Aquamarine sea meets secluded coves and busy beaches on Ko Samet, one of Thailand’s most popular islands. Crowds of foreign tourists, expats and Thais have reinvented this one-time backpacker bastion as a relatively pricey destination, especially at peak times of year. Though not our favourite island by any stretch, Samet does make a handy getaway from Bangkok.
No fewer than 16 beaches offer a variety of different scenes, often with white sand so fine that it’s like stepping on silk-feather pillows. The longest, Haad Sai Kaew, resembles parts of Phuket with its large-scale resorts and fleets of speedboats. Head further south to find a “lifestyles of the rich and famous” vibe on Ao Phrao; a comfy family-friendly setup on Ao Wong Duean; and a lazy beach-bum attitude on Ao Sang Thian. Near the end of Samet’s long tail, stunning Ao Wai feels like a totally different island when compared to the busier beaches.
Thais know Samet as the setting for a 30,000-line epic by Sunthorn Phu, a famous 19th-century poet from the nearby town of Klaeng who called the island Ko Kaew Pitsadan, or “Magic Crystal Island.” With help from a few mermaids and hermits, the namesake character of Phra Aphai Mani kills a jealous giantess with his magic flute while on a tumultuous path to kingship. The toothy ogress welcomes visitors to Nadan Pier, while Phra Aphai is shown fluting away alongside a mermaid at the southern end of Haad Sai Kaew.
Most of Ko Samet is part of the Khao Laem Ya-Mu Ko Samet National Park, which opened in 1981 on “protected” land that was dished out in large slices for lucrative private development. The park also covers Khao Laem Ya cape on the mainland along with a clutch of smaller islands that can be hit on a day trip from Samet, including marvellous Ko Thalu.