The beautiful island of Koh Samui. With its northerly palm-fringed shorelines dotted with ramshackle beach bars, to the hedonistic pounding nightlife of Chaweng. Koh Samui is known as the Jewel of the Gulf of Thailand and has been drawing tourists from all around the world since the 1970s. It’s become one of the most desirable places to live in Thailand, especially for those looking to escape the city-sized bustle of Pattaya and Phuket.
In this guide, I hope to give you a few pointers and answer some of the more common questions about living on this tropical paradise.
Let’s face it, whether you want a six-month sabbatical, or a permanent move, money is going to be a deciding factor in your plans. The fact is, Samui has grown and developed at an eye-watering pace over the last two decades and is no longer the backpacker’s paradise it once was. Now, the island has a plethora of five start hotels, resorts, golf clubs, shopping malls, and luxury holiday homes and villas for the Jet Set, and is today considered to be one of Thailand’s more luxurious destinations. As a result, it’s now one of the most expensive places in Thailand. The average cost of land here can start at around 1,000,000 baht per 5,000 square meters, compared to around 200,000 baht on the mainland. The closer to the beach you are, or the more spectacular the view, the higher the price will be.
Prices in shops are also much more expensive (though taxable items, like tobacco and alcohol are the same prices nationwide), even down to items in the 7-11s or the prices in KFC! Street food vendors also charge a higher price, with a bowl of noodle soup costing between 60-80 baht, compared to 40-50 baht on the mainland.
But don’t be put off; it is definitely possible to live here without needing to take out a second mortgage! With a little insider information and experience, you can live comfortably, enjoy all the island has to offer, and free yourself from the rat race back home! You should expect to pay the same prices for utilities, such as an internet connection or electricity, as you would on the mainland.
When it comes to working on Samui, or indeed anywhere in Thailand, there are some legal hurdles to overcome. Firstly, the law states that any foreigner doing any kind of work, paid or voluntary, must have a work permit issued by the ministry of labour. Working without one is a sure fire way to end up being arrested and deported from Thailand, and since 2014 Immigration Police in Samui and Pha-Ngan have focused heavily on visa over-stayers and illegal workers.
Secondly, there are several occupations in which foreigners are not allowed to work: anything in agriculture or farming, or connected to the industry; manufacturing or industrial occupations, including making anything from raw materials or that would be considered handmade or traditional to Thailand, and pretty much and occupation that a Thai person can do. Indeed, when applying for your work permit your employer must state why they are hiring a foreigner over a Thai national, and explain why a Thai national cannot do the job.
To get a work permit, you will of course need a job! Your employer should arrange this for you. You’ll be required to sign forms and submit countless photographs, and some employers may make deductions from your salary for the first work permit. This is because the permit is valid for twelve months and is expensive; so if you leave after just three months, your employer is stuck footing the bill. Usually, the work permits for subsequent years will be paid for by your employer.
If you are opening your own business, you’ll require the services of a lawyer to handle the company registration and obtain your work permit. There are many lawyers and accountancy firms on Samui, you will need to contact several of them for quotes to find the best deal.
Rent or buy?
If you’re fortunate enough to be considering buying a home here, there are a number of real estate agents who can help you find exactly what you’re looking for, and help you navigate through the legal hurdles. Legally, foreigners are not allowed to own land in Thailand. Instead, plots of land are leased on long term agreements, known as a Chanote. These usually last for twenty-five years, and the option to renew the lease is included in the contract.
If you have the money and a piece of land to build on a single-story, three-bedroom house with bathroom, kitchen and living area might cost around 5-6,000,000 baht. Otherwise, you can look for an existing house or villa. The expat community on Samui is also very active, and there are several groups that post available properties, should you wish to go it alone!
If you are going to be renting, then the price you pay will depend on the location. Areas such as Bo-Phut and Choeng-Mon, that have many high end villas and holiday homes, expensive restaurants and boutique shops, will charge more to rent than places like Lamai, Taling-Ngam, and Bang Kao. These areas have much less development and are further from the centres, and rates of rent are much lower. A single apartment in Bo-Phut, with a communal swimming pool, might set you back 18,000 baht per month, whereas the same amount could get you a 2-bedroom house with private garden and swimming pool in the quieter areas of Taling-Ngam.
Also be aware that landlords differ in their requirements. Most will expect a deposit (anywhere between 2,000 baht to three month’s rent) and some will expect several months’ rent to be paid up front on top of this. Most places usually have internet installed and don’t charge extra, but you may want your own connection. As well as rent, you will have to pay for electricity (which should be charged at the government rate of about 3.6 baht per unit) water if it’s from the government supply (or more power if your property has a well and uses an electric pump).
Samui has its own airport, which opened in 1989 and was built by Bangkok Airways after the government decided not to build one on the island. The airport operates daily flights between domestic destinations including Bangkok, Phuket, Pattaya (U-Tapao) and Chiang Mai, as well as international flights to Singapore, China, Hong Kong, and Kuala Lumpor.
As Bangkok Airways owns and operates the airport, and most of the flights that it handles, flights between Bangkok and Samui are expensive and cost around 4-5,000baht. If you’re travelling on a budget and you don’t mind a couple of hours extra on your journey, you can fly from Surat Thani airport with Airasia for around 1,200 baht, including transfer from Lipa Noi ferry port to the airport.
Ferries to and from the mainland are operated out of Nathon port and from Lipa Noi pier, by Seatran Ferry and Raja Ferry respectively. Both ferries take about 90 minutes to arrive, and they both run ferries hourly. Seatran is the more modern of the operators, with Raja now mainly being used for freight and delivery.
There are also numerous ferries to Koh Pha-Ngan and Koh Tao, including a high speed catamaran service that is operated by Lomprayah, and also includes routes to Bangkok and Chumporn on the mainland. Smaller ferries operate out of the piers on the north eastern cost of Samui, including those from Big Buddha pier that are able to transport you and your motorbike. Tickets can be booked either online, or at any of the travel agents on Samui.
Thornton’s Top Tip: Check prices on the operator’s website when booking, and compare them with an agent’s. Sometime the online price will be cheaper; at other times travel agents get reduced tickets when there are large numbers still available.
Taxis on Samui are ridiculously expensive, and very rarely do they use the meter. Not long ago, the mayor of Samui ordered all taxi drivers to bring their prices in line with the mainland and insisted they used the meter on all journeys. The taxi drivers responded by adding a 150-baht service charge.
For far better value for money, you can travel by Songteaw; converted pick-up trucks with long benches that serve as the island’s shuttle bus services. They don’t follow any particular timetable, but they are a common sight on the roads and you can simply flag one down in the direction that you want to go in. Fares usually start at around 50 baht for foreigners and 20 baht for locals, for a short ride to the next town.
Motorbike taxis are also available, and can transport you to most parts of the island for between 100-200 baht. They are also a little less frightening than motorbike taxis in Bangkok!
Cars and Motorbikes
If you are staying long term, It’s more economical to hire a car or motorbike, or buy one. Rentals for scooters and bike start at around 150 baht per day, with discounts for longer rentals. The bigger the bike, the more you will pay to rent it. The same is true for car, with smaller models starting at around 700 baht per day, with bigger and more luxurious models costing more. If you’re going to buy new, nearly all of the main brands have dealerships on the island, including Toyota, Chevrolet, and Ford.
Be aware that many rental places will ask for your passport as a deposit; Do not give your passport to anyone! Foreign visitors are required by Thai law to carry their passport at all times, and companies have been known to hold on to passports until customers pay high costs for minor damage.
Thornton’s Top Tip: When buying second-hand, be aware that cars in Thailand hold their value much more than in the west. It’s not uncommon to see a twenty-year-old Honda Civic for sale for around 2,000 Euros! This is expensive when you consider that you would pay a similar amount as a deposit for a new car, and whilst you would then have a monthly payment for the next few years, it’s likely to include a warranty, insurance, and even service plan. If you are buying new, be aware that to get finance you will need a Thai national as a guarantor, or you will have to put down at least 25% of the value of the vehicle.
Healthcare on Samui, and in Thailand in general, is widely available and usually to a good standard. For minor illnesses, most of the pharmacies are more than capable of providing medication and advice, without paying for a doctor’s fee. Visits to a doctor’s clinic will start at about 200 baht
For illnesses or accidents that require hospital care, the government hospital in Nathon is the cheapest on the island. I have found the standard of care to be akin to an NHS hospital. The only thing I will say is that unless you pay extra, you will be on a ward with up to 30 other people, and very little privacy. A three night stay for treatment of Dengue Fever costs around 9,000 baht.
There are several private hospitals on the island, which are much more expensive, and offer a higher level of care and comfort. Thai International in Chaweng offers the best value, with a two night stay for treatment of food poisoning, in a large comfortable private room, will cost around 18,000 baht. Bangkok Hospital, also in Chaweng, is bar far the most expensive, to the extent that many insurance companies will only cover 50% of the total bill.
Roads (an important side note)
By far the most popular way to travel on Samui is by motorbike. You can rent anything from small scooters, to 1,200cc Harley Davidsons or Sports bikes. Cars and pick-up trucks are also available to rent.
You must be aware of however, of the danger on the roads. Thailand has the second highest road causality rate in the world, just behind war-torn Libya in first place, despite recent efforts by the government to improve road safety. The laws are very clear about wearing helmets, carrying passengers and driving whilst intoxicated, but the fact is these laws are not as frequently enforced on Samui as the mainland.
Combine this with a boat loads of tourists renting motorbikes (many of whom have never ridden before, and oftentimes riding drunk) who are unsure where they are going, with the dangerous condition of the roads on Samui (it’s an island remember, so the roads are regularly coated with sand) and the incredibly powerful bikes that are available, and you can see that actually, Samui may well have the most dangerous roads in the world.
When riding or driving, be safe. Always wear a helmet, give way to everyone, regardless of whether or not they have the right of way, and be aware of sand (and cooking oil the spills out of the rubbish trucks) coating the roads.
Thornton’s Top Tip: if you don’t know how to ride it, don’t rent it! The roads are just too dangerous for an inexperienced rider to try and learn. Be aware that insurance companies will not cover you if you have an accident whilst drunk, when not wearing a helmet, or for not having the correct licence.