Koh Samet is the closest island to Bangkok. Not the closest beach. The closest beach is the mainland beach of Pattaya, about two hours southeast of BKK. I’ve never been to Pattaya, but I might caution against it, for a variety of reasons including (as one expat put it), “watch where you walk, as sleaze might splash in your eyes." Go with whatever your heart tells you.
On arrival at the Koh Samet ferry terminal, you’ll be greeted by a mermaid. That mermaid is the main character in an early 19th century poet's work that's mostly set on Koh Samet. (S)he guided a prince to this paradise island, and so Thais built her bronze replica at the dock. You can't tell by the above picture, but she's grabbing her boob with her other hand, a nice example of how this country has a flirtatious sense of humor.
How to get to Koh Samet from Bangkok overland: Two Skytrain stops to the bus terminal ($1), a three-ish hour mini-van/bus ride to the pier ($7), and an hour-long ferry trip ($3) across the Gulf of Thailand gets you to Koh Samet’s National Park entrance ($7 fee).
The island itself is T-shaped. There's one, 7 km road that runs the length of it, and nine Koh Samet beaches.
For those who have OCD coupled with a need to explore compulsively, this is sort of a guide for you. If you've convinced yourself you have to see every beach on Koh Samet, you have an afternoon and are willing to sweat, here is the shortest account of what to expect:
Hat Sai Kaew
This is the Myrtle Beach of all Koh Samet's beaches. Actually that's a horribly inaccurate analogy because nothing in Thailand can or should be even remotely compared to Myrtle Beach. But there is congestion and souvenirs you don't need to buy. Still, you're looking at turquoise water and a short stretch of white sand. Fire shows go down here, and I'll tell ya, the six-year-old's who swirl gasoline-drenched blazing batons are killing it.
Ao Hin Khok
There's a 95% chance you'll lose a flip-flop here and an alleged 50% chance you'll win a coin toss game at Naga's. If it lands on the side you call, your drink is free. Needless to say, even if you're drunk, the gambling component of this promotion will keep you there. Daytime, the beach is more of the Hat Sai Kaew variety, with cheaper accommodation.
More white sand and turquoise water, but quieter than the beaches that precede it. At night, the place transforms into a disco full of Thai weekenders drinking Sangsom whiskey whom you'll want to party with.
Ao Pudsa (Tub Tim)
On your stroll to Tub Tim, stray dogs will befriend you here. The atmosphere is slower. There's more of the resort-type accommodation than bungalow-style, but prices are still reasonable.
Ao Nuan Bay
Ao Nuan is a five-minute hike through the bush and along the coast. The sharpness and saturation of the jungle greens will stone you. The colors in Nuan Bay pop.
Heading south, you’ll hit Ao Cho, in the face. The rocks look relatively flat, relatively stable, and barely treacherous but, it is deceiving. Don’t fall on these rocks, it hurts. If you follow the coast rather than take the road, you'll traverse some pretty slippery situations. You're still looking at a relatively developed beach here, albeit a long one.
This is like the halfway point on the island. You can ferry in and out from here, as well as from the pier on the north side. Once, I had a green milk tea from the bar next to the ferry stand here, and who ever said sugar’s bad?
Ao Sang Tian
The girls and I set up shop here the first day, and it was lovely. The beach is quite perfect. Stay here.
This, my friends, is my favorite beach. Trekked along the coastline to this one. Big mistake. Stick to the road. Because coastline turned into rocks turned into edging along cliffs fearing for my life. I counted no less than three un-paired flip-flops deserted along the way. I hope their owners made it to Ao Wai, because the water is the clearest cerulean I've seen yet, and the beach is half perfectly-shaded by these glorious trees I can't identify, and half white clean sand.
Ao Kiu Na Nok
You'll take the road to this beach, because after what you went through to get to Ao Wai, you are not messing with that dangerous coastal shit again. You'll realize the road is not dissimilar from the coastline you just tried to escape, as you find yourself climbing up and down a near-vertical rocky mountain of-a-road. The longest distance between two beaches exists between Ao Wai and Ao Kiu Na Nok. You'll be immediately relieved when you see the sign for this beach after an unusually difficult journey along the road. But keep walking. You've been deceived: the beach is private, pal. Relief doesn't exist for another two kilometers. Don't think even think about.
Several kilometers of ridiculous road conditions gets you here, where you'll pass out in a hammock and wonder how you're going to get back, and then think, "Hell, I'm on a hammock in paradise, I don't need to get back to anywhere." It is, of course, another lovely beach, but a bit removed. There's one resort here, and they will let you spend some time in their hammocks.
At the southern tip of Koh Samet lies this viewpoint. But on an island with vacation-brochure beaches, a viewpoint barely a kilometer up is not going to bake my bread.
Now, after exploring all of Koh Samet's beaches, I have a summary to offer: All of these beaches are more or less the same. Beautiful sand and the purest turquoise water. You'll likely be satisfied if you take up residency as a beached whale anywhere on Koh Samet. But if you want to explore and sweat, see them all by flip flop.