Hat Sai Kaew (Diamond Beach) on Koh Samet
Last week I went to Koh Samet for the very first time. So many people have been telling me to go that I thought I should make an effort. Everyone said it is a tropical paradise and one of the best islands in Thailand. Before I caught the boat to the island, I decided to stay on the mainland for a couple of days. The island is only 40 minutes away by regular boat (much faster in a speedboat) and I wanted to compare beaches on the mainland to the ones on the island. (You can read my Rayong beach reviews at Thai Travel Blogs.) I think one of the reasons I was hesitating to go was the fact that Koh Samet is now a popular island destination. It can get very crowded, particularly during long weekends. Plus, I like beach holidays where I can turn up in the car with everything including the kitchen sink. To catch a boat to an island you can only take as much as you can carry.
If you are driving to Rayong and Koh Samet from Bangkok it will take you just over two hours. It is a good highway most of the way and even though it is further than Pattaya, it can be almost as quick. You also have the added advantage that the beaches in Rayong are a lot cleaner and there is no sleazy nightlife. For people who don’t have their own transport, you can catch a bus from Bangkok (Ekamai) that goes direct to Ban Phe. This is the pier for boats to the island. That tells you straight away how popular the island is. There are regular buses throughout the day. You can also catch minibuses from Khao San Road area. It will take you from two and a half hours to as much as four hours to get there! The cost is from 50 baht to 250 baht depending on what service you take. If you cannot get a bus to Ban Phe, then take a bus to Rayong and then a songtaew from there to the pier.
Speedboats to the island cost from 1,000 baht and take 15 minutes
When you arrive at the waterfront in Ban Phe you will be faced with a number of different piers advertising boat trips to Koh Samet. Most guidebooks suggest Nuanthip Pier is the best (if not only) pier there. That is not really true. We visited six different piers during our research for this blog. For most travellers it doesn’t matter which boat you take. It seems very hit and miss even at the same pier whether you get a big two decker boat with life jackets or a rickety fishing boat. The price for a ticket is the same at each pier. One way is 50 baht and a return ticket 100 baht. We bought a return ticket though on reflection we decided it would have been better to buy a single. This is because when you come back you cannot catch the first boat to return. You need to wait for the boat going to your pier. Also, if you buy a single you can return from a different part of the island.
As I had to leave my car on the mainland, I made sure that I found a pier that had a good shaded area and people that would look after my car. The fee for this is 40 baht for the day or 80–100 baht per day. The pier we chose to go with was Choak Kritsada. Parking was only 80 baht per day and the boat looked safe! The departure times varied depending on time of week and the season. As it was mid-week, the first boat was due to leave at 9 a.m. They then left hourly until about 5 p.m. The other piers had similar hours. I had been told before that if you turn up at the island at noon that you might find it difficult to find a hotel room. So, we decided we would catch the first boat in the morning. If you arrive at the pier outside these hours, or just want to get to the island quicker (15 minutes), you can hire your own speedboat. This will cost you about 1,000–3,000 baht depending on your destination. This is advertised as a 24 hour service.
Swimming in the crystal clear water
Before you depart from Ban Phe you really need to think about your destination. Most people go to Na Darn Pier which is a ten minute walk to the famous Sai Kaew beach. From here you can walk down to quieter beaches. An alternative is to catch a boat to Wongduan Beach further down the coastline. This area has quieter beaches though there are not so many boats going this far. On the west coast there is only one main beach called Ao Phrao. However, there are mainly upmarket resorts there and the cost of accommodation include a trip to the island on their private boat. I will talk more about the different beaches in a another blog. For this trip I headed to Na Darn Pier as this was where most people were going. Not that I like crowds, it is just it was important for the sake of our research.
Our boat left the pier nearly on time. As we departed the small harbour we passed many fishing boats. The fishermen had returned early in the morning and had already offloaded their fish and cleaned their boats. The only boats were tourist ones heading towards the island. And we weren’t alone. We were neck and neck with another ferry boat for much of the trip with a bigger boat just in front of us. It looked like we were all racing to get to the island first. If you consider that each boat had people all wanting the same few rooms available then really it was a race. First come first served. The 40 minutes passed quite quickly. As we were pulling into the pier at Na Darn I looked back and saw three more boat hot on our tails! I wasn’t really worried about not finding any rooms, but seeing so many people racing towards the island made the old heart pump a bit faster.
From the pier my friend suggested I should walk to Diamond Beach. You can catch a shared songtaew from the pier if you like. A sign said that our beach was only 10 baht each and Wongduan was 30 baht. However, if you come back on the songtaew by yourself then you would have to pay the charter rate which is 300–400 baht! Walking has one big advantage which I wanted to test out. Koh Samet is in a national park, and if you have ever travelled in Thailand you would know that it costs 200 baht for foreigners and 20 baht for Thais. It doesn’t make any difference whether it is a small waterfall or a big forest. The island is no exception. Just over halfway to the beach there is a forestry guard box by the side of the road. I was told that they stop the songtaews to collect the entrance fee from the passengers. However, if you walk down the road (preferably on the righthandside) you can avoid the fee. It worked for us.
I will continue this blog later with a review of beaches and a list of activities you can do on this beautiful island in Thailand.