So it’s Koh Samui vs Koh Tao for your next Thai vacation. That’s a hard nut to crack. Both islands are drop-dead gorgeous, dotted with pristine white-sand beaches, cliffside bungalow hotels, and an air of quintessential island living.
But there are some significant differences between these isles in the Gulf of Thailand. Koh Samui is the bigger of the two, spreading over a massive 883 square miles, second only to Thailand's largest island, Phuket. In comparison, Koh Tao is much smaller and attracts fewer crowds.
Despite being smaller, both Andrzej and I prefer Koh Tao. It's more laidback, there are fewer crowds at beaches and attractions, and you can do most of the best things to do in Koh Tao on foot.
We’ve found that the trick is to find the island that best fits you and your style of travel. Read on to uncover the similarities and differences between Koh Samui and Koh Tao; and which island is the right one for you.
One major thing Koh Samui and Koh Tao have in common is that both islands are in the Thai Gulf, east of the mainland. So getting to either isle will require traveling via ferry or airplane.
Getting to Koh Samui is much easier to do. Being one of Thailand's largest islands, Koh Samui has the advantage of having an international airport and a more sophisticated network of roads.
Tourists coming in from Thailand's capital can quickly get to Koh Samui from Bangkok on an hour and 15 minutes flight via Bangkok Airways. But if you’re wondering how to get to Koh Samui from other Thai and major international cities, here’s a short rundown:
- Phuket to Koh Samui (one hour via Bangkok Airways) – A direct flight from Thailand's largest and most popular island, Phuket, takes only an hour.
- Chiang Mai to Koh Samui (one hour, 50 minutes via Bangkok Airways) – From the mountainous region of northern Thailand, a direct route from Chiang Mai is less than two hours.
- Krabi to Koh Samui (one hour via Bangkok Airways) – You'll take a one-hour flight from Thailand's southern city of Krabi province.
However, flying is not the only way to get to Koh Samui. You can take an overnight bus (or train) from Bangkok to Surat Thani and then switch to a ferry to Koh Samui. Crossing over will take you anywhere from 90 minutes to two hours, depending on the type of ferry you board. A catamaran ride will cost you about $22 to $25.
The bus transit may be the longer route, taking about 13 to 16 hours but halfway through your trip, you’ll stop for a meal. Make the most of your journey by keeping your eyes peeled and snapping some pictures of the stunning landscapes.
You have fewer options to get to Koh Tao, which gratefully only simplifies the process. A ferry from Koh Samui to Koh Tao is your best bet. The ride will take about an hour and 30 minutes to two hours and cost between $20 and $29.
Keep in mind though, that Koh Tao is incredibly hilly. This means cars aren’t really an option for getting around the island, so you’ll have to opt for the unusual but fun scooter.
An obvious differentiator between Koh Tao and Koh Samui is each island's general vibe and ambiance.
As we’ve pointed out, Koh Samui is much larger and feels much like the mainland. The island has plenty of small neighborhoods characterized by charming restaurants, elegant shopping malls, and high-end hotels.
So if you’re looking for a luxurious and convenient holiday, Koh Samui would be the best island to visit. You’ll find tons of sophisticated amenities like food delivery apps such as FoodPanda and Grab.
Koh Tao is tiny in comparison, giving you that more laidback “island vibe”. The island is less developed and less westernized (for example, there’s no McDonald’s or Starbucks).
Activities in Koh Tao typically revolve around Koh Tao beaches; diving and snorkeling are the most popular things to do on the island.
Sunbathing, surfing, snorkeling, and shopping — that’s only the surface of most Koh Samui holidays. Besides these usual suspects, you’ll find lots of fun things to do in Koh Samui.
For a more off-the-beaten-path experience, you can take excursions to the elephant sanctuary, visit the Ang Thong National Marine Park, and go on quad-bike safari tours.
Thanks to the island’s clear turquoise waters and stunning coral reefs, Koh Tao is widely known as a snorkeling mecca of Thailand. . Along the shore, you’ll find plenty of diving schools and outfitters.
Go on a scuba diving experience or a speedboat around the island to explore Koh Tao in the best way possible.
Exploring the white-sand beaches and turquoise waters is a must-do in Thailand. Each island offers excellent swimming, snorkeling, and diving conditions, but there are a few key differences.
Koh Samui beaches are considerably more popular and much easier to get to. They draw in many tourists and beach lovers alike, especially during peak season. The best time to visit Koh Samui beaches is in the shoulder month from March to June.
Thanks to the sunny days and warm temperatures, you’ll enjoy plenty of water activities like fishing, island hopping, and snorkeling. Or simply rent a cabana and spend your day chilling at the beach.
Some famous beaches in Koh Samui include:
- Chaweng Beach — Home to an array of bars and restaurants that transform into beach party hubs when the sun goes down.
- Lamai Beach — Boulders, palm trees, and powdery white sands. Pick the Baobab Restaurant as your base for the day and get to use their kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and small water trampoline free of charge!
- Bo Phut Beach — A great place for a mesmerizing early morning (sunrise) or evening (sunset) stroll. Explore the seafood markets in Fisherman's Village; if you're an adrenaline seeker, you'll love jet skiing and waterboarding.
- Silver Beach — A 273-yard beach perfect for a lazy day. The water is clear, and you can see the fish swimming about. Silver Beach also has calm and relatively shallow waters, making it ideal for families traveling with kids.
On the flip side, Koh Tao is sprawling with deserted bays instead of crowded beaches. So if you’re looking for an escape from the hustle and bustle – Koh Tao is for you.
While most of the beaches in Koh Tao are centered around snorkeling along the dazzling coral reefs, you’ll also find plenty of tranquil beaches perfect for a quiet day on the coastline.
Some famous Koh Tao beaches include:
- Shark Bay — Thailand’s best beach for snorkeling, and with some luck and a bit of effort, you may spot a shark.
- Sairee Beach — The longest, busiest, and most popular beach in Koh Tao, with lively shores dotted with vibrant bars, restaurants, hotels, and diving schools.
- Nangyuan Island — This postcard-worthy island is the typical depiction of Koh Tao; the island is connected by a sandbar, surrounded by clear turquoise waters, and has stunning hills in the background.
If you want to explore the top Gulf of Thailand nightlife, you won't go wrong with Koh Samui. The island boasts plenty of vibrant clubs, bars, and lounges. There are also more restaurants, and food options in Koh Samui, so romantic diners are a must.
In contrast, Koh Tao has a more relaxed and slow-paced atmosphere. But that’s not to say you won’t find an impressive selection of bars and clubs in Koh Tao.
There are quite a few beach parties, and pub crawls in Koh Tao, but nothing tops the fun things to do in Koh Samui's nightlife.
For a unique experience, head to the neighboring Koh Phangan for an epic full-moon party, the island also hosts waterfall festivals and day-after festivals.
One thing you won’t have any trouble finding on these two islands is tasty, flavorful, and zesty Thai food. From upscale restaurants in Koh Samui to street food in Koh Tao, you’ll always find the best Thai dishes.
The food and night markets in Lamai and Bophut offer mouthwatering cuisine on Koh Samui, with dishes under just $3. Join an authentic Thai cooking class followed by a market tour to get a glimpse of how the traditional fare is made.
And if you’re craving some deep-fried chicken or a towering smash burger, don’t you worry — Koh Samui has many bars and restaurants serving American and Western classics.
While Koh Tao has fewer restaurants, the paradise island boasts several eateries offering a relaxing atmosphere. Centrally located, Tree House Cafe offers breathtaking mountain views, minimal island decor, and exceptional food prepared by Chef Yok.
Now let’s talk about accommodation. Koh Samui and Koh Tao are two of the best places to visit in Thailand for first-time travelers, and it’s not hard to see why. Both islands offer stunning bungalow resorts, beachside villas, and hotels.
Koh Samui has a broader scale of budget, mid-range, and luxury hotels (best family resorts in Koh Samui). If you're traveling through Thailand on a budget, Koh Samui backpackers will love staying at the Monkey Samui Hostel. It's great to meet fellow travelers and visit the Big Buddha.
If you’re traveling in a group or with kids, you’ll definitely need more space, so booking a beachside villa is your best bet.
Here are some options:
- Thai House Beach — Located in stunning Lamai Beach, this beachside resort offers plenty of amenities, including an indoor and outdoor pool, a kiddies pool, an on-site restaurant, and room service.
- ibis Samui— An idyllic resort with excellent views and home amenities like laundry facilities, conference rooms, and an unspoiled private beach that couples love.
- The Sarann Hotel— Less than 0.2 miles from the famous Chaweng Noi Beach, this modern beachside villa boasts elegant decor, Wi-Fi, a fitness center, and several restaurants.
Due to limited accommodation options in Koh Tao, you may have to pay a bit more for your stay. Koh Tao's secluded nature often appeals to solo travelers and backpackers who flock to the island for its excellent watersport and charming night markets.
Here are a few accommodation options in Koh Tao:
- Nangyuan Island Dive Resort— This remote beachside villa is an ideal escape for travelers who want to avoid crowded beaches and have a more laid-back vacation. You'll be spoiled for choice regarding water activities and miles of golden sands to lay about.
- Beach Club by Haad Tien — If you're an avid diver or snorkel enthusiast, this bungalow resort is ideally located on Shark Bay. You'll have access to crystal-clear waters, palm-lined backdrops, and delicious Thai cuisine.
- Fisherman Koh Tao— A budget-friendly alternative in Koh Tao, nestled among a verdant tropical garden, this resort is just 20 minutes from Freedom Beach. The service is immaculate; stop by the front desk and get concierge assistance for luggage storage facilities, shuttles, and sightseeing activities.
Koh Samui is the bigger and most popular of the two, it's very touristy, and you'll find plenty of ex-pats living on the island. You'll also find it much easier to get from place to place; renting a car or taxi for your next adventure is pretty straightforward.
Tip: Tuk-tuks, motorbike taxis, and Songthaews are the most common and cheapest form of transportation.
While Koh Tao is much smaller and quieter, it offers the same tropical adventure. You'll find lots of beautiful places to discover that won't be packed full of tourists and deserted bays, making you feel like you're on a private island.
Ultimately the decision between Koh Samui vs Koh Tao relies on your needs and wants as a traveler. Both islands offer pristine turquoise beaches with bustling food and night markets and some of the most epic moon parties in the world.
Which is the best? In our opinion, visit both and decide on lived experiences.