Ko Samet is rumoured to once have been the den of pirates, and to this day it’s believed there’s hidden treasure on the island. It has gained a reputation as a laid back paradise where the emphasis is on spending as much time as possible doing as little as possible.
Ko Samet (also Koh Samed) lies three hours drive east of the Thai capital Bangkok. The island can be reached easily from the nearby cities of Rayong, Pattaya, and as far away as Trat, Ko Chang and the Cambodian border.
When tourists first visited the island still had malaria. For years Ko Samet was off limits. In 1981, the Royal Department of Forests (RDF) declared Ko Samet and its surroundings to be a national park, Khao Laem Ya-Mu Ko Samet.
Historically, Thailand's legendary royal scribe,the poet Sunthorn Phu, was the first one to put this island on the map. His classical epic, the 30,000-word romantic adventure Phra Aphai Manee, a work he began in prison, is largely set on Ko Samet.
The jumping off point for Ko Samet is Ban Phe. From there it’s a 45-minute journey to the island on a converted fishing boat. I came here on my first visit to Thailand years ago. I think the fishing boat I took to the island then was the same one.
Faster speed boats make the trip in less than half that time. Getting on and off these craft is a haphazard affair, and potentially dangerous given you are also carrying all your gear. One false move, one surge of the tide and you’d be in the water, bags and all.
Tourists pay 200 baht to enter the park; half-price for children. Thais pay less as they pay taxes, apparently. The local songthaews, battered Japanese pickup trucks carry as many people as can crammed on the back and more, along the tortuous road to the various hotels and guesthouses that dot the island’s 14 white sand beaches.
Infrastructure is poor, the roads are rough and mainly unsealed. Electricity only arrived on the island a few years ago and regularly fails with blackouts lasting anything from a few minutes to several hours. A refuse collection service empties the rubbish daily from the bungalow complexes. Improved sewerage now exists, as opposed to letting it run straight out to sea where everyone swims, as used to be the case. Water is still trucked around the island every day, there being no mains supply. A sign of modernity, large cell phone towers now dot one end of the island.
Beware the modern day pirates. Travel agents at Ban Phe in an effort to sell you pre-booked hotels and boat tickets, attempt to rip you off big time. The bitch from hell at the Choktipmanee Boat desk was amongst the worst rip-off artists I’ve come across in the Kingdom of Smiles.
Squat with no neck and devoid of warmth or charm, she baldly lied to customers with promises of all things grand while delivering on very few and over charging people in the bargain. Her dreadful reputation has extended as far as operators at Ko Chang, several hours east. There they tell me they’ve lost business from tourists wary of pre booking because of her antics.
Farangs aren’t her only victims; the BFH also rips off Thais. Several bars and guest houses on the island report that she owes them money. Word is, that so brazen is her attitude, she must enjoy protection from the local mafia or law enforcement, as no one seems to have any influence to make her pay.
Ko Samet has its own micro-climate getting much less rainfall than the rest of eastern Thailand and is the driest archipelago in Thailand. Visitors spend most of their time on the coast at the bars and the beaches soaking up the sun, the food and the beer. At night out comes the food displayed on bamboo tables to entice the passers-by. Post dinner cocktails are consumed by the bucket. The tropical night sky is punctuated by the odd shooting star and guttural bursts from outboard motors as late arrivals are delivered by jet boats.
The beach at Vong Duan Beach (Ao Wong Duean), which translates as Half Moon Bay, is owned by a Thai family, who has lived on the island for 60 years. They are one of a number of locals engaged in a court battle with the RDF over plans to put up the entrance fee for the park and the ever increasing number of regulations bar owners are forced to adopt.
Robert has leased the Bay Watch Bar there for nine years. A Dutchman, he’s owned another bar in Nepal for a year before coming to Thailand. He had pennants from his favourite football team, FC Groningen, hanging from the bar along with a picture of Bob Marley. The background music all day was reggae. The bar’s business card, is a distinctive blue with an Egyptian eye design superimposed on a yellow half crescent moon.
Darren owned half the lease on the bar next to the Baywatch. The bar was part of the Thai family empire, the one that owned most of the beach. Everything was in their name. “You can’t own anything here as a foreigner.” He told me. “When the electricity bill comes, it’s addressed to them. When the satellite TV bill arrives, it goes to them.” Every month, Darren and the other expats make the visa run to the border, crossing into Cambodia at Had Lek before turning around and heading back to the island.
The island’s interior largely inaccessible, is off limits to visitors, retains much of the local flora and fauna. In the middle of the island is a reservoir along a bumpy unsealed road, which joins the beaches of the east coast to the up market Le Vimarn Spa at Ao Phroa on the west coast. The spa, a “tropical boutique resort” is set back amongst tropical palms has a Somerset Maugham feel, and seemed almost devoid of people. Occasionally, a staff member would wander by with a smile and be gone.
The island is popular with Thais being close enough to Bangkok for families to escape the capital’s smog-laden skies for a weekend, so it pays to avoid public holidays, or you should book in advance. Accommodation varies on the island. Most beaches (Ao in Thai and spellings vary) are on the eastern side of the island, and accommodation on Ko Samet ranges from about US$10 to $100s per night.
Most housing for the Thais by comparison, is pretty basic. For staff earning about 30 baht an hour its corrugated iron structures adjacent the road and tracks, jammed into the bush without running water and some without electricity.
Prices on the island are expensive, everything was dearer than the mainland, largely because it all had to be shipped in and largely because the place was full of tourists and middle-class Thais over from Bangkok for the weekends and holidays. For example, use of the Internet costs US$2 per hour, about 2-3 times what it costs elsewhere.
Getting around on Ko Samet is pretty straightforward as there’s only a single main road. Few parts are sealed and the rest a bumpy dirt track that quickly turns to bog in the wet. Motorbike hire is plentiful and ranges from 300-500 baht per day. All terrain vehicles cost more. There are also mountain bikes of dubious quality for hire.
Medical facilities on the island are limited. The fastest way to a doctor is by speed boat, so take care when out. Be careful as some hire places will attempt to stiff you for any damage incurred, perceived or otherwise. You are not required to leave a deposit and generally not advised to part with your passport as security.
Around the eastern coast it’s possible to walk between beaches, or there is motorised transport. In some parts, like the southern end of the island, the road is so steep you are forced off a motorbike and with the throttle full on, walk uphill beside the screaming engine. The ranger’s hut at the southern tip sold me petrol from a whiskey bottle, before I beat a hasty retreat when attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes in broad daylight.
For practical services there are the modern conveniences welcome or otherwise of 7-Eleven, ATMs, other shops and restaurants near the main pier at the small port village of Na Dan. On the “to do” list there are watch the sunset from dramatic cliff side locations along the southwest coastline, and resident fire twirlers head up and down the beaches about supper time.
Most people come to chill out, but for those people for whom the beauty of the beaches is not sufficient to pass the day. Speed boats and slow boats will take you out on day trips to some of the small surrounding islands, and diving courses are run at a number of local sites.
Back at Ban Phe I shot a look at the BFH. Lamenting a lack of justice, I realised she hadn’t been struck down by lightning but had instead been replaced by a younger, equally large and swine-looking version. A daughter perhaps, awaiting the next batch of victims. Unfortunately, to get to the beauty you first have to brave the beast.