Historians have uncovered evidence that leads them to estimate that people first inhabited Ko Samui about 1,200 years ago.
The island remained largely undiscovered by the outside world until 1687, when ancient Chinese maps show its exact co-ordinates, referring to it as ‘Pulo Cornam’.
For a long period, there is no other remaining history or documentation of inhabitants or life on the island.
At the end of the 19th century, Koh Samui was rediscovered by fisherman, sailors, and sea traders from China and Malasia who used the island as a safe haven against storms and high seas as they traveled across the Gulf of Thailand.
In fact, one theory of how the island got its name claims that the word “Samui” derives from the Chinese word “Saboey”, which translates to “safe haven.”
Impressed with the beauty and abundance of the island, many of these Chinese and Malay seamen stayed. With plenty of fish and wildlife, fertile soil, fruit trees, calm seas, and a good climate, these first foreign visitors made the island their home.
They also brought Buddhism with them, which eventually became the island’s main religion as well as a small but thriving Muslim population. Up until then, the islanders worshipped spirits, and over the centuries the religions often mixed and intertwined to form a fascinating cultural stew.
Before 1940, tourism didn’t exist on Koh Samui, in large part because it was still virtually inaccessible for all but the most intrepid adventurer. In fact, the only way to get from mainland Thailand to the island was by night boat, which took more than 6 hours and arrived at Nathon.
There were still no roads or vehicles on Koh Samui, and people got around by foot or on boats hugging the coastline. The path from Maenam to Lamai, for instance, took several hours of walking through the interior mountain and jungle terrain.
Post 1940 development
As more boats ran to the island and more outsiders started to visit, settlement of the island grew. Koh Samui offered a great place to live and work for many, as the many varieties of fruit trees that produced durian, lang san, and many others, fertile soil, and plentiful natural resources sprung up. Rubber plantations and coconut exports were two of the most lucrative ventures on the island, and as the economy grew, soon Koh Samui was a significant force in Thailand’s economy.
But development of the infrastructure was still slow going, in large part because the distance from the mainland and Koh Samui’s mountainous topography made it very hard to transport and run heavy machinery needed. In fact, the original plan to build Koh Samui’s first road were abandoned when construction over and through the mountains proved too treacherous.
All of that changed in 1967 when Khun Dilok Suthiklom, the leader of the island, petitioned the national Thai government for assistance with improving Koh Samui’s infrastructure. The government approved his request and the road project was underway again.
The high hill between Nathon and Maenam and the rocky and mountainous terrain between Lamai and Chaweng proved a formidable challenge, but hundreds of manual laborers pressed on (with the help of a lot of dynamite). First, trees and rocks were cleared and a narrow track was established that circumnavigated the island, and soon vehicles could pass, speeding construction. But everything always came to a stop during the monsoon seasons, when the heavy rains and flooding made building impossible.
By 1973, the project had come along enough for the government to complete the road by pouring 52 kilometers of concrete, though at first, the road was only 2 meters wide. That was good enough for one car to pass so if another happened to be on the same stretch of road, someone would have to pull over. Eventually, the road was widened to accommodate more traffic.
By 1975, western and European hippies, backpackers, and adventurers started coming to the pristine paradise of Koh Samui, quickly establishing it as a hidden secret for beach lovers. At first, visitors had to sleep out on the beach, in hammocks, or in simple bungalows, but soon, the islanders extended their hospitality (and saw the opportunity) by starting simple guesthouses, restaurants, and other services for the foreigners.
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 industry of growing and exporting fruit flourished as well, with palm, coconut, and fruit plantations and orchids offering up banana, durian, lychee, pineapple, mango, guava, and rambutan to market in mainland Thailand.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand commissioned a project that year to explore, develop, and promote the island as a tourism destination. It quickly became a favorite destination for both Thai nationals and foreign tourists. More and more guesthouses, hotels, dive shops, cafes, and restaurants sprung up, and many foreigners chose to stay and get married or open up businesses, making Samui their home.
Despite its popularity, it was still quite a journey to get to Koh Samui until 1989, when Bangkok Air privately funded the first major international airport on the island. It still is in use today and is one of the nicest and most charming tropical airports in the world.
With the new airport, droves of tourists came to the island, but Koh Samui was ill equipped to handle the growth, and infrastructure. These growing pains result in planning, utilities, and services that were often disorganized or unregulated, but a large number of new hotels and buildings popping up and an influx of visitors.
The growth of Koh Samui as one of Thailand’s best tourist destinations continued through the 2000s. These days, the island has a permanent population of over 63,000 people and a hotel occupancy rate of 73% for its 17,479 hotel rooms, with the number still expanding.
But for those who still want to see white sane beaches, majestic coral reefs, plenty of coconut trees and friendly islanders, Samui is still a throwback to Thailand’s wild and exotic past.