travel and tours

Koh Samui or Koh Tao: Which one should you visit first?

Ang Thong National Marine Park, Koh Samui, Thailand (©Taylor Simpson)

Ang Thong National Marine Park, Koh Samui, Thailand (©Taylor Simpson)

Powder white sand. Clear blue waters. Light breeze gently rustling the leaves of palm trees. These are just some of the visuals that Thailand’s island life inspires. Known for its vibrant culture, the country’s other crowning jewel is its flock of beautiful islands. Phuket may have the most recall, but there are also three other prominent island beaches that have climbed the bucket list of many travelers in recent years, namely Koh Samui, Koh Tao, and Koh Phangan.

The beauty of these island destinations is that while they share the same beauty, they also have stark contrasts that make them stand out from each other. Wondering which among these islands will be the perfect match for your wanderlust cravings? We list the differences between Koh Samui and Koh Tao below.

Koh Samui


Koh Samui is the biggest and the most developed island in the Samui-Tao-Phangan trifecta. It is also the most accessible, which also means that it is the most touristy of the group. It has an airport where you can catch flights going to Phuket and other parts of Thailand, but it can also be reached by ferry if you want to be a little more traditional. In terms of going around the island, you may need to rent a scooter that can shuttle you off to different areas because of the size of the area.

You can go around using Grab, though don’t expect to get a driver easily because of how scarce they are. If you really want to experience the local Thai culture, however, try riding songthaews⁠, which are our-wheeled pick-up-looking vehicles with open backs and side seating arrangements. Songthaews circle continuously following specific routes and can usually accommodate about 16 to18 people.


Being the biggest and most-visited among the three, Koh Samui also has the widest choice of accommodations. Luxurious hotels and first-class resorts dot the place, but there are also a lot of mid-range and budget accommodations that are perfect for those on a budget.


Besides its beautiful waters, one of the best things about this island is the picturesque land attractions that you can visit. One of these is the infamous Big Buddha, a larger-than-life 12-meter high edifice that was built in 1972. The statue is part of the equally beautiful Wat Phra Yai Ko Fan Temple, which is another hot tourist spot on the island. Drop by for a visit in the early morning and get the chance to witness offering rituals and chanting performed by devotees there. Do note that you have to dress modestly here since it is a religious place⁠—shoulders and knees should be covered for both men and women.

Angthong Park is also another must-visit on the island. A trip there usually takes a whole day and will give you a visual tour of Koh Samui’s rolling green hills, rock formations, and turquoise waters.


With the huge flock of travelers it welcomes, Koh Samui is definitely a lot busier and more crowded than its two island brothers. The nightlife here is amazing as well, which makes it the perfect place to stay if you’re after that kind of vibe.


Sai Nuuan Beach Koh Tao- Suratthani, Koh Tao, Koh Phangan, Thailand (©Max Böttinger)

Sai Nuuan Beach Koh Tao- Suratthani, Koh Tao, Koh Phangan, Thailand (©Max Böttinger)

Koh Tao


Koh Tao is the exact opposite of Koh Samui not only in size (it is the smallest of the three) but in the overall vibe as well. Many tourists describe it as the laidback little brother of Koh Samui because of its less busy crowd and general chill atmosphere.

Unlike Koh Samui, Koh Tao can only be reached via boat which you can catch in Koh Samui and Koh Phangan. Getting around the island is also a bit more challenging since there are no bus stations in the area. You can, however, also rent scooters, ride a songthaew, or hail a cab. But since the island is so small, you also have the option to just walk to your destination instead.


Being the ‘road less traveled’, Koh Tao has a more limited range of accommodations to choose from. Most of the rooms and hotels here are friendly to the budget since they are aimed to cater to the backpacking crowd more.


Koh Tao does not have many land attractions unlike Koh Samui, but it does trump its big brother in terms of its water activities. The island is known in Thailand for its beautiful reefs, making it the perfect place to visit if you’re wanting to go snorkeling and diving. To top it off, the island also offers the cheapest rates for scuba diving among the other islands in Thailand.


Koh Tao has a more subdued vibe to it, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its own set of fun. You can go and join pub crawls (a group activity where you visit different bars in the area) if you want to let loose, though the level of partying here is definitely not on par with Koh Samui and Koh Phangan’s. The island’s strength really lies in its more tranquil air, making it a good choice if your main objective is to go into the water and have fun rather than jumping from one physical attraction to the next.


The verdict

Both Koh Tao Samui and Koh Tao has its strong points, so it is up to you as a traveler to know which ones you want to prioritize. Generally speaking, Koh Samui is more recommended for tourists who prefer more modern conveniences. The island is great for newbie travelers and families in particular because it is easier to get around and there are many resources available within its proximity. It is NOT, however, for those who are after some peace and adventure because of how packed it can get.

Koh Tao, on the other hand, is perfect for those who want to go off the beaten path. It is ideal for those who are looking for adventures, plain and simple, with the water activities that it offers. You do have to be a little resourceful when you get to the island because of its limitations in transportation and accommodations but if you’re after the ultimate island experience, then this is the place to be.

Made your decision on which island you’d love to visit? Share it with us by commenting on this post!

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