Koh Samui
January 12, 2020

8 ways Koh Samui has changed since 2003

As of August 2023, we'll have been visiting Koh Samui for twenty years. A fitting occasion to examine what's changed around Koh Samui since we've known it.

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Koh Samui history: 2003 to 2023

As of August 2023, we'll have been visiting Koh Samui for twenty years (see our top 10 trip highlights from our first visit to Koh Samui).

Since the early 2000s are a blur of bad fashion and questionable pop (taking a hard look at Avril Lavigne for both counts), the time in between has merged into an undefined clump of memories, and it's all gone by very quickly. But twenty years?! A fitting occasion to examine what's changed around Koh Samui since we've known it.

Koh Samui history

Photos of His Late Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej's visit to Koh Samui in 1962

There’s a nostalgic thread on TripAdvisor for old-time Koh Samui visitors, those who arrived in the first and second wave of backpackers in the 1970s and 1980s. Stories toe the "back in my day" hardship line of dirt tracks and genuine beach bungalows – thatched huts and nothing more. In fact, one of Chaweng's first beach bungalow establishments was the site of today's minimalist hotel, The Library (built and run by the original owners' son). It's hard to imagine Chaweng as a quiet backwater and a reminder of Samui's development over the past 30-40 years. But what about more recent history?

1. Restaurants come and go

While some of our favourite restaurants from our first trip have long since shut, others remain as firm island fixtures. In 2003, we made friends with the staff at our favourite restaurant. Today we look forward to catching up every visit; they've all since grown up, got married, had kids… and have got much better at English than we have at Thai. In general, Koh Samui's restaurant options have really improved in both quality and variety in the past seventeen years.

2. Internet stopped making screechy noises

We have clear memories of walking down Choeng Mon Beach in 2003 to find an internet café… enduring dial-up ... which we paid for by the minute. (Once successful, we then logged in to Hotmail, as Gmail didn't exist). No such thing as Skype, Facebook or WhatsApp. Or iPhones. This will be the black and white era we tell our children about in suffering tones.

Rest assured that Samui's WiFi speeds today are easily capable of Zoom, Netflix and YouTube, and it's available in-room in most (non-budget) hotels and resorts. Thankfully you can enjoy the best of both worlds – today, Choeng Mon Beach only looks like the sort of place that should have dial-up internet.

3. Someone fixed the infrastructure

Improvements to the islands roads and drain systems have vastly diminished flooding during rainy season and heavy storms. You’ll still get soaked (and are just as likely to ride a scooter through a pothole) but it’s much, much better. Electrical upgrades are ongoing, too. Maybe in 2037 we’ll hardly remember what a power cut entails?

4. High-end hotels arrived

What was a 'secret beach' in 2008 is today, the home of Ritz-Carlton Koh Samui

Flip through a travel magazine for the region today, and there are ads for every five-star hotel brand out there:

The gang's all here! All of these have opened in the past fifteen years. While it’s often suggested that Koh Samui is going “upmarket”, there remains a great variety of accommodation – both in price and ambience – and independent favourites are going strong. This 'upmarket upswing' hasn't wiped out the budget options, rather, the fancy stuff is now there if you want it.

5. Jet-skis

Yes, they’ve arrived too.

6. Traffic showed up

With bigger and better hotels, and nice, new roads comes a brand new phenomenon: traffic! Hard to believe that island time can have such a thing as rush hour – but we suppose you can’t pick and choose life’s realities. Koh Samui's quieter south and west coasts remain pretty sleepy – unless you meet an unloading ferry in Lipa Noi. Operating a highly successful six-a-day spay and neuter programme, DCRS has neutered 13,000 dogs and counting.

7. Stray dogs got the snip-snip

A casual street scene on Koh Samui has far fewer stray dogs today than it did in 2003. On occasions, we’ve looked around and wondered “where did they all go?!” This is the fantastic work of the Dog and Cat Rescue Samui (DCRS), which opened in 1999, and recent help from Soi Dog Foundation. The majority of Samui's stray dogs look much healthier today as well. We remember seeing some very sorry looking puppy dogs, many affected with mange, but they’re today a much healthier looking bunch. Again, all kudos to Dog and Cat Rescue Samui, who offer vaccination and treatment to dogs all over the island.

8. Island landmarks

Not only did Koh Samui Airport undergo redevelopment with a large new terminal, but Big Buddha has had additions too. The 'wheel of life' behind his head was added a few years ago. As well, the pier in Fishermen’s Village today looks a bit sturdier than the 2003 version, above.

While there are surely many other changes besides, these are just a few superficial things that stand out from our small collection of photos. Some of our photos of our first trip are scanned from a film camera. Remember those relics?

What will Koh Samui look like in another seventeen years?

We expect that the next fifteen years will bring an increase in green and environmental offerings: The Tongsai Bay and Six Senses Samui lead the way in terms of wildlife care and habitat management, and eco and/or locally grown products are starting to appear: things like Samui coconut oil and DEET-free mosquito repellant. For our part, having learned some hard lessons about sunscreen and wide-brimmed hats, we hope to look much the same as we do today.

The Koh Samui Guide

For a top-to-bottom picture of Koh Samui today, we've just updated The Koh Samui Guide– it's totally ready to help you plan your perfect trip. Enjoy!