In the southeast of Thailand, there are 3 popular islands called the gulf islands. These are Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao. If you have plenty of time and energy, it's not a problem to visit all three as they're all just 30-60 minutes away from each other by ferry.
Personally, I like to travel slow and stay at each place for a longer time. I was in Koh Samui for 3 months, and I've been in Koh Phangan for 5 months now. I work remotely while traveling, and I like to take my time trying out all the cafes and restaurants with no rush.
Which island is right for you?
This post will help you choose which island is more suited for you depending on what you're looking for. We're looking at the following categories:
Koh Phangan vs Koh Samui: The Main Difference
Koh Samui is bigger than Koh Phangan. It has malls, a cinema, a lot of choices for hospitals, high-end resorts and apps like FoodPanda and Grab. It's a lot more developed, and feels more like a small city than an island. Most importantly, it has an airport which makes it super convenient to go there. The airport is very centrally-located, probably 10 minutes from wherever you're staying.
Koh Phangan is more of a hippie island. It's very laid back. The roads are mostly empty, surrounded by trees. There are grocery stores, but not as big as the ones in Koh Samui. There are 2 hospitals, no mall, no cinema. It's popular for the full-moon party which happens once a month, but other than that, it doesn't feel like a busy place.
Food and cafe scene
There are plenty of choices for food and cafes in both islands. I found that it was mostly a miss for me in Samui. The food was mostly overpriced and not exceptional. Of course, there are good places out there like The Shack and Cafe KOB, but these are few and far between. I have 3 theories:
- The good places are hard to find in Koh Samui because the island is big and spread out. Therefore, you have to drive far to get to them, which I didn't like doing.
- The good places are hard to find because there is less of a community, therefore I found restaurants through Google Maps, not first-hand recommendations from friends.
- The island is just full of mediocre expensive restaurants targeted towards short-stay tourists.
In contrast, Koh Phangan has a lot of options for work-friendly cafes, breakfast spots and overall amazing food for a slightly lower price and much better value. After 5 months here, I'm still continuing to discover new restaurants that become my new favorite. Check out my full list of restaurant recommendations here.
🏆 Winner: Koh Phangan
Where to stay
Hotels in Koh Samui
This is where Koh Samui really shines over Koh Phangan. In Koh Samui, there are plenty of high-quality hotels for a good price, and luxurious 5-star hotels. Here are my picks:
- Lanna Luxury Hotel - high quality hotel, ultra Instagrammable for an affordable price! I stayed here for $400/month during low season.
- SALA Chaweng Beach Resort - beach front, has a nice big restaurant and even more luxurious
- SALA Samui
- Hansar Samui
You can also find villas on Airbnb. We rented this 3-bedroom villa with a private pool in low season for under $100/night.
Hotels in Koh Phangan
In Koh Phangan, you can get a bungalow for $400/mo, a decent room in a hotel for $1000/mo, a 2-bedroom villa for $2500/mo or a high-end luxury 2/3-bedroom villa for at least $3000/mo.
There is more demand than supply for high-quality accommodation. Apparently, the land here is very expensive. Therefore, prices shoot up. It doesn't feel like Southeast Asia prices anymore. 🙁
Here are my top picks:
- Bay Villas - Absolutely stunning views and well-designed interiors, but you'll pay the price accordingly. They have villas and 1-bedroom apartments. Right next to it is Flow Cafe, a great place to work from and have a cup of coffee.
- High Life Villas - The same stunning view as Bay Villas but for a lower price. They have 2-bedroom villas and 1-bedroom apartments. Right next to it is Tomorrow x High Life which is a cafe/restaurant/bar with nice sunset views.
- High Life Bungalow - An alternative to High Life Villa, but in a more central location. They also have a cafe/coworking space.
- Zee Luxury Boutique Hotel - Get a 1BR with well-designed interiors, and a shared pool. This is in Sri Thanu - where a lot of the cafes, restaurants and gyms are located. Ideal for those not wanting to drive a scooter.
- Koh Ma Beach Resort - Wake up to one of the best beaches on the island right in front of you. Tourists come here for the beach despite not staying at the resort.
- Sunset Hill - Great for digital nomads wanting to get some work done because of their complementary access to the coworking space. It has cliff-side views, but be prepared to drive up a steep hill.
🏆 Winner: Koh Samui. It offers the best value and wider range of options, but Koh Phangan has the best views if you have the $$$ to spend.
Things to do
In Koh Samui, you can drive to some viewpoints, go to an ethical elephant sanctuary tool, visit Crystal Bay Beach aka Silver Beach (by going through Crystal Bay Resort), do go karting and get a massage at Sakura.
In Koh Phangan, you can go to Bottle Beach, Thong Nai Pan, the full-moon party in Haad Rin, do some yoga/breathwork/ecstatic dance and the like, go to hill-side restaurants to watch the sunset, and of course go cafe and restaurant hopping.
There are some waterfalls in both islands, but nothing stood out to me that was worth checking out. You can also do a day trip to Angthong National Marine Park and Koh Tao for some diving or snorkeling.
🏆 Winner: I'm not sure. Probably a tie.
I found it much, much easier to make friends in Koh Phangan. I feel like there is a friendly community in Koh Phangan, even if you don't fall into the yoga/breathwork/hippie group.
Here's a roundup of the Facebook travel groups I found when searching Koh Samui:
|No. of Members
|Koh Samui Tourist Information
|Activities in Koh Samui
|Koh Samui Conscious Community
|Digital Nomads on Koh Samui
There's a massive difference with the amount of members with Koh Phangan groups:
|No. of Members
|Koh Phangan Conscious Community
|Koh Phangan Conscious Events
|Koh Phangan Parties & Events
|Koh Phangan Unconscious Community
|Koh Phangan Digital Nomads
Koh Phangan's "conscious" community is 44x bigger than Koh Samui's. Koh Phangan's nomad community is 5x bigger.
🏆 Winner: Koh Phangan
Places to work from
These are some cafes and coworking spaces that I found in both islands. They all have air-conditioning and outlets you can plug into.
Places to work from in Samui:
Places to work from in Phangan:
- Indigo Cafe & Eatery
- Indigo Coffee & Bakery
- Flow Cafe
- La Casa Tropicana coworking space
- Beachub coworking space
- Sunset Hill coworking space
🏆 Winner: Koh Phangan
Most foreigners are allowed to stay in Thailand for 30 days on a visa exemption, or 60 days on a tourist visa. If you'd like to stay longer, you will have to go to an immigration office and get a 30-day visa extension.
Samui Immigration Office is bigger and has been around longer than Phangan Immigration Office.
- Samui can cater to more people at a time.
- Samui asks for fewer requirements.
- Samui is generally faster.
- Samui can do more processes than Phangan. For example, an elite-visa holder can get a 1-year renewal in Samui but not in Phangan.
For low season, it doesn't matter which office you go to. But for high season, the immigration offices everywhere are packed, and it could take up to a full day and a half to get your extension in Koh Phangan. This is a rare occasion though.
This shouldn't affect your decision on where to go, but it's good information to have. General rule: if you're in Koh Samui and in need of an extension, just do it there before heading to Koh Phangan.
🏆 Winner: Koh Samui
Which island should you visit?
You should go to Koh Samui if:
- You want to stay in high-end resort or villa while staying on a budget.
- You're short on time and just want to go somewhere by the beach and escape the city. Koh Samui has an airport that you can directly fly into with Bangkok Air.
- You like convenience that comes with a small city: malls, cinema, efficient food delivery service, Grab (Southeast Asian version of Uber) and high-quality gym.
You should go to Koh Phangan if:
- You're looking for that real island vibe. This island is very laid-back, but not "sleepy".
- You have big bucks to spend on a luxury villa. Villas here have stunning cliff-side views, but they come with a hefty price tag.
- You're a foodie and cafe lover like me!
- You're a digital nomad staying for a longer time. It's much easier to make friends here. Everyone is very social. And there's lots of cafes to choose from where you can get your work done. 💪
How to get to Koh Samui
Take a direct flight to Koh Samui via Bangkok Airways. It takes about 1 hour when flying from Bangkok, Phuket and Krabi. When flying from Chiang Mai, it's 1h 45m.
How to get to Koh Phangan from Koh Samui by ferry
There is a speed boat going from Koh Samui to Koh Phangan every day. The ride is 30 minutes, but you have to spend some time waiting in the queue. It can get pretty full in high season.
To make a reservation, contact Joyze Travel (+66805196694) on WhatsApp and ask them to reserve a ticket for you on the 30-minute boat from Samui to Phangan.
Which island is better?
At the end of the day, it depends what you're looking for. But if you're still undecided until this point, I would highly recommend Koh Phangan.
Koh Samui gets boring after a few days and it doesn't really have a vibe. It's just another holiday destination that you can find in other parts of the world.
Koh Phangan, on the other hand, has a laid-back vibe where you feel relaxed but not bored at all. Empty roads. Lush greens. It's hard to explain, you just have to come.
And if you're not yet convinced, here's my full guide for Koh Phangan.