The island was probably first inhabited about 15 centuries ago, settled by fishermen from Malay Peninsula and Southern China. It appears on Ming Dynasty 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 it is a corruption of the Chinese word Saboey, meaning “safe haven”.
Until the late 20th century, 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 15km journey from one side of the island to the other involved a whole-day trek through the mountainous central jungles.
Today, Samui has a population of about forty-five thousand, and lives on a successful tourist industry, as well as exports of coconut and rubber. It even has its own international airport, Samui Airport, with flights daily to Bangkok and other major airports in Southeast Asia. While the island presents an unspoiled image to the public perception, economic growth has brought not only prosperity, but changes to the island’s environment and culture, a source of conflict between local residents and migrants from other parts of Thailand and other countries. Reflecting Samui’s growth as a tourist destination, the Cunard ship MS Queen Victoria (a 2000-plus passenger ship) will dock at Samui during its 2008 world cruise.