The largest and most visited island in the region, and serving as the principle gateway to the smaller islands of Ko Pha-Ngan and Ko Tao, Ko Samui continues to attempt to balance its main economic driver (tourism) with a sustainable vision of how the island can survive. The island's marketability is inescapably linked to its individual charms, charms increasingly under pressure from visitor numbers that generate their own problems, including the accumulation of rubbish, sanitation issues and water shortages.
Development & Identity
For so many centuries a quiet and barely visited island, Ko Samui today is a complex society that rapidly – too rapidly, many say – developed to meet the needs of a new tourist economy. The tourist bonanza that assailed the island brought considerable prosperity to Ko Samui and prompted massive infrastructure construction, while putting great stress on the social and environmental framework of the island.
Older residents can remember the days when they needed to go on foot between Chaweng and Lamai, and recall how the island was before the first foreign feet landed on its beaches. Today, the foreign presence is as unavoidable and penetrating as the monsoon rains that lash the island at the end of the year. The great technological advancements of the island have occurred within most residents’ lifetime. Development has arrived in a sudden rush, transforming Ko Samui from a subsistence economy to a sophisticated tourist economy in the space of four decades. Tourism has allowed families that once depended on agriculture or fishing to acquire great wealth and status on the island. Though locals may complain that Samui has been transformed beyond recognition, many stay on the island for strong family bonds and because work opportunities are too hard to ignore.
Some sources insist Samui people (chow sà·mŭi) possess a distinct identity that sets them apart from the mainland, but the earlier generational exodus to Bangkok for employment, and its later return to the island, has imported a national identity, usually referred to as Bangkok culture (though this culture is specifically linked to the wealthier and more modern coastal areas of the island). As you head into the local areas of interior Ko Samui, a more distinctive and unique culture does take hold, where the older generation still speaks pah·săh bàk đâi, the southern Thai dialect. Those local people who do not interact with the modern tourist economy, however, find themselves stranded with skills that command little price in a competitive market place.
One of Thailand's largest islands, Ko Samui is fringed with beaches and coconut plantations, while the hilly interior lies cloaked in deciduous forest, a huge catchment area for the rain that feeds the island’s rivers which flow down to the sea and into the busier strips of land by the coast. The greatest human impact has been on these coastal areas through the construction of hotels, resorts, restaurants, bars and other infrastructure which feeds the tourist economy, the island's principle source of money and wealth.
The huge influx of tourists to the island, and especially the massive inflows during the peak season crush, puts extraordinary pressure on this island environment. Ko Samui creates 140 tonnes of waste every day, but this mushrooms to 180 tonnes during the peak season. The island’s waste incinerator has not been working for many years, so garbage rapidly accumulates, or goes to landfill. Some reports suggest 400,000 tonnes of waste is waiting to be disposed of, with hotels identified as the principle waste-producers. Meanwhile water run-off from garbage sites pollute natural waterways, creating problems of sanitation. The proper treatment of sewage is also a major issue for the island, with septic systems not working properly and leaking into bodies of water or ending up in the sea during floods.
Ko Samui’s water supply is also under intense pressure from tourism, with supply restrictions and outages. Samui receives most of its water from the seasonal monsoon rains, mainly from October to December, with excess stored and used throughout the dry season, but these reservoirs have been running dry in recent years. Tourists and residents have been urged to use water sparingly as the island’s two main reservoirs shrink.
The business sector is the hungriest water consumer, draining 90% of the island’s reserves, while households account for only 10% of usage. Some hotels have been forced to buy water privately as supplies on the island have run out. A 125km-long pipeline from the Surat Thani on the mainland to Ko Samui is under construction to bring in 30,000 cubic metres of water daily; the pipeline was supposed to open in 2017 but has been delayed.
The Chinese Invasion
For any regular visitor to Ko Samui – and other parts of Thailand – perhaps the most dramatic transformation in recent years has been the arrival of a growing army of Chinese visitors. More and more air routes – there are now direct flights to Chéngdū, Chóngqìng and Guǎnghzōu – are coming on line to bring in a bonanza of Chinese visitors, who are driving a revolution in retail on the island. Central Festival, the huge mall at the heart of Chaweng, was designed largely to meet the needs of Chinese travellers, who put shopping at the top of their to-do list. The newly opened Wharf in Fisherman's Village was also constructed with the Chinese in mind.
In just a few a years, restaurants and bars along Chaweng Beach Road have translated their menus and advertised their dishes in bold Chinese characters on blackboards by the side of the road. Locals have learned passable Mandarin to deal with the influx. Chaweng Beach Rd is home to a number of restaurants that exclusively cater to Chinese diners, bringing in flavours from as far afield as Chéngdū, Húnán and Běijīng. The effect on Ko Samui is similar, though perhaps less dramatic, to that brought by Western travellers in the 1980s and 1990s.
The impact of Chinese tourism is even felt in temple design: visitors to Wat Plai Laem will strongly perceive the Chinese influence in the temple's statues. Another recent addition is the vast statue of Guanyu (and adjacent temple dedicated to the Chinese general) on the road outside Ban Hua Thanon in the south of the island. As you head to the west coast of the island, the Chinese crowds thin out considerably as they tend to favour shopping zones. Few Chinese make it to Ko Tao, unless they are diving.
The island gets particularly festive for the Chinese New Year (usually held in February, but sometimes in January and as late as early March), a festival growing in stature with each passing year. With increasing numbers of moneyed Chinese leaving China and travelling principally in the Far East, it is unlikely this trend will be reversed.