Swapping hostels for swish villas and public beaches for private pontoons, Michelle Jana Chan discovers that Thailand’s party island is attracting flashpackers as well as backpackers.
This is the fabled island where we came 20 years ago for cheap beach-shack lodgings and full-moon parties – and in search of that beach. Long known as a destination for backpackers, Koh Samui is sprucing up its image to appeal to a different kind of independent traveller: stylish, well-heeled and looking to be cosseted in a villa with butler service and world-class spa treatments, rather than party all night and crash out next day with a copy of Alex Garland’s dark debut novel.
The change is conspicuous all over Koh Samui. At the airport (now served by direct flights from Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore), I noticed as many smartly dressed British families and honeymoon couples from Seoul as I did Australian backpackers. Some luxury resorts are developing private residences to sell as upmarket second homes to these wealthier and more discerning visitors.
The shift of gear began five years ago, when a Four Seasons opened on the site of a former coconut plantation. It was the first property on the island with access to a private beach, and each of its 74 hillside villas, designed along traditional Thai lines, had its own infinity pool.
Since then a swathe of high-end hotels has opened, including Le Méridien, a Banyan Tree, the W Retreat and, last autumn, Conrad Koh Samui. It’s evidence that the island as we knew it, with its cheap bars and run-down hostels on Chaweng Beach, has moved on and up.