A bronze mermaid mother statue on Koh Samet island between Sai Kaew Beach and Ao Phai. The very bright lights are illuminating a string of dinner and drinks tables along the beach.
Koh Samet Downsides
• Koh Samet is shabby and trash-sprinkled in places, with ratty power cables and careless building construction and maintenance. This is not Hawaii! But then again neither are the prices.
• Since a few brash resorts have infiltrated this little paradise and occupying the best part of the best beach – Hat Saekaew’s wide white powder sands – positive blinkers and patience to find your little Nirvana will be required. In 2017 the main occupants of Hat Sae Keaw beaches were Chinese.
• In the last couple of years large speedboats capable of carrying a dozen passengers have taken to using many of the beaches as parking/pick-up and drop-off points, leading to a kind of giant coughing roar when they leave as they blast out of the shallow waters leaving a miasma of gasoline fumes wreathing the beach.
• snorkelling is not too good here with little coral of interest and less fishies.
• Weekends and festive seasons can see the island packed with city folk so if arriving without reservations target mid-week. At the Thai New Year in April accommodation is impossible to find.
Prices rise considerably during weekends and holiday seasons. Book in advance!
Getting to Ko Samet
Nadan pier on northeast Ko Samet with typical slow ferryboat just departing. The fast alternatives are speedboats that are pricey, noisy, bumpy and you have to jump into shallow water on arrival, but they will take you to your precise beach.
Three and a half hours bus ride from Bangkok’s Ekkamai bus station (conveniently beside a BTS Skytrain called Ekkamai), buses run hourly to Ban Phe port. From there a slow ferry to Nadan port/village on the northeast coast of Ko Samet will take half an hour, or travel one of the smaller beaches on the central east coast by speedboat from Ban Phe.
The crossing is generally smooth. Ferries leave regularly between 8am to 6pm daily. Choose your ferry destination according to the beach on which you plan to stay.
Minibus, Ban Phe Port to Bangkok
BTW, for your return trip to Bangkok or an airport, all over Koh Samet you will see offers of a minibus from Ban Phe port (the mainland) to BKK airport. The reason for the excessive number of desks promoting this service is that they charge a HUGE commission for booking on the island. It’s a 500 baht ripoff!
Take a regular minibus from Ban Phe port to Ekkamai station at a cost of 200 baht, or preferably take a bus (more comfortable!) costing 150 baht (tho they don’t run 24/7). Beside Ekkamai bus station is Ekkamai BTS (Skytrain) station that will take you directly to Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) for 25 baht. BTS also goes almost to the other Bangkok airport, Don Muang, but you’ll have to do 10 minutes on the frequent A1 bus for the final stretch.
Koh Samet beaches
Hat (Beach) Sai Kaew
Hat Sae Kaeo beach, (Diamond beach), aka Hat Sai Kaew or even Haad Sai Kaew.
Hat Sae Kaeo (also Sae Kaew and other spellings) is quite active, with speedboats coming and going, though all Ko Samet beaches have roped off areas separating boats from swimmers.Sae Kaew beach offers a line of palm trees that make useful shade and an unusually wide strip of exceptionally soft, squeaky white, no-heat sand that’s the best on this island.
Bars and restaurants fringe the beach and during the evenings it’s is lined with dining tables that can be crowded but still have a pleasant ambience makes a great people-watching stroll. Prices are not ridiculous. In 2017 at a beach table run by one of the best hotels (Sae Kaew Villas) I had seafood rice, prawn salad and a sizeable glass of wine for $11.
Hat/Had/Haad means beach, Ao means bay, Ko/Koh means island.
Dinner time on Koh Samet’s Sae Kaew beach in 2017. One unique feature of Hat Sae Kaew is the dogs lounging around like it’s their living room, digging into the cool sand during the day then alert for food scraps in the evening. They’re generally in good shape – a bit overweight even – extremely relaxed and never aggressive. No worry-pooches.
Tubtim beach, next bay south of Ao Phai.
Our choice of best place to stay in Ko Samet would be Tubtim, the next bay/beach down (south), from Ao Phai. It’s smaller than Ao Phai, home to some very nice looking bungalows and doesn’t appear to have a speedboat parking/arriving issue, so that would be our first choice of place to stay on Ko Samet, though we suspect that the bungalows – which are clearly smarter than Ao Phai – may be pricier.
The beach offers good but limited budget and mid-range accommodation options but is still within an easy stagger of the party beaches of Ao Phai and Hat Saekaew. Tubtim is popular with Bangkok residents so weekends are likely to be booked up.
Ao Vong Duern (Wong Duan)
Vong Duern (aka Wong Duen/Duan) beach, possibly at high tide but it’s always been like this when I visited so maybe that’s the way it is!
Half way down Samet’s east coast Vong Duern hosts a cluster of convenient bungalow operations and some decent little seafood restaurants as well as a landing stage for ferries from Ban Phe, though the beach is narrow.
The cheapest bungalows are generally the furthest from the two main landing points (Na Dan Pier and Wong Duan), so backpackers should be prepared to walk a while.
The downside to Vong Duern is that the bungalows are not only pricier than those further away but also much desired by people who don’t want to lug their bags a few hundred metres, so book early. Furthermore, as the island’s second landing point, smelly, noisy boat traffic will be regularly in your face, as will the hordes of tourists being off-loaded.
Ao Thian, another narrow beach backed by facilities, encompasses good value backpacker bungalows and an interesting bar, even if the beach is narrow and rocky in parts. The bungalows are mostly smaller and simpler (but still comfortable) than those on other Samed beaches and give an idea of what Samet was like in the old days.
Koh Samet path
There are another half dozen bays/beaches running down the bottom third of the east coast. We haven’t visited them but would assume them to be also narrow but wilder and less developed than those further north. However, there is access to all beaches via a road – taxis here are green pickup trucks, walking trail (photo below) and speedboats in some cases.
This is a typical section of the very pleasant walking trail down the east coast of Ko Samet, wandering from bay to bay. Generally beaches are no more than 5/10 minutes walk from each other, fairly easy going and safe in the daytime. Probably in the night time too but night walkers would certainly need a torch
Accommodation on Koh Samet
A cluster of old Ao Phai bungalows just across the north/south road from the beach. There are also some smart newer ones nearby.
On this visit I wanted to stay near Sae Keaw beach but on the cheap, so I picked one of the small guest houses just off the village road running from Nadan pier to Sae Kaew beach. Good aircon, good shower/bathroom, decent beds, reasonable space, so-so wifi, cheap. Pleasant staff. Nothing else. Rated at 1.5* by TripAdvisor. No breakfast, no safe, no cleaning your room during your stay. 5/8 minutes walk to restaurants, bars, 7-11 (‘supermarket’) in the village street, and Sae Kaew beach.
Balancing price, quality of beach, tranquility and convenience Tubtim would be my first choice for beach holiday and Ao Phai second, with Ao Phrao on the west coast for 4 star uncrowded serenity. See all three beach assessments below.
Bottom end accommodation
And finally from the sublime to the ridiculous…I couldn’t help noticing a lot of promotion material for Sunrise Villas on Ko Samet east coast beside the port. Understandable because some moronic investor has financed these hideous little huts on the west coast and is desperately trying to make some money out of them. Why you would want to stay next to a busy port (Nadan, main arrivals point for visitor ferries and fishing or supply boats), directly below a quite busy road, in a cramped hut with no beach and diesel-tainted water I cannot imagine. Just say No.
Koh Samet weather
The best time to hit the southeast Thailand beaches is December – March apart from peak holiday times such as Christmas and New Year holiday periods.
The worst time to go is May – October on the Andaman (west) Coast where rains are heavy and prolonged but the eastern ‘Gulf Coast’ has a much less rain at that time.
Rainy season benefits:
On Ko Samet endless rain is rare; it’s more scattered heavy showers and those are sometimes only at night. This break from constant sunshine may be compensated by the vastly cheaper accommodation – not to mention availability – space on beaches and tranquility all around.
Rainy season downsides:
It could rain all day for two or three days in a row; or it could be overcast; you may get lonely; the mosquitoes (aka 747s in Thailand) may suck you dry; seas will be rough and water visibility less than clear.