JOHN BORTHWICK, writing for The West Australian, recently enthused about the wonderful island of Koh Samui, from an Aussie’s perspective, and has some great suggestions for what to do there.
Koh Samui floats in the Gulf of Thailand like a tiny Tasmania that’s gone troppo. If you visited years ago as an island-hopper, packing not much more than a sarong and a change of mind, be prepared for a shock – Koh Samui’s past, present and future, telescoped into now, greet you as you step off the ferry or plane.
“Our first tourists had free accommodation. They had to sleep at the temple because we had no hotel,” Khun Ruengnam, past president of the Koh SamuiTourism Association, told me as he recalled the first backpackers who crossed from the mainland in the early 1970s and found an island without even roads.
So much for the past. In just four decades, this once-forgotten fishing settlement 55km off Surat Thani in the western Gulf has become, after Phuket, Thailand’s second most popular island destination. Last year Koh Samui drew almost 800,000 visitors, 75 per cent of them foreigners, and some 9000 aircraft arrivals.
So, you arrive, draw breath and, slipping between the sepia past and the Seven-Eleven present, head for what drew those original trippers – the beaches. Koh Samui still has them galore, with the east coast ones generally the best. Long, broad Chaweng Beach and the smaller Lamai are the most popular. Their waters are clear and calm, although the sands are thronged with tourists and hawkers.
The west coast is quieter but the shallows are often coral-strewn. Uncrowded Lipa Noi is for me the standout western beach, but keep exploring side roads and you can find less trammelled shores such as Laem Nan or Natien.
There’s a 51km round-island road which, eventually, you’ll want to take because there’s just so much of Chaweng Beach’s cafe-boutique-massage- pizzeria-pirate clobber culture that one can handle before needing to get back in touch with Thailand.
Self-driving here is a breeze (while the taxis are pure banditry) so rent a car, then head off to Koh Samui’s hideaway bays and other attractions.
But who needs a car? Why not rent a motorbikeand rip along barefoot and bare-brained? Helmets are mandatory but no-one wears one, so it must be safe, yes? No. Koh Samui has one of the worst road accident records in Thailand, a country with appalling annual fatalities, so if you’re on two wheels, drive defensively and sober, and have very good insurance. Wear a lid. And jot down a quick will.
You can drive around the island in a couple of hours (it’s just 25km long by 21km wide) but try exploring instead. (map)
Head inland to the Secret Garden. Tucked in a hilltop jungle gorge, this grove of Ramayana characters, dancers and angels was sculpted in concrete by a Koh Samui native, Nim Tongsung, who began his task at age 77 and worked until his death at 91. It’s a labour of love in a place of peace and worth leaving the beaten track to find.
Also in the interior are several waterfallssuch as Na Muang 1 (10km south of Nathon) with a 15m cascade and pool popular with Thais.
It wouldn’t be Thailand without temples so pay your respects at the island’s most popular tourist attraction, Wat Phra Yai (Big Buddha Temple) with its 12m golden Buddha statue surrounded by noisy stalls and eateries. This landmark sits on the north shore not far from Bophut.
At the southern tip of the island is the smaller Laem Sor Buddha pagoda. Elsewhere are a so-called Buddha Footprint and two very desiccated “mummified monks”, none of which are real must-sees.
The former fishing village of Bophut is a case study in transformation at the hands of tourism. The first time I saw it, Bophut was little more than a seafront main street lined with two-storey teak shop-houses and a rickety pier, home to trawlers and discarded fish-heads. During subsequent visits I’ve seen the shop-houses made over, if they were lucky, as restaurants, small barsand lodges.
Bophut’s transformation is almost complete and now, minus the fish-heads and crab-pots, it is indeed an elegant little spot to trawl for gifts, a room with a sea view and a deck upon which to sink the perfect sundowner.
“Would you like to buy the shop,” asked snowy-haired Irishman Jim O’Grady when I wandered into his second-hand bookshop in the island capital, Nathon, some years ago.
I was trying to find a novel but almost left with the business.
Jim had owned the shop for 15 years. “It’s been long enough,” he reflected before launching into a signature Irish anecdote about his decades spent in Australia. “I’m eligible for the Australian old age pension. They could easily verify my residency there by just looking up my drink driving record in the 1960s and 70s.”
A main driver of Koh Samui’s transformation up-market from a budget destination has been the establishment of top-quality resorts which now dot the coast.
Luxury Koh Samui Villa Rentals at Choeng Mon Beach
Chaweng, the tourist “capital”, is a kilometre-long mash-up of sports bars, Paddy pubs, hotels, stalls and malls. Here you can reap a pirate’s harvest of faux-designer everythings – jeans, sunglasses, DVDs and Thai silk goods.
Indian tailors of the quasi-Versace cut are in abundance while numerous stores sell gems – which is no guarantee that the necklace you buy will contain any.
For dining, Prego Restaurant (beside the Amari Resort on Chaweng Beach Road) has some of the best Italian fare on the island. For sunset with seafood, Big John’s at Ban Lipa Noi does a fine lobster massaman. Elsewhere are hundreds of eateries, offering the gamut from Tex-Mex to Royal Thai degustation feasts.
Most of Samui’s nightlife happens in Chaweng and Lamai. Wander the gauntlet of Chaweng’s beer bars and cocktail lounges or head to Soi Green Mango, a full-tilt bar zone which specialises in loud music, cold beer and dancing.
Bophut, the quiet alternative, offers the Siam Classic Dance Restaurant and various beach bars. Or, if a bit of the old ultra-violence is more your style, check the Muay Thai kick-boxingat Chaweng Stadium.
To glimpse a version of how Samui once was, head offshore to Ang Thong Marine National Park or resort islands such as Koh Pangan, Koh Tao and Koh Nang Yuan.
Failing that, just kick back. The medium is still the massage and in Koh Samui there are $10-an- hour treatments everywhere – although I draw the line at one promising “Pink Lady Live Piano Massage.”