So, it’s come down to Koh Samui or Koh Tao for that next Thai adventure? There are harder choices to have to make in life. Seriously, whichever of these you go for, you’re looking at lazing down on white-sand beaches and swimming in bath-warm seas, stays in lux bungalow hotels and visions of jungle-covered hills topped by palms trees.
But these isles also have their differences. To begin with, even though both Koh Samui and Koh Tao are in the same gulf, the size difference between these two islands is enormous. Koh Samui is an immense 228.7 km² in comparison to the 21 km² of Koh Tao. Then there’s the vibe – Tao a diving mecca, Samui a more rounded tourist hub. And that’s just scratching the surface.
This guide to Koh Samui or Koh Tao will run through several key aspects of each place to help you pick the one that’s best-suited to what you’re after in the Land of Smiles, revealing secrets about the nightlife scene, the ease of travel, the beaches, and more. Of course, the best thing you can do is to visit both in the same trip – these isles are a connected by fast 1.5-hour ferries don’t ya know?
Table of Contents
Koh Samui vs Koh Tao: Getting there
Reaching Koh Samui should be significantly easier than getting to Koh Tao. The reason? Samui is only one of two Thai islands (the other being Phuket) that has an airport. But before you get all excited about jetting in, know that Koh Samui’s airport is operated solely by Bangkok Airways and there’s a bit of a monopoly on the market – expect to pay upwards of $100 for the short link to the Thai capital in the peak season.
You can save money on getting to Koh Samui by going via Surat Thani, an airport and major boat port on the mainland. From the airport, there is a bus shuttle to the nearby ferry terminal. The crossing takes less than two hours in total.
Then there’s Koh Tao. The trip to Koh Tao often takes you through Koh Samui in the first place. That means you’ll need to use one of the methods outlined above – a pricy plane in from BKK or a boat from Surat Thani. You can also buy tickets on boats from Surat Thani to Koh Tao (they’ll usually pitstop in Samui or Phangan along the way) or go for direct boats from the port in Chumphon (the fastest cheap route in from Bangkok).
Winner: Koh Samui.
Koh Samui vs Koh Tao: The general vibe
To put it simply: Koh Samui is a place for mass tourism, while Koh Tao is a lot more low-key and authentic.
A lot of that is down to the accessibility and size of each place. Samui, with its own airport and large ferry port, can handle millions of incomers each season. They spread out through a whole medley of different resorts, but mainly stick to the built-up areas of Chaweng, Bo Phut, and Lamai in the east. All that has brought lots of development to Koh Samui. There’s hardly a stretch of coastline left without a bungalow hotel or lux villa, and the towns now even have western mainstays like McDonald’s and the like.
Koh Tao isn’t like that. You won’t find a Big Mac or a Starbucks in these parts. Instead, this island boasts a quieter pace of life and a more relaxed atmosphere, paired perfectly with beach bars and street food. The main thing you’ll notice is how much smaller it is – you can explore most of the island on foot or bicycle, though be ready for some steep hills! The towns of Mae Haad to Sairee tend to be the liveliest and they can get wild after dark, though there are plenty of small, bijou villages in the south and east for chilled vacations.
Winner: Koh Tao – it’s more chilled and more authentic.
Koh Samui vs Koh Tao: Beaches
It’s no secret that Thailand has some of the best beaches in the world. And Koh Tao and Koh Samui certainly don’t disappoint on that front. However, they do offer something a little different…
Koh Samui’s finest sands string along the east and north shorelines of the island. They’re now pretty developed affairs, especially the party beaches of Chaweng and the deluxe southern enclave of Lamai. However, there are also some quieter, family friendly stretches to get stuck into – check out long Maenam Beach in the north, for example. We think special mention should be made of:
- Haad Thong Ta-khian (Silver Bay) – This is arguably the most glorious bay in Thailand, with white sands of pure talcum powder and big boulders that lend it an air of the Seychelles.
- Thongson Bay – Tucked into the developed north of the island yet still fantastically undiscovered, Thongson Bay is a top choice for escaping the crowds.
- Lipa Noi Beach – A rare west-coast choice with excellent sunset viewing.
Koh Tao, the smaller and harder-to-reach island, has the remoter and quieter beaches. Accessing these spots can be difficult; taxis are expensive, so either grab yourself a bike or prepare for a hiking expedition. The main sands are Sairee Beach where the boats come in and Haad Tien Beach, a more romantic bay on the south side. We also think the following are standout options:
- Nangyuan Island – Photos of Koh Tao often depict this stunning isthmus beach which links two small islets off the northwest coast.
- Tanote Bay – High hills rise from a sparkling Thai Gulf in this hidden bay with top snorkeling.
- Sai Nuan Beach – A lovely, yellow-sand beach with cool Thai beach bars.
Winner: Koh Tao – the remoteness of the beaches puts this one just ahead.
Koh Samui vs Koh Tao: Nightlife
There’s no doubt about it: Thailand is a top party destination, with famous Full Moon Parties and notorious pub crawls that are bucket list-worthy.
You may be surprised to hear that Koh Tao’s nightlife is often off the hook. That’s all down to the steady stream of backpackers and divers that pass through. They fuel evening activities like the Koh Tao Pub Crawl, which takes in several of the heaviest clubs on the island. The action is largely centered on Sairee Beach. It might seem tranquil and serene during the day, but once the sun goes down the beach bars come to life and everyone’s dancing and drinking.
Koh Samui, on the other hand, boasts a diverse array of nightlife. From fancy restaurants with ocean views and high-end dining to candlelight dinners to pumping nightclubs that go on well into the next morning, this island has it all. For a proper nightclub, head to Chaweng in the Bophut beach district of Koh Samui. That’s where you’ll find the closest thing the Thai Gulf has to a strip a la Greece and Ibiza, along with many of the most happening beach bars in the country.
Winner: Koh Samui – it’s arguably the nightlife hub of the Thai Gulf.
Koh Samui vs Koh Tao: Things to do
Besides cocktails and beaches, both Koh Samui and Koh Tao have plenty on the menu for active travelers. For its part, Koh Tao is considered the diving hub of the whole country, even the diving hub of Southeast Asia. There are more PADI schools than you can shake a pad Thai at, and dive sites for all levels, beginner to seasoned pro. We also like Koh Tao for coast hiking, for yoga (as its quieter than Samui), and for more authentic cooking classes.
Koh Samui is a bit of a jack of all trades because it offers oodles of things to do to oodles of different types of travelers. Dive trips can still be organized here, but they’ll often take you north to Koh Tao anyhow. There are hikes to waterfalls in the backcountry (Khun Si and the Tartain Waterfall are two of our favs). You’ll find big shopping hubs in Chaweng and Bo Phut village. Night markets offer street-food experiences and souvenir buying galore. There are also wellness spas for those keen on bagging massages and beauty treatments.
Winner: Koh Samui, an island that can cater to a whole load of different travelers
Koh Samui vs Koh Tao: Hotels
Deciding where to stay in Koh Samui can be a challenge simply because of the sheer number of options available. No matter whether you want to stay in a luxury resort or a budget homestay, you are guaranteed to find somewhere to suit on this island, even if the downside is that the coast is largely developed. Here are just a few of our top hotel picks in Koh Samui:
- Sareeraya Villas & Suites ($$$) – Honeymoon material. This hotel has access to its own stretch of talcum-powder sand.
- Sea Dance Resort ($$-$$$) – A fun and stylish resort that we think is perfect for partying couples, close to Chaweng Beach.
- Villa The Spot Koh Samui ($$$) – You’ll never forget a stay in one of these amazing villas. They rise above the jungles to gaze over the sea, each with their own infinity pool. The price matches the description!
On the other hand, Koh Tao has a much more limited array of accommodations (just 185 to Samui’s 1,295!). In general, it’s better for more budget stays than luxury resorts. However, recent years have seen an increase in high-end hotels and boutique options. Let’s take a look at some of the best:
- View Point Resort ($$-$$$) – Score an infinity pool above Chalok Baan Kao Beach in this lovely lux hotel that’s perfect for couples.
- The Dearly Koh Tao Hostel ($) – A poshtel with a pool. Save money but get the full backpacker experience.
- Koh Tao Relax Freedom Beach Resort ($$) – A stunning hotel perched on a craggy rock overlooking the beach.
Winner: Koh Samui, which has over 1,000 more accommodation options that Koh Tao!
Koh Samui vs Koh Tao: Price
Koh Samui isn’t just one of the most visited of all the Thai islands. It’s also one of the most expensive. Yep, like Phuket over in the Andaman Sea, this speck on the Southeast Asian map is relatively dear compared to other places in the Land of Smiles. We have a more detailed guide on what it costs to vacation in Samui but suffice to say that we put our overall estimation around the $580/week per person mark. What’s more, that doesn’t include the cost of travel over to Koh Samui in the first place.
Thankfully, Koh Tao is more budget friendly. It’s gone that way because it’s a bit of a backpacker escape that caters to low-cost travelers looking for affordable stays and dive courses. We’d say a daily outgoing of $38 is about right here, which adds up to a total of $336/week per person. Again, that doesn’t count the cost of getting to Koh Tao from Bangkok or elsewhere, which could add another $100 or so, depending on your chosen mode of transport.
Winner: Koh Tao.
Koh Samui or Koh Tao? Our conclusion
Overall, it’s a tough contest when putting Koh Tao against Koh Samui. Both offer picture-perfect beaches and once-in-a-lifetime experiences, from scuba diving in tropical waters to buzzy night bazaars. They do have some key differences though, which we think helps to make each suited to different travelers. For one, we’d say Koh Tao is more of a backpacker staple. It’s cheaper, has better hostels, and a more chilled vibe. Samui matches that with built-up resorts and fancy hotels that are aimed at honeymooners and relaxation seekers. Koh Samui also has the wilder nightlife, though Tao certainly isn’t sleepy after dark, while Koh Tao trumps almost all other Thai isles on the diving front.
Overall, though, the best play here is surely to do both in the same trip. Daily ferries link these two places in less than 1.5 hours in the peak season, so splitting your vacay time between them both is certainly an option if you have the time.