Koh Samui is an island off the east coast of Thailand. I travelled to Koh Samui in spring 2011 on a tour of South-East Asia. Nearby are the islands of Koh Phangnan and Koh Tao, and the city of Surat Thani on the mainland.
TYPES OF TRANSIT
Actually there is no official transit system on Koh Samui. All transportation is either by taxis, scooters, private vehicles, or songthaews. Songthaews represent the closest thing to a public transit system on Koh Samui and they seem to work… at least somewhat well.
To get travelers between the ferry terminals, airport, and hotel there are a number of private taxi companies operating “limousine services” which take the form of 8-9 passenger vans. The vans travel to and from the hotels when they fill up with travelers. It costs 120 Baht ($4). Here is my original ticket:
I took the Songthaews to get around on Koh Samui several times.
Taking the songthaews is a little nerve racking for a few reasons:
You are in the back of a truck
There are usually no other tourists
The driver probably has no training
There is no map
There is no stops
There is no schedule
On Samui it was simple enough to take the songthaews as the island is not very big. Basically there is one main ring road that surrounds the island and the songthaews travel in both directions around this road, shown in blue below:
All of the major urban centers on the island are accessible by the ring road, so it is actually ideal for transportation. To use the songthaews you simply wait on the side of the road until one is driving by and then wave to the driver. The direction and name of the towns are usually painted on the side of the truck. The cost depends on the distance travelled but on Samui it was usually less than 60 Baht or so ($2). Then, get into the back of the truck and sit with the rest of the locals. Usually when you get to the various town centers, the driver will announce it; to disembark, simply say “I want to get off now” or something to that effect. You can probably get off anywhere along the route, but in my experience the drivers would generally stop at the same spot along the road at each of the urban centers.
The two main routes on Samui are:
1. Nathon – Mae Name – Bo Phut – Chaweng – Lamai
2. Bo Phut – Fisherman’s Village – Bangrak – Plai Laem – Cheong Mon – Chaweng
The seats are not particularly comfortable and having no schedule or map makes them a little unpredictable. However, the songthaews are very frequent and I had no trouble getting around on the island.
There are a few competing companies that service the islands, here is a map of the competing services:
The three main ones are:
1. Lomprayah – new, high speed catamarans
2. Seatran – Relatively new and nice large mono-hulls
3. Songerm Express Boat Co. Ltd. – Older, kind of shitty mono-hulls
I ended up taking all three eventually. The main terminal at Samui for Lomprayah is located in Mae Nam on the North-West side of the island, and Seatran has their terminal in Bo Phut.
Firstly, I took the Lomprayah high speed catamaran service to get to and from Koh Phangnan for the famous full-moon party. The catamarans made short work of the 20 or so kilometers between the two islands. The whole journey was less than 30 minutes and was mighty fun. I’m a big fan of boat transit, and Lomprayah’s high speed catamarans were my favourite transportation option that I used during my South East Asia tour.
After a few more days of lounging around on Koh Samui I decided I would like to get my scuba license, so I took a another ferry over to Koh Tao from Koh Samui.
To get to Koh Tao, I took Seatran’s Discovery ferries. Their vessels are definitely comparable to passenger ferries I have used in North America. The service was on-time, quick, and comfortable. The ferries had TVs playing information, food services, and decks where one could lounge – although it was quite windy. The view was spectacular! Here is my original ticket:
I also used Seatran to return to Koh Samui after I got my scuba certification. I spent a few more days in Samui then headed to Bangkok. To get to Bangkok this time I took the Songserm express boat service.
They can sell you a joint ticket, which is good for travel from Samui all the way to Bangkok: Samui to Surat Thani by boat and then coach bus to Bangkok. In total it takes 12 hours or longer. This combination ferry/bus ride was probably my least favourite travel experience in South-East Asia. The Songserm ferry was old, shitty, and slow, crowded, and offered no extra luxuries. It was however, by far the cheapest way to get to Bangkok from Samui, at only about 600 Baht in total ($20), whereas Lomprayah charges 1,300 Baht ($43) for the same journey.
In Thailand, you get what you pay for. Songserm was incredibly disorganized the entire way, at Surat Thani I ended up waiting for several hours in the middle of nowhere for the coach bus to show up. I’ve also read some accounts of people having their luggage rifled through while traveling on this service.
Here is my original ticket:
Next time I would take the Seatran or Lomprayah service to Don Sak (near Surat Thani) and then the State Thai Railways overnight sleeper train to Bangkok. This option is much more expensive, but will give you a better night’s sleep, a safer trip and more interesting journey, and a real Thai train experience. Let’s face it, rail beats road every time and catamarans beat slow boats every time!
While Koh Samui, Koh Phangnan, and Koh Tao do not offer any sort of planned or integrated transit system, there are ways to get around. My review is only of the songthaew services:
Songthaews are converted vans with some seats, they are better than walking in some situations.
Actually not too bad! Songthaews continuously circulate on Samui, connecting all the major urban areas. You would be hard-pressed to use songthaews alone without also owning a scooter on Samui.
Occasionally the trucks had the directions and/or stops painted on the side.
I doubt tourists would ever feel safe in songthaews in their home countries, but compared to a tuk-tuk in Bangkok, songthaews are Volvos.
Please note I finally decided to not bother rating on cost, as it is not an important metric for the overall rating of a transit system.
While I can’t say that the Songthaews are an acceptable transit system by western standards, they do kind of work in Thailand. The locals and some tourists are able to get around using these services, so in that way, they do the job.
However, I believe Koh Samui would benefit greatly from a couple of official bus routes with real maps and stops operated by some sort of government agency, or private operator. Having a map and a timetable for visitors to use would get more people using transit, and less people riding around on dangerous scooters – usually without helmets. Perhaps a few retired buses from Bangkok would do the trick.