My gal and I were invited by TAT to visit Koh Samui and learn about their recently launched “Samui Plus” travel sandbox program for international tourists. During this trip, I received a lot of questions from folks about the program and what travelers participating in the program could expect when visiting Koh Samui.
There are already some great resources available online, so whenever possible I will point to these sources where you can explore further. This article is meant to answer those questions that you might have, as I had, after reading these other sources. For instance, what are the timeline and restrictions during this 14-day program for travelers? What are a “Samui Extra Plus” and “SHA+ Hotel” and what are their differences? What about eating out? What about sightseeing?
After chatting with officials involved in implementing the Samui Plus travel program, hoteliers, restauranteurs, and tour operators I can answer these questions as well as provide some recommendations for places to stay, eat, and see from our own personal experience during this trip.
if you have any interest in visiting Koh Samui internationally this article will be of interest to you. Let’s begin!
What is “Samui Plus and how do I do it?
In a nutshell, the “Samui Plus” program is Thailand’s answer for those international travelers who want to visit Koh Samui. It is similar to the “Phuket Sandbox” scheme but it is a bit more restrictive. To understand the “Samui Plus” program and how it differs from the “Phuket Sandbox” I recommend first reading this helpful step-by-step guide.
Unlike Phuket’s program, you can’t just land, get swabbed, and if negative for COVID-19 explore the island as you please. So of the two options why would anyone choose this one? Some travelers might appreciate the extra caution that is being taken to prevent the risk of COVID-19 on Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, and Koh Tao (the three islands involved in this program) and as a result, feel safer traveling there. For some, these islands might hold a nostalgic significance and this program presents the easiest opportunity for them to visit from overseas.
No matter what your personal reason for visiting the islands, your first step is to register for a Certificate of Entry to visit Thailand. Once you’ve gathered all of your required documents and received all of your approvals you will be able to travel to Koh Samui through the program.
What are the timeline/restrictions?
The easiest way to remember this timeline is to think “3-7-8”. Immediately after arrival, travelers will be asked to load two tracking applications on their smartphones. They will then be swabbed with an RT-PCR test for COVID-19. If negative they will be transported directly to their “Samui Extra Plus” (aka ALQ or AQ) accommodations where they will stay for the first 7 days. I will cover the two different types of lodging later.
For the first 3 days, travelers will be restricted to staying at the hotel. After day 4, travelers will be able to leave their hotel but only on special guided trips (I’ll cover that later, too). These tours are tightly regulated so that participants can do some sightseeing activities but they won’t be free to go about on their own. Travelers must then get their second RT-PCR swab between days 6 and 7.
If they receive a negative result from the second swab then they’re able to move to a SHA+ accommodation of their choice on any of the 3 islands (Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao) from days 8 to 14. Their third RT-PCR swab occurs between days 12 and 13. If they receive a negative result then they are free to travel throughout Thailand (local restrictions permitting) after day 14.
What is the difference between the hotels?
There are 2 types of hotels for the Samui Plus program: “Samui Extra Plus” (aka ALQ or AQ) and the SHA+ Hotel. The first week of a traveler’s stay is in a “Samui Extra Plus” hotel (or villa). This reservation must be booked directly with the hotel in order to receive a SHABA certificate (SHA Plus Booking Authentication System) for the COE requirement. These accommodations are only for travelers participating in the Samui Plus travel program. They have the ability to perform the RT-PCR swabs on-site, have a staff high vaccination rate, and are able to isolate and respond to any infections.
There are far fewer of these accommodations than SHA+ Hotels. They are also more expensive. That’s because they have stricter controls and can only accept Samui Plus travelers. Some of these places will completely change your attitude towards quarantine accommodations. I’d love to spend 3 days unable to leave these “Samui Extra Plus” resorts!
SHA+ Hotels are basically hotels that you can book via Agoda, Booking.com, etc. They’ve just added additional health and safety measures such as temperature checks and alcohol gel so that they could be certified as SHA+ by the Thailand Safety and Health Agency. The guests can be a mix of domestic and international travelers.
Recommendations for SHA+ Hotels
While in Koh Samui we stayed at a SHA+ Hotel and were able to review a few others to get an idea of what was available. Frankly, under normal circumstances, these places would be a little out of my wallet range. But due to so many places competing for so few tourists this is a travelers market and the absolute best time to pamper yourself during your stay.
Whatever your budget you’ll find hundreds of options available in Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, and Koh Tao. But for specific recommendations, I am happy to recommend these places that I have personally visited and or stayed at in Koh Samui.
Pavilion Samui Resort
During this TAT trip, we stayed at the Pavilion Samui Resort on the beautiful Lamai Beach. Having a huge king-sized bed and a plunge pool attached to the private villa suite was pretty nice. But the real treat was the solitude of having the entire gorgeous soft sand of Lamai Beach all to ourselves…
Muang Samui Spa Resort
We had the opportunity to experience a Thai massage at the Muang Samui Spa Resort. After some pampering inside their spa cave, they opened up one of their deluxe accommodations so we could see how the other half lives. Wow! With the deals that they have running now, you might be surprised to find these plush accommodations are actually affordable…
If Koh Samui were to be my home away from home, Kamalaya is where I’d want to hang my hat. We recently had a 4-day stay there where we swapped Bangkok for pure bliss. Their rooms, wellness programs, and dining rates have been dramatically reduced. Now is a great time to focus on your physical, spiritual, and mental well being and I can think of no place better to do it than in one of Asia’s top wellness resorts!
We visited Villa Nalinnadda Petite Beachfront Hotel & Spa for lunch on our first day (more about that later!). This boutique hotel considers itself “petite” since it only offers 9 suites. But these rooms are HUGE and stunning with amazing views of the beachfront. It’s also one of the few accommodations where small fur babies are permitted for a fee but children are not allowed fee or otherwise…
What about eating out?
You’ve accomplished the myriad of requirements to enter Thailand and flown many miles (or kilometers) to get to this beautiful island paradise. If you’re like me, the most prominent thought on your mind will be, “So what can eat?”
If you’ve arrived in Koh Samui as a part of the “Samui Plus” program the answer is quite simple for the first few days. Whatever your hotel serves. For that first week while staying in the Samui Extra Plus accommodations you will rely on their kitchen for food except in those instances you take a guided tour which might include a meal. That’s why it’s important to choose wisely where you stay if gastronomy is a big part of your vacation experience.
But on the 8th day when you move to your SHA+ Hotel, you’ll be free to pursue every culinary desire you have been building up since landing. Yes, you can support the local noodle stand. Yes, you can even get a ham and cheese panini at 7-11 (I’m not judging). There’s also been a big push to get restaurants SHA+ certified and it’s encouraged that these establishments be used by visitors.
All of the places that we dined in were SHA+ restaurants, and I’m happy to recommend some of these gems!
Beachfront Cafe at Nalinnadda
Located at the Villa Nalinnadda Petite Beachfront Hotel & Spa, the Beachfront Cafe specializes in Kala noodles, western dishes, and incredible pies and cakes. The husband and wife owners, Martin and Nokie, have teamed up to present a great menu. You can’t go wrong ordering any of Nokie’s noodle dishes, or tender slow-cooked ribs. But whatever you order make sure to save room for a slice of Martin’s cakes or pies. The Banoffee pie is one of the best pies I’ve ever eaten! Trust me. I wouldn’t visit Koh Samui without getting it at least once…
Google map location: https://goo.gl/maps/UkGeDdMA3dr1Vs4G7
The Nature Samui
One thing I’ve learned traveling with TAT is that you will discover some great places to dine at and you will eat well. For this particular trip, The Nature Samui was my favorite dining experience. Most of the ingredients come fresh from their garden (which you can stroll through). These vibrant dishes are beautifully presented and bursting with flavor. This place offers tranquility and amazing food. You won’t want to leave…
Google map location: https://goo.gl/maps/aQtVFcQCaPt98Yoc7
For an excellent Thai bistro, Phensiri Samui offers local favorite dishes without compromising on flavor. Rich coconut milk-based soups like Tom Kha Gai and fiery laab dishes for heat seekers are satisfying. They also boast a western menu of dishes for those that might want a taste of home. Pro Tip: check out the gift shop that has beautiful and reasonably priced homemade bracelets and necklaces by one of the wait staff, Lilly. They’re great gift ideas…
Google map location: https://g.page/PhensiriKohSamui?share
Krua Jan Hom Seafood Restaurant (ร้านอาหารจันทร์หอมซีฟู้ด)
For tasty Southern Thai cuisine and fresh seafood, Krua Jan Hom Seafood Restaurant (ร้านอาหารจันทร์หอมซีฟู้ด) is a local favorite. The menu is extensive, reasonably priced, and all dishes are cooked to order. As a bonus, they offer dining right on the beach and the sunset views can’t be beaten…
Google map location: https://goo.gl/maps/u8bZh4zzv81NtS8c8
What about sightseeing?
Starting from day 4, tourists will be able to explore Koh Samui but only using a designated route with an approved tour operator. At the time of our visit, the details/programs were still being ironed out. But there was one tour that we were able to participate in as an example of what is being offered. This tour was to Ang Thong National Marine Park.
The tour takes guests throughout the marine park area via speedboat to see some of the 42 islands. There is an opportunity to get out of the boat to visit one of the beaches of Mae Koh Island, but guests on these restricted tours will not be able to the “Emerald Lake”, Ta Le Nai Lagoon. For that guests will have to wait until they’ve checked into their SHA+ Hotel on Day 8 and can take a regular tour.
My personal thoughts…
While attending the Samui Plus Press Conference I had a chance to gather my thoughts about the program. I’m happy to share them with you.
One thing that really struck me was witnessing just how much Koh Samui has been affected by the complete lack of tourism. It’s not just a few businesses that have taken a hit. There are whole sections where every single business is simply shuttered. I’ve never seen so many closed Family Marts and 7-11’s–places in Bangkok that seem recession-proof. It has affected ALL sectors, and it’s tragic.
There were two messages that I kept hearing from those involved in the industry (hoteliers, restauranteurs, tour operators, and officials): “The tourism industry in Koh Samui is dying.” and “Something has to be done.” This program represents hope to many on the island that desperately needs it.
But talking with folks I got the sense that everyone realizes that the future is clouded by a lot of “what if’s”. They recognize that should the need arise this travel program will require some tweaks to work safely. At this moment they’re just happy that something is being done and are prepared to do what is necessary to move forward, hopefully for a brighter future for themselves and their families.
I wish them success…
I want to hear from you!
Should you decide to experience Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, or Koh Tao I’d love to hear your feedback in the comment section below, directly to me, or via message on either the Chow Traveller Facebook page or Chow Traveller Instagram (and feel free to like/follow these pages if you want to learn about more foodie and travel gems). However you choose to reach out, I’d love to hear from you!