By Michael Moore
Thailand's third largest island has slowly evolved from a
tropical hideaway frequented primarily by backpackers in the
1960's to a place that now caters to visitors from all walks
of life and with pocketbooks of all dimensions. The primary
reasons for its popularity are its beautiful beaches, easily
accessed watersports and the opportunity it provides to simply
kick off your shoes and relax.
The island can be circled by car in a little over an hour,
on a road that parallels its numerous beaches. Each piece
of strand has its own personality and qualities that make
it unique and appealing. The longest and most developed beach
on the island is Chaweng. It is packed with hotels, ranging
from a couple of five-star establishments to rustic bungalows
frequented by those on limited budgets. The road adjacent
to the beach is packed with shops, bars, dive shops and restaurants
of every description. Lamai, the second largest beach, is
also highly developed and loaded with places to eat and drink.
These beaches, which are on the eastern part of the island,
have beautiful white sand, clear water and nearby reefs for
those who want to snorkel and do some underwater sightseeing.
The beaches on the north, south and west coasts are less developed
and provide a more relaxed atmosphere. The water, however,
isn't quite as clear and swimming is difficult from October
to April. Some of the island's most impressive resorts, however,
are located at these lesser known beaches. The Santiburi Dusit
Resort, for example, is located at Maenam Beach in the northern
part of the island and Le Royal Meridien can be found at Taling
Ngam on the island's west coast.
Many people come to Samui for the opportunities it provides
for Scuba diving. This can be enjoyed from both beaches and
dive boats, including boats that go to nearby Koh Tao. Scuba
activities range from ½ day sessions for those who
simply want an introduction to the sport to four-day courses
that give participants an international PADI license valid
throughout the world. For experienced licensed divers there
are numerous trips available to the nearby Angthong Marine
Park and over 20 sites around Koh Tao.
An increasingly popular activity on Koh Samui is a visit
to a spa. Most of the major hotels now have a spa on site
that offer a variety of massages, body wraps, skin treatments,
herbal steam baths and various beauty services. Independent
spas have also sprung up and many of them have taken a more
"Eastern" approach offering activities like yoga,
fasting, meditation and colonic cleansing programmes.
There are hosts of other activities on Koh Samui. In Lamai
you can shoot yourself up into the air with the Jungle Bungy
Catapult, an experience sure to get the adrenalin pumping.
There is a Buffalo show depicting how life in Thailand used
to be, staged in the southern part of the island at 10:00
A.M. and 3 P.M. daily. The Butterfly Garden, Crocodile Farm,
Snake Farm and Samui Aquarium and Tiger Zoo all provide activities
that are enjoyed by adults and kids alike. Although not native
to Samui, treks on the back of an elephant have become a popular
activity and provide a good way to see some of Samui's jungle
areas. Kayaking in stable sea kayaks can be enjoyed along
shores of Samui or in the Angthong Marine Park. Taking cooking
lessons is another activity that many people find rewarding,
particularly since it provides skills and knowledge that will
last long after a Samui holiday is completed.
There are also numerous natural sights on Samui that many
find an appealing change of pace. The Namuang Waterfalls in
the south-western part of the of the island are attractive
and popular places to visit. Two of Samui's most talked about
sights are Hin-Ta (grandmother) and Hin-Yai (grandfather).
These stones have been eroded by the elements so that they
resemble gigantic male and female genitalia. They have to
be seen to be believed.
Although it is a small island, several Buddhist temples are
interesting to visit. Perhaps the best known is Wat Phra Yai,
home of the Big Buddha. This enormous statue can be seen from
miles away and is often noticed by passengers leaving and
arriving by air. At night, when it is flooded with lights,
it is particularly impressive.
There are two ways to get to Koh Samui:
the easy way and the hard way. The easy way is to fly
on Bangkok Airways; the hard way is to use any other
form of transportation. The reason for this is quite
simple. There is only one airport on Samui and Bangkok
Airways has the sole right to use that airport. This
means getting to the island by any other means requires
a boat and some other form of transportation. Generally
speaking, the boats are not the most reliable. Moreover,
transferring from trains, buses and the mainland airport
in Surat Thani to these boats is often tedious and time
consuming. Bangkok Airways operates several flights
daily from Bangkok and Phuket and a single flight each
day from Singapore.
When to Go.
If you want to avoid the rains, the best time to visit
Samui is during the period from February until the end
of June. From July until October, there are intermittent
rains and from October to January, it can also get quite
windy. During the rainy season, however, prices are
often significantly lower.
Pick-up trucks with two benches in the rear and a roof
on top are the equivalent of a local bus on Koh Samui.
Called songthaews, they operate during daylight hours
and have their final destinations marked in English
on the vehicle. The price is usually about 20 baht,
depending upon how far you travel. There are no official
stops; simply hail the songthaew to board and use the
buzzer in the cabin when you reach your destination.
After normal working hours these vehicles, can be "chartered"
for specific destinations, but the price can be quite
high, so be prepared to bargain. Metered, air-conditioned
taxis can now be found on Samui, but the drivers are
often averse to using the metre. Under no circumstances
should you simply get in the taxi and let the driver
take you someplace without turning on the metre or agreeing
on a price beforehand. If the driver refuses to use
the metre or you do not like his price, get out and
try another taxi.
Renting a jeep or car is an excellent way to see the
island. Prices vary from about THB 800 to 2000 per day,
without fuel, depending upon the type of vehicle. Suzuki
jeeps are the most popular vehicles, but recently more
expensive air-conditioned cars have appeared on the
scene. You will usually be asked to leave your passport
as collateral. An international driver's license or
a home country license is required.
Many visitors to Samui rent motorbikes. They are inexpensive
(THB 150-300 per day), but present a variety of hazards
that must be taken into consideration. Samui has the
highest fatality rate per kilometre of any place in
Thailand and most of the fatalities arise from head
injuries. Although helmets are required by law, people
rarely wear them, an omission responsible for dozens
of needless deaths each year. You will invariably be
asked to leave your passport as collateral.
Virtually any type of accommodation is available on
Koh Samui, ranging from five star luxury hotels to simple
and inexpensive guest houses. It is important, especially
between December and July, to make reservations in advance
if you know where you want to stay or are interested
in a place adjacent to the sea. An added advantage of
advanced reservations is that of being met at the airport
by a hotel vehicle. Taxis from the airport are expensive
and the drivers are often insistent about taking you
to hotels that offer them kickbacks for bringing customers.
Drink. Samui is packed with restaurants
serving a variety of Thai and international cuisine.
The major hotels all have restaurants and places to
drink. Each one of the major beach areas is loaded with
restaurants, including chain establishments like McDonalds
and Pizza Hut and an array of drinking establishments.
For a special treat try one of the island's excellent
seafood restaurants and don't forget to try some of
the local tropical fruit.
Virtually anything available on the mainland is available
for purchase on Koh Samui, but it is an island and almost
everything offered for sale has arrived on a boat. This
tends to make prices a little higher. If you are buying
something at a stall or small shop, be sure to bargain,
as prices generally are not fixed. Goods sold in hotels
and large shops have fixed prices, but these can vary
considerably so comparing prices at other shops is always
a good idea.
Koh Samui is a tropical island with a remarkable number
of options and should be seriously considered as a destination
by anyone visiting Thailand. Most people who visit the
island have the time of their lives and vow to return