Which island is right for me, Phuket or Koh Samui?
Phuket and Koh Samui are two of the biggest and most popular islands in Thailand, both world-famous for being beautiful tropical paradises. However, while only an experienced eye could tell the difference from photos alone, the two are not identical – same same but different, you could say. Choosing which you should visit is important for making sure you have a great stay in Thailand.
Our intention here is to show the ways in which either Phuket or Samui might be a better fit for you personally rather than suggest that one is just better than the other. Of course, we do have a certain rather obvious bias, but we will try to be as even-handed in our assessments as we can.
Phuket has a staggering 44 beaches to choose from. We could almost leave it right there – that is kind of a ‘mic-drop’ moment. With so much choice, there is naturally no shortage of variety. Patong is the most famous and therefore often the busiest, leading some to think that Phuket beaches are always crowded. However, there is also the more family-friendly Karon Beach, lively Kata Beach, peaceful Mai Khao, and dozens of tiny coves that few people even know about.
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Beaches in Koh Samui
Koh Samui, being a significantly smaller island, naturally has significantly fewer beaches. There is still a good variety available, though, from bustling Chaweng Beach and family-friendly Bophut Beach to romantic Lipa Noi Beach and charming Silver Beach. However, being the smaller island also means there are generally fewer people staying on Samui at any one time, meaning the more popular beaches don’t tend to feel too crowded.
Things to Do and Attractions
Phuket has a great range and variety of things to do when you need a break from the beach. Culture-wise, the Big Buddha statue is among the biggest in Thailand and Wat Chalong is one of the grandest and most revered. Phuket Town is uniquely charming and there are plenty of fun activities available for families, including water parks and activity centres. The tours you can take to nearby destinations are extremely popular – particularly Koh Phi Phi and Phang Nga Bay.
Things to Do in Koh Samui
Samui has comparatively modest temples, viewpoints and activities, though they are generally still worth a look. Much of the interior of Samui is a jungle-covered mountain – great if you enjoy an adventure in the wilderness, but not so for many others. It does have a couple of aces up its sleeve with the nearby destinations, though, in the forms of Koh Tao and Koh Phangan. One is rated among the best diving destinations in the world and the other is the home of the world-famous Full Moon Party.
Phuket has a very varied nightlife, especially on Patong’s famous Bangla Road. It certainly has its more risqué parts – far more so than Samui – but it is also home to some very high-end nightclubs. Beyond Bangla, there’s everything from budget beer bars to family-friendly shows, as well as some very sophisticated beach clubs such as Catch Beach Club and Café del Mar.
Koh Samui Nightlife
Koh Samui attracts a younger crowd and the nightlife reflects that. There are far more casual beach bars than Phuket has, with fire shows on the sand most evenings. The Green Mango area in Samui is where visitors will find the beer bars so typical of the tourist destinations of Thailand. And, of course, the world’s most famous beach party is just a short boat ride away – Koh Phangan’s Full Moon Party. On the other hand, the variety is comparatively limited, with the sophisticated options limited to the Nikki Beach Club and little else.
Food and Dining
Phuket has a fantastic dining scene, both in terms of the quality of its restaurants and the local cuisine. Southern Thai food is often spicier than you will find in the rest of the country, with more chilli peppers and bolder flavours. The places you can taste it range from a great choice of little local eateries to a Michelin-star-studded array of high-end restaurants.
Samui Dining Scene
Samui has a more modest choice of places to eat and a comparatively unremarkable cuisine. However, it has far more places where you can eat with your toes in the sand – Phuket’s choice of beach restaurants is very limited. It means you can have far more romantic meals without eating through your holiday budget at the same time.
Phuket has a pretty good shopping scene, with plenty of variety. It’s certainly not as good as Bangkok’s, of course, but with a couple of major malls – Central Phuket and Jungceylon – it certainly has plenty for the fashionable traveller. Where Phuket really shines is its night markets, especially in Phuket Town. You can get some great bargains on charming local products and tasty street snacks from the Sunday Walking Street Market and Chillva Market.
Shopping in Koh Samui
Samui also has an excellent night market in the shape of the Fisherman’s Village Walking Street, though that is pretty much the only option on par with Phuket’s offerings. Central Samui is also a comparatively modest mall and is pretty much the only one on the island. You certainly won’t struggle to find the essentials, but Samui might not satisfy the shopaholics. Unless you really like chic swimwear – Samui has several resident designers.
Hotels and Accommodation
Phuket has just as great a variety in its hotels as it does in pretty much everything else. There’s the historical charm of Phuket Town’s guesthouses, the luxury of the Laguna resorts, the seclusion of Mai Khao and plenty in between. There’s also plenty of choice in terms of cost, with budget-friendly hostels and budget-very-unfriendly resorts at either end of a broad and well-represented spectrum.
Hotels in Koh Samui
Samui lacks variety but compensates with a comparatively high quantity of beachfront hotels. Most of the length of every popular beach on the island is lined with hotels while Phuket often has a road running between the hotels and the sand. There is a good range from budget to luxury options, though.
To put it bluntly, the simple fact that Phuket is the largest Thai island naturally means that it has more of pretty much everything, which inevitably means more variety. Phuket can therefore be a good fit for virtually every kind of traveller, as long as you know which part of the island to stay on.
Samui is more like a specialist to Phuket’s ‘jack of all trades’. It has more beachfront hotels, restaurants and bars than anywhere else in Thailand, despite its small size. That gives it a more youthful and relaxed atmosphere, which is reflected in pretty much every aspect we’ve talked about above.