When Bangkokians go on long beach weekends, the more conservative head for Hua Hin, while the sparkier, younger set zooms southeast to this dagger-shaped islet in Rayong province. Without getting on a plane, this is the easiest place to test the brochures’ ‘forested isle in an emerald sea’ claims. The sand is fine and the water is clear, but for coral, take a diving or snorkelling tour to the offshore islets.
Chic resorts are now gentrifying a shambolic fringe of formerly basic resorts, but pricing out its young regulars. Boats from Baan Phe dock at Na Dan, near the squeaky white sand of Had Sai Kaew. Its jetskis and inflatable banana rides start the string of quieter, pretty east coast bays where the calm is disturbed only by beach massages, snorkelling and a mellow party scene focused on populist Had Sai Kaew and groovier Ao Phai. Look out for the fire-jugglers.
Resorts get sparser as the coccyx-bruising road judders to Ao Phai and Ao Tubtim. A direct boat is the best way to reach the busy half moon of Ao Wong Deuan, which is full of seafood restaurants. A short hike further lies rockier Ao Thian. In high season and at weekends, booking is essential.
Phra Aphai Manee Statue
On rocks near Naga, Had Sai Kaew.
Siam’s UNESCO-listed literary lion, Sunthorn Phu, immortalised Ko Samet in his epic ballads during the reigns of Kings Rama II and III. The folkishly styled cement statue of his mermaid from Phra Apai Manee here, is outdone by the bronzes of his most famous characters at the Sunthorn Phu Memorial Park in Klaeng on the mainland, though it’s hardly worth a detour.
Kao Laim Yaa & Samet National Park
Baan Kon Ao, Rayong (0 3865 3034). Admission Thais B40; foreigners B200.
The forested interior slopes are National Park, a protection that’s arguably worsened the inevitable development by confining it to a coastal sliver. Speedboats bypass the park gate, but you need to show a ticket for pick-up bus trips to Na Dan and back.
Ao Phrao Resort
Ao Phrao (0 384 4100-3, www.kohsametaoprao.com). Price Expensive.
This upmarket resort with its own ferry is located in the only bay on the more humid west coast, and is a snazzy and romantic place to stay.
Ao Thian (0 3864 4331). Price Budget.
Eccentric shoreline huts offer a budget bohemian vibe amid the yellow sand and rocks of long, narrow ‘Candlelight Beach’. The journey here requires a minor trek after a hilly drive or ferry via Ao Wong Deuan.
Moo Ban Talay
Ao Noi Na (0 3864 4251/08 1838 8682, www.moobantalay.com). Price Expensive.
Facing the mainland across a gravelly beach too shallow for swimming, this sleekly minimalist resort has a pool, spa, watersports and great food. The villas have outdoor showers with upward views of lofty trees.
Ao Kiew (0 2438 9771, www.kohsametparadee.com). Price Luxury.
Samet’s poshest resort commands the southern tip – and a B6,000 fee for the speedboat from Ban Phe. In terms of food, you’re a captive, but in luxury!
Ao Phai (0 3864 4094, www.samedvilla.com). Price Expensive.
Handsome wooden lodges dot the shaded slope at the north end of this bay, not quite out of earshot of the disco, but far enough.
Ao Tubtim, (0 3864 4025-7, www.tubtimresort.com). Price Mid-range.
If Koh Samet is Silom-on-Sea, then Ao Tubtim is Silom Soi 4-on-Sea, where clubbers, fashionistas and independent young expats, many gay, chill out and dine on superior seafood, before padding up the beach to party.
Ao Wong Deuan (0 3864 4260/08 1863 9868, www.vongduernvilla.com). Price Mid-range.
Retro-chic bungalows on the southern headland survey the bay. Trendier types don their dancing shoes and kick back to DJs at its bar/dancefloor.
Restaurants and bars are located in resorts. The finest dining is at the upmarket resorts like Paradee and Moo Ban Talay (see above for both). The best beach seafood restaurant is at Tubtim Resort (above), which has a chill-out bar.
Had Sai Kaew (0 8 1218 5832). Price Budget.
An eccentric guesthouse set atop a rocky outcrop known for its bakery, beachside disco and naga serpents of painted cement.
Ao Phai (0 3864 4074). Price Mid-range.
A plain resort that hosts the grooviest beachside disco around.
Buses from Ekamai Bus Station
Leave almost hourly (7am-8.30pm daily, B157) and reach Baan Phe port in four hours, cars in three. Call Taxis (see Getting around Bangkok XXX) will go for B2,300, return B3,500. On Samet, open songtaews and hired motorcycles ply rutted tracks.
Ferries to Na Dan (B100 return; 30mins) depart Baan Phe bus station pier (hourly, 9am-5pm daily) and Nuan Thip pier 500m into town (hourly 24hrs, return hourly 8am-6pm daily, plus waiting). A few serve Wong Deuan (45mins). Pricey speedboats (0 3865 1999) go direct to beaches. Boats rarely run after dark.
Minimal leaflets at piers. Try www.kohsamet.com.
Ayutthaya & Bang Pa-In A summer palace and ruined Siamese capital.
Hua Hin & Cha-am World-class resorts and 5km of beaches.
Samut Prakarn Wrestle with crocodiles and bike round an ancient city.
Floating markets Estuarine attractions and a vast Buddhist theme park.