Content last updated - November 2016 - please contact me if you have an update!
Planning a recent trip to Thailand - I was torn - should I go to the famous west coast resort island of Phuket or the more "laid-back" option of Koh Samui in the Gulf of Thailand. In the end we went to both, and here is my opinion on which of these famous Thai destinations you should go to.
First off - I don't actually think there is a huge difference between the two- both are very touristy, definitly not undiscovered and heavily catering to the package tourist European crowd. Which is all cool - but don't arrive expecting to find a $5/night bungalow on the beach there for the taking - those days are long, long gone.
Getting There and Away: Phuket beats Kok Samui
Although both are islands Phuket is an island in name only, its now attached to the mainland by a causeway. So catching a bus is cheap and easy from anywhere in Thailand.
More importantly for those just looking for a quick holiday in Thailand - the travel time can be miserable as Thailand sits almost exactly mid-way between Europe and New Zealand - 12 hours flying long-haul.
Phuket is Thailand's second busiest airport with flights from all over the world and Asia, as well as local flights. Flights to Koh Samui, in contrast, are expensive because the airport is privately-owned and route is almost a monopoly for Bangkok Airways which the prices and schedules reflect that.
Phuket v. Koh Samui: Which Is the Best Beach Holiday Destination?
So what do you need for a good beach holiday? I'd say in order of importance:
- a good beach, not too crowded, pretty, warm;
- reasonably priced accommodation with good beach access;
- good food and drink to go with said beach.
Oh I call a draw on this one! Unless you like surf - then definitely Phuket. But Thailand does have some of the best beaches in Asia, and both islands have lots of choices. In both cases you will find firm yellow sand, warm sea, and lots of vendors. Thailand doesn't allow private beaches - so with a few exceptions where a hotel controls all the access - anyone can swim and walk on any beach, so often you will have to deal with the beach vendors.
There is a good array of beachside sports available from sailing to jetskis to diving and snorkeling trips.
In terms of food and drink - whatever you want really. Prices are high (for Thailand) in both, but both have a really rich choice of cuisine. From Swedish to Thai to KFC - you will find it here. The fine-dining establishments cluster in certain places (Chalong in Phuket and Big Buddha Beach in Koh Samui), but really it would be pretty hard to go hungry on either island. As anywhere you will pay for sea-side dining, views, decor and whole fish.
But what if you want more than a beach - what do these islands offer. Well frankly, not much compared to northern Thailand or Bangkok. Phuket probably wins out in this case because it has a long history which pre-dates tourism (it was an early centre of tin mining) - you will find some attractive old buildings and small museums in Phuket Town. There are also some stunning hill top temples. Both islands have a "Big Buddha" on top of a prominent hill - Phuket's is probably more impressive - but its not exactly a day long excursion.
If you consider shopping a holiday activity - then Phuket has more shiny malls (Centra C, JungCeylon) with lots of Western brands. Phuket town also has a big local market each week. Koh Samui certainly has shops but nothing quite in the same league as Phuket - which you may consider good or bad.
Phuket or Koh Samui - Which Has the Best Weather
Both have different weather patterns. Both have a wet season - but because Thailand has not one, but two monsoons, the both have wetter seasons at different times of the year.
If the wet seasons are working as normal - and some years they don't! The best weather should be:
- Phuket's dry season is November thru March;
- Koh Samui's dry season is April thru October
Yeah marketing department's dream - nice set up for Thailand! The reality is that I've seen Koh Samui flooded out in April, and when we travelled to both islands in August we got rain Koh Samui, and none in Phuket - go figure!
Still undecided about where to go - check out: