Search Samui Holiday

Samui History & Culture - The evolution into a tourism hub


History and Culture

A look at how Koh Samui evolved into the tourism hub as we know it today.

Have you ever wondered what Koh Samui was like 100, 50 or even 20 years ago? You may be reading this while reclining on a sun-lounger at your 5-star resort, sipping a cocktail, after arriving via the quaint airport that resembles a hotel lobby. Imagine how your tropical holiday would have been different before the airport was built, before the ring-road let you travel right around the island in an hour, and before the electricity cable from the mainland was built allowing us to wallow in air-conditioned rooms, and keep in touch with the world via WiFi.

Historians generally believe that Samui was first inhabited around 1,500 years ago by fishermen from the Malay Peninsula and traders from the southern coast of China. Ancient Chinese maps, dating back to 1687, show the co-ordinates we now know as Koh Samui, as 'Pulo Cornam'. There are two schools of thought as to where the name 'Samui' originates from. 'Samui' may be derived from the name of a native tree, Mui, or may have evolved from the Chinese word 'saboey' which means 'safe haven' which it was to the Chinese traders who moored at its shores.

Little was known about the island until the first boat transportation service to Samui was launched in the mid 1800s. Back then, it took a full day of sailing to cover the 35km voyage from Surat Thani on the mainland vastly different to the easy one-hour flight from the capital now.

So when did the Samui as we know it, evolve? A few decades ago, the island was an isolated community, with little contact to the mainland. But in 1967, Khun Dilok Suthiklom, leader of the island at that time, decided to ask the government for help in developing Ko Samui's infrastructure.


Nathon town on Samui in the old days... History and Culture on Samui



Two main obstacles were the high hill between Nathon and Mae Nam, and the rocky and mountainous area between Chaweng and Lamai which had to be blasted to in order to construct the road. Vegetation and rocks had to be cleared. Dynamite and heavy construction vehicles were needed, and these had to come from the mainland. The result was a narrow track around the island. Before concrete was laid along this track, it was not unusual to see passengers exiting the cars to help push the vehicles up steep inclines.

Construction of the ring-road was constantly interrupted by heavy downpours during the rainy season. Finally the concrete was poured in 1973 to complete the 52km stretch that made its way around the island. Initially, the road was only two meters in width, but over the years it was widened to accommodate more traffic, to form the (mostly) tarred ring-road that we know today.

Nowadays, we can hardly imagine a time when the only way to go from one place to another on Koh Samui was on foot or by boat. Prior to the ring-road being built, a journey from the east to west coast meant a 15 kilometer trek across the island's mountainous jungle. Watching sunrise in Lamai, and nipping across to watch sunset along Lipa Noi beach in a day, was just not a reality.


History and Culture of Koh Samui workers shelling coconuts on the peir



In the early 1970s, word started spreading among the hippie backpacking community of a beautiful unspoilt hideaway in the gulf of Thailand. This was the start of tourism to Samui. Back then, the only accommodation was in the form of a few wooden beach shacks with no electricity, and little more than a hammock to swing in for entertainment.

John 'Squall', owner of Tradewinds Cottages on Chaweng Beach, was one of those first backpackers to reach Samui's shores, and decided to make it home. A keen sailor, he was also a pioneer in discovering the island's waters and collection of neighbouring islands that make up the marine park. John speaks of days when Chaweng beach road was only a dirt track and the area from the beach road to where Tesco is now was merely a swampland with no buildings whatsoever. With no Tesco or Big C around, getting provisions was touch and go, and meant buying whatever could be locally produced. John remembers when a Swedish chap by the name of Bill owned the only real supermarket, aptly named Bill's Supermarket, located in Chaweng. Bill would do regular trips to Bangkok, bringing butter and bacon back in ice chests - a highly sought after commodity to sell to the island's few resorts and restaurants.

Samui Holiday's very own managing director, Henrik Bjork, who has been living on Samui for around 17 years, reminisces about a few entrepreneurs trading here 12-15 years ago. These guys would drive trucks up to Chiang Mai to bring fruit and vegetables back to the island, as the best produce is grown up north. They made a good living selling to expats, locals and the fledgling hospitality industry. Unfortunately they got greedy, and ended up in trouble for bringing back more than just veggies. I'll leave that up to your imagination says Henrik.


Back in the day, an old pickup truck bus in the jungle



During the 1980s, on realising the island's true tourism potential, the Thai Government started pouring resources into Samui. Word of our tropical paradise continued to spread and more and more tourists flocked to the shores of Kho Samui - at first only via ferry, but then in droves when the airport was built by Bangkok Air in 1989. Unfortunately, as with most tourism booms, the infrastructure did not increase at the same pace as the visitors arriving to the island. John 'Squall' says there was never a flooding problem before the island's busiest areas were so built up, even though Chaweng sits mostly on swampland. The water's natural runoff paths became blocked by large hotels, without adequate drainage being allowed.

There will always be those for and those against development. But, there is no arguing that progress cannot be halted - it can however be controlled. We are seeing better building regulations aimed at keeping Samui aesthetically pleasing. Now law states that roofs must be pitched Thai-style, and height restrictions have been set in place (12 meters, not higher than the closest coconut palm, in fact). Huge budgets are being spent on improving the roads and drainage; all good news.

We may not see Koh Samui as the hidden paradise it was four decades ago, privy only to a few travelers in on the secret. We can however learn from the mistakes made by the early developers and let Samui evolve gracefully, protecting her natural beauty, preserving the heritage of her Thai, Chinese and Malay founders, and making sure that it keeps its identity and doesn't become just another beach holiday location which it isn't.




Tongue Thai-D

Related feature story:

Tongue Thai-D The Thai language is quite unique, as anyone who's ever tried to learn it has discovered.

Food And Faith

Related feature story:

Food And Faith Food plays an integral part in the beliefs as well as ceremonies and rituals.

Sak Yant

Related feature story:

Sak Yant The ancient mystical tattoos of Thailand.

All That Glistens

Related feature story:

All That Glistens A look at how gold is very much a daily part of life in Thailand.

Believe it!

Related feature story:

Believe It! Buddhism is not the only religion in Thailand, there seems to be room for everyone.

Under Water

Related feature story:

Under Water A look at the Thai New Year celebration of Songkran.

Tunes of Thailand

Related feature story:

Tunes Of Thailand Thailand has some interesting instruments and musical history.

Just Imagine...

Related feature story:

Just Imagine... A look at how Samui evolved into the tourism hub it is today.

About Time

Related feature story:

About Time Thailand’s docile water buffalo is a gentle giant – until he gets in the ring, that is!

A Tale of Two Chopsticks

Related feature story:

A Tale Of Two Chopsticks Stories and myths about the Asian cutlery for both skilled and novice users.

Monkeys, ladyboys and screaming people

Related feature story:

Monkeys, Ladyboys And Screaming People Thai temples and their festivals.

Dragon's Breath

Related feature story:

Dragon's Breath Traditional herbal remedies and strong liquor combine to create the intoxicating yaa-dong.

Fish Fight Club

Related feature story:

Fish Fight Club Siamese Fighting Fish have become a favourite in aquariums around the world.

The Past, The Present and The Future

Related feature story:

The Past, The Present And The Future The history of Thai cuisine and its influences.

Fit For A King

Related feature story:

Fit For A King Royal Thai cuisine is a treat that even us mere mortals can enjoy.

Island Transformation

Related feature story:

Island Transformation Samui has grown from a rustic little island into a major holiday destination.

A Man And Monarch

Related feature story:

Man And Monarch Few monarchs can match the philanthropy of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Resorting To Myths

Related feature story:

Resorting To Myths Little pieces of Thai history and legend are tied into some of Samui’s finest resorts.

Secular Spirits

Related feature story:

Secular Spirits There’s nothing ghostly about these spirits from Thailand!

Take Off Your Shoes

Related feature story:

Take Off Your Shoes “The feet are the lowest part of the body (spiritually as well as physically)”

Thai China

Related feature story:

Thai China Dining with Thailand’s famous Benjarong chinaware adds to the whole experience.

The Third Sex

Related feature story:

The Third Sex The fantastic life of a beautiful ladyboy in today’s Thai society.

Why Thai?

Related feature story:

Why Thai? “The feet are the lowest part of the body (spiritually as well as physically)”

Why Wai?

Related feature story:

Why Wai? A traditional Thai greeting can be difficult to master but start with a smile.

Winged Wonder

Related feature story:

Winged Wonder The Garuda is Thailand’s most famous mythological creatures – but there are others.

In Good Spirits

Related feature story:

In Good Spirits Understanding the Thai culture of spirit houses. You’ll see them everywhere.

Buffalo Solidiers

Related feature story:

Buffalo Soldiers Seeing a buffalo fight is a must.

The people's King

Related feature story:

The People's King The Garuda is Thailand’s most famous mythological creatures – but there are others.







Maps of Koh Samui Dining on Samui Samui in Brief Samui History and Culture
Attractions and Excursions on Samui Samui Archipelago Pampering on Samui Sports and Activities on Samui
Learning on Samui Samui Picture Gallery Weddings on Samui
Festivals on Samui Shopping on Samui Health Safety and No No's on Samui Nightlife and Entertainment on Samui
Visa Requirements For Visitors Getting to Samui Getting Around on Samui
Samui Weather Living on Samui Prices on Samui Accommodation on Samui



  Samui Holiday Graphic Object Grey Line

Holiday Magazine

Samui Holiday Magazine

Read the online version of our stunning large format glossy magazine prior to your visit and once here, pick up a printed copy available free all over the island. Here our writers bring you interesting stories of our island paradise, offering inspiration on what to do and where to go in a light-hearted story style.

Read more about the best beach destination in Asia...

  Samui Holiday Graphic Object Grey Line

Wining & Dining

Samui Wining & Dining

Browse through the online version of our high-quality newspaper to get your digestive juices flowing. Comprised of food and beverage related articles and Samui's wining and dining scene. Reading a few articles will make you want to book that ticket to Samui's culinary wonderland right away.

Read more about the food served on Samui...

  Samui Holiday Graphic Object Grey Line

Dining Guide

Samui Dining Guide

Eating and traveling go hand in hand, and discovering a new location is all about trying new foods. This section contains a compilation of restaurant reviews to guide you through the island's culinary minefield to ensure that each dining experience is one worth remembering – for the right reasons.

Read about the recommended restaurants on Samui...

  Samui Holiday Graphic Object Grey Line

Spa Guide

Samui Spa Guide

Let our spa guide be inspiration on just how and where you plan to unwind and be pampered. From aromatic steam baths to herbal body masques, Samui's spas and retreats offer the utmost in rejuvenating body treatments. Read stories and reviews about individual spas in this section to prompt your choice of pampering.

See the recommended spas on Samui...

  Samui Holiday Graphic Object Grey Line


Samui Directory

Search the on-line version of Samui Directory - Samui's premier business guide. Here you will find comprehensive listings of local businesses from accommodation to water-sports, with postal addresses and telephone numbers, as well as email and website addresses.

Find the contact information you need here...




The Samui Holiday Website is created, developed and published by Siam Map Company Ltd., Koh Samui, Thailand.
Established in 1997, the company is Samui’s premier publisher producing high quality publications and web pages for visiting travelers.

Our team of in-house graphic designers, editors, journalists and photographers ensures that all our
printed publications and the Samui Holiday webpage are relevant, informative and interesting with accurate, beneficial and up to date information.

Web-development Kim Carter / Carsena Technology Services, Photography Claudio Cerquetti / Fantasy at Work, Photography Ugrit Komlue / Siam Map Company,
Editors Steve Taylor and Graeme Malley / Siam Map Company, Graphic Designers Chadamas Tuammee, Wunvilai Punnern, Angkanang Somwang / Siam Map Company.

All material on these pages, including without limitation text, maps, logos, icons, photographs and all other artwork,
is copyright material of Siam Map Company Ltd. Use of this material may only be made with the express, prior, written permission of Siam Map Company Ltd., Koh Samui, Thailand.

Siam Map Company Ltd. seeks to ensure that information contained in these pages is accurate and up to date. However, no liability or responsibility is accepted
arising from reliance upon the information contained in these pages or any other information accessed via this site, including without limitation for information reached via links on this site to external sites.




Text Based Site Map