Koh Samui or Phuket, which should you visit?

Tonight! Tonight! Live at the Lumpinee Boxing Stadium, the east coast takes on the west coast – Koh Samui versus Phuket – in the heavyweight championship fight! 

If Koh Samui and Phuket were prized Muay Thai fighters, they would be the top two heavyweight contenders. They are the largest two islands in Thailand, and they can both draw large crowds.

Their stats are pretty even – both can boast beautiful beaches, a tropical climate, and fine-dining restaurants. With local markets next to modern malls, there’s something for everyone in these two behemoths of Thailand’s tourist destinations.

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One island sits in the Gulf of Thailand in the east; the other protrudes from the azure Andaman Sea on Thailand’s west coast.

They say it’s your vibe that attracts your tribe, so let’s see which island is giving off the right vibes to have you checking to make sure your passport hasn’t expired.

The Roof is one of Samui’s best bars with a view

Which has the best beaches, Phuket or Koh Samui?

Both Phuket and Koh Samui can offer you the chance to while away your holiday on idyllic beaches. And there are choices: whether you are looking for a secluded bay or a long, sweeping arc of soft, white sand, both islands can deliver.

Koh Samui’s best-known and most-visited stretch of sand lies to the northeast of the island, at Chaweng Beach. This 5-kilometre stretch of powdery sand is perfect for some daytime sun-worshipping, with plenty of activities to keep the restless busy too. At night, the beach comes alive with many bars and restaurants dotting the water’s edge.

Chaweng Beach Koh Samui

For quieter options, head south to Lamai Beach or one of the smaller, unspoiled beaches between the two. Samui’s beaches are quieter and less developed than Phuket’s and offer a more family-friendly vibe than the busier Phuket beaches.

Lamai Beach Koh Samui

Phuket’s biggest crowd-puller is Patong Beach, with a similar vibe to Chaweng on Samui. Although not as long, this 3-kilometre-long beach is a hive of activity.

Patong Beach Phuket
Patong Beach

From jet skis and parasailing at the water’s edge to the myriad of restaurants, bars, shops, and stalls lining the road, there’s plenty to keep you busy here.

Kata Beach Phuket

For chilled vibes, head north of Patong and hit the beach clubs of Kamala or south to Kata. 

Winner: Koh SamuiChaweng Beach perhaps just edges it over Patong, and Samui has plenty of smaller beaches where you can find that perfect Thai beach vibe.

Which island has the most to do, Koh Samui or Phuket?

Some prefer lazing in the shade of a coconut tree with a good book while on holiday; for those seeking activities to keep you entertained, you will be spoiled for choice in both Samui and Phuket.

If lying stock-still in the sand won’t be enough for you, both destinations offer all the usual suspects when it comes to water activities – jet skiing, parasailing, snorkelling, and banana boat rides.

Away from the picturesque beaches, both Koh Samui and Phuket have enough going on to keep even the most fidgety of travellers occupied.

The brand new water park, Andamanda Phuket, is a must for families

If you have shopping needs that must be satiated, you will not be disappointed in either Phuket or Samui. Both have shopping malls, but you will find more options in Phuket.

If you are looking for high-quality designer goods, head to Central Festival Mall in Chaweng on Samui and near Phuket Town on Phuket. There are plenty of local market stalls selling souvenirs in the main tourist areas, too.

Cooking classes are a great way to take your favourite flavours home

If you develop a chili addiction whilst in Thailand, you can find some excellent Thai cooking classes in both destinations, too. A great late-afternoon activity, the classes frequently include a cocktail preparation component as well – after all, we don’t want to get thirsty in the kitchen.

Winner: It’s a draw! There is plenty to do on each island, so we are going to call this one a draw!

Phuket vs Koh Samui, which has the best food?

Whilst we are on the subject of eating, the epicureans amongst you will not be disappointed with the wares on offer in either Phuket or Samui. Both popular islands offer a range of culinary delights.

Pork Belly Stew – Michelin winning One Chun Cafe n’ Restaurant Phuket

Fine dining and countless street food stalls can be found on both islands, along with everything in between. Being islands, both Samui and Phuket can offer some amazing fresh seafood restaurants alongside the usual spicy Thai delights. Phuket edges slightly ahead in the fine dining stakes, with Phuket having its own Michelin Guide.

The Thai phrase “mai pet,” meaning “not spicy,” may come in handy…

On Samui, head to the Fisherman’s Village Walking Street for some superb street-food stalls dotted between some excellent beach-front restaurants in a chilled-vibe setting.

Find the Fishermans Village boat and you will discover dozens of restaurants nearby

For some truly amazing local cuisine in Phuket, combine an afternoon exploring the shaded Sino-Portuguese architecture of Phuket Old Town with some authentic Thai food, as you are a little farther away from the tourist centres. This half-day food tour was one of the highlights of our time in Phuket.

Winner: Phuket, but you will still eat the most amazing food in Koh Samui restaurants and markets!

Nightlife: Phuket vs Koh Samui?

Both Koh Samui and Phuket can keep a party going well into the night. For those seeking Samui’s most vibrant nightlife, head to Chaweng after the sun sets. There will be plenty of beach bars coming alive as the day turns to night.

If you want to party late, head to Soi Green Mango in the centre of Chaweng – this cluster of bars and clubs will be lively till the wee small hours. Koh Samui is also the jumping-off point for trips to the famous full moon parties on Koh Phangan.

Seen Beach Club in Chaweng Beach Credit: Avani Hotel

For the party-seekers in Phuket, Patong will be your go-to place. The centre of Patong’s bustling nightlife is Bangla Road, running from Jung Ceylon mall down to Patong Beach Road. Both sides of this road are lined with bars and clubs, and after dark, it becomes a walking street only – no traffic allowed.

There are also several places to watch live music in Phuket Town

Whether you are looking for live music or a quieter bar for a spot of people-watching, Bangla Road will keep you entertained.

Winner: In the Phuket vs Koh Samui fight, Phuket edges it for those seeking a party vibe. Bangla Road is one of the biggest party zones in Thailand.

Which offers the most variety of places to see: Phuket or Koh Samui?

Whether you visit Koh Samui or Phuket, there will be plenty to see and do. As a Buddhist nation, there is a plethora of temples to admire for those seeking a splash of culture.

And if a visit to a large Buddha is on your wish list, both islands can fulfil your needs—the big Buddha statues on both islands are popular spots for tourists looking for a uniquely Thai sunset photo.

Big Buddha Phuket
Big Buddha Phuket

For nature lovers, both Koh Samui and Phuket are home to some spectacular national parks, offering trail walks and waterfalls. And if you fancy a spot of island-hopping, Samui visitors can head to Angthong Marine Park on a day trip to cruise amongst the stunning topography. Samui visitors can join day trips to Coral Island or the more famous James Bond Island in Phang-Nga Bay.

James Bond Island Ao Phang Nga square
James Bond Island
Ang Thong National Marine Park, Thailand

Scuba diving is possible in both locations too, although the west of Thailand offers greater biodiversity and the chance to see both manta rays and whale sharks.

Winner: Phuket has a little more variety than Koh Samui – more national parks, more biodiversity underwater, more boat tours, and more temples to visit.

Phuket vs Koh Samui: Ease of access

Both of these beautiful destinations are easy to reach. Phuket, perhaps a little more so, depending on your country of origin. Phuket International Airport is receiving an ever-increasing number of international direct flights, so you may be able to fly straight to the island without the need to travel via Bangkok.

There are direct flights from several cities in Australia, and from Dubai, Helsinki, India, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and many more cities in Asia.

If you enter Thailand in Bangkok, it’s very easy to get a short domestic flight down to Phuket airport.

Koh Samui is also home to an international airport. Unlike Phuket, Koh Samui Airport is privately owned by Bangkok Airways and receives fewer tourist flights. However, there are many flights daily to Bangkok. You can also fly directly to Chiang Mai, Pattaya, Phuket, and Krabi. International flights have restarted to Singapore with more cities expected soon.

Koh Samui Airport has to be the most chilled out we have visited

Adding to Phuket’s ease of access is the fact that you can also drive onto Phuket Island via the bridge to the north of the island. Koh Samui is a little farther from the mainland, but ferry options are convenient to way to reach the island from Donsak in Surat Thani Province or neighbouring Koh Pha-Ngan.

Winner: Phuket – with Bangkok Airways owning the airport on Samui, there are fewer flights than there are to Phuket. Phuket is connected to the mainland via Sarasin Bridge, so no long ferry journey either.

When is the best time to visit these Thai islands?

As is typical of destinations within southeast Asia, Phuket and Koh Samui both experience dry seasons and monsoon seasons.

PhuketWet Season – June to October
Koh SamuiWet Season – October to December

While the rainy season will see fewer tourists and the occasionally rough seas, it can still be a great time to visit these two island destinations. Although a lot of rain falls during these months, even in the rainy season, the rainfall is often condensed into one hour-long late-afternoon torrential downpour rather than a persistent drizzle all day long!

For the best weather in either location, January through late May are great times to visit
Phuket or Koh Samui.

Which place is better for different travel styles?

Which destination is best for you? Well, that depends on you and the type of vibe you are looking for. Both are awesome for lazing on the sand, and both offer an array of options.

Both islands offer beautiful beaches

For a lazy relaxing beach holiday – Koh Samui – it’s a little easier to find a secluded, romantic beach on Samui.

For family getaways – Phuket – Families will be well-catered for in either location too. As the two biggest tourist spots in Thailand, both Koh Samui and Phuket have plenty of activities for the whole family to enjoy.

For diving/snorkelling holidaysPhuket – Both are great places to get close to nature, although, for scuba divers, the Andaman Sea in the west offers more variety in marine life than the Gulf of Thailand on the east. For liveaboard diving trips, Phuket and Khao Lak, to the north, are the two main departure points within the kingdom. 

Black tipped reef shark Thailand
Black tipped reef shark Credit: Rich Reardon

Phuket and Samui are also popular with digital nomads and backpackers. For backpackers, you can enjoy the amenities of the larger islands before or after visits to Phi Phi (for those on Phuket) or Koh Pha-Ngan (for those on Samui.)

Which island requires more planning to visit?

Neither Phuket nor Koh Samui require expedition-level planning. Once you have your flights booked, the next step is to find a suitable hotel on your chosen island.

With a myriad of options at either destination, you just need to choose which area of the island to stay in, and then you will find yourself spoilt for choice for accommodation options.

Kimpton Koh Samui
Kimpton Kitalay Koh Samui is one of our favourites

Both islands have impressive infrastructure, so moving about is easy once you have settled into your hotel. Taxis, songthaews, tuk-tuks, and private hire are all available to help you get the most out of your Thailand holiday.

Just remember to check the weather patterns and visa requirements. Depending on your nationality, you may not need to arrange a visa in advance for quick visits. Check with your local Thai embassy or consulate for current guidelines.

Winner: Phuket – Phuket feels easier to plan for, as there are more flights to choose from, and no ferry tickets to arrange if you travel overland.

Which is the more expensive island?

As two comparable destinations, there are not a lot of difference in the required budget.

Either Phuket or Koh Samui will have an abundance of options to suit your bank balance.

You can easily find luxury villas, five-star resorts, and backpacker hostels on both islands, whether you are planning a high-end holiday of a lifetime or a short stay during your backpacking adventure.

From street food to silver service, there are also plenty of options for amazing Thai and international food at every corner. 

Car/scooter rental prices are also very similar on both islands; just shop around for the best deal. Activities and excursions will also be comparably priced in Phuket and Samui. Taxis can be more expensive in Phuket, but there is not a lot in it.

For those travelling down from Bangkok, you may notice a slightly higher price for domestic flights to Samui than for flights to Phuket. This is because only one airline flies to the privately owned Koh Samui Airport. For Phuket, you have more choices and more competitive airfares.

Winner: Koh Samui by a whisker

Phuket vs. Koh Samui: Who wins?

These two giants of Thailand’s tourist industry are hard to separate, and a split decision is the only just outcome. If your planned trip will be your first visit to Thailand, you will not be disappointed.

Whichever island you decide on, you will find azure seas, golden sand, swaying coconut trees, and some of the most amazing food you have ever tried. Embrace the Thai culture in both Phuket and Koh Samui and enjoy your sunny sojourn in Siam.

So if you have enjoyed this fight, why not read our thoughts on Chiang Mai vs Chiang Rai to see which of the two biggest mountain cities in Thailand take out that title?

Images: Paula Morgan

About the author: Richard (Rich) Reardon is a freelance writer and scuba diving instructor from England and now lives in Southern Thailand. “I have spent the last twenty years travelling and working throughout South East Asia. For around half of that time, I’ve been based in Thailand. Thailand stole my heart, and I hope my writing will encourage you to find out why!”