai Khao Phuket (avanihotels.com/en/mai-khao-phuket). On Koh Samui, you’ll be at the heart of the action at Avani Chaweng Samui Hotel & Beach Club (avanihotels.com/en/chaweng-samui). Both push along beautiful beaches.
For more ideas and inspiration, take a look tourismthailand.org/home