Phuket or Samui – which island is better? If you are looking for an island paradise in Thailand, choosing between Phuket and Koh Samui can be a challenge. Both are world-renowned as beautiful destinations, offering all of the sun, sea and sand you could possibly want and a lot more besides. In-depth research into the differences and similarities between the two is a time-consuming effort, so we’ve made it a little easier to compare.
We’ve broken down the travelling experience into 10 of the key elements which make up a great beach holiday and then looked at the best that both Phuket and Koh Samui offer. Take a look and see which best suits you and what you want out of your holiday and see if you agree with our conclusion of which is the preferable perfect getaway.
With 35 beaches to choose from, Phuket has something for almost everyone, particularly those travelling with small children. Each beach has a different vibe, from complete Castaway isolation on Mai Khao Beach to Patong’s bustling party atmosphere.
What Samui lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality. Samui’s sand is slightly softer and whiter and the water is a bit calmer and clearer. Most importantly, you will find plenty of bars and clubs actually on the sand, particularly in Chaweng, making it particularly good for young travellers looking for a fun beach spot.
The hotel industry in Phuket is huge, with at least 1,200 properties available from simple guesthouses up to five-star beachfront resorts. There is a perfect place for you, whether you’re travelling on a budget or in the lap of luxury and, with so much competition for your booking, prices are kept pretty low.
The most popular beaches of Koh Samui, such as Lamai and Chaweng, are only accessible along a few narrow streets thanks to the sheer number of beachfront properties. Although the small island only supports about 990 hotels, many of them allow you to walk right from your room onto the sand, making them perfect for sun worshippers.
With multi-cultural influences throughout its history, Phuket Town’s dining scene is as colourful as its streets. The island’s capital has never really been dominated by the tourist trade like other areas, so most of the food found there is a real taste of Thailand – ideal for those who like to travel like a local.
Each of the major resort towns in Samui has a main street of restaurants, generally behind the beach. In every case, this street is lined with restaurants representing cuisines from around the world, giving you a great deal of choice without having to travel far. This is particularly convenient for older travellers who like their occasional home comforts.
From Old Town to the Big Buddha, Phuket has a wide and varied selection of sites of historical and cultural significance. Whether you are tempted by temples or enjoy moseying around a museum, Phuket has something for you. There are even some ‘living museums’, showing traditional Thai farming practices at work.
There are probably more bizarre and unique sights to see in Samui than anywhere else in Thailand, including the famous Hin Ta and Hin Yai rocks, naturally formed into the shapes of genitalia, and the mummified monk of Wat Khunaram, looking cool in his Ray Ban shades.
With its hilly interior, Phuket Island has a lot of high perches from which to enjoy a really stunning view of the surrounding scenery. You can see no less than three beaches from Kata Viewpoint while Khao Rang Viewpoint gives you a great panorama over Phuket Town. It is a paradise for landscape photographers.
While Samui’s hilly hinterland is not so accessible, most of the coastal views are quite easily reached. Several of the best picture postcard places are right by the major resort towns, particularly around Lamai Beach, making it best for those with a tight travel budget.
If you are an activity-oriented traveller, Phuket has a lot to offer. The surrounding seas are home to great diving, stand-up paddle-boarding, surfing, snorkelling and sailing opportunities while the island itself has a good selection of activities to choose from, including cable water skiing, shooting, golf and Muay Thai.
While Samui may lack the variety of land-based activities Phuket has, it matches most of the water-based choices (although the surfing season is a lot shorter). It is the better destination for divers and snorkelers because of fantastic nearby dive sites, and the chances of seeing the really impressive sights, such as whale sharks, is much higher.
7. Nightlife and Partying
The heart of Phuket’s nightlife is Bangla Road, a 500-metre street in Patong where very nearly every building is a bar or nightclub. There is a huge choice of options from one end of the famous road to the other, ranging from cheeky go-go bars to international-standard nightclubs, making it a great destination for anyone who likes to party.
Aside from being an essential stop on the way to Koh Phangan’s famous full moon parties, Samui has a modest but fun nightlife itself, particularly in Chaweng, around the famous Soi Green Mango. Unlike Phuket, many of the best bars and clubs are open-air and right on the sand and generally attract the young backpacker crowd.
8. Lifestyle and People
Phuket: More upmarket
With its large, modern marinas and major sailing events, Phuket attracts quite a high society crowd, particularly during the high season. This is reflected in certain areas of the island where there is a notably exclusive atmosphere, provided by high-end shops, clubs, hotels and restaurants.
Samui: More friendly
You always get a lot of backpackers and easy-going travellers on Samui, particularly around the time of the full moon. Unlike werewolves (which, legend says, you also see around the same time), they are generally very friendly and approachable. You’re sure to make some new friends on Samui.
With a selection of large, modern malls and a very varied choice of local markets, Phuket has all of your shopping needs covered. Whether you want designer labels or budget souvenirs, you will have no difficulty finding it, with plenty of options for shopping around.
Although it has only a couple of malls, you can still get high-quality designer goods from the many boutique stores on Samui. The star attraction, though is the Fisherman’s Village Walking Street every Friday, which is much bigger and more impressive than anything similar on Phuket.
10. Value for money
Phuket: More choice
Largely due to the fact that it is much larger and much more established as a holiday destination, Phuket has a lot to offer in almost every regard. The sheer choice available in one relatively small space makes it the perfect destination for any kind of traveller of any age.
Samui: More savings
Having established itself as an almost essential stop on the backpacker trail around Southeast Asia, Samui offers a lot of low-cost options for those travelling on a shoestring. While the small island has a limited repertoire of attractions, those it has are generally of a high quality.
Conclusion: Which is best?
Both Phuket and Koh Samui are fantastic destinations and well worth visiting, but there are some areas where one excels over the other. Generally speaking, Samui is better for the young party crowd, particularly those who love to partake in some exciting water sports between periods of lazing on a beautiful sandy beach. If sun, sea and sand are the limits of your requirements, Samui is for you.
While Phuket is certainly not lacking in sun, sea or sand, its real appeal comes from its exceptional variety, giving it broader appeal and making it the better choice for older visitors as well as those travelling with the family. If you are want beautiful beaches around a taste of real Thailand (with further bites within easy reach), with unique sights, flavours, products, sports and experiences, you will find it on Phuket.