Linda Meads explains why you should double your island time in the Gulf of Thailand
The Thai islands of Koh Samui and Koh Phangan may be only a short ferry ride from one another but they're quite different beasts.
Thanks to its international airport connections, Koh Samui (a 70-minute flight from Bangkok) is generally the flashier of the two when it comes to resorts and infrastructure, whereas slightly smaller sibling Koh Phangan and its Full Moon Party tourism market definitely has a more chilled, rustic vibe.
Try to experience a little of both for a taste of all that these pretty Thai islands have to offer.
Here are some must-dos while you're ashore.
Mix and match your beach vibes
It's fun to explore as many beaches on either island as you can as each has its unique feel, and getting around them is an experience in itself.
From the pretty golden sands of Haad Salad on Koh Phangan you can catch a taxi longtail boat to several beaches — we went south to Haad Yao and north to famously beautiful Bottle Beach.
We also kayaked around the corner to Mae Haad and caught a songthaew (taxi ute) to Full Moon Party Central, Haad Rin and the fishing village of Ao Chalok Lam.
Note that parts of the island are mountainous so cycling can be ambitious in the heat, and there is no way on God's earth you'd ever get me on a scooter in Thailand after seeing countless tourists with scrapes and grazes from close encounters with the road.
Also note that wherever you are on Koh Phangan you'll need to embrace reggae — it's just that kind of place.
Koh Samui's beach towns vary wildly from the busy areas of Chaweng and Lamai, where you're likely to encounter the sex tourism for which Thailand is regrettably known, to the charming fisherman's village of Bophut and the laidback dreamy spot of Choeng Mon.
Songthaews are probably your best way to get around Samui although there are plenty of taxis — just agree on your price before you ride on either.
Eat where the locals do
Yes, there's plenty of amazing food everywhere all over Thailand but our greatest dining experiences on Samui and Phangan came about in low-key, family-owned and operated affairs where you almost felt like a dinner guest rather than a customer. Plus, the beer is cheaper.
Highly recommended in Koh Samui's Bophut are the simply named Family Restaurant and The Friendly Frog (both on Moo 1) and on Koh Phangan we loved the excellent Ying Ying's Kitchen, just out of the village at Haad Salad.
Check out the local night markets
Any street market in Asia is generally full of tourist tat but also provides a snapshot of vibrant local life — plus you can practise your bartering skills.
It's also a good opportunity to try the region's freshly cooked street food for next to nothing and experience some local entertainment. In Lamai on Koh Samui there is a fantastic night market every Sunday down near the main bridge, while the busy Friday night walking street market in and around the main streets of Bophut is an absolute must.
Grab yourself a Chang beer and head along for some cheap eats and great people-watching.
Live the resort life
Here's a hot tip — in smaller settlements you can usually use a resort's swimming pool and sun loungers if you buy something from their bar or restaurant. This is particularly handy on beaches like Haad Salad, a perfect stretch of sand that's home to more than a dozen resorts, at least six of which have lovely pools. This means you can experience a change of scene from your own digs without having to repack and unpack your backpack. Genius.
And while you're at it …
Take a load off at one of the many beach massage set-ups on offer, where you'll get an hour-long massage for under NZ$20. Admittedly, these can be a little ropey depending on the skill level of the masseuse (we recommend the one at Villa Cha Cha on Haad Salad), but any massage delivered with the soothing sounds of waves lapping on the shoreline and a breeze tickling at your temples is guaranteed to leave you feeling like a million bucks. If in doubt, just remember how much an hour on the massage table costs you back home.
There are two main ferry companies, Songserm (200 baht/$9.30 for a one-way ticket, 45 minutes) and Lomprayah (300 baht one-way, 30 minutes from Nathon Pier in Koh Samui).