This was our 2nd stop in Thailand. We were not originally planning to visit Koh Samui, we were actually planning to be on Koh Lanta island. But we found an amazing house sitting opportunity that was so appealing that we dropped our plans to visit Koh Lanta and shortened our plans to visit Cambodia to make the house sitting dates fit in our travel plans. Our stay in Koh Samui was well worth all of the changes we made.
The Thai Tourism Board has been marketing Thailand as a no-holds-barred vacation destination and a cheap retirement destination for years now. There is certainly a substantial expat population living at least part time on the island, including the expats from South Africa who were our house sit hosts. But Koh Samui is known among tourists as an island with beautiful beaches and as a destination that’s more secluded and less touristy than some of the other Thai islands. Koh Samui is somewhat more expensive in terms of hotel costs compared to other islands though, and though it does have a large backpacker beach crowd it seems to appeal more visitors who are looking for a luxury experience at relatively cheap prices. Of course we are the type of nerds who travel to a place like this and avoid all luxury and even all beaches though. We were there for one reason — pet/house sitting.
Because Koh Samui is marketed as a resort island with some upscale beachfront hotel options I was really interested in comparing the cost of living in Koh Samui to the other 2 destinations we were also visiting in Thailand, Phuket and Chiang Mai. Those comparisons from numbeo.com are included below.
What we spent
At the end of our trip to Koh Samui Alison played her Money Crush game and found that we had stayed 17 nights for only $17.70 per person per day. This island is known to be one of the most expensive locations in Thailand, especially when it comes to hotel prices. I found a budget hotel for our first 3 nights on the island that was a lower cost hotel for Koh Samui, but it was actually over our nightly budget number at $67 per night plus taxes, which is kind of shocking for Southeast Asia. We were grateful we only needed to pay for 3 of our 17 nights on island. Most of the money we spent on this trip was on food, but that was only $9.49 PPPD.
The graphic below shows what we spent in Koh Samui in US Dollars. This does not include costs for our fixed expenses, such as annual medical insurance. It also does not include regional travel costs for getting ourselves to this location. To reach Koh Samui we took a bus from Phuket Town to Surat Thani Town for $6.43 per person. Then we booked a bus and ferry package to get us from Surat Thani Town to Donsak pier and then over to the island, which also included a shuttle van to take us directly to our hotel, all for $12.10 per person.
Housing to the 3rd degree
Our housing options as full-time travelers range from a hotel booked with points or dollars, an Airbnb, or a house sit. For our stay on Koh Samui we started in a hotel for 3 nights and then moved on to a house sit for 14 nights.
Hotel side note — Surat Thani
Our 5 hour bus ride from Phuket was scheduled to arrive in Surat Thani, the town that the ferry terminal is in, by around 5:00 pm. I had read a few travel stories about cranky tourists complaining that they arrived there by bus late enough that they missed the last ferry and then had to find last minute housing. So instead of trying to fit both the bus and ferry in one day we decided to slow down and spend one night in Surat Thani near the ferry terminal. I booked one night at the Little PP Hometel using hotels.com, and we got the added bonus of making lots of jokes and laughing about the name of that place.
Our Koh Samui hotel
Our next stop was 3 nights on Koh Samui in the COSI Samui Chaweng Beach hotel booked through hotels.com. This was basically just a slightly longer pit stop for us on our way to our house sit. We wanted to arrive on island a few days early so our house sit hosts would know days in advance of their trip that we were there and ready. We didn’t want to show our support by arriving early (we are definitely early birds in every sense, or at least Alison is). The funny thing was that we arrived early out of excitement for our house sit, rather than any interest in visiting the famous Chaweng Beach (which we never saw). We just wanted our house sit hosts to know we were there so they could relax and pack for their vacation without worrying about us.
On the bid day our wonderful house sit hosts drove over to our hotel and picked us up and then brought us back to their place. We were glad to spend the day with them and for the chance to let them give us in person information about everything at home and to introduce us to their 3 dogs. I booked this 14 night stay through TrustedHousesitters.com.
How we spent our time
Our house sitting home was located at the southern end of the island. It’s a 2 bedroom house with 180 degree views of the river valley in one direction, and the ocean with spectacular sunsets in the other direction. Staying there was like having a secluded ocean view resort all to ourselves. People kept asking us what kinds of fun things we were off doing while we were there — did I mention we were at a private resort with views of the jungle, the river, the ocean and magnificent sunsets? Yeah enjoying that was home and the dogs was pretty much all we were doing. We started every day with a cup of coffee and a dip in the pool, and ended every day with a beer and a late night dip in the pool under the stars. IT WAS AMAZING. We settled into a routine of bliss at the house and hardly left other than making regular quick trips to the grocery store. We were having so much fun playing house and working on our projects that we could imagine what it would be like to be expats living there full time, like our hosts and new friends.
The 3 dogs (the babies)
Alison and I love dogs and think it’s a huge treat to be able to visit with other peoples’ pets. If someone is trusting us to care for their pets we take that seriously. This pet sitting experience was a really good one! I swear these 3 dogs are the most loved pets we have ever met. They were used to getting a lot of attention and affection every day, so that’s what they got from us. We felt like we were being trusted with a huge responsibility to be there taking care of them.
The dogs were at our feet pretty much around the clock, and we loved that. They were like a mashup of toddlers and clowns in dog suits, and they definitely kept us entertained. Twice a day I sent photos of the dogs to the guys, as requested, so they knew their pets were happy and getting plenty of love and attention. I always had a lot of funny photos to choose from. This is the longest pet sitting opportunity we have had yet and it was the most like having our own pets because they were more attentive than the other dogs we have cared for. We seriously missed having them around as our little companions after we left.
Gandhi is a tiny Yorkshire Terrier. He needed a lot of attention and was also very mischievous. He was very snuggly in the morning, but as soon as we were up he alternated between wanted to be petted or trying to instigate little dramas with the big dogs throughout the day. He has a very strong personality!
Rafa is a large male Airedale Terrier. He was a happy guy as long as he had a ball to hold and a person to follow around. We really enjoyed his company. Whenever we walked through the garden we had him close by in case of snakes. He also kept a close eye on us whenever we were in the pool, which was quite a lot! He’s a very good life guard.
Bella is a large female Airedale Terrier. She was the easiest to take care of because she was super independent. She also took lots of naps. Her most noticeable behavior was that she wanted to eat everyone else’s food, which I can relate to. And she also liked to bark at every passing monkey, bird, or car she heard in the distance. Which was frankly fine by us!
Do we want a rental property side hustle?
As an added bonus for our hosts and for us too, we also agreed to handle the check in and check out process at their 2 vacation rentals next door. Over the course of our 14 nights there were 5 different sets of guests next door. We also kept an eye on the cleaners who were frequently coming and going next door, as well as the gardener/pool cleaner.
All of these tasks reminded us of how much we enjoy having a home to tinker with. This also reminded us of our experiences owning 2 rental properties. We had a house in a rural area on one of Canada’s gulf islands and we kept that as a rental for 4 years, during which we had only one renter. We also had a house in the suburbs of Seattle for 6 years, during which we had only two renters. In all 3 cases our renters cost us money. And in all 3 cases our renters also walked away in fits of personal drama, and we really disliked having to be peripherally involved in their issues. After those experiences we sold our rentals and decided managing longterm rentals was not something we wanted to include in our plans for generating passive income.
But during our house sit we really enjoyed the process of turning over these short term rentals and it got us thinking again about the idea of having a rental property as a side hustle. In this case it was a duplex house with a 2 bedroom apartment upstairs and a 1 bedroom apartment downstairs. We loved meeting and greeting people, being there to keep an eye out during their stay, and the opportunity to handle the inspection after their departure which could impact their deposits. We will keep thinking about the rental property side hustle idea as we travel, because it might be fun to have that type of responsibility again someday.
The website project
A few weeks before we arrived in Koh Samui we had some exchanges with a few of our friends about how our trip was going and what our goals were for sharing our stories. A few people had recommended that we consider setting up a website so we could give more detail that way compared to just posting pictures and stories on Facebook and Instagram. We had been thinking about a website already since some of our family and friends are not on social media, but we thought that would be something we looked into after a year or so on the road. We had 4 sets of friends gently pressuring us about a website so we decided to draft a few stories and set them up on a new Facebook page so our friends could give us some feedback. That’s how we got to the day when they all simultaneously said basically, “You guys need to suck it up and build a simple website! It’s not hard you can finish it in an hour!” We certainly were not able to finish it in an hour, but we did buckle down and spent a lot of our 2 weeks house sitting working on our new website by the pool. We really enjoyed that process and were able to launch our website while we were there. That was by far the most gorgeous, relaxing, and inspiring workspace we have ever had! Wow!
Something we really appreciated
When it was time for the guys to come home we picked them up at the airport and brought them home to their place and their dogs. We had planned to stay with them one extra night just in case their flight home was delayed, and in hopes of spending a last night together getting to know each other better. The guys got home and put together a huge feast. We stayed up late talking about everything we could think of. We loved hearing about their trip, sharing stories about the past, and ideas about the future. The next morning they drove us to the airport and we were back on the road to our next destination. We left feeling like we had known those guys forever and hated to say goodbye to them and their dogs. We really look forward to seeing them again someday. We feel so lucky to have found these new friends. They are such interesting, charming, generous people.
That one dinner in Surat Thani
I have to mention our one night stay in Surat Thani here because it deserves mention somewhere and we were only there as part of this trip to Koh Samui. We settled into our hotel feeling pretty hangry and ready for dinner. We were tired and fussy after our travel day so we wanted to keep dinner simple and get to it quickly. The hotel staff that checked us in said we could catch the night market and enjoy some street food if we walked “that way for a while.” We chucked our bags in our room and set off immediately. After walking “that way for a while” we were starting to lose patience so we decided to stop at the first restaurant we saw, and frankly we probably would have settled for snacks at a convenience store if we had found one.
We were slogging along when we noticed a woman in what looked like a driveway standing at a sort of podium. We looked up to see if there was something resembling a restaurant sign and we saw something that was pretty clearly a hot pot so we were excited. There were tables near the front and another big one in the back by the house that was packed with a big family. The woman at the podium presented us with a menu all in Thai and spoke no English. I start fiddling with Google Translate and one of the other women was doing the same while we meandered over to a table. Two other women came over from the big family table to join in the “conversation” and we were all laughing a lot. Then Alison shocked the rest of us when she made some chicken noises, flapped her wings, and said “Chicken and Tiger Beer?” We all busted into more laughter and with that they started covering our table with food and drinks. We had an absolute blast there, and the food was amazing. I don’t know what was in the broth or the 3 secret sauces, but everything was delicious. We stuffed ourselves on that giant hot pot that could have fed 4 people and we each had extra large bottles of Tiger Beer, all for only $12.73 USD.
Shopping mall food
We appreciated our free hotel breakfast, but it was more continental rather than a full breakfast, so we added to it with food from the shopping mall grocery store one block away. We bought fresh fruit and snacks there each day and we had Ramen there for dinner each night. That worked fine for us for 3 days!
Cooking at home
Once we got to our house sit we shopped and ate at home most of the time because that’s what we love (and that’s what fits in our budget). Our favorite place for weekly groceries was the nearest Tesco Lotus superstore in the Lamai Beach area. The shelves are marked in English and Thai and they had a large variety of meats, seafoods, fresh fruit and vegetables. We noticed the prices were a bit higher there compared to Phuket (and much higher there compared to what we paid in Chiang Mai), which I assume is because of the transportation costs of importing to this relatively remote island. This is also where we learned that we needed to time our shopping trips to coincide with the alcohol purchase windows, since you can only buy alcohol in stores between 11am and 2pm, and between 5pm and midnight. Twice while we were there shopping we also opted for quick and cheap Thai lunch in the Tesco Lotus food hall. We also had dinner out one time during our 2 weeks of house sitting at a little outdoor restaurant down the hill from the house. All of our other meals were cooked at home. It doesn’t take us long to become home bodies!
News flash to anyone who doesn’t know us well — we were terrible tourists on Koh Samui! Koh Samui offers great beaches, beautiful Buddhist temples, spectacular waterfalls, golf, boat excursions, drag and cabaret shows, spas, and more. And we didn’t see any of that stuff. If we weren’t having so much fun at the house we would have enjoyed driving into the heart of the island to take some hikes in the more remote forested parts of the island’s interior, and visits to a couple of temples. If we return for another housesit here we have promised to do that next time.
The only touristy thing we actually did
Magic Garden / Secret Buddha Garden / Heaven’s Garden
One of our favorite things to do in any location is find a fun garden to explore. The obvious choice for us this time is known by a few different names so I’m using Secret Buddha Garden for the sake of simplicity (and I like that name best).
The garden was only 5.5 miles from our house, but driving up into the hills to reach the garden took a lot of shifting in the low gears of the 4WD truck we were using. We wouldn’t want to do that drive in a gutless little rental car. We were very glad to have that tough island truck!
This garden is fabulous. It was created by a durian farmer, Khun Nim, who helped put rural Samui on the map for durian farming back when the island’s economy was based more on agriculture than tourism. Khun Nim started working on filling this garden with statues in 1976 when he was 77 years old, and continued the project until he died in 1990 at 91 years old. His tomb is there in the garden and even though he died fairly recently it kind of looks like the jungle has been growing back for a hundred years. The jungle is awesome that way!
We had a great time walking all around the garden which is split into different sections by a stream with a nice little waterfall. It was fun to check out the various statues of humans, different types of animals, and deities. We got there at 9am and had the whole place to ourselves for 90 minutes. The garden has an entry fee of 80 THB per person, and though we normally avoid paying entry fees we were happy to pay this time (that’s only about $2.57 USD per person).
The way too touristy thing we almost did
Na Muang Waterfalls
Our plan was to start at the Secret Buddha Garden in the morning and then spend some time walking in the jungle to get to the two waterfalls since the two locations are so close to each other. But, as we drove up to the entry area of the first waterfall we found a traffic jam of buses, cars, and elephants. We were horrified to see western tourists riding elephants and also horrified to see more elephants in chains waiting for riders. We sat there stuck behind a bus and a couple of cars waiting to park as the elephants were led between the cars, and then a few locals approached us from different directions to ask for money for parking. We both blurted out — let’s leave! Elephant trekking is a big turn off for us. Of course it’s possible we would have walked past them and not seen anything else like that once we hit the trail, but that scene in the parking area gave us the heebie-jeebies so we left without seeing those fabulous waterfalls.
The fabulous touristy thing we wish we saw
We love to visit temples when we travel and I had declared weeks before we arrived on island that we absolutely had to visit Wat Plai Laem. I had seen photos of the giant and very fabulous 18-arm statue of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy and Compassion, and I was super excited to get us there in person. The statue is around 15 meters tall and quite colorful. Wat Plai Laem was only 4 miles from the Chaweng Beach area hotel we were at for our first 3 days so that’s when we should have paid a driver to take us out there. But we had just started working on our first couple of blog posts (nerd alert!), so that’s our excuse for staying in while we were there.
After we settled in at the house down at the south end of the island we agreed we should definitely pick a day to drive back up to the north east tip of the island to see Wat Plai Laem and also the Big Buddha temple. But, we never made it to see Guanyin. As we sat at the airport waiting to fly off to Cambodia at the end of this trip I declared a mandatory visit to Wat Plai Laem if we return to Koh Samui, and I mean it this time!
Free truck and scooters
Our house sit hosts offered us their truck and 2 scooters for free during our stay, which was a fabulous bonus for us. Many house sitting hosts do that type of thing and now that’s something I look for when I’m researching house sitting options. I had read that rental car prices are higher on Koh Samui than other places in Thailand, and we were not thrilled that we spent $200 dollars to rent a car for a week in Phuket, so we were really grateful that we were able to borrow a vehicle from our house sitting hosts at no cost to us this time. We wouldn’t have been happy with our cost of living numbers if we had rented a car for our 17 nights on Koh Samui!
We actually did glance over at the 2 scooters a couple of times and thought we might be willing to give them a try since we could use them in our neighborhood and avoid any traffic while we practiced. The house we were at is at the top of a very steep hill, and we couldn’t imagine trying to get down or back up that hill on our first scooter ride though.
Koh Samui is pretty easy to navigate since you can drive between each of the towns by using the ring road along the coast. We drove the entire east coast of the island on our first and last days at our house sit, and we drove back and forth from our house to the Tesco Lotus grocery store in Lamai town a bunch of times. There are some roads in Lamai and Chaweng that are really tiny and windy and more suited to scooters, but we just pushed on through in the big truck since there was always a lineup of cars and trucks as well.
We didn’t make it to Fisherman’s Village or anything on the west coast of the island on this trip. On our next visit we’d love to drive the entire ring road and see more of the interior and other parts of the island.
Ko Samui Airport (USM)
The small airport on the island was built by Bangkok Airways and it’s basically a small luxury shopping mall combined with a small regional airport with a variety of flights in and out every day. Ticket prices are really high compared to other Thai airports and there are very few flights available from carriers other than Bangkok Airways. The best part was the little courtesy counter at the international departure gate which is available to all travelers and has a nice variety of food and drinks. When it was time to leave Koh Samui we flew from this airport to Siem Reap Cambodia. If we return we will opt for leaving the island the more economical way, by ferry and then bus to a more reasonably priced airport.
Where we spent our time
We can’t mark the map with the place we actually spent all of our time – the home where we were house sitting. But it was down near the spot marked as Ban Bang Khao.
Bottom Line — How’d We Do?
Money Crush Score: Excellent, way under budget.
Our Money Crush score does not factor in how much we liked a location, it’s focused on whether we made good financial choices and stuck to our budget. Our average daily spending goal for 2019 is $115 per day. That’s total dollars spent for the two of us. Our actual daily spending in Koh Samui averaged out to $17.70 per person per day, or $35.40 per day for the two of us. That’s only 30.8% of our average daily budget. That is a really good Money Crush score, largely because we only had housing costs for 3 of our 17 nights on island. The fact that we had 14 nights on island as house sitters with no costs for housing or use of a truck was basically an Olympic gold medal for our budget.
Travel Score: We loved our housesitting experience!
Our overall travel score is essentially a rating for how happy we were in a location, which is 100% variable based on tons of emotional factors. This score does not factor in what we spent, it’s based mostly on whether we want to return again in the future. We only went to Koh Samui because we were excited about a specific house sit, and our experience related to that house sit was fabulous! What we loved most were the people we met and made friends with, taking care of 3 sweet dogs that were lot’s of fun to spend time with, and staying in a really great house with amazing views. The most important and valuable experience during this stay was making these new friends, who we really like and respect and absolutely want to keep in touch with. We would be thrilled to house sit for them again anytime. And as friends we would gladly keep an eye on their rentals again as well.
LGBTQ Score: Excellent personal experience, but Thailand needs a ton of improvement.
Personally, we had the pleasure of being happy out lesbians in Koh Samui while house sitting for fabulous out gay men who are expats on this lovely island. That experience was perfect. I know there is a gay scene on Koh Samui in Bo Put, but we never saw any of it. We are super aware that Thailand has a powerful marketing campaign geared towards LBTGQ tourists, but is not truly accepting of the LGBTQ community. The Thai Tourism Board is very actively marketing to LGBTQ travelers, and resorts and bars are very interested in LGBTQ dollars. But Thailand has a conservative culture that does not treat its own citizens as well as it should. Thailand is often promoted as a safe haven for transgender people and sexual reassignment surgeries, even though it marginalizes trans people in the “lady boy culture” and does not allow trans people to legally change their gender, even after surgery. There are no laws protecting LGTBQ people from hate crimes. There are no laws protecting LGTBQ people from violation of their bodies. Institutionalized homophobia is prominent in education, business, and the government. Thailand has proposed a law to recognize civil partnerships, but if it passes it will not allow LGTBQ couples to adopt or legally parent children as a couple. Thailand is not truly accepting or friendly towards the LGBTQ community. We can only hope the growing interest in LGBTQ dollars among the government and business communities brings with it a ton of improvement in the Thai culture as well as legal protections for LGBTQ Thai people.
Our trip to SE Asia has added a ton of books to my reading list since I’m looking for fiction and non-fiction books set in each location we visit. I have not found any fiction based in Thailand that was appealing to me, but I’m still looking. If I do come across a good novel set in Thailand that isn’t based on the sex trade or a disappearance/murder coverup by the government, I’ll be sure to pick that up. I love recommendations from others by the way, so feel free to let me know if you have a favorite book I need to add to my list.
Thailand has a variety of laws criminalizing free speech against the government and the monarchy, so it’s no surprise that there are plenty of banned books in Thailand. I decided that learning about the government and monarchy would be thrilling enough (Who needs a made-up drama when reality is that corrupt?). There are some really good reads on Thailand’s banned book list. The two that I was most interested in are listed below.
The King Never Smiles, by Paul Handley
This is a biographical story about King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016. The contents of this book are considered illegal defamation in Thailand, so naturally I was interested in reading it. During our stay we saw his portrait everywhere. I thought it was interesting that King Bhumibol Adulyadej was born in the US and at the time of his death in October 2016 he was the world’s longest serving monarch. It’s also interesting that he went from being an apolitical, intensely Buddhist, egalitarian king to being an autocrat who handed full authority to the current military junta.
A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century, by Andrew MacGregor Marshall
This book goes further in detail into Thailand’s political issues and the complex role the monarchy has in politics and government. It’s quite a dark drama. Since there is no freedom of speech in Thailand, this author has been banned from Thailand because this book exposes the country’s corruption, human rights violations, and other issues. The details in this book definitely made us uncomfortable about the idea of spending our time and our dollars in Thailand.
Other stuff we think is interesting
How big is this island?
Koh Samui is small at about 88 sq mi (229 sq km). It’s the third largest island in Thailand after Phuket and Koh Chang. It’s located off the east coast of the Kra Isthmus, due south of Bangkok. The island last had a proper census in 2012 and at that time they counted the population as having over 63,000 full-time registered citizens. It would be interesting to know wha the total population of full and part time residents is now (if anyone finds those numbers please let us know!).
The northeast corner of the island, known as Chaweng Beach, has become the epicenter of tourism with the island’s airport and by far the most development of hotels, restaurants, and the Central Festival Shopping Mall. The south end of the island, where we stayed, is still quite rural and much quieter compared to the northeast. The west coast is the original capital area and is said to be very peaceful and more focused on locals plus the fisheries trade and commercial transportation from the mainland. The middle of the island is a mountainous tropical jungle.
Koh Samui was an isolated self sustaining island until the 1970s, with very little travel between the island and the mainland and very little infrastructure. Backpackers started to slowly make their way to the island in the 1970s but it wasn’t until the early 1990s that tourists started arriving in large numbers and development followed. It’s hard to find accurate tourism numbers for Koh Samui today but clearly tourism has been climbing exponentially since the 1990s. Around Chaweng Beach where we stayed for the first 3 nights, and Lamai Beach where we did our grocery shopping while we were house sitting, there has been quite a lot of development to accommodate tourists over a relatively short period of time. According to the Thai Tourism Board Koh Samui is now the second most popular island for tourists in Thailand after Phuket.
In Phuket we saw cats everywhere and now we wonder if that was because we were cat sitting, because in Koh Samui we saw dogs everywhere, and coincidentally we were there dog sitting. At our house sit we were in a jungle setting and we heard lots of monkeys in the evenings. We also heard our favorite Southeast Asian bird, the Asian Koel. The funny thing about the Asian Koel is that it has a reputation with locals for being the most annoying bird in the region, but we loved hearing that bird sound every day! We were told to keep any eye out for the deadly king cobra or any of the many other types of snakes that live on this island in our jungle garden while we were house sitting, but thankfully we never saw any snakes. I’m sure our three dogs were helping to keep them away. We did see lots of geckos on pretty much every wall inside and out. In fact one of the ceiling fans in the house stopped working because a gecko crawled inside and shorted it out. Koh Samui also has a culture of elephant trekking and buffalo fighting which tourists are sustaining, and which we think is disgusting.
We were in Koh Samui during February which is the island’s driest month. While we were there the temperatures ranged from 91°F to 98°F as the daily high, and 68°F to 73°F as the nightly low. Compared to our other Thai island experience in Phuket which has a longer and wetter wet season, Koh Samui is relatively drier while still maintaining a warm tropical climate throughout the year. Koh Samui is still a tropical island with sudden showers that are usually pretty quick to pass, but it’s relatively more sunny than rainy in general.