Koh Samui vs Koh Phangan? It’s perhaps just about the most challenging debate you’ll encounter while hopping between Thailand’s tropical islands, closely followed by which cocktail to go for! Both are breathtaking and utterly dreamy, surrounded by the emerald waters of the Ang Thong National Marine Park. However, there may be some clear differences that will help sway your decision…
Koh Samui is Thailand’s second-largest island after Phuket. It’s also one of the most built up, with famous resort towns like Chaweng and Lamai stringing down its celebrated east coast, offering everything from honeymoon villas to backpacker bungalows on the beach. Koh Phangan is just a stone’s throw to the north. Best known for its wild Full Moon Parties, it’s surprisingly chilled and hippy when you cruise out of the main towns, touting yoga resorts and handsome beaches where not too many people go.
Truth be told, we think you’ll have a cracking time no matter which island you choose. Both of these spots are hailed as two of the most alluring in the Land of Smiles – they’ve got plenty going for them. However, this guide will run through a number of key features about each to help you make a choice. We’ll take a look at which is easiest to get to, where has the top beaches, which isle is liveliest after the sun sets, and where offers the most enticing hotels. Let’s get started…
Koh Samui vs Koh Phangan: Getting there
Both Koh Samui and Koh Phangan are located off the mainland in the Gulf of Thailand. The same, beautiful, crystal-clear waters kiss the sands of both. But how do we get across to laze on those picture-perfect beaches?
Well…Koh Samui is pretty straightforward to reach. The best way to get in is by plane. The island has its very own airport, owned and operated by Thailand’s own Bangkok Airways. Reaching Koh Samui from Bangkok this way takes approximately 1h5mins and there are roughly six direct connections per day on the route in the high season – all great news if you’re long hauling it to BKK and want to jet straight down on an internal flight . There are also other domestic and international connections that land at Koh Samui Airport, from:
- Chiang Mai (1h45, Bangkok Airways) – A direct route in from the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai.
- Singapore – (2h05, Bangkok Airways) – A nonstop route from Singapore opens up the possibility of lots of connections with long-haul flights from Europe and the US.
- Krabi (<1hr, Bangkok Airways) – This is a fantastic route if you want to combine a trip to the western Andaman Isles (Phi Phi, Koh Lanta) with a trip to the islands in the Thai Gulf.
- Kuala Lumpur (1h45, Bangkok Airways) – This links the capital of Malaysia with the island, traveling straight up the spine of the Malay Peninsula.
- Phuket (55 minutes, Bangkok Airways) – A popular connection that goes from Phuket, Thailand’s largest island, straight across to Samui, taking less than an hour.
Unlike in many Thai airports, Samui Airport doesn’t have a pre-determined list of taxi prices that you can book at a kiosk. There is a taxi station in the arrivals hall, but that’s actually run by a private company. Negotiating the rate to your hotel is up to you, but expect to pay in the region of 500 THB to get to Bophut, and more than that to get to Lamai or Chaweng.
Getting to Koh Phangan is not quite so simple. This smaller island doesn’t have the luxury of its own airport. Instead, you need to fly to Koh Samui first and then cross from island to island. The boat terminal is only a 15-minute drive away from Koh Samui’s airport, though. Then, Koh Phangan is a 30-minute ferry ride over the gulf to the north, meaning the trip adds about an hour’s worth of traveling in total, not including waiting times. There are lots of companies offering the trip, on both high-speed catamarans and larger vessels. It’s always best to buy tickets in advance online.
The flight-boat combo isn’t your only option, either. Budget travelers can hop on so-called “VIP” buses (clue: They’re not as nice as the name makes them seem) from Bangkok that include ferry transfers from the port in Surat Thani. That trip will take the best part of a whole night and morning. There’s also the option of getting the train to Surat Thani and then the boat from there.
Winner: Koh Samui. It has its own airport.
Koh Samui vs Koh Phangan: The general vibe
A lot of choosing the right island here will depend on what it is you want from your trip to the Land of Smiles. They might be close together in the Thai Gulf, but Koh Phangan and Samui actually roll to pretty different vibes…
Koh Samui is known as one of the most developed of the islands in the whole region. it’s nowhere near the sort of high-octane resort experience as you get in some parts of Phuket or in Pattaya. But there’s more energy here, and more urban sprawl, than on its neighbour to the north. The presence of an airport also helps to bulk up crowds, with some estimations saying that Samui gets around 140% more arrivals than Phangan per day in the high season.
Of course, Samui is larger overall, so there’s more space for people to spread out. However, the general effect is that this one looks and feels much more like a holiday destination. Most towns are geared towards travelers. There are spas and markets on virtually every street. There are sunbeds on the beaches for rent. It’s very much R&R central.
Koh Phangan can still seem like the Thailand that’s featured in The Beach; the Thailand of 20 years ago. You just have to know where to look for it. In fact, the southern town of Haad Rin, where the Full Moon Party takes place, now functions as a sort of lightening rod, drawing in all the package holidaying crowds and keeping them in place. That leaves the rest of the island to showcase its natural charms and relatively undeveloped side.
The north coast is by far the prettiest, hosting the likes of Bottle Beach and Malibu, but the west coast also has its joys, in the form of laid-back villages like Salad and Zen Beach. Head to those and you’ll mainly keep the company of New Agers, hippies, backpackers, and millennial travelers.
Winner: Koh Phangan – it’s more authentic Thailand.
Koh Samui vs Koh Phangan: Beaches
We’re not gonna’ lie – both Koh Samui and Koh Phangan have spectacular beaches. Both destinations are known for their picture-perfect tropical shorelines and lapping waves of turquoise blue. You can’t go wrong on either if that’s what you came for!
The east coast of Koh Samui is the most gorgeous of the lot. However, you might struggle to find a place that isn’t busy, especially in high season (November-March). We often prefer the north of the island during peak times. It’s generally quieter and less packed, but has long runs of uninterrupted sand that are backed by shady pines and palms. Overall, the top beaches on Koh Samui would include:
- Bophut Beach – An old fishing village and a very lively spot. You’ll find regular markets and fresh seafood being cooked in the local restaurants.
- Silver Beach – This little bay is fantastic for catching the sun rising over the ocean to the sound of the palm trees swaying.
- Maenam Beach – A very long beach on the north coast where you can often find peace and quiet, along with budget-friendly bungalows.
- Lamai Beach – One of Samui’s east coast jewels, Lamai Beach has boulder-dotted sands of golden yellow.
Over on Koh Phangan, the beaches are equally as spectacular in our humble opinion. With less tarmac and more dirt roads, you’re more likely to discover a remote piece of paradise with white sands and crystal-clear H2O all for yourself here, though. The south shoreline is the most built-up. That’s where you find the whole strip between the main port and the town of Haad Rin (home to the legendary Full Moon Party). However, that’s not where the best beaches await…
- Salad Beach – A north-west coastal bay with a covering of palms. Looks pure Thailand.
- Bottle Beach – Deserted north-coast beach that’s reached by an awesome jungle hike.
- Thong Nai Pan Beach – A family friendly resort area with longboats, midrange hotels, and great restaurants.
- Haad Yuan – If you’re determined to stay close to Haad Rin the party hub, don’t miss Haad Yuan, a much nicer beach with soft, white-tinged sands only one bend in the headland to the north.
Winner: Koh Phangan (for quieter beaches).
Koh Samui vs Koh Phangan: Nightlife
Koh Phangan is often hailed as the Thai party island. That’s really down to one thing: The Full Moon Party. Those mega blowouts are known to attract in the region of 40,000 revellers. They take place once a month on the main sands down in Haad Rin and are up there with the most legendary parties in the world – think all-night dancing and drinking until the sun comes up. Bucket cocktails and neon paint is compulsory, by the way!
The thing is, that uber-hedonistic side to Koh Phangan is all but limited to the south coast. Leave Haad Rin and you’ll enter a completely different world, where the bustling backpacker bars are replaced by yoga retreats and beach bungalows. There is some nightlife in the form of ramshackle Rasta jungle bars, but it’s not on the same scale as the Full Moon.
Koh Samui also offers a pretty hefty hit of nightlife. Different parts of the island have very different vibes. The liveliest place without question is Chaweng Beach. Located on the east side of the isle, it’s a hubbub of neon-lit clubs and sports bars – more Pattaya than paradise but still good for those who came to Thailand to party. We also like the low-key vibes of Bophut, which has established itself as the backpacker hub of the island and now offers night markets and craft beer bars aplenty.
Winner: Koh Phangan. It’s home to the Full Moon Party!
Koh Samui vs Koh Phangan: Things to do
Besides beautiful beaches and lively parties, both Koh Samui and Koh Phangan offer stacks of things to do. So, if you’re just about done floating in your hotel’s infinity pool, let’s take a look at what’s on the menu…
Koh Samui is famed as one of the top all-rounder islands in Thailand. You can come here to laze on the beach if you like, but you can also train hard in Muay Thai gyms with martial arts experts. You’ll also be able to find plenty of tourist shopping, massage parlors, and spa resorts for those rejuvenating (read: Back clicking) Thai massages. History and culture buffs will also want to drop into the enthralling Wat Plai Laem and the Big Buddha Temple, both of which offer striking religious architecture and an encounter with the mystical religiosity of Thai Buddhism.
Koh Phangan is actually more of a wellness destination. A veritable yoga haven, it’s got oodles of retreats that offer bespoke mediation and detox packages, especially if you look up the chilled western coast. There are also some fantastic hiking paths here, like the one through the remote coast jungles to Bottle Beach. Then there’s the scuba diving. Phangan is closer to the diving mecca of Koh Tao, which has some of the best dive sites this side of the Caribbean. Companies offer PADI-rated excursions there all the time, and they’re usually cheaper than you’d get in Europe or the US. Oh yep, and then there’s the Full Moon Party, which makes Phangan a must for hedonists at least once per month.
Winner: Draw – Koh Phangan for adventurers, Koh Samui for those who like more urban pursuits.
Koh Samui vs Koh Phangan: Food
Thai cuisine is full of flavor and packs a powerful punch for those who like it spicy, fresh, and zested with lime and coconut. The good news is that both of these southern isles are top places to sample the local food. They both come riddled with street stalls and night markets that brim with the scents of pad Thai noodles and peanut sauces…
On Koh Samui, the food markets in Lamai and Bophut are where you’ll be able to find mouth-watering meals for under $3. They combine with the chicer food scene that mainly exists in the popular east coast towns of Chaweng and Maret. Going to the latter means getting stylish restaurants serving creative Thai fusion food and whatnot. There’s also plenty in the way of Western cuisine here, but expect to pay much more for pizzas and pastas and American burgers.
Koh Phangan probably has a slightly wider range of local cooking available. Be sure to check out Pantip Market – a popular night market loved by both tourists and locals for its authentic dishes. There, the hawkers sell stir-fry noodles for between 30 and 40 THB a pop (that’s around $1!). But it’s not all local. Koh Phangan has some great Western restaurants, just in case you’re craving a pasta carbonara or the like. They’re mainly found around the popular party town of Haad Rin, which also hosts some of the top breakfast places in Koh Phangan – perfect for curing the hangover!
Winner: We think Koh Phangan, where the food is a little more local.
Koh Samui vs Koh Phangan: Hotels
Ok, last but by no means least, let’s talk accommodation…
It’s no secret that the dollar goes a long way in Thai hotels. That’s certainly true on both Koh Samui and Koh Phangan, where you’ll find an assortment of hostels, guesthouses, and resorts that will rarely break the bank. However, these are two of the most popular holidaying spots inthe Land of Smiles, remember? That means you’re going to pay more in these parts than you would elsewhere in the coutry.
Koh Samui has come a long way in the last few decades. Where once there was only beach bungalows there are now multi-story resort hotels. In fact, we’d say the island really excels in mid- to high-range accommodations that offer a taste of luxury – think balcony-ready suites with sea views and on-site infinity pools. Samui also has a fantastic array of private villas for those who want a little extra space to themselves.
The best places to stay in Koh Samui are:
- Chaweng Beach – A busy tourist town with a good beach and lots of places to eat and party.
- Lamai – Similar to Chaweng, but a little less crowded.
- Chaoeng Mon – A laid-back with a quiet beach, no traffic and no parties.
- Bophut – A traditional fisherman’s village that has become trendy and popular.
Koh Phangan is different. The western coast, now predominantly aligned to wellness travelers and beach lovers, is mainly covered in low-cost and midrange bungalow accommodation. That means there are loads of romantic cabanas on the beach to settle in with your other half, along with a few stylish boutique options that have yoga classes thrown in for good measure. Haad Rin is the exception to the rule, as the whole area there is more built-up and developed with concrete hotels that often have pools.
The best places to stay in Koh Phangan are:
- Haad Rin – Good for backpackers and home to the Full Moon Party.
- Baan Tai – A pristine beach that’s perfect for those looking for a high-end stay.
- Thong Sala – A harbor town with some fantastic restaurant choices.
- Srithanu – An authentic Thai experience; quiet, remote, and peaceful.
Winner: Koh Samui. Unless you’re a backpacker or a yogi, then it’s Koh Phangan.
Which island is better, Koh Samui or Koh Phangan?
There it is: Our rundown of Koh Samui vs Koh Phangan.
We think that both these isles are downright gorgeous. They both come with a range of some of the best beaches it the Land of Smiles, though the vibe is a touch different – livelier on Koh Samui, a bit more chilled on Phangan (so long as you go away from the Full Moon Party spots).
Talking of Full Moon Parties, Phangan is the one to hit if you want to party but also a more backpacker-friendly choice on account of its budget bungalows and yoga retreats. Samui is chicer, more stylish, more developed.
The best option? Visit both. These islands are only a short trip apart in the Thai Gulf, and it’s super easy to hop between them on regular ferries.