things to do in koh samui

Say “namaste” in Koh Samui. (Photo: Getty Images)

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The Best of Koh Samui for Every Type of Traveler

Koh Samui has come a long way since Western backpackers put its pristine beaches on the hipster trail in the 1970s. Today, this tiny island (just 88 square miles) remains a gem in the Gulf of Thailand — just not an undiscovered one.

But what makes Thailand unique can still be felt here. The waters remain an azure blue, elephants await in the jungle and the island that inspired Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Beach” is just an hour’s journey away. Koh Samui offers thrills for any type of traveler. Here’s what to do.

For the Foodie

You’re on vacation, so start with a treat: a tot of Thai rum at the Magic Alambic Rum Distillery. Masterminded by a French couple, this nearly clear rum is meant for sipping and is distilled from local sugar cane.

things to do in koh samui
Channel your inner chef. (Photo: Getty Images)

Then put on an apron at the Samui Institute of Thai Culinary Arts for a half-day class that will demystify the Indian and Chinese influences on Thai cuisine. Later, venture to the Lamai Fresh Food Market to marvel at the buckets of spices, freshly caught octopus and tropical fruit on offer.

In the late afternoon, the market’s street food restaurants open and start serving up everything from local-style pizza to pad thai.

For the Adventurer

Ethically engaging with elephants is easy at Samui Elephant Haven and Samui Elephant Sanctuary, where kids (and everyone else) will be thrilled to meet dozens of retired or rescued pachyderms.

things to do in koh samui
Have an ethically sound encounter with elephants. (Photos: Samui Elephant Sanctuary)

While there’s no mud bathing with the beasts (they worry too much about hurting us when frolicking), you can hand feed elephants and watch them play.

Skip the local water buffalo contests and head to fight night at Chaweng Stadium and hear the crowd roar as muay thai pugilists spar. Or you can learn the art of barefoot kickboxing yourself at the Lamai Muay Thai Camp.

For the Wellness Minded

Start your decompression at the Secret Buddha Garden. It’s set in a not-quite-tame part of the rainforest at Koh Samui’s heart, so you’ll need four-wheel drive.

things to do in koh samui
Wander the secret garden. (Photo: Getty Images)

Located by a waterfall, the still, secluded garden is full of Theravada Buddhist statues — the collection of a pious farmer steeped in Thai folklore.

After tending to your spirit in the jungle, indulge your body by the beach at the Cave Rai Ra Spa. It’s a serene space defined by rough-hewn sandstone, natural wood, indoor waterfalls and sunlight.

For the traveling yoga lover, it will be easy set your mat down at drop-in-friendly studios like Yogarden — or to find a more upscale yoga retreat/detoxification at Samahita.

For the Luxe Lover

DiCaprio’s cinematic island, while shot elsewhere, was inspired by Koh Mae Koh. It’s one of 42 islands in the Mu Ko Ang Thong National Park and just 25 miles from Koh Samui.

things to do in koh samui
Set sail from Koh Samui. (Photo: Getty Images)

Skip the speedboat and opt for a two-masted wooden motor sailboat tour. You can gaze at cerulean water from a deck chair before going ashore to see the (aptly named) Emerald Lake that inspired “The Beach.”

For the ‘Gram

Up your Instagram game beyond dazzling sunsets and visit one of the island’s many walking streets. While Chaweng, Lamai and Fishermen’s Village are always crowded with exotic street food vendors, rollicking live bands and funky shophouses, any walking street is a photoworthy stop. Ask before you go, since some streets close on certain days of the week.

The Dusit Dhewa cultural center is an off-the-beaten-track destination for the social media savvy. Set by a lake with nary a tourist hawker in sight, the museum’s eclectic open-air collection of Southeast Asian statues and art makes for cool selfie backdrops.

But if you’re looking for landscapes, visit the Jungle Club, near Chaweng Noi, for casual mountaintop dining — and awesomely likable views of the jungle as it slopes into the Gulf of Thailand.