Soak up some sun

for beach bums  The Chaweng Beach. photos  by author

Picture this. Bare feet and powdery beaches. Spending your day on loungers over Singha beer and pad thai. Indulging in jungle treks, jet skiing, Thai compress massages and starting all over again the next day. There are some places in the world that seem to be just made for happiness. Koh Samui, the third largest island in Thailand, is definitely one of them. The picturesque airport is an indication of things to come — it looks like a tropical resort with open air huts, palm tree pillars, rattan walls, landscaped gardens and dinky little vehicles. Built at the behest of the Bangkok Airways who own and run the airport, it has won awards for its eco-friendly and green approach.

Thai lifestyle

A once-sleepy island, Koh Samui was first settled by fishermen from mainland Malaysia and China some 1,500 years ago. It was, for many years, only known as an exporter of cotton and coconut; even today it’s called the ‘coconut island’. It’s part of an archipelago of deserted islands that were the real-life inspiration for the iconic cult film, The Beach.

Our stylish Amari Palm Reef Resort is perched on the party-central hedonistic heart of Samui-Chaweng Beach. The white sandy beach is a sprawl of sun loungers and clusters of massage beds with curtains offering brief nirvana under skilled hands. Hawkers peddle snazzy sunglasses, offer to cornrow and braid your hair or take you for a kayak ride on the seas. The ubiquitous fruit-on-skewer and cold beer is always at hand. Chaweng Town is a sprawl of lively bars, stalls selling faux designer jeans and sunglasses, umpteen 7 Elevens, ready-in-a-day tailors, massage houses offering traditional to raunchy massages. Come evening, there are lady boys strutting their wares and vans with loudspeakers advertising Thai boxing events.

It wouldn’t be Thailand without temples and a Buddha and the island’s most popular one is the Wat Phra Yai or the colossal Big Buddha. It’s perched 15 metres tall, above the north-eastern corner of the island like a protective guardian and ringed by souvenir stalls. There is also the quirky Wat Khunaram where a mummified monk in a meditative pose with orange robes and Ray Ban sunglasses is preserved in a glass case. Wat Sumret is slightly off the beaten path — it’s a time capsule of serenity inhabited by only a handful of monks.

One of the weathered buildings houses an eerie congregation of old Buddhas clothed in orange robes. From the sublime to the ribald — the Grandfather and Grandmother rocks are perched at the southern end of the Lamai Beach. The story behind them is that an elderly couple went out to sea and their boat capsized in a storm. The couple died and turned into rocks to be remembered forever.

We walk to the bohemian Bophut Fishing Village, one of the most charismatic villages on the island, a stretch of two storey teak shop-houses (that hint at the island’s past) converted into stylish bars, restaurants, day spas, even a Bikram’s yoga and boutique-style hotels with a true Mediterranean feel.

There are a line of eclectic restaurants bursting with personal style, ranging from Thai and Mexican to Indian and French, each with a balcony skirting the white sandy beach and cerulean waters. There’s Villa Bianca with its stark white decor, Bophut Diving School, a snazzy building offering diving equipment and classes and quaint guest houses like The Lodge with a small garden and their own strip of the beach.

For something different and ethereal, there is the tranquil Tanim Magic Garden high up in the hills — a unique creation of a Samui native called Khun Nim Tongsung who used to farm durian and coffee here. A tree-lined stone stairway leads into a jungle gorge where there are a host of Ramayana characters, dancers and sculptures frozen in stone. I spend a wondrous couple of hours meandering through the forest catching glimpses of stone figures, frogs and tortoise, scattered amongst the greenery and small streams.
There are signs of development all over the island. Huge hoardings offer plush condominiums and expat villas. High-end resorts like the Six Senses and the Anantara have made their presence here. Samui prides itself on offering a variety of cuisines — we experience one of our best Italian meals at Prego at the Amari Palm Reef Resort. There are basic roadside eateries, fine dining restaurants perched on hillsides and restaurants on the beach. If being a beach bum is not your thing, there are other pursuits as well. You can take a day trip to the 42 islands of the Ang Thong National Park with the clearest of waters to snorkel, scuba or sea-kayak.

Maybe you want to head towards the dense forests for a trek or a zip line ride through the canopies. We hear about the rave parties and full moon revelries at the nearby island of Ko Pha Ngan. There are advertisements for ‘monkey theatre’ everywhere. My guide tells me that the monkeys are trained to pluck coconuts and offer them to tourists.
Our ‘view from the top’ moment is from Khao Hua Jook, a golden pagoda perched on a hill with the most marvellous views of the hinterland — white beaches, palm fringed bays, forested hills, smudges of coral reefs and the aquamarine ocean. Samui is not a place you can ever tire of. If you like energy and excitement, you can find it here.

Our friend Martin Kunzmann, an Aussie living in Samui, describes the frenzied Songkran festival celebrating the Thai New Year, when jets of ice cold liquid are squirted over unsuspecting souls. I hear about the body painting competition at Lamai Beach and the Buffalo Fighting Festival. Otherwise, there is always the beauteous beach and the seamless sky to keep you company.

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