Long sandy beaches, beautiful hot weather, excellent food. It’s true – you can tick all of these boxes in tropical holiday destinations around the world. Even within Thailand, Samui competes with Phuket, Koh Phi Phi, Khao Lak, Krabi and others for travellers’ attention. Wondering which to choose? We’re biased, but we can help.
Koh Samui vs Phuket (Faqs)
Rainy season? Rainy season comes to Phuket in September-October. On Koh Samui it’s usually late October, November and part of December.
Hottest period? Phuket is hottest in March-May, while April is Koh Samui’s most scorching month.
Is Phuket or Koh Samui bigger? Phuket – almost twice as big. Phuket’s total area is 540 km²/208 mi² – similar to Guam, a bit smaller than Singapore or Bahrain. By contrast, Koh Samui is 228.7 km²/88.3 mi² – like the Cook Islands, and a bit smaller than the Cayman Islands and Maldives.
Is Koh Samui or Phuket least touristy? Many would say it’s apples and oranges when you consider Thailand’s two most popular tourist destinations. Yet a tremendous difference between Koh Samui and Phuket is the height of buildings: resorts, apartment towers, condo blocks, etc. While high-rises line Phuket beaches (much like Honolulu, Miami, etc), Koh Samui has a strict development regulation: no building can be higher than a coconut tree. The effect is that, even on Samui’s busy beaches, you still enjoy a tremendous sense of palm-tree, beach bungalow, ‘time has forgotten us’ charm. More and more, Koh Samui is trying to position itself as a ‘green’ island (though hotels throughout Thailand are making great strides generally with environmental/eco awareness).
TIP! Don’t want *any* amount of touristy? We’ve spent 5 years on 5 editions of The Koh Samui Guide making sure you’ll avoid the masses (and their tour buses) in full – we even help you pack.
Which is quickest to get to? The fastest possible journey (total flying time including connections) from the following four cities to Koh Samui (USM) and Phuket (HKT) airports.
- Quickest from London: Koh Samui (13h 35m vs 14h 10m to Phuket)
- Quickest from New York: Phuket (20h 45m vs 21h 35m to Koh Samui)
- Quickest from Singapore: About the same (1h 45m)
- Quickest from Sydney: Phuket (9h 15m vs 11h 50m to Koh Samui)
How to get to Phuket or Koh Samui from Bangkok? Flight time to both is roughly equivalent. Depending on the plane it’s between 45-90 minutes to Samui and 1.25 hours to Phuket. Bangkok Airways (a very reputable boutique regional airline) runs about 20 flights a day to both destinations, almost one per hour. (Our biased input? Koh Samui Airport wins ‘best airport’ in its category, in every contest, every year).
How to get to Phuket or Koh Samui by plane, ferry, car or bus? Unlike Phuket, Khao Lak, and Krabi, Koh Samui is an island. You can only get there via scheduled ferry and flight services. This means there’s a finite number of people who can visit, and the tap of travellers is turned off overnight. As you can’t reach Koh Samui by bus (without a ferry ride), there are fewer casual visitors and people tend to stay for longer. (Lucky there are so many things to do).
TIP! Getting to Koh Samui from overseas? Many airlines have international direct flights to Koh Samui, including Firefly (from Kuala Lumpur), and Silk Air (from Singapore). Bangkok Airways also operates direct services from destinations including Hong Kong, Singapore, Siem Reap, Phuket, Krabi, and Pattaya, with a codeshare with Qantas recently introduced.
KOH SAMUI VS PHUKET: THINGS TO DO
Water-sports on Phuket and Koh Samui? Here’s one we can’t fluff – Phuket does have a bigger sailing scene. Yet the Koh Samui Regatta has been drawing fans for over a decade every May and June.
As an island, Samui is an ideal year-round destination for water-sports (except at the height of rainy season). When prevailing winds change with the seasons, lessons just relocate to the other side of the island. Samui is an excellent place to try your hand at a new nautical skill, too – a great, encouraging place for beginners trying sailing lessons and windsurfing through to a full PADI certification at one of the island’s many dive centres. With courses taking you to nearby Koh Tao – a mecca for divers – could there be a better place to learn?
What local history or culture is there? Both destinations offer ample opportunity to visit temples and get off beaten tracks. As for secondary industries to tourism, it is (or was) rubber on Phuket, while Koh Samui is all about coconuts. Would you rather look at a rubber plant – or drink the freshest coconut on earth? (Hey we said we were biased at the start!)
Golf? Koh Samui has just one 18-hole golf course, Phuket has… lots.
Does Koh Samui or Phuket have better food? Do you l-o-v-e food? It’s no exaggeration to say that entire books have been written about Thai food, and Koh Samui does it as well as anywhere, and at every price point. If you just need 7 straight days of Pad Thai, you’ll be happy in either location. Yet ‘tiny island’ Samui offers tremendous choice. Even small hole-in-the-wall restaurants win praise from food guides and locals alike for simple but authentic Thai food with mega spice. Tired of Thai? Find the cuisine of nearly every flag – from Indian to authentic pizzas (and even Indian-inspired pizzas) to sushi and the world’s best sausage rolls.
Which has the best drinks? While Koh Samui has its own rum distillery, not to mention some gorgeous spots for sunset cocktails, we’ll give a good-humoured nod to the nice guys at Phuket’s Sri Panwa (whose Baba Nest bar recently earned a spot CNN’s 50 best beach bars).
Phuket vs Koh Samui hotels
Which has the best-priced accommodation? Picking a random night in February 2017, we used Booking.com to find the best available room prices for high-end hotels from 10 different brands in Phuket and Koh Samui. They’re all 4- to 5-star, exceptionally well-rated and gorgeous – it would be a very tough choice.
Results (USD per night):
Koh Samui: 244 (median price)
Phuket: 349 (median price)
TIP! Both Phuket and Koh Samui of course have options at all price points – using high-end, branded resorts was easier in this case to compare like for like. For a fantastic introduction to Samui’s many ways to spend or save on accommodation, see our up-to-date guide for where to stay on Koh Samui.
Which has more options your price bracket? While Phuket is more developed (with approx. 1,600 hotel options on Agoda, compared to Samui’s 700 or so), there’s great seasonal price variation. Noting Phuket’s larger size and greater development, let’s dispel the myth that Koh Samui is a strictly up-market destination; truly, there are plenty of gorgeous places at every price bracket.
How to choose
Why do we prefer Koh Samui to Phuket? Phuket’s fans will have reasons all their own, but this is why we prefer this side of Thailand:
#1. Do you want convenience and seclusion? Koh Samui offers a great balance of both. Within the same day, you can feel like you’re the last person left on earth, and easily find happy hour crowds and nightlife. At the same time, Samui is more developed than many other tourist destinations in the region (like Koh Phangan, Koh Tao and the mainland, Surat Thani). Its hotels and guesthouses number in the hundreds, it benefits from world-class hospitals and is well-stocked with restaurants and shopping of nearly every description. The difference? Samui is large enough to absorb the aforementioned without blinking, giving visitors both convenience and unspoiled beaches.
#2. Do you have varied interests and big curiosity? Koh Samui caters for quiet and active vacations alike; there’s something for everyone. If you’re more inclined to sit back and while away the hours, Samui is home to dozens of fantastic spas. Or, if you feel like burning a few calories, there’s plenty to keep you and your family occupied. *See the top 10 family activities on Koh Samui
Verdict: Samui’s charm is that it manages to marry these features into the best of both worlds – convenient but restful – where other spots can either suffer for amenities or (cough–Phuket–cough) feel overrun.
Still can’t decide? Of course, many visitors to Thailand book time in both Samui and Phuket, plus a few days in Bangkok (and sometimes even up north to Chiang Mai) – perhaps that’s best formula of all? *No matter where you’re headed in Thailand, get our 13 years of tried-and-tested packing tips and answers to all your travel prep FAQS – find out how to prepare for Thailand.
If we’ve convinced you to try Koh Samui, or maybe you want to try this ‘big-little’ island on for size, use The Koh Samui Guide to choose the beach that’s perfect for you, and to plan every aspect of your best vacation ever – no blind choices necessary. Enjoy!
Map comparison via MAPfrappe. Photos used under license from Shutterstock.com