Blessed with the softest, squeakiest sand within weekending distance of Bangkok, the tiny island of KO SAMET, which measures just 6km from top to toe, is a favourite escape for Thais, expats and tourists. Its fourteen small but dazzlingly white beaches are breathtakingly beautiful, lapped by pale blue water and in places still shaded by coconut palms and occasional white-flowered cajeput (samet) trees, which gave the island its name and which are used to build boats. But they are also crowded – although on weekdays there’s a lot more room to breathe and relax – and developed to full capacity with over fifty sprawling, albeit low-rise, bungalow developments, a disfiguring number of which pay scant attention to landscaping and rubbish disposal. It’s a sobering state of affairs considering that much of the island’s coastline has been protected as part of the Khao Laem Ya – Mu Ko Samet national park since 1981; all visitors to Ko Samet are required to pay the standard national park fee on arrival, and most hoteliers also pay rent to park authorities, but there’s little evidence that this income has been used to improve the island’s infrastructure.
Samet’s best beaches are along the east coast, where you’ll find nearly all the bungalow resorts, though there’s one rather exclusive beach on the otherwise largely inaccessible west coast, and the north-coast shoreline retains a pleasingly village ambience. Most islanders and many resort staff live in the northeast, near the island’s main pier, in the ramshackle, badly drained village of Na Dan, which has small shops and cheap foodstalls as well as Samet’s only school, health centre and wat. Na Dan’s high street, which runs from the pier down to Hat Sai Kaew, and its other small roads, are paved, as is the road along the north coast to Ao Noi Na. However, from Hat Sai Kaew south, there’s only one poorly maintained dirt road (with a branch west to Ao Prao) that runs down the island’s forested central ridge, and much of the interior is dense jungle, home to hornbills, gibbons and spectacular butterflies. The evergreen vegetation belies the fact that there are no rivers on this unusually dry island, which gets only scant rainfall in an average year. Lack of rain is another plus point for tourists, though it means water is a precious and expensive commodity as it has to be trucked in from the mainland.
The most backpacker-oriented beaches are east-coast Ao Hin Kok, Ao Phai and Ao Tub Tim, with Ao Hin Kok and Ao Phai both quite lively in the evenings; the travellers’ vibe at nearby Ao Nuan is more alternative, with Ao Sang Thian and north-coast Ao Noi Na also worth investigating. Hat Sai Kaew and Ao Wong Duan are the biggest centres on the east coast, dominated by upper-scale accommodation aimed at families, package tourists and Bangkok trendies. Samet’s super-deluxe accommodation is on west-coast Ao Phrao and southern beauty Ao Kiu.
Shops and stalls in Na Dan (which has a pharmacy) and on all the main beaches sell basic travellers’ necessities. Many bungalows have safety deposits and it’s worth making use of them: theft is an issue on Samet and there are occasional instances of drinks being spiked by freelance bar-girls and punters waking next day without their valuables.
Samet has no decent coral reefs of its own, so you’ll have to take a boat trip to the islands of Ko Kudi and Ko Thalu, off the northeast coast, to get good snorkelling or diving. From the main beaches you can also organize boat trips around Samet itself, rent kayaks and jet skis and arrange banana boat rides and parasailing.