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Introduction to Koh Samui

Cal sea of Koh SamuiBack in the halcyon days of the 1960's there were no Lonely Planets to guide the trickle of young people travelling overland between Europe and Asia. Unlike today's ubiquitous backpackers, yesterday's intrepid globetrotters had to rely on word of mouth advice about their route lying ahead.  Amongst other essentials, this included "approved" lodgings, where itinerant kindred spirits congregated to exchange vital information about rutted roads already endured.

If the name "Koh Samui" is well-known today, it is because word passed round quickly about an idyllic island in the south of Thailand, difficult to reach, a place with only tracks, and as close to being paradise as Mother Earth can possibly provide. Furthermore, this was no tiny islet, but a large and mountainous tropical heaven with rushing streams, thick forests, and dozens of deserted pristine palm-fringed beaches, the stuff of dreams and fantasy.

Born therefore - like so many other resorts - of backpackers' private discoveries, Samui fifty years on boasts a network of roads, an entire tourism infrastructure, and almost-hourly flights landing and at the picturesque airport. If purists might lament this transformation, the island nonetheless retains much of its magic, and international tourism has done little so far to mar the intrinsic tropical beauty. Development has affected mostly the coastal areas, and much of the mountainous interior remains untouched. Here the friendly inhabitants carry on their lives cultivating coconuts, banana, durian and paddy, just as before, accepting foreign visitors as an inevitable result of progress, like telephones and television. Plump middle-aged codgers, who as slim pimply-faced youths might have lounged under Samui's swaying palms in 1962, can still relive that island feeling today, albeit with luxury hotels and modern-day conveniences all around, and the sense of adventure long since gone. 

Roughly 250 square kilometres in size, wide, and rising to a height of  635 metres, the rugged granite island is almost the size of Penang, and Thailand's third largest after Phuket and Koh Chang ('Koh' is Thai for island). Settled originally by Malaysian and Chinese fishermen, and it is thought that the name Samui derives from the Chinese "Saboey" meaning safe harbour. Less developed than Phuket, it boasts its own distinct personality, and the proud native population of around 50,000 speaks its own distinctive southern dialect.

It has an enjoyable and often unpredictable mix of tropical weather conditions, the sunniest months falling between January and August, with occasional downpours. More frequent rainstorms arrive in September/October, lasting through to December. The hottest months are from March to June. The sea temperature averages 29 degrees Celsius year round.

WHAT TO DO?

As hedonists gleefully point out, this exotic corner of Asia is a beach lover's dream, for it has no historical or cultural 'must sees'. If you do nothing for your entire stay than eat, sunbathe, and sleep, you are not likely to feel that your indulgence has caused you to miss seeing some once-in-a-lifetime attraction. At worst, you will deny yourself the pleasure of some stunningly beautiful natural scenery, and a few interesting temples. If you decide to go sightseeing, a couple of excursions and a hire car for a day or two will do nicely. There are also pleasant boat trips to the Ang Thong Marine National Park, or to smaller neighbouring islands such as Koh Tao, or the larger island of Pha Ngan, the latter a trendy pilgrimage for the modern-day adventure traveler with a backpack. Numerous dive schools cater for beginners, as well as conducting dives for skilled aficionados off deserted uninhabited islands. 

The profound beauty of the area has attracted a number of artists, writers and retirees who are living happily ever after in secluded island corners. Drawn also by the idyllic environment, purveyors of alternative medicine and whole-body practices enthusiastically offer their services, as do many teaching metaphysical and martial arts. In contrast to the all night swinging discos, Samui is becoming a Mecca for followers of physical and spiritual disciplines.

Several establishments on the island offer supervised "detoxification" and fasting programmes, often coupled with yoga, meditation, or other mind-body exercises. Other possibilities include a broad spectrum of treatments, or instruction, including Thai Massage, Shiatsu, Craniosacral Therapy, Acupuncture, Reflexology, Aromatherapy, Colonic Lavage, Ayurveda, Acupressure, Hydrotherapy, Qi Kung, Reiki , Vortex Astrology, Taoist Health, Tarot studies, and others.

Although many of these might be bona-fide and beneficial, the line between holistic hype and medical fact is often blurred, as is that between the spiritual and the spurious. It is prudent therefore to check credibility and credentials carefully before going ahead.

ON LAND

Apart from organised tours, the simplest, easiest, and arguably the most enjoyable sightseeing option is a circumnavigation of the island with a hire car or jeep on the 52 kilometres of paved road, which for the most part, follows the coast. It is best conducted at a leisurely pace over two or three days, rather than a round-the-island-rush, which can be "done" in just 2-3 hours. Taking your time enables the exploration of smaller side roads, encourages local encounters, and opens a whole new window on the island's immense appeal.  Since the road completes a full circle, the best way to appreciate the different perspectives is to travel in both a clockwise and counter-clockwise direction on different days, and at different times of day. Although not a tempting thought on a relaxing holiday, some of the loveliest images happen at dawn, when most tourists are fast asleep, and setting out just before sunrise can provide unforgettable combinations of natural beauty, human activities, and stunning blends of illumination. Since distances are relatively short, you can always return to your hotel and resume the magical tour after a hearty breakfast born of a healthy appetite - a great way to start the day.

Mountains dominate almost two thirds of the island. The lower slopes comprise mainly coconut plantations, an extension of the thousands of palms growing on the coastal plains - two million coconuts they say are exported to Bangkok every month. The higher altitudes are clothed in tropical forest, studded with impressive granite boulders. Many of the dirt roads and tracks are accessible only by 4WD vehicles or trail bikes, but it is wise to take advice before attempting to explore the hinterland. Trekking and mountain bike tours can be arranged through some local travel companies, and for the energetic, the scenic rewards are well worth the loss of perspiration. Also available on tours are an Elephant Trek which in a half-day tour also takes in an elephant ride, and a full day Jeep Safari to the less well known spots in the interior.

The West coast:  The island's main town of Nathon on the upper west coast offers little in the way of sightseeing, but has a reasonable selection of shops and restaurants. The back streets still hide some old houses echoing a very different past, and a glimpse of island life before tourism arrived. Nathon is also one of the island's passenger ferry ports, with a vehicle ferry port located further south at Thong Yang. The south-western corner of the island is quiet and picturesque, with smaller roads and villages which are pleasant to explore. There are a number of small beaches here, but they do not compare with those on the east coast.

The North coast  has a series of smaller beaches, some of which are good for swimming, snorkelling, and windsurfing when the northeast breezes blow from December to February. Hat Phra Yai at Bangrak is best known as the Big Buddha Beach named after the tall gold tiled sitting Buddha on a small island connected to the beach by a causeway.
The North East coast provides a series of smaller capes and picturesque coves, some difficult to reach by road. From here there are excellent views over to Ko Pha Ngan.

The East coast:  Samui’s longest and most beautiful beach of Chaweng is located here. Fringed with swaying picture postcard palms, it extends for 5km and makes for wonderful walks, particularly at dawn or sunset. Chaweng also has the largest variety of water sports, and a good selection of shops and entertainment.

The South East coast:  Samui’s second longest beach of Lamai is here, again with good tourism infrastructure, but with less sand and generally lacking the tropical beauty and exotic feel of Chaweng.

Some sightseeing options include: The Butterfly Farm built into a hillside in the southeast corner, and the nearby Samui Aquarium which features live specimens of local marine life. The Samui Snake Farm located in the soutwest on the 4170 ring road houses several species of venomous snakes, including a King Cobra (reputedly the largest captive specimen in Thailand)  plus scorpions and centipedes, and has a daily show. The Samui Crocodile Farm, near the airport, also has daily shows.  There is an interesting 150 year old Ancient House made of teakwood without using nails at Ban Thale, said to be the oldest house on the island and home to some impressive woodcarvings. Heaven's Garden is an open air art gallery in the central highlands, the creation of a local man who sculpted dozens of figures inspired by Buddhist scriptures. Monkey Shows demonstrate the useful ability of monkeys to pick ripe nuts, as well as performing other tricks. For more aesthetic pursuits, you may wish to see the two mummified monks at Wat Kiri Wongkaram and  Wat Khunaram in the south of the island. Another revered site is the Coral Buddha a small statue visited by Buddhist devotees. Although in disrepair, it is a place of worship for the monks from nearby Wat Sumret, on the 4169 ring-road which houses contains numerous Buddha images, the tallest three metres high brought from India. Wat Sila Ngu on the 4169 ring-road, one kilometer South of Hin-Ta Hin-Yai is said to contain a relic of the Lord Buddha, and the temple is often used for travelling shows. Thai boxing performances can be seen most days at the Samui stadium. At Living Thailand in the south of the island there is a show reflecting traditional lifestyles a buffalo theatre and a Thai farming museum. For the more adventurous, there is also place to Bungy Jump on the island. Samui's delightful Airport opened in 1989, and now handles more than 40 flights a day on services to place such as Bangkok, Phuket, Pattaya (U-Tapao), Krabi and Singapore... More like a botanic garden than an airport, it has won a number of awards for design and environmental compatibility. It is worth a visit just to admire the care and attention, which went into its creation.

AT SEA

Ang Thong Marine National Park
This popular day excursion takes you to some 40 protected limestone islands about 30km northwest of Koh Samui, the tallest reaching up to 400m and mostly covered in tropical rain forest, beautiful sanctuaries to dozens of bird species.

The park headquarters where most boats stop is on Ko Wua Talab and a 400m climb to the peak offers superb panoramic views. Other islands have impressive spectacular stalactite and stalagmite formations, and there is a spectacular saltwater lake Ko Mae Ko which is the park’s major attraction, but requires a fairly strenuous climb. A better way and more adventurous way to explore this area is to book a one day Kayaking Tour around the marine park to see the attractions close up, explore rock formations, limestone cliffs, caves and grottoes. Big Game Fishing day trips are also on offer.

If time permits, visitors might want to visit the island of Pha Ngan, 15km to the north, which is almost as large as Samui, and easily accessed by daily ferry and speedboats. This island is high and rugged, with rocky granite headlands separating many palm-fringed beaches hiding in secluded coves. Another option is Koh Tao, the smallest and remotest of the three major islands, but sharing the same geological structure, with spectacular beaches and rocky headlands dominated by huge granite boulders.

EVENING ACTIVITIES

The beaches of Chaweng and Lamai offer a wide range of enjoyable entertainment catering to many tastes, ranging from quiet bars to high-decibel discos, which extinguish their sounds at dawn. Arguably the most pleasant activity to begin the evening is dinner, with a whole host of tempting options available on the island, both on and near the beach.

CONCLUSION

For those seeking an exotic island idyll with the emphasis on pure relaxation and indulgent inactivity, Samui is ideal. It is equally suitable for those who want a bit of both. However, since Phuket has much more to offer in the way of general activities, it is worth remembering that there is a daily 45-minute air connection between the two islands, allowing for the best of both worlds: a two-centre Samui/Phuket holiday. 

The Amari Palm Reef Resort is situated at the quieter north end of Chaweng, nicely removed from the busier pace of the bustling areas, but strolling distance away, along the superb beach. In Phuket, the same perfect formula applies to the Amari Coral Beach Resort, south of Patong.