Monday 22 May 2017

Times are a Changin’ on ol’ Koh Samui


We gathered some of our old and new Thailand salts together for a chat about Koh Samui and how they remember it. Roderick Eime spoke to John Borthwick, Rob Woodburn, Deb Dickson-Smith and his own daughter Shalia.

Modern luxury resort complex: Anantara Koh Samui (supplied)

Like so many places in Southeast Asia, the old timers roll their eyes mystically and relive the times before the great tourism revolution at the end of the 20th century.

Their grey-flecked beards and sun-parched skin speak of a life spent under the tropical sun when life was simple and the beer was cheap.

Nowadays, the idyllic islands that dot the coast around the Gulf of Thailand are laden with modern ‘charms’ like multi-star resorts, paved roads, retail havens and bars and clubs aplenty.

Koh Samui is the poster child for resort island development in the region. These days the postcard primed, white sand beaches are lined with some of the best resorts in all of Southeast Asia. With more than 18,000 rooms and occupancy rates close to 70 per cent being quoted, direct international flights have added tens of thousands of new visitors to the island annually.

Koh Samui village c.1980 (

Shopping malls and retail plazas, like the massive complex on 48,000 square metres of land in the tourism area of Chaweng are transforming Koh Samui from the semi-secret haven to a sprawling tourist metropolis.

According to a report in the Bangkok Post, a marked shift in demand is bringing more Asian visitors and families. The top three source markets are, according to the report, Germany, the UK and Thailand which contribute more than a quarter of total arrivals. But here come the Russians, with 15 per cent of total visitor arrivals now from the Russian Federation.

Deb Dickson Smith
is a specialist family travel writer from Australia. She travels with as many as five kids in tow.

“It’s an obvious choice for families really with a great choice of family-friendly resorts, friendly locals who welcome children and plenty of safe swimming beaches. In addition to obvious activities like swimming and snorkeling, kids can take part in anything from football golf to elephant rides.

“If your kids are like mine and are budding junior zookeepers, it’s worth checking out some of the animal attractions. There are in fact plenty of animal attractions in Koh Samui, as diverse as the animals they exhibit and include a butterfly garden, a crocodile farm, snake farm and monkey shows.”

Shalia, 21, from Sydney came with uni friends for a bit of beach R-n-R and some partying. She had a mixed experience.

Ark Bar Beach Resort (supplied)

“We stayed at the Ark Bar Beach Resort and it was fine. Clean, comfortable, affordable and close to the action

“The locals are great, so patient, but some of our fellow travellers from around the world must have left their manners at home. They left a lot of trash on the beach. Bottles mainly and it really bothered me, almost as much as the captive animals.

“I loved the walks up to the waterfalls and swimming in the pools, but I can’t recommend the water slides. I think they’re dangerous, but the boys loved them and we all ended up bruised after a few slides.”

John Borthwick is another with a long memory and experience on Koh Samui going back decades. He has some advice for new visitors too.

“Arrange a hotel airport pick-up, and use the shuttle wherever possible because Samui’s taxis (“my-meter-not-work-today” … and every day) are pure banditry. Don’t start a taxi journey without agreeing on the price.

“Samui has one of the worst accident records in Thailand, in a country with accident stats ten times that of Australia or New Zealand. If you rent a motorbike, jot your will, wear that helmet and have an Australian motorbike — not just car — licence (or else your insurance won’t cover you).

“Rent a car then head off on the good around-island road. Look for (slightly) off-the-beaten track, west coast beaches like Lipa No, Laem Nan or Natien. On in the north, try Bang Bor and Mae Nam.

“The Secret Garden, tucked away high in a mountain gorge, is a tranquil grove of Ramayana characters, dancers and concrete angels that was sculpted by a Samui native, Nim Tongsung who began his task at age 77 and worked until his death at 91. A labour of love in a place of peace.

“Skip the so-called “mummified monk” and “Buddha footprint”.

“Wander the gauntlet of Chaweng’s cheapo clothing stalls and boutiques, plus its beer bars, restaurants and cocktail lounges. Or head to Soi Green Mango, a full-tilt bar zone that specialises in loud music, cold beer, dancing and occasional mayhem. Bophut is the quiet alternative, with small, more stylish bars.

John, Deb and Shalia span the commonest demographics for Aussies and Kiwis heading to Koh Samui and Thailand. While each are deeply fond of The Land of Smiles, sensible precautions should be taken – just like a trip anywhere in our rapidly evolving world.

"Our first tourists on Koh Samui had free accommodation," the president of the island’s tourism association told me some years ago, adding that, "Visitors had to sleep at the temple because we had no hotel." Those first visitors arrived 45 years ago. This formerly hotel-free zone now draws several million visitors a year.” – John Borthwick, Australia

Thirty years ago, Koh Samui was a semi-mythical island known only to a few intrepid adventurers prepared to make the big effort to get there. Seasoned traveller, Rob Woodburn, was one.

Rob Woodburn in rudimentary accommodation "back in the day" (Rob Woodburn)

Back in those days before everything became Instawhat and Snapthat it took some time to make your way from Bangkok to the island of Koh Samui.

By 1983 this island already had the reputation of a quasi-mythical destination. But like the protagonists in Alex Garland’s The Beach - published 13 years later - it took a certain type of traveller to summon the effort to reach Koh Samui.

It took a long and stifling bus or train ride from the capital south to Surat Thani where we then made our way to the waterfront to lobby for a place on the overnight ferry. Places were limited and the ferry didn’t always run, so it was usually full. Piracy was a real threat but we lived in the optimistic hope that backpackers being such a scurvy lot, no decent brigands worth their salt would waste time on us.

The ferry was a creaky wooden vessel that sat low in the water and powered by a noisy, oily engine that thudded away all night and belched noxious black smoke. It had an enclosed upper deck transformed into one gigantic futon on which all foreign passengers sprawled for the night. Getting to know you was easy.

In the early morning we arrived at Na Thon on the island’s west coast where small trucks painted in gaudy colours were parked nose to tail along the quay awaiting new arrivals. As soon as we set foot on dry land the touts’ chants erupted.

“Anyone Big Buddha? “

“Come Chaweng, very good!

“Lamai, Lamai, you love it sure!”

Few of us knew any real detail about these respective destinations. Amid the ruckus, we found ourselves piled into the back of the trucks which then sped in convoy along the rough coastal road.

Fortune saw me dropped off at Chaweng, a glorious stretch of beach with scant guest accommodation. Best Beach Resort had 10 huts facing each other, five-a-side, over a path leading down to the sand. Everyone shared the one toilet and shower. Crude it was, but clean and comfortable - provided you’d thought to bring your own mosquito repellent, toilet paper and torch batteries. There was very little available to buy on the island and power only for a few hours a day.

Meals were cooked in a rudimentary kitchen set up in the nearby jungle, basically a hot wok and some seats. Stir-fry was the order of the day, sometimes with noodles, occasionally with fresh fish but mostly fried rice.

But who cared? We had Chaweng Beach practically to ourselves. The only travellers I saw were those staying at the same place. Later I moved south a bit and scored a hut right on the point between Chaweng and Lamai with uninterrupted sea views. This was my private paradise for a while. I made one trip to Big Buddha but it seemed far too popular in comparison.

Koh Samui, for me, will always be that solitary hut beside the black rocks on the Point. I haven’t been back, so have no idea what’s happened since they built an airport almost slap bang on top of Chaweng and resorts began sprouting like sweet peas on steroids. And I have no desire whatsoever to know.