The backpacker brigade that popularized such idyllic havens as Ibiza, Goa, and Bali first stumbled upon Koh Samui in the 1970s. The island changed considerably once word got out—an airport was built in 1989 and Western tourists, drawn by talk of dazzling beaches and a kick-back vibe fill the growing number of upscale hotels—but much of its early appeal remains. So far. (According to a local ordinance, a hotel can be no higher than the palm trees—roughly three stories.)
Long sweeps of empty white beaches encircle the island, while the middle of the island remains dense with thick coconut plantations. Coconut palms have long been the mainstay of Koh Samui’s economy, and 2 million coconuts are shipped to Bangkok each month. Beachside bars, tattoo parlors, $15 bungalow rentals, and “life’s a beach” Т-shirts testify to the island’s somewhat receding tie-dyed character.
At the other end of the spectrum there’s the Baan Taling Ngam resort, which proves that you can spoil guests—with an idyllic, secluded, exclusive setting—without spoiling the island. Nestled on one of the best spots on the island’s western coast, Baan Taling Ngam (whose name translates as “home on a beautiful cliff’) offers uncommonly lovely views from its guest rooms and terraces, revealing small islands and jungle-clad outcroppings scattered across the Gulf of Siam. Most of the humpbacked islets seen from any of the deluxe rooms of this cliff-edge aerie, or the breezy beachside restaurant and villas, are part of the Ang Thong National Marine Park, a popular destination for world-class diving and snor-keling. Eighty islands litter the surrounding blue-green waters of the Gulf of Siam. The largest inhabited island, Koh Pha Ngan (7 miles north and connected by daily boats), draws budget travelers and scuba lovers the way Samui once did.