A week or so has gone by in the small southern town of Au Nang and it’s seems about right to move on, we’ve boarded a mini bus and headed north-east, across the Thai mainland and on towards the heady playground islands around Koh Samui, it’s a typical helter-skelter race along the highways, high speed, high risk, and highly stressful, the mini-van is so packed with people and baggage we can’t see the front windows, it’s full of weird stops to change buses, dashes across four lane highways with our luggage and a few hours of waiting by the road for mystery connections that never arrive, we’d bought a package deal of minibus and ferry tickets in Au Nang, at 450 BHT, a pretty good bargain, it includes a pickup from the hotel, then the trip across the mainland, and then the ferry trip across to Koh Samui.
It all works out pretty smoothly in the end and four or five hours after setting out we make the connection with the ferry, get picked up on the far side and then whisked away to our hotel.
We knew nothing at all about the island before arriving and, pretty much at random ,we’ve booked a small hotel in an area called the old fisherman’s village in Bo Phut, it turns out to be a lucky break, the village is set along the north coast in a small one way street running along a busy little beach, our hotel, the “Enjoy Hotel”, is small and right in the middle of the action, just six rooms above a trendy little French restaurant and right on the water, it seems too good to be true.
As we’ve timed our arrival to clash nicely with the weekly night markets we get dumped out of the van a few hundred meters from the street where the hotel is, and have to walk our bags through the market crowds and onto the strip where the hotel sits.
The street is full of people out shopping, eating, drinking and just having a look around, it’s busy, very hot and lots of fun, after we check in, we head straight out to rejoin the fun, catching a live band and enjoying a few cheap cocktails and some good street food.
We’re been quite surprised, as in Phuket, at the size of the island, we arrived fully expecting a small palm fringed tropical island, palm fringed it certainly is, small it isn’t. Some 230 square kilometers and circled by just one 50klm ring road, the island is almost uninhabited in the center, thanks mainly to Khao Pom, the 650 meter high mountain range that dominates the skyline.
It’s also just one in a chain of more than sixty islands that make up the Mu Ko Ang Thong national park, and it’s to one of these that we make our first trip out to visit.
We’ve bought two tickets on a creaky old wooden boat that promises a trip around Koh Samui and then some quality snorkeling time off the beach on a nearby island, Koh Taen.
The boat is a beauty, an classic old wooden ferry, complete with a cranky captain who wraps noisily on the window if somebody is silly enough or brave enough to walk across his view, the boat is big and breezy with lots of room to move around and check out the view of the island as we plod along the coast.
On the trip we can see there’s been some big time development over the past thirty years, some of it very high class and some not. There’s a building height restriction that keeps all buildings no higher than the coconut trees, and with a few exceptions for the odd office block and hotel it seems to be still in place and still working, we’d feared a repeat of the Patong scene in Phuket which is truly awful, and there’s a strip of pretty dodgy and tacky shops along the main beach town of Chaweng, but it’s nothing like Patong.
We spend several very pleasant hours chugging our way around most of the island and then do a spot of snorkeling, after, we get dropped off, by longboat, onto the beach along the edge of Koh Taen a neighboring island to Koh Samui. There’s about a dozen of us who get dropped off, and that pushes the population of the island to about thirty.
We arrive to a scene that looks like the set for Gilligans Island, it’s deserted, just us and a few locals who eak out a living selling coconuts. and making lunch for the small number of tourists who pop over. A semi-circle of white sands stretch around the lagoon in front of the island, palm trees dot the scene and a few beach huts poke their heads through the foliage. Nothing is moving and there’s not a sound except the soft whoosh of the very small waves lapping onto the beach.
With several hours to kill on the island everybody quickly splits to do their own thing, and that’s not much, you can wander aimless along the beach, watch the small fish dart through the crystal clear water or muck about on the sand and have a go on the makeshift swing somebody has strung up from a handy coconut tree.
It’s bliss, there’s virtually nobody here, there’s no roads, no noise and nothing to do but relax..
Sadly it all comes to an end way too quickly and before we know it we’re back on the main island and heading back to the hotel after a great day out.
The street we’re staying on is full of upmarket and very trendy mod-asian restaurants, nice enough and all with jaw dropping views over the beach, but a little safe and same same. Instead we start going to a weird local restaurant tucked up a small driveway near to where we’re staying.
It’s called Boput Hotpan BBQ, and has to be seen to believed, a big open sided shed with dozens of numbered tables, there’s just the one thing to order and everybody gets stuck in as soon as they can.
The restaurant serves up a buffet style hotpot, you take a seat, let the waiter know if you want a beer, or in our case, how many beers, they plonk down a charcoal burner in front of you, a teapot full of hot water and a grill thing that sits over the charcoal, you file up to the food area and help yourself to whatever you want, take it all back to the table and start cooking away.
Grilling the meats and fish on the burner and poaching anything else in the liquid, we have prawns, pipies, beef, fish, mushrooms, water spinach, rice noodles, eggs, all kinds of yummy fresh things sizzling and poaching away. It’s great fun and we fill up as much as we like as many times as we like, going back again and again to the food table, it’s great value, the downside is, with all those charcoal burners blazing away, in a hot climate anyway, in a shed without fans, it’s ferociously hot in there, hot enough to melt plastic, lucky they serve ice buckets with the beer.
Annie does her usual trick and asks for help to cook her pipies from the friendly waiter, the waiter obliges and spends some time helping pan fry up the little shells, it’s only some time later we realize the friendly waiter is in fact a customer, no wonder he looked so bemused at Annie’s pleading and sign language.
Still on the food scene, and around the corner from us is a small food cart, Annie sniffs it out with her world class sense of smell, it’s sandwiched between a 7-11 and an ATM machine, it’s really just a vacant block with a small cart and a few chairs and tables, it’s the kind of place you’d walk by without even noticing it, a few stray dogs poke around the tables, but the tell tale signs are the steady stream of locals stopping by for lunch, dinner and in-between snacks, we add it to our go to local joints, soups sell for 40 BHT, around $1.50 and are sublime, star anise, white pepper, a bit of chilli it’s all there in the stocks, a great little local for us. Yet again Annie’s nose knows best and doesn’t let us down.
Because the island is so large and has a fearsome reputation for road fatalities and serious accidents we skip the plan to hire a scooter, much to the relief of the hotel receptionist, and catch the little local bus, the Song-Tan, down the coast to the main tourist strip of Chaweng beach, we’d heard differing reports of the strip, from the dismissive “why bother” to the unrealistic “it’s paradise” and a few in-between, the little bus drops us near a sand covered side lane that leads us down to the beach, we don’t bother to look around the shopping street, it seems to be the usual cheap t-shirts, tacky tattoo joints and massage parlors, all the same old suspects and we’ve already seen plenty of that.
The beach on the other hand is something else, eight kilometres of roasting hot, pure white sand lined with all the resorts and restaurants you could imagine, we try and secure a beach chair without any luck and settle instead for a nice spot under a trio of coconut trees. To our left is a stretch of pure white sand stretching away into the distance, and curving around to the distant headland, to our right, a mirror image, ending in a jumble of washed smooth rocks.
It’s a surprisingly beautiful spot, if you can park yourself between the groups of sun beds it’s very quiet, the water is like an azure pool, dead flat and as warm as soup, but crystal clear. It’s starting to make sense now, just why Koh Samui has such a holiday paradise reputation.
The next day we head off to check out Lamai beach, it’s about 15 or 20 minutes further south from Chaweng, and, again, is really beautiful, we had been given a tip on the boat the other day that it’s the best spot on the island to have a nice relaxing time, the beach is not as big, and has a few more authentic Thai restaurants along the sand, still that classic half moon shape and lots more coconut trees along the edge, it’s not as good swimming though, and the sand seems really course and hard to walk on compared with Chaweng.
Call us picky!, well probably, but I guess you have to draw a line in the sand somewhere.
So, is there anything new that can be said about Koh Samui,? probably, but not by us, it’s the classic white sand, skimpy bikini, palm tree, tropical island postcard getaway, full of cheap beer, great massages and some fantastic beaches, we’ve only been here a few days, and I think we’ve seen the best of it, the weather has been sublime, it’s the off season, so a bit quieter than normal, it does, of course have its problems, there’s too many people trying to cram into the coastal strip, traffic is awful, there’s no public transport,( hello!, bus service going around the ring road, it’s not rocket science), the “meter” taxi’s all have broken meters, but for all that, it really is some kind of paradise, it’s cleanish, safeish, and easyish, it’s on an international flight path, has seven hospitals, plenty of accommodation, some nice food, and, did we mention the cheap beer? what’s not to like.
All photos copyright Ross Duncan: firstname.lastname@example.org