Discovered around the late 1800’s the island of Koh Samui became a haven for fishermen, sailors and sea traders who would use the island as a place to shelter from storms and high seas as they sailed across the Gulf of Thailand.
It was these same fishermen and sea traders, who were mainly of Chinese and Malay origin, that became some of the earliest settlers on Koh Samui. One of the main reasons that they were attracted to the island was because of its rich natural beauty and wealth of natural resources, which included luscious vegetation, exotic fruits and plentiful stocks of fish and other wildlife.
Some people believe that the word ‘Samui’ actually derives from the Chinese word ‘Saboey’, which when translated means ‘safe haven’.
Whilst some of the earliest maps of Koh Samui can be traced back to the 17th century, no one really knows much about the island beyond this date as there is very little documented about its history from before the 1800’s. It is believed that much of the history or knowledge about the island at this time was likely to have been passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth.
For many centuries the main economy of Koh Samui revolved around the harvesting of tropical plants and fruits, particularly, coconuts as they were able to grow and flourish in the islands warm, sunny and tropical climate. Over time, Koh Samui’s economy grew and it quickly became a major player in the export of fruit to other areas of Thailand and beyond. Even to this day the island is well known throughout Thailand and the rest of the world for its array of exotic, succulent and delicious fruits. Some of the most famous fruits of Koh Samui include the durian and lang san. The durian is well known for its yellow pungent flesh and acquired taste that people either find delicious or absolutely disgusting. The lang san is a small round fruit that is very similar to a lychee and is enjoyed by many people who visit Koh Samui island.
Even though the palm tree has become synonymous as a symbol of Koh Samui, it was only fairly recently that the coconut became the largest export from the island. Over the years Samui farmers gradually turned the island into an incredibly large coconut and rubber plantation.
As the islands industry grew, so the local farmers income as they were able to negotiate a good price for their crops. Their increased wealth didn’t go unnoticed by people from the main land and some the native farmers of Koh Samui were joined by people from other areas of Thailand who also wanted to share and benefit in the islands growing economy. The legacy of the islands early coconut farmers is still apparent today as Koh Samui proudly boasts more varieties of coconuts than anywhere else in the world.
During these early days, anyone who wanted to visit Koh Samui could often be faced with a seven or eight hour boat journey, so of those that travelled from the mainland, once they arrived on the island many decided to stay and setup home next to their Chinese and Malay neighbours. This helped to create a strong, diverse and independent community amongst the people who lived on the island. Within the community, Buddhism was quickly established as the islands main religion, although there was also a small Muslim population on the island too. During this time many of the islands local spirits would be worshiped in a unique blend of the two different religions. This is something that is still apparent today and helps to add to the rich and unique cultural appeal of the island itself.
It was during the early 1960’s that the first foreign tourists started to visit the island, many of whom considered themselves to be ‘hippies’ on the trail to Kathmandu trying to find enlightenment.
During this time Koh Samui was undergoing some fairly radical changes itself and 1967 saw the start of a project to build the islands first road. By the mid 70’s the island underwent another major change that saw the impassable hills between Nathon, Lamai and Chaweng dynamited and concreted in order to make the island more accessible.
Word continued to spread amongst the hippy and backpacking community of the 1960’s about the paradise island of Koh Samui and by the early 1970’s the islands popularity began to increase. Even with this increase in popularity, agriculture still remained the islands largest economy and was the main source of income for nearly all of the islands inhabitants.
By 1975 young, white, adventurers and backpackers from Europe had firmly established Koh Samui as one of their favourite destinations and in response to this many of the local people had started to provide basic accommodation, traditional Thai food and other services to the islands newfound friends and tourists.
Right through the rest of the 1970’s and 80’s Koh Samui, with its hippy vibe and basic, humble accommodation, which was certainly much different to what you will find on the island today, continued to be popular amongst those travellers who were in search of a real escape and tropical island getaway. The late 80’s and early 90’s saw the standard of accommodation on the island improve and gradually more and more bungalows were built to cope with the increase in tourists.
More visitors to the island resulted in the development of key infrastructure, which included a regular ferry service to and from the mainland. Not long after this an airport was built on the island and this made Koh Samui much more accessible to a larger number of tourists.
It is fair to say that during the last decade Koh Samui has undergone the biggest changes in its entire history. Not long after both international and Thai investors marvelled at the beauty of this one time remote paradise island, that construction of luxury and five star resorts and hotels began. This rapidly changed Koh Samui from a quite, sleepy island to one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of South East Asia.
Today, Koh Samui is very much the modern jetsetters destination of choice where 5 star resorts and spas, as well as luxury properties are very much the norm.
In order to cope with the demands of the modern day traveller, the range of facilities, amenities and services that are available on the island are continuing to grow and the island includes everything from international retail outlets and fast food chains to high speed wireless internet. However, despite the large amount of develop that has occurred on Koh Samui, the island still manages to retain a lot of the tropical charm that first attracted tourists to its shores some 40 years early.
Thankfully, still very much in evidence are quaint small villages and coconut plantations, which can still be found throughout the island.
Whilst Koh Samui might not be the tropical paradise it once was some travellers who visit the island for a couple of weeks are still so entranced by its beauty, three months later they are still there. Whereas others stay for a couple of days only to concede that “it’s done”. Whichever train of thought you fall into there is no denying that Samui can still provide a great setting in order to escape the hustle and bustle of daily life.