Just 200 kilometers from Bangkok in the Gulf of Thailand, the T-shaped island of Ko Samet is famed for its white sandy beaches, exotic coral and crystal clear waters. Ko Samet has developed steadily over the past decade or so, but it hasn't been the victim of over zealous construction which has hit the likes of Ko Samui (or even Ko Chang). The island is typified for its splendid beaches and white silky sand, surrounded by tropical coral reefs and crystal clear sea. Tourists can also enjoy a plethora of delicious cuisine and fine nightlife.
It's a popular tourist destination for Thais and foreigners alike. As Ko Samet is so near Bangkok, the island is ideal for those in the capital wanting to chill-out with their families for a couple of days, without having to go through all that rigmarole of having to travel down south. It's only a 2.5 hour ride to Ban Phe, where one can take a 20-minutes ferry to the island.
Even though Ko Samet is only a few kilometers from the mainland, the island with its micro-climate (the driest archipelago in Thailand) gets much less rainfall than the rest of Eastern Thailand. The rainy season is May to September but even then it still has significantly less rain than the other islands in Thailand. Tourists should, however, be careful of occasional storms.
It is believed that once upon a time, Ko Samet was the home of pirates and that to this very day there is still lost treasures buried somewhere on the island. Thailand's legendary poet Sunthorn Phu was the first one to put this island on the map when he set his classical epic there, Phra Aphai Manee "The Story of Princes, Saga, Mermaids and Giants".
Even though Bangkokians had known about the beauty of Ko Samet for decades before, the Thai government put this island off limits and restricted overnight stay there until 1981. In that year, on 1st October, the Forestry Department of Thailand declared Ko Samet and its surroundings to be a national park.
Most of Ko Samet, including all the good parts, is part of Khao Laem Ya-Mu Ko Samet National Park and thus has an entry fee. Thais pay 40 baht for adults, 20 baht for children (current as of June 2009); foreigners pay 200 baht for adults, 100 baht for children (current as of November 2009). This two-tier pricing policy is applicable to all national parks. If you can explain, however, that you actually live or work in Thailand, then you may not have to pay the "tourist" price. One excuse for the difference is that "Thai citizens pay taxes".
If your ferry arrives at the main pier and you take a songthaew to the beaches, there will be a stop at the main ticket checkpoint. The journey from the pier to the town centre is a fairly short stroll, taking less than ten minutes. If your ferry arrives at one of the beaches, an officer will collect the fee as you step out of the surf. Note that there is plenty of foot traffic in and out of the park to the 7-Eleven, ATM or other shops and restaurants and if you have no bags you can nonchalantly walk into the park without anyone checking your ticket. There is a road via the temple which avoids the checkpoint entirely. Note: some bungalows might give the impression that the entry fee is included in their booking, but it is not. You may also be asked to pay the park entry fee when boarding the ferry on the mainland, but if you mention you are staying outside the park boundaries they wont make you pay.
By car and taxi
As Ko Samet is an island, you first have to drive to Rayong. From Bangkok, you can take Sukhumvit Rd (Highway No. 3) passing Chonburi, Si Racha, Pattaya, Sattahip and onto Rayong. The total distance to Rayong is approximately 220 kilometers. If you drive onto Highway No. 36 at Bang Lamung (before Pattaya), you'll take a shortcut inland and save about 45 kilometers (but the scenery is not as impressive).
Taxi services are available from Rayong. You need to specify Ban Phe since the pier at Ban Phe is at the lower outskirts of Rayong itself. The metered fare is approximately 1600 baht, but most drivers will want to go "off meter" for a fare ranging from 1500 baht (some drivers don't realize the meter is slightly higher) to 2000/2200/2500 baht. Expressway tolls of about 100 baht are additional. You can either grab a taxi from your hotel or guesthouse that is willing to make the drive on the spot, or pre-arrange a pickup from a taxi driver you like by asking for his cellphone number and calling to make a booking — the latter routine works best if you have a native Thai speaker to help you. Look for a later model taxi and do a quick visual check of the tires before committing to a trip. As a general precaution with all taxis in all countries, it's better to double up in a taxi with a friend on a long ride like this.
The bus from Bangkok's Eastern Bus Terminal (Ekkamai) to Ban Phe usually takes 3.5 hours, costs 173 baht (current as of August 2012), and terminates opposite the ferry piers. There is no direct service to Ban Phe from Bangkok's Mo Chit Bus Terminal — it only brings you to Rayong, from where you can take a songthaew (20 baht) to Ban Phe.
There are direct first class bus services between Rayong and Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport. If you take a regular bus from Pattaya or Sattahip, you'll need to take a songthaew or charter a tuk-tuk to the ferry piers.
There are also mini-vans that leave from Victory Monument in Bangkok's Phahonyothin district. They charge 250 baht per person and bring you directly to the ferry piers. This is a slightly nicer alternative to the larger tourist buses that depart from bus stations. The mini-vans drive faster than the tourist buses, but they also make several stops along the way in Rayong which makes the trip about the same time. Also, the ride is quite bumpy, so even reading a book is a challenge.
Bangkok Airways has operated a flight daily from Phuket and Ko Samui to Pattaya's U-Tapao Airport. For more information, contact Bangkok Airways at number +66 2265 5678 or contact a travel agent. From the airport, it is about one hour by car or bus to reach the pier. This way of transportation is only recommended for travellers from Southern Thailand.
Ferries from Ban Phe or Nuan Thip (they are about 1/8 mile apart, with Ban Phe to the north opposite a 7-11) to Ko Samet take around 30 to 45 minutes. Only buy a one-way ticket (50 baht), as there's no discount on round-trip tickets (100 baht) and you won't have to worry about losing it or finding that your ticket isn't valid for the most convenient return ferry. Note: The ticket sellers may state that you must buy your national park ticket from them also but this can be done at the gate as you enter the park. They may also state that you cannot buy the return from the island, and must buy it at the Ban Phe pier. This is not true. Only buy a one-way ticket at Ban Phe pier.
Nuanthip pier (tel +6638651508/+6638651514) runs boats to various piers on Ko Samet. One-way tickets are half the price of a round-trip, you might need to insist of booking one. The boats tend to wait until full so timetable is more like a hint than a fixed departure time.
Alternatively, there are two speedboat companies that operate from Ban Phe. Speedboat prices can range from 500 baht for the boat to NaaDaan pier to a few thousand baht for the outer-lying bays and beaches.
For the return from the Ko Samet public pier, take either the Nuan Thip or Ban Phe piers for your destination — it doesn't matter which one you departed from as they are only a short walk apart, and you might get an earlier boat back if you are willing to be flexible and return to a different pier. Both are served by songthaews: Ban Phe has an informal "taxi stand" in front of the 7-11 across the street with passenger cars used as cabs but no need to go looking for them as they will find you. It costs 200 baht for a ride from Ban Phe to the Novotel, quite a distance down the coast, in early 2009.
Getting around on Ko Samet: The island has only a single main road. Some parts are concrete and some parts are only a dirt trail which get quite bumpy. There are two methods to get around the island. The first is by songthaew (usually a rather well-worn pickup truck with two benches in the back and no roof), which costs 200 baht for a private trip, or between 20 and 60 baht per person for a full car, depending on which beach you are going to. This is a rather expensive method to get around the island, and the dusty roads can make it an uncomfortable trip. The second way is by renting a motorcycle for 300 baht/hr 500 baht/day or ATV (4 wheeled motorbikes) for 500bht/1hr or 1200bht/day. You will usually be able to rent it from the hotel you are staying at. Leaving your passport or a deposit is not necessary or advisable.
Warning: It is advisable to hire motorbikes only from reputable hotels and lodgings. Stores renting out motorbikes or ATVs may attempt to overcharge you for repairs and labor should you damage the bike, even superficially. Initial quotes for repairs is often exorbitant and is way beyond the price of labor, parts, and repair.
A basic map of Ko Samet is available here. 
Most beaches are on the eastern side of the island. The beaches hide in small bays and stretch some 200 m. From the north, there are Hat Sai Kaeo, Hat Hin Khrong, Hat Khlong Phai, Ao Phutsa, Ao Thapthim, Ao Naun, Ao Cho, Ao Thian, Ao Wai, Ao Kio Na Yok and Ao Karang. The only beach on the western side is Ao Phrahis.
Note, the spelling of beach names can vary.
Beaches from north to south on the east coast:
Hat Sai Kaew (Diamond Beach) One of the most beautiful and most popular beaches on Ko Samet, Hat Sai Kaew is 1 km long and 25-30 m wide. Most of this space is taken up with deck chairs from the restaurants. The name speaks for itself, Hat Sai Kaew, which literally means Crystal Sand Beach, is a nice beach filled with activities. Visitors can enjoy sunbathing, swimming, jet skiing, windsurfing (700 baht/hr), catamaran sailing (1000 baht/hr) a banana boat or even partying at night. It can get a bit noisy due to all the motorised activity though.
Ao Hin Khok is separated from Hat Sai Kaew by a small rocky sea point where a mermaid statue is located. The beach is half the size of Hat Sai Kaew. There are some monk's accommodation along this stretch of sand that have signs asking people to be quiet. It makes for a peaceful spot just past the noise polluted Hat Sai Kaew Beach.
Ao Pai Located two beaches down from Hat Sai Kaew and just past Ao Pai. More or less of the same white, sandy stretches with a few nice restaurants at night and a big, concrete block of a bar where most party goers end up late at night. Bungalows available for 300 baht per night (2 people max). Bring duct tape to seal the mosquito net edges at the windows...
Ao Put Sa is a small walk from Ao Pai Beach over a small headland. Suitable for those who are tired of crowded beaches and nightlife activities. Ao Put Sa has a small pontoon with some OK snorkelling around it. Best time to stick you head under and have a look is at low tide.
Ao Nuan is located a 10 minute walk through the bush from Ao Put Sa and is a perfect hideaway for holidaymakers in search of tranquility. All bungalows are handmade by the owner. Some have great character.
Ao Cho is a bit of a scruffy beach and if you have been following the "next beach" signs along the coast, you feel like you've seen better.
Ao Wong Deuan is the second largest beach on the island (the first being Hat Sai Kaew). Ao Wong Deuan has a ferry service with the mainland. It's best to talk to one the bungalows to book this than try and find it yourself.
Ao Thian (Candlelight Beach) Ao Thian’s topography is painted by rocky beach in which some nice spots for skin diving are available. This beach is very quiet and free from group tours.
Ao Wai is located within a short walking distance of Candlelight Beach. Shaded by coconut trees, the beach is a quite, scenic and serene spot for sea lovers.
Ao Kiu Nok This bay is a secluded den for those planning to keep their distance from the busy, crowded beaches and vibrant nightlife. There is currently a huge resort being built with a swimming pool and the small bungalows are slowly being knocked down. The eatery isn't the best, but because it's the only one on the beach, it's pricey. From Ao Kiew Nok, visitors can walk to Ao Kiew Nai along the road, but getting a lift is better as it's hot, there's no breeze and not much to see.
Ao Karang is at the southern tip of Ko Samet. It's very quiet down here and could be the best place to experience the traditional lifestyle of the residents of Ko Samet.
Ao Wiang Wan is on the west of Na Dan Pier, a large bay where lots of sport activities such as fishing, etc., take place.
Ao Phrao is one of the quietest beaches of Ko Samet. Located quite far away from the lively nightlife of Ko Samet. Ao Prow is an upmarket beach with no budget options. The blue sea, white sand and sunsets are all top notch. How to get there: Four operators: Nuanthip, Si Ban Phe, Phe Port, and Saphan Pla around Ban Phe offer shuttle boat services between their ports and the main port of the island. All operators charge a flat rate of 100 baht per person for a round trip or 50 baht for a single journey. Boats can leave anytime when more than 20 passengers are waiting. The service is available around the clock, seven days a week. It's best to just buy a one way ticket from the pier and head down to the end to wait.
For groups of at least 7 persons, Nuanthip Boat (+66 3865 1508) offers a shuttle boat service to other bays as well, such as Ao Wong Duean (120 baht each) and to the last bay Ao Pakarang (200 baht each). Si Ban Phe Boat (+66 3865 1902) also runs a scheduled boat service during weekends between Ban Phe and the main port of Samet. The hourly boat service from Ban Phe runs from 08:00 to 18:00. On the return trip from Samet, the boat leaves at 10:00, 14:00, 16:00, and 18:00. The company also offers a speed boat service at 1,000 baht a trip for 12 people to the main port, or higher rates for other routes. A parking service on the main land is available.
Ko Kruai, Ko Kham, and Ko Pla Tin (เกาะกรวย เกาะขาม และเกาะปลาตีน) These islands are some 600 m north of Ko Kudi. With coral reefs, tourists can enjoy fishing here. A rental boat service is available at the port in Ban Phe.
Ko Kudi or Ko Kut (เกาะกุฎี หรือเกาะกุด) The island is on the east of Ko Samet, 6 km from the mainland. Ko Kudi totals an area of 63 rai. A nice beach and coral reefs make it a nice place for a hideaway. Nearby islands are Ko Thai Khangkhao and Ko Tham Ruesi. Without accommodation, the national park office on the island offers a tent for rent at 200 baht per person/ night. Pitching a private tent requires paying a fee of 20 baht per person/night. For more information, call Tel. 0 3865 3034, or in Bangkok at Tel. 0 2561 2919 and 0 2561 2921.
Ko Thalu (เกาะทะลุ) Some 6 km east of Ko Kudi, the island is another scuba diving site among coral reefs. The island totals an area of 69 rai, most remains lush forest. While high cliffs occupy the west, white sandy beaches occupy the east and south of the island. Ko Thalu is a habitat for seagulls, flying fox, and turtles.
Tourists visiting Ko Kudi, Ko Kruai, Ko Kham, Ko PlaTin, and Ko Thalu should rent a boat from Ban Phe or Ko Samet. They should prepare food and water, as there are neither facilities nor food supplies available on such islands.
Ko Samet is a laid back island paradise where the emphasis is less on things to do and more on enjoying the islands beaches.
For those people who do want something to do the island does have a few activities to enjoy if the beauty of the beaches is not quite enough to keep you occupied. From the simplest of activities such as walks along the beach, all the way through to taking your PADI Scuba Diving certificate there are an array of ways to keep yourself active.
Ways to see the island - The island is very small in comparison to the more tourist populated Thai islands around so exploring the island can easily be done on foot, bike riding or by hiring a motorbike/ATV and driving down the island to visit a few of the smaller more secluded beaches and taking in some of the more naturally forested areas further down to the south of the island.
Mountain Bike Rental - Mountain bikes can be rented from Village Cafe (Internet Cafe) opposite the school in the main village. Just ask for Kay and he will be more than happy to help with the mountain bikes or information for any other activities on the island.
Motorbike Hire - The island has more motor bike hire shops than any other shops so they are not hard to locate and prices are 300 baht per day for manual or automatic bikes. Before hiring a bike you should be aware that once you enter the main national park entrance the roads are in very poor condition and only people with some experience would be advised to tackle them.
Gold Shop - This motorbike hire shop is just up from the national park entrance and 7 11 (opposite Chilli Restaurant). This family take very good care of their motor bikes and ATVs. The owner 'Jep' is a very friendly guy and always willing to help. His son also rents their vehicles from next to the 7-11 by the park entrance and 'Bow' is also very helpful. If you rent for a few days he will often offer good discounts.
Boat Trips - There are several companies on the island offering a variety of different boat trips from around the island on a large slow boat to a 7 island speed boat day trip visiting many of the surrounding islands from Samet. These trips are all a good value but be sure to have a chat before you book and make sure you are getting the trip you want and that they are not talking you into another trip as they cannot do the one you are asking for. Also all trip are dependent upon weather conditions.
Samet Boat Trip - One of the original boat trip families on Samet still offer a daily round-the-island boat trip. If you're lucky it could be a private trip or one with just a few other chilled out people on board. Their fleet consists of 2 large slow boats and 4 speed boats so different trips are available daily.
Scuba Diving - With the calm surrounding waters and coral reefs Ko Samet has something to offer those of all levels of diving, but it is an especially good place to learn to scuba dive with classes nearly always on the smaller side and often one-on-one with an instructor. With depths ranging from 5 m down to 25 m, there is a variety of local sites to dive on and explore and there are also the outer islands that surround Ko Samet which offer stunning coral reefs, such as Ko Talu.
Blue Aura Divers, based at the Sunrise Villas Resort (close to the main pier) are lead by an English instructor and the guys will be able to help with all your diving needs locally and they are also very knowledgeable about the diving all over Thailand. (Facebook - Blue Aura Diver)
Seafood, seafood, and seafood, some of the best barbecues are found along Ao Phai and Haat Sai Kaew beaches but they are found on all beaches and most serve the same as the next. There's also local food, curries and Western like pizza, steaks and hamburgers. Almost every hotel and bungalow operation has its own restaurant but it's only the movies that differentiate them. Many also set up tables and chairs at night for dining on the beach. Crowds don't always mean they are good. The day trip companies make deals with restaurants and take their customers there.
If you are relaxing on the beach during the day there are plenty of hawkers selling fresh fruit, BBQ chicken wings, dried squid, papaya salad (can be extremely spicy) and even ice creams slightly more expensive than if you got up to get it.
At night check out the Roti stands that pop up everywhere. This crepe-like desert can be filled with banana and topped with chocolate syrup or sweetened condensed milk, or any number of other combinations from 40Bht.
In town (Na Dan), there are a few traditional Thai eateries that serve good quality Thai food priced for locals. Most have menus in English.
If you are after a traditional Thai breakfast there are a couple of ladies who set up their mobile eatery daily next to the Tourist Police checkpoint that services Haat Sai Kaew. They serve boiled chicken on rice (khao man gai tom), fried chicken and rice (khao man gai tort) or rice porridge (jok) for 20-30 baht. The food is fresh and they do a brisk trade serving locals as well as a few tourists.
Although Ko Samet is not a renowned party island, Hat Sai Kaew and Ao Phai do get their fair share of backpackers, and therefore have their fair share of parties. Everyday on Ao Phai flyers are handed out from the different bars that advertise the drink specials for that night, and might even give you a free drink. Biggest nights are generally Thursday-Saturday, when more backpackers, expats and locals from Bangkok come to the island.
The main bars along Hat Sai Kaew are:
...and along Ao Hua Khok / Ao Phai are:
The local special can be reproduced as follows:
Place all ingredients in sandbucket and drink via straw. Repeat until the sandy beach rises up to meet you.
There's also the usual assortment of Thai beer - Chang, Tiger, San Miguel, Leo, and Carlsberg. Prices are significantly higher than on the mainland, but most bars have some form of happy hour. Alternatively, there's always the option of buying a 6-pack and sitting on the beach; for non-drinkers there are tropical fruit drinks.
Most of the accommodation centers around the beaches on the east coast; try to arrive on the island as early as possible to have the best selection to choose from. Tourist season on Ko Samet is generally from November till February and from June till August, at which time finding vacant accommodation can be a challenge. Also, beware of weekends and public holidays — the island then fills up like crazy!
The northern-most beaches of Hat Sai Keaw and Ao Hin Kok have many bugalow operations with typical Thai concrete bunker-style rooms. If your room doesn't have air-conditioning it can get a little hot during the day but why are you in your room and not enjoying the beach? At the very northern end are a few upscale resorts. At beaches further south you'll find the bungalows ranging from dismal shacks to four-star, air-conditioned mini suites.
Unless you've made the mistake of booking your room with the touts back at the dock you'll find a place by strolling down the beach. As this island becomes more and more popular it's getting harder to find rock-bottom prices. On some beaches you can expect to pay 600 baht for the basics. Most of the accommodation is first-come, first-served and the cheaper bungalows tend to go fastest. High-end establishments usually take reservations by phone, fax, and via the web, the cheaper ones do not.
Most accommodation operations on Ko Samet offer a variety of different types of rooms, most of which fall in the mid-range category. If you are willing to spend between 500 and 1500 baht/night, you shouldn't have any trouble finding accommodation, no matter what beach you are on. A few such places are: