From the air under the tropical sun Ko Samui looks like a green jewel, an emerald bordered with a white sandy fringe and palm trees surrounded by light blue water. It doesn’t look too bad from the sea either. However you arrive, you’ll soon settle into the easy pace of island life.
Officially, there are seasons in the Gulf of Thailand. Unofficially, Ko Samui doesn’t “do” winter; it’s just hot all year round. Nothing much happens in a hurry on the island. Every day gets off to a slow start. Most places don’t open until mid morning at the earliest. Some days the sun doesn’t even put in an appearance until after lunch. Even the local canine population appear largely uninterested as if sedated, which is a blessing as Thai dogs can be a menace.
If you like an early breakfast you could be out of luck. Unless you are staying in a hotel with its own restaurant you may have to wait until morning tea time, or, as if some sort of sick joke, eat American fast food, which some people actually do.
Despite the development that has occurred on this, Thailand’s third largest island, Ko Samui still in the main has a low key feel to it. Perhaps it’s because the island is large enough to absorb the hordes of tourists that continuously descend on the place, or, maybe because most visitors only target certain areas, leaving the rest relatively unmolested.
“Ko” is Thai for island. The origins of Samui are mysterious; possibly a continuation of the name of one of the native trees, mui, or a corrupted version of the Chinese word Saboey, meaning "safe haven". It sits surrounded by over 60 other islands that compose the Ang Thong Marine National Park. To the north are Ko Pha Ngan with it’s now infamous Full Moon parties, and the divers’ paradise, Ko Tao, both reachable by ferry.
Local travel agents will arrange trips to the Full Moon parties. Hardly necessary, as you can easily do this yourself, but given the drug and alcohol consumption levels at the party, and other various associated nocturnal off-shoot events, an escort back may not be such a bad idea.
Personal safety while away on these trips can be an issue. A couple of tourists have died as the result of foul play on Ko Pha Ngan. Injuries and assaults are not uncommon. The UK Foreign Office has now put the island on its watch list, which is diplomatic-speak for a warning.
Not to say that for all the laid backness Samui doesn’t have a few issues. Mainly, they come courtesy of self-inflicted injuries to tourists, usually alcohol related and usually while riding scooters.
These machines, referred to region-wide as motorbikes, can be rented by the day, week or month. At about 125cc on average, they are convenient but struggle on Samui’s hilly terrain, especially if carrying a passenger. Occasionally, you’ll see a real bike, a big Japanese model, usually ridden by a farang with a tiny Thai woman perched precariously high on the rear.
Other incidents can result from disputes with the local taxi drivers, who seem to be collectively organised into some form of mafia. Often reluctant to use the meter they can charge extortionate prices, so check carefully before venturing out.
Mini buses from the airport charge about 150 baht per person, but taxis can charge hundreds. While the minibuses are available from the airport, a taxi is the only option if you’re travelling to the airport earlier in the day from some parts of the island. Songtheaw’s, converted Japanese pick-ups with bench seats don’t start their runs until later in the day.
The best way to see Ko Samui is by the aforementioned rented motorbike. Navigating Ko Samui is relatively easy. Petrol is readily available at roadside stalls and after it has been cut with an assortment of cheaper alternatives, sold in recycled whiskey bottles. There are also petrol stations of the conventional type is you want the real deal.
Ko Samui is about 247 square kms and 25kms across at the widest point. It has several peaks over 500m high in the central granite massive, and many sign posted waterfalls. Thais turn waterfalls into something of a cottage industry. You can pay to view; pay to park your motorbike; and then get all manner of convenience foods offered for sale for good measure.
The island is dotted with examples of its geology, massive granite formations, some of which mark the beaches and roadsides, and often seen on postcards.
There are now sealed roads circling the island and a recently completed sealed road crosses Ko Samui from Mae Nam on the northern coast to Lamai Beach on the east coast. The centre of the island is virgin jungle surrounded with thousands of coconut palms.
Soi (road) 1 on the main road from Mae Nam takes you past the quad bike rental farm out into the island’s hinterland. The road is concrete laid in sections, each a lane wide. In parts the road has subsided. Over the crest of a rise going north one section had fallen away entirely.
The French-speaking bikers ascending the steep hill on full throttle were caught out. Unable to brake in time, they spilled off their motorbike after riding unaware into the small crevasse created by the subsidence. With no helmets, little in the way of clothing and footwear, they were badly shaken up but lucky not to have been severely injured as medical help was far away.
Others aren’t so lucky. Everywhere are the tell tale signs of mishap. Farangs (foreigners) wander the streets swathed in bandages, the results of crashes on the island’s roads.
Chaweng is the most developed beach followed by Lamai, both on the east coast. There are clothing boutiques, restaurants, girlie bars, endless Thai massage shops, laundries and convenience stores. There are supermarkets and carparks. Furniture stores with lounge suites on display wrapped in plastic.
At the northern end of the island, near Koh Samui’s acclaimed airport is the giant Buddha, surrounded by the accompaniments of the tourist trade. Convoys of four-wheel drives take tourists out on day excursions. Tourists on their rental motor bikes compete for space on the island roads with the 55,000 local residents.
Most of the Thais I spoke to seemed to be from some other part of the country. For them Samui is largely about work opportunities, though some holiday too; whereas the farangs go for the recreation, the lifestyle, or for retirement. Some seem retired but own a bar or small business and let the staff run the place. Provided you meet the cash requirements and can show the required sum, foreigners are able to obtain a retirement visa and live in Thailand from the tender age of just 50.
There are expats resident on the island, though mercifully, they don’t appear to be the more prominent jailbreak crew found in Thailand in places like Pattaya.
At Lamai there is a night market selling intricately carved soap in lacquered coconut shells. The street is lined with t-shirt shops and travel agents and yet more restaurants. Samui can be pricey for clothes and accommodation especially during high season; December and January.
It’s a shame to come to such a tropical paradise and have your reference point an icon of global junk food. The beach, I was told, was behind the McDonald’s. Even sadder then, to see people eating in the place, though it is one of the few places to get food before mid-morning.
There have been people on Ko Samui for about 1500 years. The original inhabitants were fishers from the Malay Peninsula and southern China. The island appears on Chinese maps dating back to 1687, under the name Pulo Cornam.
Tourists started coming to Ko Samui in the early 1970s. Infrastructure then was poor. A trip across the island for the locals would take all day. Even after Ko Samui was marked down by foreigners as a place to go much of the island’s revenue was drafted off shore by the nearby mainland municipality of Surat Thani. Consequently, roads remained substandard.
Today it’s different. Much of the money generated on the island, stays on the island. The roads are filled with motorbikes and Toyotas, not always a good thing. The tourists flock to the island by boat and plane. Once they were nearly all backpackers. They still come but more are flashpackers, charter groups and families from all over the world. Some of the 23 million visitors expected to Thailand in 2013, a record even for a country popular with visitors
. Increasingly, they come from Eastern Europe, especially Russia. Easy to spot in a crowd, Russians have peculiar dress sense described by one observer as “a sartorial style originated by Englebert Humperdinck's costumier and watches the size of grapefruits.
Samui’s airport is like being in some tropical resort hotel. It has won all kinds of architectural and environmental awards and is regularly listed as one of the “Top 10 Airports in the World”.
The toilet has tropical fish. A nearby shop sold a t-shirt that said “Sleep with me-free breakfast”. In the departure lounge, a collection of easy chairs arranged like in someone's lounge room, overweight tattooed foreigners sat about in beer t-shirts absorbed in their laptops and tablets. No one spoke to each other thanks to the wonders of Apple and Sony. The television from Korea showed a Serie A football match from Italy.
It’s a private airport, built by Thailand’s first private airline, Bangkok Airways in 1989. By 2005, 2 million passengers had used it. By their own admission, the decision to build Samui airport made Bangkok Airways what it is today.
Whatever you choose to do, time passes quickly on Samui. One day rapidly rolls into the next and before you know it a week has gone by. In some ways every day appears the same, which can lead to a sense of island fever.
When I asked one expat resident what the time was I replied I didn’t realise it was that late already.
Welcome to Samui time.