Shifting sands | Monocle

thumbnail text
Cocktail hour at Coco Tam’s

For better or for worse, Alex Garland’s 1996 novel The Beach (and its 2000 film adaptation) pinned Koh Samui firmly on the backpacker’s map of Southeast Asia. Nearly 30 years on, Thailand’s second-largest island is preparing for another moment in pop culture’s spotlight that symbolises how it has matured into a destination known not only for its white sandy beaches but also its increasingly upmarket bars and hotels.

The main action in the third season of hit HBO series The White Lotus was filmed earlier this year at the Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui. The fictional hotel guests who we see on-screen hint at the better-heeled travellers who now occupy the island’s smarter spots along the coastline. Even backpacker haven Chaweng Beach has transformed into a more appealing proposition with the arrival of upmarket hotel brands such as Sala and the newly opened Marasca. 

Garrya Tongsai Bay
Stocking up at Samui Health Shop by Lamphu
The Akorn villa at Garrya Tongsai Bay
Fair Artisan Store
Thai dishes at Long Dtai
Coffee at Summer
Alfresco grilling at Long Dtai
Monkey business
William Norbert-Munns

Driving around the entire island takes about one hour, along a 55km main road. The east coast around Chaweng Beach is more developed than the west but it’s still hard to spot a building rising above four storeys (there’s also a 12-metre height restriction on structures close to the beach). “Samui has retained its tropical-island feel,” says Englishman Mark Harrison, hotel manager at Garrya Tongsai Bay, Koh Samui’s first luxury resort. Harrison has worked at Tongsai Bay for more than 20 years and, in that time, he saw the transformation of Thailand’s largest island, Phuket. 

The country’s central government wants to turbocharge Koh Samui’s economy in a similar way. Headlines about cruise terminals and land bridges to the mainland are, however, nothing new. Extending the airport runway to allow larger planes to land is the most likely infrastructure project but even that proposal has yet to take off. Bangkok Airways owns Samui International Airport and operates almost every flight to and from the island. A small fleet of 144-seater Airbus A319s flies on the only direct international routes to Hong Kong and Singapore. 

Monocle arrives from Bangkok on an ATR 72-600 turboprop with a fun tropical livery. Ticket prices are relatively high by Thai standards but residents get special rates and the hospitality industry is surprisingly sanguine about Bangkok Airways’ near-monopoly. At a time when tropical islands from Phuket to Bali are struggling with overtourism, Bangkok Airways could be Koh Samui’s best defence; a filter against runaway success that might upset the delicate balance that tourism here is striking.

Beach bar Coco Tam’s offers a breezy introduction to Koh Samui’s ever-evolving and increasingly sophisticated hospitality industry. Founder Tam Chotechurangkool started out in the northern beach town of Bophut with an ice-cream stall and two beanbags before graduating to cocktails and adding a coffee shop and restaurant. A new bar will be ready for high season in July and August. “I really want to expand,” Chotechurangkool tells Monocle as we sip fresh juice from young coconuts and gaze out at the Gulf of Thailand. Conscious of the competition, the 40-year-old Bangkok native shares his designs for a Bali-style beach club, which was put on hold by the coronavirus pandemic. “Samui needs another good beach club,” he says.

Coco Tam’s is among a small but growing number of bars and restaurants tempting visitors to venture outside of their secluded five-star villas and help the destination feel more connected and complete. Some of the best examples have been opened by newcomers. Australian Leandro Panza arrived in 2016 after quitting his job as executive chef at Sagra in Melbourne. “I was done with it,” says Panza at his seafood restaurant, Two Fishes, which has an ever-changing menu that reflects the catch of the day. Two Fishes recently moved into a purpose-built beachfront building a short drive from the original address in Fisherman’s Wharf. Version two has room for a pizza oven, a pastry station and a table for hand-rolling fresh pasta. There’s also a bar, where you can enjoy wine from the cellar.

Panza’s passion for his adopted home is shared by fellow Antipodean William Norbert-Munns. The Kiwi entrepreneur moved his family to Koh Samui in 2021 when the strains of operating more than 20 bars and employing 90 staff in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, prompted his doctor to prescribe him some fresh air and a year of restorative walks along the beach. “More people have come to visit us here in the past three years than in our entire 16-year stay in Cambodia,” he says, looking relaxed in his island uniform of shorts and T-shirt.  Unable to sit idle for long, the 46-year-old opened House of Suzy in February. The cocktail bar caters to the residents of Lamai, a neighbourhood that’s popular with French expats (as well as yoga schools and Thai boxing gyms). “Samui is discreet and not flashy,” says Norbert-Munns, who chose Lamai for its international schools and hospitals. During Monocle’s visit, he gives us a peek at his ideas for a family home across the street. He surely won’t be the last to fall for Koh Samui’s tropical-island charms and affordable lifestyle. The White Lotus, when it airs in 2025, is sure to bring a new generation of travellers to Koh Samui but these explorers are more likely to have a bit of money in their back pockets than a rolled-up copy of The Beach.

Seafood at Long Dtai
Members of Marasca’s front-of-house team
Beach bar at Coco Tam’s
Fairlyta Promtho, founder of Sisters of Siam
Cabanas beach club

Getting here
Bangkok Airways was the only airline flying into Koh Samui until May, when Scoot started daily flights from Singapore. International arrivals tend to connect via Bangkok and the short onward leg from either of the Thai capital’s two airports takes just over an hour. Tickets are considered expensive by many Thais, who either swerve Koh Samui or fly to Surat Thani International Airport and transfer via ferry. November is stormy and best avoided.

Koh Samui address book

Garrya Tongsai Bay
The island’s original five-star resort recently became Thailand’s first Garrya hotel, a boutique brand under the Banyan Group. Its private beach offers one of Koh Samui’s best swimming spots.

Hotels with private villas are de rigueur on Koh Samui but this tranquil retreat on the southeast coast is particularly salubrious. It’s a sanctuary for flying in, flopping out and forgetting about city life.

Sisters of Siam
A Samui-born fashion brand specialising in beachwear, founded by Fairlyta Promtho. Select resorts across the island including the Conrad stock its popular, made-in-Thailand kimonos; you’ll also find them in Promtho’s multi-brand boutique in Lamai.

Samui Health Shop by Lamphu
Across the road from Lamphu Kitchen (a go-to lunch spot among cross-legged yogis), this shop stocks a mix of health foods, bathroom essentials and sustainability-minded Thai products.

Asia Books
Shopping mall Central Festival Samui has a branch of Thailand’s main bookshop chain and there’s also one at Samui’s one-of-a-kind airport. Arrive earlier than you otherwise might to wander along the open-air shopping avenue.

A quiet spot on the water’s edge, Local offers good coffee with an even better view. Boys Organic Coffee in Taling Ngam offers a similar set-up on the opposite end of the island. Head to Flo near Chaweng Beach for a more familiar, in-town experience.
Bo Phut Beach

Long Dtai
Southern Thai flavours shine at this hotel restaurant, a collaboration between Aussie chef David Thompson and Cape Fahn, a luxury resort that occupies its own private island. Chefs grill skewers and seafood under the stars. The dinner settings are comfortable and casual.

Vikasa Life Café
Residents and holidaymakers alike swear by the café at this conveniently placed yoga retreat. A healthy, plant-based menu is served with beautiful sea views.

Something sweet
Lamai Coconut Ice Cream
Coconuts are everywhere on Koh Samui, including in the best ice cream. Lamai Coconut Ice Cream’s flagship café is behind the main street, while its white Suzuki van is usually parked at Lad Koh viewing point. Rossini’s dairy ice cream goes well with a dip at Crystal Beach.
175, 35 Maret, Koh Samui District, Surat Thani 84310

Share on:






Go back: Contents


sign in to monocle

new to monocle?

Subscriptions start from £120.

Subscribe now





Monocle Radio


  • The Atlantic Shift