Thailand’s Ko Samui is a renowned backpackers’ haven, but its stunning beaches are now attracting those looking for more than a hostel. By Laura Millar
The taxi taking me on the ten-minute journey from Ko Samui’s tiny, open-air airport to my hotel on Chaweng beach, one of the island’s most popular resorts, slows to a crawl when it hits Chaweng Road. The main artery into this area, it comes to life after sunset when a host of raucous Irish and Aussie pubs, Thai and international restaurants, and beauty salons and massage parlours vie for trade. Dance music pumps out of drinking dens, while glamorous creatures in skimpy outfits and high heels (not all of them necessarily born female) try to entice customers into cabaret clubs. It’s loud, and it’s fun, and if I was only 20 years younger I’d be hopping out of the cab and partying with the best of them. Except I’m not – I’ve just got off a 12 hour flight, my back hurts, and all I want to do is lie down somewhere quiet…
The car makes a left turn somewhere just after McDonald’s and pulls into my destination, The Library. Despite being just off the strip, it exudes an air of peace and restfulness, and its design is an almost comedy contrast to the laid-back hostels and hotels I’ve already passed. These seemed largely Thai in style, all teak wood and white cushions, but this feels like I’ve arrived in downtown Milan, or Berlin.
Floors are made of polished, poured concrete or lacquered black or scarlet planks; buildings – including the 26 suites, restaurant, gym and, aptly, library – are cube-shaped, with floor to ceiling glass; and the swimming pool is lined with tiny, glittering red tiles. It sits right on the beach, a grassy walkway leading there from reception, and soon I fall gratefully into my room’s futon-like raised bed, the only sound being the late-night chirping of birds outside. Welcome to the sophisticated side of Ko Samui.
Ko Samui, only a 45-minute flight from Bangkok, is actually Thailand’s second largest island. This, however, isn’t saying that much, as you can circumnavigate it in a car in just over an hour. Its interior is largely made up of forest and jungle (where coconut and durian plantations thrive, providing the island’s main exports), and the population is around 60,000. But just 30 or 40 years ago, there were even fewer here; proper roads didn’t exist until the 1970s, and the airport wasn’t even built until the 80s. Intrepid travellers had to get here by ferry from Bangkok (which took 11 hours) or (quicker) from Surat Thani, on Thailand’s east coast.
Their persistence, however, would have paid off, as they would have found an unspoiled, undeveloped paradise, with few hotels and an abundance of nature.
Slowly, things started to change. One of the most notorious events to be born here, which started to bring partygoers in their thousands, was the Full Moon Party. Started as a small beach celebration on nearby Ko Pha Ngan, a 40 minute ferry ride away, in 1985, it swiftly turned into a global phenomenon. Up sprang the bars and budget hotels, and Samui became a tick on every backpacker’s to-do list.
But before you dismiss it completely as Thailand’s answer to Faliraki or Fuengirola, rest assured there is much more to this island than meets the eye. And these days there is more for adults and families to enjoy here, no matter how long ago your partying days were. Luxury hotels have, it has to be said, helped; over the past decade, brands such as InterContinental, Four Seasons, Six Senses and Le Meridien have all staked their claim on a slice of Samui’s coastline. And with The Library – an independent boutique hotel owned, uniquely, by a local entrepreneur – sitting on a prime section of powdery white sand, fringed by obligatory palm trees overlooking perfect turquoise water, I can see why it appeals to grown-ups who no longer want to slum it, and can afford not to.
Beyond the beach, however, there is also much to impress. A day tour of the island will showcase its best bits, which for me started with a visit to Wat Phra Yai temple, informally known just as Big Buddha. The temple sits at the end of a small causeway, and can be spotted from the air by visitors coming in to land. Sitting at the top of a modest flight of steps (which feel less modest when you’re climbing them in the punishing, humid heat) is an impressive 12m high, gold statue of Buddha, seated on a lotus flower. The views out to sea from his elevated perch are breathtaking.
At the bottom, orange-gowned monks mill around in the shade of the trees; my guide, Khun Tam, explains they are reliant solely on donations of food and money from the public. In one small nearby pavilion is a series of eight further statues of Buddha in different poses, which correspond to the seven days of the week (including Wednesday morning and evening); apparently, depending on which day you were born, his pose reveals an insight into your character. Mine, Monday, is in a “pacifying” stance, with his hand outstretched, to encourage calm and prevent arguments. Apparently being born on a Monday means I am a serious person (maybe), with a good memory (definitely not) and a love of travel (well, Buddha got that right). You can even have your fortune told; Khun Tam leads me to a space where wooden jars contain around 20 or so numbered rods. You take a jar, and shake it vigorously until one rod only spills out, then you select a paper fortune which relates to its number. Mine says I’ll never lack fortune, happiness or prosperity. Hopefully these Buddhists are onto something…
Less contemplative is the site of Hin Ta and Hin Yai, also known as the Grandfather and Grandmother rocks, on Lamai beach, which are a definite local draw. These are some rather interesting natural formations, which, let’s face it, look exactly like male and female private parts, but which do have a sweet, if somewhat sad, legend behind them.
The story goes that an elderly couple were due to see their son married off to the daughter of a man in a neighbouring province; however, during their boat journey to visit him to ask for her hand, they ran into a storm, and died at sea. They were transformed into rocks, which apparently demonstrate their good intentions to the bride-to-be’s father. No, I’m not entirely sure how, either, but it makes for a few fun photos, and the little stalls lining the path down to the seafront sell incredible home-made coconut ice cream, so it’s definitely a must see.
If that’s whetted your appetite for nature in all its forms, you can do a day trip to the Ang Thong National Marine park, an archipelago of 42 islands full of waterfalls, cliffs and mangroves, perfect for diving, snorkelling, kayaking, or just relaxing on the pristine sand. The park’s beauty even scored it a mention in Alex Garland’s iconic novel, The Beach; alas it didn’t make it into the film, but if it had, it would probably be even more popular than it is now. I end my first taste of Ko Samui with a sundowner at a quiet, chic waterfront bar called, appropriately enough, See Sea; just a stone’s throw away from Big Buddha, it overlooks the Gulf of Thailand. As the sun slips slowly behind the horizon, I reflect that even if my backpacking days are (firmly) over, I can still enjoy the same destination – just in a bit more style… n
Fact box: Flight Centre offers seven nights’ at The Library, Ko Samui, on a B&B basis, with return flights from Glasgow, for £1,599pp. Book via flightcentre.co.uk/holidays/koh-samui or call 0800 280 8910.