The island was probably first inhabited about 15 centuries ago, settled by fishermen from the Malay Peninsula and southern China. It appears on Chinese maps dating back to 1687, under the name Pulo Cornam. The name samui is mysterious in itself. Perhaps it is an extension of the name of one of the native trees, mui. Some people believe that the word "samui" derives from the Malay word "saboey", or "safe haven", although there appears to be no credible corroboration of this. Ko is the Thai word for "island".
Until the late-20th century, Ko Samui was an isolated self-sufficient community, having little connection with the mainland of Thailand. The island was without roads until the early 1970s, and the 15 km journey from one side of the island to the other could involve a whole-day trek through the mountainous central jungles.
Ko Samui's economy now is based primarily on a successful tourist industry, as well as exports of coconut and rubber.
Economic growth has brought not only prosperity, but also major changes to the island's environment and culture.
Ko Samui is in the Gulf of Thailand, about 35 km northeast of Surat Thani town (9°N, 100°E). It is the most significant island in the Chumphon Archipelago. The island measures some 25 km at its widest point. To the north are the populated resort islands of Ko Phangan, Ko Tao, and Ko Nang Yuan. Close to Bangrak in NE Samui is the small uninhabited island of Ko Som, and to the northeast of Chaweng is the tiny Ko Matlang. In the southern direction are Ko Taen, Ko Matsum each of which have very small tourist facilities. To the far west are 44 other islands which together compose the Mu Ko Ang Thong National Park which is accessible by a day-trip boat tour from Ko Samui.
The central part of Ko Samui is the mostly unspoiled, natural tropical jungle, including the largest mountain named Khao Pom, peaking at 635 meters. The various lowland and coastal areas are connected by Route 4169, which is a 51 km road, running primarily along the coastline and encircling the bulk of the island. Many other concrete roads branch off from 4169 to service other areas.
On the west coast of the island is the original capital, Nathon, which still houses many government offices, as well as two of the island's five major piers. Nathon is the major port for vehicular and goods transportation from the mainland; it is the centre of the fishing industry, though the seat of the regional government has been relocated further south. Nathon is the home of the public hospital. Being the location of the main port and the closest inhabited area to the mainland provided the impetus for Nathon becoming the commercial centre for Samui locals. More recently, the transition from dependence on the local coconut industry along with the continued growth and development of the tourist industry, as well as the northeastern location of the airport, has led to the increase of commercial activity in Chaweng and Bophut.
Ko Samui features a tropical savanna climate under Köppen’s climate classification. The island has only one true dry season month, with the average monthly precipitation in February falling below 60 mm (2 in), the threshold for a tropical dry season month. The climate is warm and humid for most of the year. However, in comparison to Phuket and most of the rest of southern Thailand, Samui's weather is relatively drier (Samui receives about 1,960 mm rain per year, Phuket 2,220 mm (87 in), while Phuket's Wet Season is spread over 6–8 months, Ko Samui's has only two months with more than 212 mm (8 in) of rain). The heaviest precipitation is typically seen in the months of October and November. For the rest of the year, given the tropical climate, rain showers are brief; 20–60 minutes duration is typical.
Ko Samui is an amphoe (district) of Surat Thani Province, divided into seven sub-districts (tambon). The complete island is one city municipality (thesaban nakhon). The district covers the island, as well as the Ang Thong archipelago and some other small islands nearby.
Historically, the island's economy has been based on subsistence agriculture and fishing, with coconuts as the main cash crop. Since the 1980s tourism has become the dominant industry. Ko Samui's transport links have made it a destination for tourists seeking to explore other islands in the area.
Solid waste generated by residents and tourists on Ko Samui Island is a problem, as local authorities warn that by spring 2018 its 30 rai (4.8 ha) landfill, now holding more than 200,000 tons of accumulated garbage, will be full given present solid waste deliveries of an additional 150-200 tons per day. Samui's garbage mountain has risen to new heights since 2012 when its incinerator broke down due to improperly sorted waste. The local government is seeking bids from firms to transfer the waste to mainland disposal sites. The mayor has urged residents and businesses to separate their garbage and reduce the garbage they toss out daily. Of Samui's existing 600 businesses, including hotel and tour companies, only 10 percent have been active in the campaign, the mayor added.
Samui Airport is a private airport built and owned by Bangkok Airways, which is still the main operator and was the only airline with services to Ko Samui from mainland Thailand since the airport's construction in 1989. Due to its use of locally produced palm leaves and a natural, open-air cooling system, the terminal complex received an Environment Impact Assessment Award under the guidance of Prasert Prasarttong-Osoth. Ko Samui airport is built in an open style, drawing connections between it and traditional Thai housing, resulting in a beautiful entrepot to the island. In 2009, the airport handled 1.3 million passengers and 17,707 aircraft operations. The airport is now additionally served by Thai Airways International to Bangkok and SilkAir to Singapore.
Flights from Samui to Phuket and other Thai destinations are available, and in 2012, the Thai government announced the possibility of a second Ko Samui airport due to complaints of high airport fees.
Following the reopening of Don Mueang airport in early 2012, Air Asia offered flights from Kuala Lumpur to Surat Thani Airport. Flights began on 6 February 2012.
Several ferries connect the island with the mainland, including two car/passenger ferries (Raja Ferries and Seatran), and connect Don Sak to piers in the west of the island, in Lipa Noi and in Nathon. Public buses to all parts of the mainland operate from a new bus station north of Nathon. Privately operated Songthaews circle the ring road like a bus service with fixed fees mostly only in the daytime, and private taxis which charged a fixed, flat fee depending on the destination. The emergence of NaviGo Samui, a mobile application taxi service has given tourists and locals an alternative to the more expensive regular taxis.
The expansion of tourism in Ko Samui has resulted in growth of building resorts, bungalows, and luxury private villas on the island. The island's total inventory of 17,479 hotel rooms in 2013 will be augmented by an additional 459 new rooms by 2015. A gradual shift in demand is seeing more Asian visitors and families, but the top three source markets have been Germany, the UK, and Thailand, which contribute a combined 27 percent share. Bangkok Airways continues to expand its fleet with new bigger Airbus A319 planes, phasing out smaller ATR 72-500 turboprop planes, which will provide an 189,000 additional airline seats for Samui travelers. Bangkok Airways has already increased the number of daily flights from 36 to 50.
Samui has four private hospitals: Samui International Hospital; Thai International; Bandon Hospital; and Bangkok Hospital Samui. The government hospital is in Nathon.
Local food products of Ko Samui and Surat Thani Province include salted eggs and rambutan.