Mai Pen Rai: Your Guide for Travel on Koh Samui
Koh Samui is a beautiful little island off the East coast of Surat Thani (one of Thailand's Southern provinces). It has 'all the things' for a great vacation destination:
- White sandy beaches
- Great local and Western restaurants
- Abundance of local shops and open-air markets
- Historical/Cultural sites
- Heaps of that Asian sun
Depending on your level of 'uptightness', a little bit of 'mai pen rai' could do you a world of good. On Koh Samui, the saying 'mai pen rai' basically means 'no worries'. If the power goes out (which it probably will if you're there for more than a week) - "mai pen rai". When the snorkel tour you paid 1500 Baht for leaves you sitting on the beach for an hour, waiting for the ride home - "mai pen rai". Or when the rains hit and those dirt roads leading to the Buddha garden go to pot and you're following Google Maps but you're still basically lost and just wanting to get out of there without a scooter accident- "mai pen rai".
From my time on that beautiful little island, I realized that mai pen rai is more of a way of life on Samui, rather than just a saying. The reggae influence is pretty obvious there, and, it is an island after all, but that chilled-out feeling really does ooze out of pretty much everybody and everything on Samui.
So when you plan your trip to Koh Samui, remember this: if it doesn't kill you, don't worry about it. Or in the words of a good friend of mine, "don't sweat the small stuff".
As with any travel destination, there are the 'touristy things' to do, as well as the not-so-touristy things. Here's the viewpoints, markets, and other bits that I'd suggest checking out:
- The Jungle Club: You need to go here. I'd suggest going about an hour or so before sunset and stay until the stars come out. It's a super-chill resort but it's the restaurant you're headed for. With bean-bag chairs, great cocktails, and probably the best view on Samui, this place won't disappoint. Cost is definitely higher than the local restaurants but it's worth it.
- Lamai Viewpoint (Valentine's Stone): This place is fun. Located on the South-East side of Samui, Lamai Viewpoint or Valentine's Stone (same place but referred to with both names) has a cable car that brings you up the hill to (you guessed it) a great viewpoint of Lamai, a little bar with snacks, and a fun little photo op with signs that read 'YOLO', 'Wow', and 'Amazing', among other things. Cost is 200 Baht per person (which includes the cable car and the fish spa).
- Fisherman's Village Street Market: This is a must for at least one of the Friday evenings that you are on Samui (only operates on Fridays from around 530PM onward). Here you'll find all kinds of street food, clothing, handmade items, and live music. If you like this kinda thing, plan to spend the full evening there as there's lots to check out. There's no cost for entry and the food/drinks aren't expensive (i.e. 400 Baht would easily get you a couple food items and a cocktail). You can read more about Fisherman's Village Street Market in an earlier post found here.
- The Statues: It goes without saying that the statues on Samui should be part of your itinerary. In my opinion, the big 3 are as follows: the 'Big Buddha Temple' (North East), the 'Guan-Yu Shrine' (South East), and 'Wat Plai Laem' (North East). All of the temples and statues are interesting, and some have vendors selling souvenirs and food/drinks, but these were the three that stuck out to me. Note: There are two temples that have a mummified monk encased in glass (one is Kunaram temple and the other I passed by chance on a scooter one day and couldn't remember the location). Both are interesting places to check out.
Eat local. That should sum it up. But seriously, there's a lot of 'Western' restaurants (with Western pricing) that probably have great food, but if you're going to go to Thailand, you need to eat pad thai from the lady in Fisherman's Village, or buy a banana pancake from the guys who sit outside the Family Marts. Try the chicken satay from the open-air markets or, if you're really up for some different eats, I dare you to try the massive chunks of octopus they sell at the markets (if you do, tag me in the comments on Instagram and I might just buy you a beer).
Everywhere you go on Samui you will find food. Whether it's a vendor on a bike/scooter, or a local restaurant with a massive menu (most menus I saw were at least 7-8 pages), you won't have a hard time trying to find local eats.
Of the places I'd suggest, most are in the Cheong Mon Beach area (as that is where I stayed), but there are an abundance of good food options on the island:
- The Jungle Club: I've mentioned this place twice now. If it's not already on your list, please exit the blog 😉
- Spaghetti Cove: This one's run by two great guys from Rome who probably serve the best pasta dishes on the island. It was never busy when I was there so we were happily surprised when we found out how good the food (and service) was.
- Garland Song: A staple for our crew during our stay there. Garland has a large menu, low prices, and great service.
- Connection Coffee and Cafe: Zack's place is the best spot in the Cheong Mon beach area for breakfast or brunch. He also takes private bookings with a full menu, which he did for a group of us when we wanted karaoke (he found the gear, set it up, and charged us a very fair price for it).
The best advice I can give you for exploring Koh Samui is this: get a scooter unless you're planning on drinking. The scooters are by far the best options for checking out the island, and they cost less than the taxis (a.k.a. the songthaew).
The songthaews are basically compact trucks with a cover on back with some seating (see pic above). They charge based on distance and passengers, but they're probably you're best bet if your plans include a few cocktails.
Of course, you could always rent a vehicle but I wouldn't suggest that option (unless it's rainy season, but who's really planning on going to Samui in rainy season anyways). Koh Samui is such a beautiful island and the best way to experience it, in my opinion, is in the open-air on a 50-100CC scooter (Which can be rented just about anywhere on the island. 50-100CC simply because you don't need more power than that, and inexperienced drivers are better off with less power). I rented mine for 150 Baht/day but the price ranges from 100-200 depending on where you rent from (the more 'touristy' the area, the higher the price...usually). Gas can be easily purchased for 30-40 Baht per bottle on the sides of the roads (yes I said 'per bottle'...you'll see liquor bottles filled with gas throughout the island) or at a gas station.
Don't be an ass. That is honestly the best advice for travelling on Samui. Thai people are among the most gracious bunch I've ever met (and that's saying something, coming from a Newfoundlander). They are patient with us non-Thai speaking foreigners (or 'farangs' in Thai) in all aspects of life: driving, ordering food, cultural expectations, and the list goes on. So please don't go there and expect life to operate like it does in a Western context, because it doesn't and it won't.
That being said, you can get around the island and find what you need easily enough. Because it is frequented by tourists, a lot of the locals (especially in hotels and most restaurants) do speak some English. I was there for just over 5 weeks and I never had a bad experience with any Thai I came into contact with. If the language barrier pops up, which it will, you smile ('cause they probably will too) and you don't worry about it ("mai pen rai" 🙃).
A few do's and don'ts to keep in mind:
- Don't wear revealing clothing to a temple (ex. no strap shirts, low cut shirts, or see-through items)
- Do 'wai' a monk (i.e. a sign of respect and greeting where you bow with hands together)
- Don't touch a Thai person on the head. The head is considered the most sacred part of the body.
- Don't talk about the royal family...at all. It's safer to steer clear of the topic as negative talk could land you in prison.
- Do learn a few Thai words (like kap kun khap/ka which is the male/female way to say thank you).
Koh Samui for All!
I'd recommend Koh Samui to just about anyone: young families, singles, older couples; anyone at all can have a great time on Samui because it's relatively safe and cheap, and you're surrounded with Thai culture, great weather, beautiful scenery, and the people are fantastic.
For me, I'd definitely like to go back to Samui for an extended period of time. After being there for 5 weeks, I have several friends and good connections that would make going back a pretty easy decision. Koh Samui was the first stop on a long to-do list of travel destinations. For now, though, it's Vietnam and the city of Ho Chi Minh. So stay tuned.
Be sure to follow me on Instagram @NewfoundNomad and on Facebook at Facebook.com/NewfoundNomad, as I'm getting into the habit of sharing Instagram stories and some other bits on Facebook that don't always make it to the blog. As always, I really do appreciate you reading and travelling along with me, and I welcome your ideas and feedback. THANKS!