Wednesday, 13 January 2010

KOH SAMUI -- Choosing the right beach for you

Samui and Chaweng Beach are synonymous. Like Kuta and Bali. And, um, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. But Chaweng may not be to everybody's liking all the time (or indeed any of the time). Luckily on Thailand's third largest island there's plenty of choice when it comes to finding your place in the sun ...


Now a big, busy, bustling town with everything you could possibly want, and then a little more. It's the longest beach, measuring around 5km -- once again, if you don't believe me, get out your tape measure --and that's what probably created the attraction of Samui in the first place. Along that beach road are conservatively one hundred hotels, a thousand restaurants, ten thousand shops (most of them 7-11s), and a million massage joints. Something like that. Many of the top designer 5-star resorts are nestled in here, but there are also more affordable options for mere mortals too. Traffic on the main strip crawls along at about 20km/h (apart from tattoed and bare-chested boy racers who try and squeeze the maximum out of their rental scooters). The shopping stalls are cheap, cheap, cheap by Western standards, but not by Thai standards. Try Nathon on the west coast instead for better deals. Lots of bars, pubs, nightlife. So it's lively around the clock. Got it?

Want to be close to all of this, but want more peace and quiet? Try Chaweng Noi beach, five minutes south. Nice cove with a few hotels and bungalows right on the water's edge, and some excellent casual seafood places.


Lamai -- on the south-eastern shore -- is emerging as something of a succesor to Chaweng, albeit in a more tasteful direction. A brand new shopping mall has gone in that looks like a Versacci palace -- quite out of place now, but it will attract quality developments around it. Lamai is decidedly lower key than Chaweng, but plenty of new upscale resorts and restaurants and spas coming on stream now. A nice town to stroll through, checking out cafes and stalls, and an excellent swimming beach with great seafood restaurants dotted along it. Nightlife options include a lively selection of bars. About a 20 minute drive to Chaweng.

Taling Ngam:

The west coast of Samui is far less developed. Why? Who knows. Perhaps the beaches are a bit more rocky, more grainy brown sand than the fine powdery white stuff (I'm talking about beach sand here) on the other side. On the upside, you get spectacular sunsets dropping into the ocean, silhouetting the self-explanatory Five Islands, and the upthrusts of the Anthong Marine National Park off in the distance. So its romantic quotient is very high. Couple this with more seclusion, more bungalow-style accomodation, and palm trees swaying right over the water's edge, and you've got a recipe for love. (Excuse me, I've been in the sun way too long, I'll just move inside.) About a 40 minute drive to Chaweng.

Bang Po:

My favourite. Tucked away on the north west coast, a million tourists buzz along the ring road never even knowing this place exists. A few smallish hotels, a few new boutique-style operations, plus a lot of residential compounds owned mainly by Europeans straddle the road, blocking the view of the water. So there are no casual 'drop ins' ... the only people you'll see on the beach (see photo) are those who are living here or staying here. It's west enough to enjoy spectacular sunsets over Anthong, while gargling a couple of Singhas at one of the local seafood restaurants that sit right in the sand.

Mae Nam:

Nestled in front of some quite dramatic hills, Mae Nam seems to be the favourite spot for expats and long-term lounge lizards who spend a few months each year in Samui. That must say something (and once I've worked it out, you'll be the first to know.) The beach itself is a lovely crescent with beautiful views over Koh Phangan. Much less hustle here. The seafood restaurants on the beach and the main ring road are really good and cheap -- they have to be to keep the local regulars who live in the mushrooming residential developments around coming back.

Bo Phut:

This was my favourite hangout in the days of Rasta Baby, a driftwood bar on the beach with views over the fishing boats at anchor to Big Buddha. Somehow it summed up the essence of Samui then. Languid. Fun. Peaceful. Well, do you know what? Rasta Baby was steamrollered in favour of a sprawling five star resort, but Bo Phut still smells like Samui spirit even though some consider this to have more of a Mediterranean village feel. It is centred on one street lined with Thai-style shophouses, just about all of them seafood restaurants (the longest standing, I believe, being the Happy Elephant). 

Choeng Mon:

Right on the north-eastern tip of Samui looking across to Phangan, this series of coves and bays means that many developments have sprung up here but are all secluded visually from each other. Perfect. Some of the most upscale developments on the island have thus chosen to set up camp here (if you could call Tong Sai Bay or the Six Senses a 'camp'). Sorry noisy and smelly backpackers -- apply elsewhere! Fine for swimming, most of the beaches are framed at each end by rocky outcrops or headlands.

Bear your transport in mind: some hotels offer a shuttle into Chaweng, others offer hotel cars or local taxis (which are surprisingly expensive -- 800 baht from the west coast to Chaweng for example). Of course you can always rent a car (figure on about 2000 baht a day, 1200-1800 for a pick-up van) or a motorcycle, or flag a song taew van that's going your way.

So (swim) suit yourself  on Samui.

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