Jumping from being an isolated and sell-sufficient subsistence economy to becoming one of the world’s great beach Meccas has seen the island of Ko Samui pack more transformation into just a few decades than centuries of change. Its days as a haven for traders from Malaysia and China are hazily recorded, but one thing is certain: foreigners – the merchants of yore and the visitors of today – have long been drawn to the island.
With so little of Samui's early history being written down or recorded, knowledge of the early days of the island largely derives from oral traditional and history, as related and passed down by elders, with the imprecision and forgetting this entails.
Even the etymology of the name Samui is lost in the mists of time, and tenuous explanations are given. Some argue the name derives from the mui tree – a common plant on the island – but others see it emerging from a Chinese colloquial name for the island that traders from Hǎinán employed.
Samui didn’t begin exercising much influence on regional events until the latter half of the 20th century, before which the island was populated, as oral stories attest, by two families originally from Nakhon Si Thammarat, some traders from southern China and Muslims from the Malay peninsula.
During this time, the island was still largely isolated from the mainland by an arduous sea journey, while the mountainous terrain and lack of passable roads across the island kept communities apart. The economy was dependent on land and sea.
Growing Trade & Infrastructure
The first cash crop was coconuts, as plantations flourished in the interior mountains, which began to bring the island closer to the outside world. Coconut-shipping boats would make the journey between the mainland and the island, kick-starting the need for the development of infrastructure and facilities.
In the late 1960s the central government was successfully lobbied to build a road on the island – a construction project that initially relied solely on manual labour but had to import heavy equipment from the mainland to grade high-terrain. The double-lane Ring Rd (Rd 4169) was eventually completed in 1973, running around the island.
Arrival of Tourism
By far the most dramatic event in the island’s history was the first foreign tourist foot arriving on Ko Samui's sands. Many claim the coveted title of being first to arrive, but the commonly accepted account is that a Peace Corps volunteer arrived in the early 1970s aboard a coconut-trading boat. Lamai, and later Chaweng, then began luring bands of young backpackers with its white sand beaches, easy-going island life and easy access to marijuana.
Ko Samui airport was constructed in 1989 and family guesthouses started to go upmarket in search of package tourists, with luxury hotels beginning to appear. By the late 1990s, Chaweng’s guesthouses had morphed into hotel resorts.
The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami on the Andaman coast diverted more tourism to Samui, generating more demand for rooms and adapting the market to more affluent visitors. An already busy tourist economy exploded with new properties to meet perceived demands and this growth has continued as big foreign hotel brands move in.
Samui also increasingly became a retirement destination for Western babyboomers in the noughties. The influx of newcomers moving into the mountains caused tensions with locals over contested land ownership, forest felling and the flooding the chopping down of vegetation helped provoke. Though these tensions are ongoing, for some locals the real-estate boom has transformed their lives and given them wealth and opportunity.
The latest transformation has come with the flood of Chinese tourists, who are leaving their mark on the island (such as Chinese-specific restaurants and the widespread appearance of Chinese characters on restaurants signs and menus), in the same way that Western visitors of the 1980s and 1990s transformed Ko Samui. There are now direct flights between Ko Samui and several Chinese cities, including Chéngdū, Chóngqìng and Guǎnghzōu.