Koh Samui trip (long)
I was there for six days.
I didnt enjoy Koh Samui much even in low season, tourists outnumber locals, and it feels a bit fake, like Disneyland no viable industry remains on the island that does not rely on tourism. The sea was too warm to swim in, too! Id recommend trying a quieter island, but if you end up on Samui anyway, heres my advice:
There are many restaurants right on the beach, none of which seemed better than the others. Go for seafood (you can choose your own). Everything was delicious, if in small portions. I had rubbery calamari/squid several times, so maybe go for something else. Remember, in Thailand prawns are large and shrimp are tiny, not the other way round as it is in the States.
SITCA (Samui Institute of Thai Culinary Arts)
We did a two hour cooking course here for 1200 baht. Whilst it was a lovely venue, all the messy jobs (cleaning crabs, mincing meat, etc.) had been done for us, so it wasnt as hands-on as I hoped. We made roasted duck curry, stuffed deep-fried crab and a seafood salad. The food was lovely, but be warned; we met people on the train back to BKK who said they had done a day-long cooking course in Chiang Mai for only 800 baht. Perhaps a good idea is to go to the SITCA restaurant for lunch, and do a cooking course somewhere else.
A place as touristy as Samui naturally had other cuisines on offer. Despite my insistence at the beginning of the trip that I would eat Thai and nothing but Thai, I broke down on Samui and tried some Italian restaurants on the island.
Vecchia Roma (or was that Vecchia Napoli?), Chaweng Beach
Run by Italians. We made the mistake of getting pizzas here, but should have known better; if an Italian restaurant has a pizza oven, it will be right out front where everyone can see it. This one didnt. However, the salad was great, and the home made bread and chilli dipping sauce were lovely. I suspect their pasta dishes are good. Just dont eat the pizza. You really need a pizza oven to get a good crust.
(That said, we ate at Via Vai, which had an oven, but the pizzas were still disappointing)
Olivios, Chaweng Beach
This was my romantic night out with my boyfriend. Probably my best meal on the island, too. This is an upmarket Italian place directly overlooking the sea. We had linguine with fresh seafood and a risotto with mushrooms and duck. Both were lovely. Despite the upmarket restaurant, the bill was terribly low.
Aside from all the restaurants literally on the beach (found them to be interchangeable), I had a good Thai meal in Nathon (the town where the ferries all dock), at the Sunset Restaurant, which is right on the beach,west of the post office. However, unless you happen to be in Nathon, I wouldn't make the trip there specifically for the restaurant.
The thing about Thailand in general - the food generally is of a high quality, but there is a generic sameness to the menus. To anyone who has not been to Thailand, any restaurant where tourists might go will have an extensive menu of both Thai and 'international' dishes. It makes for fascinating reading; 'international' runs the gamut from mundane (hamburgers and spaghetti with bolognese) to retro and quaintly formal dishes like lobster thermidor. Although I was intrigued by how 'noodles with pesto' would be interpreted by a Thai cook, I stuck to Thai food. Dishes that were popular with my group of travellers (and safer bets for slightly more dubious-looking establishments) include chicken with cashews, rice in a pineapple half and beef noodles. We nicknamed these restaurants "indiscernable Thai' - although we didn't have a single bad meal in Thailand, these kinds of restaurants merged into one another in my memory, making it difficult for me to remember any ones to reccomend. But definitely give SITCA a try for lunch.
What I wanted to do but didn't get round to were the restaurants on the cliffs between lamai and chaweng beaches. There were serveral covered in fairy lights, overlooking the bay, which looked interesting. "The Cliffs" is one name that I remember. I'd give one of these a try, if I were you. Lamai itself I found seedy.
As to why I ended up going to Samui: I went with a group of friends, all of us in our early twenties. As a result, many of us wanted to visit an island with a happening nightlife, other young people around, etc. I was not one of those gregarious party animals - I would have preferred something more quiet. It was probably good that I went - it made me appreciate places like Chiang Mai even more!
Thank you for taking the time to post. Though it's a shame you didn't make it much beyond MBK food court to sample Bangkok's streetfood (and other food) bounty. By the way --- roving fruit vendors are one of the great things about Thailand (a bargain at 10 baht per fruit), and the fruit is absolutely safe --- I've eaten it all over Bangkok and beyond with never a problem. Fresh squeezed orange juice is wonderful too.
I must respectfully disagree with your comment: "...there is a generic sameness to the menus..." Not at all, unless you head back to the same sort of places again and again. I can (and have) eaten 3 meals a day in Bangkok for seven days and not had to repeat a thing.
One way to avoid "generic sameness" is to do a little research before you go --- thumb through Thai cookbooks (David Thompson's is a good one) and jot down the names of dishes that intrigue you. Ask a Thai at your hotel where you can find them (it may be a restaurant, it may be a street stall), or ask for them at a casual restaurant you've enjoyed. Most Thais will be happy and flattered that you're asking for something other than the usual and, if they don't have it available that day, it might be made to order for you the next day.
Do a search on the CH Chicago board (2003 especially) for some in-depth discussion of lesser-known (by tourists), delicious Thai dishes.
Once you get to Thailand check the Outlook section of Saturday's Bangkok post for any food article by Suthon Sukphisit (page 5 usually) ... he is an excellent source of info for lesser known Thai dishes and ingredients, and where to sample them. Also any restaurant article by Ung-Ang Talay. The Sunday Nation inner section (Lifestyle, or something like that) often has a food article by a Thai guy known as McDang --- his recommmendations are always spot-on (he reviews places in BKK and beyond). His website (link below) has past reviews... enter the English section and then look through the list of reviews.
Also in Bangkok, pick up a copy of Metro magazine (BTS news stands and anywhere selling English periodicals) -- every issue, in the food section in back, has a small article dedicated to a street vendor, it's called Soi Source. And many of the Thai restaurants recommended are very good, authentic, and local.
For Southern Thai dishes special to Samui, head to Bang Paw Seafood in Ao Bang Paw. Things to order:
khuy jee kapi (grated coconut, shrimp paste, and crab meat grilled in a coconut shell -- eaten with sliced cucumber and fresh long beans)
gaeng wai khua (coconut milk curry with dried squid, fish sauce, palm sugar)
tom priaow wai (sour curry with octopus)
yam sarai khaw ("salad" of local seaweed, chiles, green mango, fish sauce and lime juice)
yam of sea urchin eggs
Other dishes to order (southern Thai rather than specifically of Samui origin) -- gaeng som (sour curry), anything with sataw (stink beans) such as sataw phad gong (stir-fried with shrimp), gaeng tai plaa (fish kidney curry --- very spicy and "fishy" but delicious), gong phad khem wan (stir-fried sweet and salty shrimp).
Foodfirst has got it spot on. Bang Por Seafood is a fantastic restaurant serving very inexpensive food right on the beach. Other authentic restaurants worth trying are Pee Chet in Bophut by the traffic lights, Sabieng Lay near grandmother and grandfather rocks and Ranong in chaweng by Pang Bua market.
Koh Samui has probably the best food of any island in Thailand. The fact it is a large island with a large local population means that there are dozens of markets, local restaurants and people selling from motorbike stalls which you just dont get on the other smaller islands.
It does annoy me when people say Koh Samui is not real Thailand. It just simply is not true and is usually said by those who don't actually know much about the country. I have been to alot of the smaller islands in Thailand and yes they are beautiful (more so than Samui in some cases) but they invariably have absolutely terrible Thai food. The workers on these smaller islands are usually Burmese and because of this there is no local restaurants or markets catering to Thai locals.
If you are looking for great food then Koh Samui is probably the best place to holiday in Thailand second only perhaps to Bangkok.