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, or from the Malay word Saboey, meaning “safe haven.” Koh is the Thai word for “island.”
Until the late 20th century, Koh Samui was an isolated self-sufficient community, having little connection with the mainland of Thailand. The island was even 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.
Koh Samui’s economy now is based primarily on a successful tourist industry, as well as the more traditional exports of coconut and rubber.
Koh Samui is in the Gulf of Thailand, about 35 km northeast of Surat Thani town. It is the most significant island in the Chumphon Archipelago. The island measures some 25 km at its widest point. It is surrounded by about sixty other islands, which together compose the Ang Thong Marine National Park (Mu Koh Ang Thong National Park) and include many other popular tourist destinations, including, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao and Koh Nang Yuan.