Tuesday, 12 January 2010
Here's a funny thing. It's been about seven years since I've flown to Koh Samui, and I heard things have really developed since then (that'd be right, just after I sold my house on the beach here). Flying in low over the island to land, it was a picture postcard scene: brilliant sunshine, emerald waters, white limestone upthrusts, and idyllic unhurried looking resorts dotting the waterfront here and there.
Typical over-exaggeration, I thought, it's still the sleepy hollow I knew before. Then the plane kept on flying for a bit and we landed on Samui. I had been looking down on Koh Phangan!
Samui sure has changed. Long time friends in Bangkok used to tell me: 'Oh you should have been here in the 70s. You had to come by train. Beach front land was for sale for cents, but none of us bought because it was so damn far away and who would come to come to this island anyway?' Last seen, these friends were still working hard for a living, with severely bruised backsides from the repeated kickings they'd administered themselves for missing the, um, boat of Samui's development.
Then the airport went in, back in 1989 and everybody said that'd be the start or the death of Samui. Like a weather forecaster's each-way predictions: 'Tomorrow will be sunny, er, unless it's raining.' A lot of people nearly asphixiated on the body odour of the backpackers and hippies who washed (?) up here in their droves. Looking for that perfect piece of escapist paradise.
Koh Samui became synonymous with Full Moon parties -- nevermind that they were held across the water on Koh Phangan. But just like Byron Bay and Waikiki the mainstream mobs soon followed, lured by the magical settings they'd heard and read about about. And watched: Alex Garland's The Beach was inspired by a setting on Samui (although it was filmed on a man-made beach near Phuket, but that's Hollywood for you.) And soon the backpackers and hippies decamped to Phanghan and Koh Tao, leaving Samui to much more monied masses. More than 1.1 million arrivals per year in the last couple of years. A new load of sun-seekers seems to land every couple of minutes.
The airport was renovated in 2007, becoming one of the most endearing in the world, like a bunch of bamboo umbrellas amid the coconut plantations. And gaily decorated little trolley busses. It feels fun.
I hardly recognise Samui. Where before there had been acres of green fields and coconut plantations and ramshackle rasta bars (with curious clouds of blue smoke billowing from within), now stand gleaming designery boutique hotels and sprawling resorts. Four, five and even six stars. Why even Chaweng's main road -- nothing more than a red rutted clay track before, making it a 4WD adventure ride in the wet season -- is now fully sealed and lined with Starbucks, 7-11, fish spas, 7-11, MacDonalds and 7-11.
Places like Poppies and Tradewinds that used to stand out, just blend in to the stylish streetscape now (well, not completely stylish -- it's Thailand so you're always going to have spaghetti-like scrambled strings of electrical wiring to blot the landscape). It's not nearly Patong or Kuta, but I am a stranger here nonetheless.
To make sense of the new Samui, I chat to Khun Seni Puwasetthawon, the MD of Coral Cove Chalet and President of the Tourism Association Koh Samui (the loud shirt pictured above is the official uniform the president is required to wear, I believe).
'Samui is an island difficult to access,' the likeable chap says, 'which is good and bad. Usually the middle and high class come to Samui, looking for 4 or 5 star, pool villas. Also more MICE [don't worry -- it means meetings, incentives, conventions, exhibitions, not rats] asking for high end.'
The high end is represented by foreign chains; Conrad, Four Seasons, etc, as well as home-grown local groups such as Six Senses, Anantara, Mai, Kirikayan and literally hundreds of others.
So what's the attraction, Seni? 'Nature. We are a green island; now we care more about environment, co-operate and keep Samui clean and green. A sustainable destination,' he says, ticking off just about all the buzzwords to call Bingo! 'Relax. Do Nothing. Nightlife, very fun. Angthong National Marine Park. Diving -- Koh Tao and Nanyuang are just 1.5 hours away. Waterfalls and mountains, fruit gardens ...' I can see now why he's the president of the association.
'Also, there are different categories of hotels to choose from 500 baht to 100,000 baht per night at Four Seasons or Everson Six Senses Hideaway.' (I scribble a quick note to myself to try request a freebie, I mean an inspection visit for professional research purposes.)
He's warming to his theme now: 'And great food,' enthuses the man who's clearly tested his island's product. 'Original Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Mexican, Western. Good steak. And original Thai, fresh seafood.'
OK, thanks Seni, that's enough -- you're making me salivate. I'm off to find some grilled red snapper. Which I find, at a cool local restaurant right on the sand nearby, at just 50 baht per 100 grams. A five-star experience at a one-star price.
Aah, it doesn't get much better than this. And, no, I'm not exaggerating ...