It’s Popular To Bash Samui
It's popular to bash Samui. Yes, things keep getting more expensive. Yes, much of what the visitor experiences may seem over-developed, hyped, or even perhaps "mafia-like." Yes, you may take your life in your hands if you rent a motosai and partake of certain substances. That's one side of the coin. The other side is the folks that gush (in one way or another) over the beach or town scenes.
Samui, of course, may be all these and more. Here are some thoughts, based on our experiences there.
If you want to save the cost of the flight, or the alleged hassles of the land & ferry route (which I haven't taken but probably wouldn't mind), you can always choose a different place. Pattaya, Hua Hin and Cha Am, for example, can be reached by car, bus, or train. We wanted to snorkel off the beach. We wanted a place convenient for long weekends from BKK. We're sort-of cheapskates who like to carefully plan out our modest splurges. Add to this the desire to be convenient to action (including eating and perhaps good live music options), but at peace when we sought relative solitude, and you can imagine the challenge. There are relatively few locales in Thailand where one can do good snorkelling off the beach, let alone all of these things. Asking colleagues at work and around town didn't help, as our criteria were different from theirs. They went to beach places because they like the beach scene, or the food, or the people they went with. And surprisingly few (Thais, other Asians, or farangs that I know from work or otherwise) had gone to Samui. My family does not like the beach scene. We don't like baking in the sun, etc. Our snorkelling is preferably done when the sun is low in the sky – which usually eliminates snorkelling boat tours. Middays we limit our exposure to the sun. We found a promising place off the north end of Chaweng, very slightly north of Ko Matlang.
Yes, it would be interesting if Air Asia began a service to Samui. But there is one air fare option that seems often overlooked. For years Bangkok Airways has had fairly regular promotional pricing on its first (~6AM) and last (~9-10PM) flights of the day. On our visits there, we took advantage of that promotion. I'm not an early riser, but: (1) to fly down the coast just at sunrise to Samui Airport, (2) be at our regular (for our two visits) "resort" by 7:30AM and snorkelling over the reef (such as it is) where it comes ashore adjacent to Ko Matlang before (3) exploring the shoreline and (4) coming back for lunch in a restaurant with a panoramic view over the swimming pool, the coastline and Ko Matlang is a darn nice way to start a holiday weekend where the previous night had been spent in our BKK apartment. At this particular "resort" we could pay a reasonable fee (much less than the typical charge) for late checkout, and keep the bungalow until just before our return on the last flight back to BKK. This gave us an actual (not just promoted) N nights and N+1 days in the place, and made the resort's room rate much more palatable for us value-seekers. The place has gardens where weddings have been held; one restaurant (just noted) above the pool with a panoramic view over the coast; another eating spot almost at the shoreline; a spa for those who indulge; video-on-request screening room for entertaining kids in the heat of the day; and cabins with big verandas facing the garden and coast (perfect for sitting with a cool one while enjoying an afternoon cloudburst). Yet the place is relatively small and intimate. We had what we wanted: snorkel off the beach in the morning and evening, or rent a "kayak" to paddle to Ko Matlang. The food, service, and mood of the place were great. We went before our son reached the age of 12, so he was gratis and had his own daybed to sleep on. We were away from the main zoo of Chaweng, but could walk less than a km along the beach or road, or take a song thaew into "town." And on the last evening, we could have one last late swim/snorkel, clean up for a sunset dinner without rushing, then be at the airport at just the right time for the promotional-rate last flight to BKK – and be back in our apartment at a reasonable hour.
One afternoon I walked into town with our son – partly to scout a place for dinner with mom, but also to visit a local travel agent for some tips and a possible booking for an alternative place to stay. Understated quality, quiet but convenient to the action, maybe better value than our "resort." When I told the agent that we were staying at XXX, she asked "Why are you looking for a different place than XXX?" While trying to craft an appropriate response I realized that we had already probably found the best place for our own particular taste, for those particular times.
On both our visits we ate all meals but one at the “resort.” That other meal we'd eat in town – finding places with a good mixture of Thais and others. We would have a daily drink in the resort, but soon after arrival we'd make a provisions run to the nearest 7-11 to stock our bungalow with snacks and beverages.
We've moved on. Samui is memories, and we don't feel the need to revisit. Pricing was a factor (air fare and the resort are each priced about double, in $$ terms even if our son were still under 12 years old, from the times of our visits). But we've also moved on as a family. We began to take long weekends in places like Phimai, Khon Kaen, Hang Chat (get your “elephant drivers license”!) and other places inside and outside Thailand. But take those first and last flights to enjoy Bangkok Airways service with somewhat lower pricing, and carefully chose your place to stay for the best good-to-bad ratio for your own criteria. We're cheapskates (or, aggressive on value), and were content with our times there.
A note: If you take away an impression that this particular location in Samui competes with, say, Bora Bora, the Cook Islands, or Cape Cod for snorkelling, please think again. But if you want good Thai food (and other things) with that, you can make it work quite nicely with a little arranging such as perusing Wikitravel, Tripadvisor and what not.
You don't talk of the main reason I find people complain about Samui and that is the locals. I have found the people working in the tourism industry down there to be the worst people in Thailand. Unless you go to the best places and spend A LOT of money, I just found the people down there to be horribly rude, corrupt and there was always a feeling, perhaps not of danger, but that something was not quite right.