Koh Samui, Thailand
26 Jul 2006
|Koh Samui has been going since 1971 when a tourist stumbled across it on a coconut boat from Thailand. A paradise island with white sandy beaches, clear green seas, lush green forests and rich brown roads interspersed with rough wooden structures. Part of an archipelago that includes 80 smaller islands of which only another 6 are inhabited; Koh Samui is the third largest island and 35 years on, it is still going strong.
Today, the island offers something for everyone; from the mad, largest and most popular resort of Chawang, the less busy but still vibrant Lamai Beach and the very peaceful Bophut to name but a few places on the Island. We wanted to stay in Bophut but couldn't find any decent accommodation at a decent price! So, opting for plan B, we stayed in Lamai Beach.
We were in Cambodia when making our arrangements for Koh Samui and we were slightly concerned about the stories we'd heard about it being another Ibiza (gosh, showing my age now) and how profuse the prostitution is. However, we did our best to secure some nice accommodation which we could at least retreat to if it turned out to be a "free for all"!
We landed at Koh Samui airport early morning on the 6th July and through the window of the plane, we could see that the sun was already working hard creating cracks in the tarmac. Having read so much about Koh Samui; how much it has grown in the last 35 years, how tourism and commercialism has brought and still is bringing Samui into the modern age, I was "somewhat" surprised when we were transported from the plane to the airport terminal in a golf buggy; the terminal by the way had the appearance of a large beach hut! Here there were geckos and lizards scrambling for the shade and getting out of the way of the many tourists. Whilst waiting for our luggage we saw one gecko mistakenly rush up a chap's shorts. The chap started doing what looked to me like an extract out of Malcolm McLaren's Double Dutch video (I guess I'm showing my age again!). I thought it was rather amusing until I saw a huge lizard at the base of my feet, staring up at me; it was one of those types that has a funnel-shaped neck, a bit like a dog wearing a bucket!. The smile on my face turned into a downward lip tremble and I quickly ran out and stood in the sun! Although the arrivals lounge was little more than a shade shelter, it contained all the charm that you would have expected from an island get-a-way, it reminded me a little of Fantasy Island (I'm really showing my age now!), I expected to see Mr Midget in his white suit (...hey boss, boss, whata 'bout da plane boss...!).
We were met at the airport by Robert, the owner of the newly built Royal Cottage apartments in Lamai Beach which is approximately 30/45 minutes from the airport.
In Koh Samui, there are but a few tarmac roads and most of the residents that can afford it, drive either beach-buggies, 4x4's or 2/3 seat pick-up trucks. Robert had a pick up truck and given that the sun was already showing off, we were grateful that we could both fit inside the cabin with the air-conditioning! Our luggage sat in the back of the truck, exposed to the elements. Wherever we go, it generally takes me a little while, a day or so, to get acquainted with my surroundings and to feel comfortable hence; I spent the whole time looking through the back window at our luggage so as to be ready to jump out and clobber anyone who might have tried to steal it. That said, we found Samui to be, generally, a safe and laid back place but you always have to be a little cautious wherever you go.
I had read that Chawang (the biggest resort in Koh Samui) could provide all the usual western commercialities and most fast food junkies like Micky D's, Pizza Hut and Burger King and, whilst not in the least interested in these, I did have to raise an eyebrow at the mention of a Starbucks and secretly hoped there would be one in Lamai.
On arrival at the Royal Cottage we were shown to our accommodation straight away; which was a beautiful corner apartment with modern décor, fresh, spacious and peaceful. Tom and I both smiled at each other in acknowledgement - a big tick on the accommodation front.
As we had been travelling all night we decided to have a lay down. This was the point that we discovered HBO again, only this time, we also discovered that Samui dabbles in "hooky films". Yes, films that are recorded at the cinema and then placed on terrestrial TV. Whilst amusing most of the time, a little frustrating when all you could see was someone getting up from their seat and returning 5 minutes later! Ummmh, I wonder where they went!
Our intention was to stay in Samui 3 days and then move onto the Island of Phuket and then the Island of Koh Tao but, for reasons that no longer matter, this didn't happen and we stayed in Samui for nearly a month. We loved it, the laid back lifestyle and I guess the fact that we didn't have to pack and unpack every 2 days made it easy for us to stay longer. This update will be a long one if we intended to tell you about our month in Koh Samui so, we won't. Instead, we'll say that it has been one of our favourite places and we will definitely be returning.
We found some beautiful scenic places where we would rest our bodies and indulge in enormous amounts of vitamin D! (That's how I like to look at it anyway). Restaurants serving food to die for; from freshly caught fish, seafood, mouth-watering Thai delights, Mexican, Italian to the home comfort option of a roast dinner. When the sun was too much and we'd had enough to eat we would retreat to our cosy apartment for a HBO moment or lay by the pool in our complex, shadily protected by the overhanging palm trees, whist listening to the monkeys and birds playing with the coconuts and singing, it was like you were in the middle of the Amazon - we'll compare notes when we do actually get to the Amazon.
The staff at the Royal Cottage were the best, so friendly and amiable. It was a small complex so there were only four of them, two Maids, one night Porter/Security Guard and one Receptionist. Pet, our Receptionist was lovely; always smiling and willing to help us and always up for a chat although one day, I wished I hadn't bumped into her. Pet felt the need to tell me that the colour of my nail varnish (and I may add that I had just had my nails coloured) was a prostitute colour and that I would be classed the same as the "girls" in town if I went out wearing that shade! You can imagine my embarrassment; in the stifling heat, I put socks on my feet and on my hands and I rushed up to the nearest salon to have my nails redone! I was mortified. Panic over and new shade of nail varnish, I was able to walk the streets again. Whilst I was horrified at Pet's directness I was also very grateful and explained that where I come from, red signifies confidence and assertiveness - if you believe in all that! We both laughed about it afterwards.
I took the time to read a couple of books on prostitution and the sex-slave market in Asia and can say that of the many books I have read whilst travelling, these, were truly insightful in understanding this very sordid but lucrative business. As we were in Thailand for a while we were able to get a "good picture" of the various goings-on. The facts and figures interested me and whilst it would be wrong for me to rant and rave about my learning's, it did fill me with a lot of anger and horror.
One night after dinner, Tom and I walked up to the central town and I picked out an open air bar for us to go and sit at. I say picked out because there were around 20 open air, kiosk/hut type bars surrounding a kick boxing ring; where on Saturday nights you could watch the local men showing off their martial art skills and occasionally also see a female bout. The girls at one bar in particular seemed really friendly and welcoming and this became our local for the time we spent in Lamai. We got friendly with the girls, chatted to them, played board games with them or simply sat back and watched them at work. Not to let this last statement be taken out of context, we would watch the girls flirt with the many approaching males by screaming out to them or turning the music up loud and starting to pole dance; if they were lucky and/or pretty enough, they would generally make a hit. Mostly, we would see the girls with the same man and occasionally see them during the day. This normally meant that they had been paid a lump sum for the duration of that man's holiday. Some nights we would watch the "girls" genuinely having fun and laughing and joking, other nights; they would be drinking themselves silly from as early as 8pm to help them get through the evening and early hours. We saw many sides to this market, mostly all very sad.
Whilst not hiding the fact that you cannot visit Thailand without encountering some form of prostitution, we also cannot deny that Thailand and the Island of Koh Samui are a stunning, most beautiful country and Island. During the day the resort of Lamai was completely different to the night time and it was very much like any other beach resort. We met so many lovely Thai people, we visited so many beautiful places, blissful beaches, we ate so much delicious and lip-smacking local food; there was a lot more good than bad about Samui.
During one of our lazy days by the pool, we met Shelley. We've nick-named Shelley "Shelley, ya little danca ya", for reasons we will take to our graves! Shelley had just spent a year working in Australia and was returning to Ireland to settle back into home life and reunite with her boyfriend Noel.
We briefly chatted around the pool and we hit it off; I later invited Shelley to join Tom and I for dinner as she was travelling on her own. The three of us ventured into town one evening and decided to splash out on a grand seafood affair. Shelley had mentioned that she would only join us for dinner as she was trying to be good and stay off the alcohol. We settled at our table and Tom and I ordered a bottle of wine; it took little arm bending before Shelley joined us on the vino. After our meal and a few more bottles we were ready to hit the town for some dancing. I have to fast forward now until the next day when Shelley and I sat by the pool and ordered a cooked breakfast to soak up the alcohol. Tom, well; he had to stay in bed until early afternoon; that being the first time he could lift his head off the pillow. We think it was all the shots that we drank. Shelley, if you're wondering, I've only posted the decent photos, I'll send you and Noel the uncensored ones!
Shelley was leaving the Island shortly after our evening of drunkenness and Tom and I felt sad as she was so much fun and very laid back. We thoroughly enjoyed your humour Shell, see you when we get back.
One evening, Tom decided to treat me to dinner at a very posh restaurant nestled on the edge of a cliff, just outside the resort of Lamai. It overlooked the calm waters of the bay, where one very expensive yacht was moored and looked inland to the Renaissance hotel, we sat having pre-dinner cocktails and watched the sun go down.
We hadn't booked our table in advance and we soon discovered that we were lucky to have got a table at all; the restaurant was packed within minutes. Our food was excellent, we savoured every mouthful and not a crumb was left. As we finished our meal, the heavens opened; the rain flooded the roads and from our table, we could see the fancy yacht bobbing up and down in the now choppy water. We lingered over a glass of wine and caught a break in the clouds, jumping back on our bike to return to town.
We had hired our bike on our second day in Lamai, making it the easiest way to get around the resort and surrounding area. Due to the heat and humidity, it was a bonus to jump on and off the bike instead of walking 2 minutes down the road and feeling the need to dip in the pool to cool down. It was great fun zipping around on our little Suzuki. The road from the Royal Cottage that connected onto the main street was a semi dirt track and was unlit; less vigilance when watching out for snakes, lizards and all sorts of little critters coming out of the jungle was another reason why the bike worked!
A couple of weeks into our stay at the Royal Cottage, a group of lads from Manchester rocked up, taking 4 apartments. All but 1 of the lads had Thai "girlfriends". Luckily, they were all staying on the ground floor. We spoke on a few occasions but only pleasantries. One morning Tom came back to the apartment having just ordered our breakfast and he looked amazed. He said that he had just seen the Mancunian's downstairs all looking a little worse for wear i.e. one of them had a black eye and another had stitches to his head. It transpired that they got themselves into a little "disagreement" with the some Swiss ex-pats who then called in the local Thai martial arts experts!
Then we learnt that an Irish couple who arrived at the Cottage the day before had done a runner at 5am in the morning without paying their bill. (Shell, I'm sure they're not related lovely!).
One day, I saw a leaflet for a deep sea fishing trip and I suggested to Tom that we should give it a go; I came to regret ever having said anything. I really wanted to be that person standing in the photograph holding a hu-mun-gus swordfish. Excited with this prospect and forgetting that things are never quite how you expect them to be in Asia, for example; there is no trade description legislation, I forgot to ask as to the suitability and adequacy of the boat that we would be sailing on, I also forgot to ask about the sea conditions but most importantly, I forgot to ask about liability insurance!
We got picked up at the Cottage one bright sunny morning and driven to the docks; a pebbly beach with a kiosk selling drinks acting also as the registration desk for the day's excursions. There were around 20 people standing in this make-shift courtyard but only 5 of us were booked to go on the "deep sea fishing trip". We were shown to our boat and I immediately thought... "You cannot be serious? We can't possibly be spending our day on that - surely? It has to be the boat that will take us out to the bigger boat?"
Whilst writing this story, I am chuckling to myself now as I remember back to that day. I was far from giggling then. Even before I had time to find my life jacket, the poxy excuse of a wooden ark was riding the waves out to sea. I wanted it to stop and we hadn't even got out of the makeshift harbour yet. As we crossed between land and the next Island ahead of us, the waves were coming in thick and fast from our right. Whilst not being an expert in sailing, I couldn't understand why the "skipper" felt the need to be confronting the waves; I kept asking questions and Tom could tell that I was not happy! I tried to ignore the fact that the wooden boat was crashing against the waves and I closed my eyes. I thought that at any minute the rotting wood would come apart and we would be left holding onto a plank at sea surrounded by sharks; I know, I know, its sounds a little desperate but hey, I was the one out there. Eventually and quite amazingly, the waves stopped and I opened my eyes to find that we were now gently sailing the waters of another nearby Island.
The boat stopped and the Skipper and his assistant, who I might add, didn't look a day over 21 and couldn't speak a word of English, handed out a fishing rod to everyone and shoved some prawn heads in our hand. Tom and I both looked at each other and thought, "well it can't be that difficult". There was another couple; we think they were eastern European, Russian may be, they never spoke to us, even though we tried to engage them in conversation; they were a little scary actually but they seemed to know what to do with the fishing rod. I asked the Skipper to show me how it was done - blank expressionless face. He thought that I wanted him to be my skivvy and he placed a prawn head on my fishing hook... "No, no, no, please can you show me what to do with the fishing rod?" Nothing. Ok, so I watched the Skipper and then I tried again. Still nothing. Not much time had passed when I noticed that the Russians had caught loads of fish; they weren't very big but I got very excited and starting wowing and generally looking very pleased for them. They just looked at me like I was some mad woman. Then Tom caught a fish too and I was really excited. There was also a chap called Jason on the boat, he was from Australia. It was really odd because he did not speak either. Jason had caught quite a few fish. I was the only one who hadn't had any luck. In temper and a "slight" strop, I put my rod down and went and sat next to the Skipper and his mate who were manually fishing with just a line and they were catching bigger fish every 30 seconds. I thought that this would be an easier way and decided to give it a go; still nothing, nada, zilch! After a while I was getting bored and no one had caught anything bigger than my foot (I'm a size 5). Then the skipper pulled up this fish and once he'd unhooked it I picked it up. As if by magic, the fish blew up and I don't mean exploded; I thought he was going to pop in my face and in my hesitation; I dropped him on the floor of the boat, where he automatically deflated himself. He was a puffa fish and he was very funny looking. I picked him up again and threw him back in the water - that was as exciting as it got for me on the catching fish front.
After a while we moved on to another bay where we saw people kayaking and swimming. Our boat stopped and lunch was served. It was at this point that Jason started chatting to us.
Whilst having lunch and waving the kayakers by, Tom noticed something in the water; we got told it was probably a shark and that we should not swim off the boat. I stood there thinking about the Kayakers? Then it started to rain and the Skipper decided that he would let the bad weather pass before we sailed somewhere else so we waited and waited and after a couple of hours the weather wasn't getting any better. The Skipper asked if we wanted to do more fishing. Urghh, No - thank you! Deep sea, big fishing my ...
We started to make our way back to Samui and I was dreading it, I could see the rough waters ahead of us. I got myself in to such a state of panic; I did not think that we would make it back over to Samui; we would be lost at sea! "Oh man, what a way to go... my mum is going to be so pissed with me for going like this!" The waves were coming in and they were much worse than the outward journey, the sky was now totally grey.
We were sat starboard side and the waves were coming in from the port side, I could smell the engine working overtime underneath us and every time I looked down into the engine room, I could see a little more water than before. The Russians were sat port side and by the time the Skipper manoeuvred the boat to miss the next lot of waves, the boat was so low on the port side that the Russians were swimming in it. I was nearly in tears and Tom kept saying, "just focus on the Island, just focus on the Island" I wanted to scream, "I don't want to focus on the "......" Island, I want to be standing on the "......." Island".
Eventually and after much drama, which somehow seemed to affect only me, we got back into calm waters and I was singing "Hallelujah". When I got off the boat, I had to take a picture of the sodden wooden hull as a reminder of our day. I didn't get to learn about deep sea fishing, I didn't get to catch a big fish, I didn't understand a word the Skipper and his mate said; I got sick and sun burnt and I thought I was going to die - great day out that was. I did however; provide great amusement for everyone else...
A couple of days later we picked up a message from Pet to say that Jason and his partner Sam, had popped into the Royal Cottage and left a message wanting to meet up for a drink. They were staying in a very fancy hotel in Bophut but they hadn't left their room no. or last name so we couldn't call them.
A day or so later, we hired a 4X4 to drive around the Island; it was a lovely day and we hadn't actually spent any time outside Lamai so we were looking forward to it. The locals (and Gary and Julia when with them in Cambodia) had recommended that we visit Grandfather and Grandmother Rocks, just for the entertainment value. No need to point this out to you, we're sure you'll recognise the photographs. We took our time but we worked out that it would take less than an hour to get around the whole Island. We arrived in Bophut and ventured into the very smart 5 star hotel where Jason and Sam were staying. After much discussion with the receptionist, we managed to get Jason's last name and we were able to get through to them.
We arranged to meet down the road in an Aussie bar as they were showing an Oz v South Africa rugby match. When Jason and Sam arrived we ordered drinks and sat chatting for ages. Sam was lovely, very bubbly and chatty. Sam used to be an air hostess and had travelled the world before settling down with Jason. Jason had never been out of Australia until now. It was an odd afternoon as we had only planned a quick drink with them but Jason was so insistent, that we made arrangements to leave our jeep at the hotel so that we could all venture into Chawang the main resort for a night out. Tom and I had not been there yet so we were up for this.
It all started going down hill when we reached Chawang and almost straight away Jason decided that he was going back to his hotel. Not really giving Sam a choice he stood up and left. We had just ordered drinks for everyone so Tom and I thought it was a little odd.
The next day, Jason had made arrangements to pick Tom from our apartment to go and collect the jeep; the conversation was minimal if not silent. We concluded that Sam was the spark and Jason, well, an odd character really. If you have kept in touch with our website, you will know that we have made some great friends whilst travelling but I guess you cannot like or expect to be liked by everyone you meet. Neither Tom nor I could work Jason out; we had been invited to visit them in their Australian home town; but when we were in Oz, we decided against this visit.
One of the nicest things that happened whilst in Samui was Tom passing his exams and becoming an Advanced Open Water Scuba Diver. With much thanks to Bruno, Tom's Diving Instructor, Tom easily managed to carry out his open water course and his advance open water course with only 2 days rest in between. We have some great photos of Tom in the water and of some of the marine life. To say that he was very excited and pleased with himself is an understatement.
Originally, we had planned to do this together but, unfortunately for me, I was still too panicked and shaken by my "sardine" fishing experience and every morning when Tom would be getting ready for another day's diving, he would say "are you should you don't want to come along today?" the prospect of going out in those waters again made me curl up in bed, hide my head under the pillow and pretend it wasn't happening. Although Tom tried to counsel me into giving it a go; he would come back to the apartment at the end of the day telling me all great things that he had done, I still could not see past the breathing under water and knew that it would be no good.
Once I had calmed down though, I came to regret not having the guts to do my open water course too. I could have done it in one of the most beautiful places in the world and the waters in Koh Tao, where the dives were taking place, were as calm and as warm as a bath. Not only that, but the cost of diving and taking your exams in Thailand is significantly less than anywhere else.
The day that Tom passed, we met Bruno for drinks that night to celebrate. He was really nice and chatty, had a very relaxing way about him and I wondered whether if I had met him before Tom started his course it would have changed my mind and I would have forced myself to go out on the boat with Tom.
I cannot tell you about Tom's diving experiences as I couldn't be part of that with him; even though, as I write this, we have been to Australia and enough time had passed for me to conjure up the courage to dive on the Great Barrier Reef, but that's another story, still to come. Tom will provide you with his diving story separately.
Whist Tom was learning to dive, I would spend my days relaxing mainly, shopping, sun bathing or chatting with the locals. After a while the locals remembered my face and name and it was nice to be acknowledged by them during my daily wander into town. There was no Starbucks but I did find a lovely little coffee shop called Pick n Perk which I decided to rename Peak n Perkins (it sounded better to me), I visited them every day. I was also very well looked after by the girls at Royal Cottage as they knew that Tom was away diving. But mostly, I did a lot of reading and would look forward to seeing Tom on his return to hear about his day, which we would always chat about over a lovely meal and some drinks. Apart from my little fishing escapade, my time in Thailand was the most rewarding for me in terms of relaxation and when the time came for us to leave we both felt sad but lucky to have been able to experience Thailand.