Koh Samui’s slogan is “Hundreds of islands, tasty rambutan, huge oysters, fermented eggs and Dharma land.” There are actually 40 islands, and if fermented eggs don’t do it for you there are plenty of other delicacies to savour.
Our visit in October was during a politically unstable time for the country, and we were apprehensive as we descended onto Thai turf. Koh Samui, however, appeared a million miles away from any trouble, so we went about the task of exploring.
Things to Do
It is possible to visit Koh Samui and never venture further than your hotel. If you want to experience a little more of what this beautiful island offers, I recommend an island tour. There is only one main road on Koh Samui, circling the entire island. Off-road you will find places of interest including:
Namuang Safari Park: There are several crocodile farms and elephant trekking centres in Samui, and we went to this one just west of Lamai to see the crocs. There were approximately nine crocodiles in the enclosure, plus a half-naked Thai man carrying a long pole. The gate separating us from the animals was left open for the duration of our visit, which made us twitchy to say the least. The crocs were incredibly well behaved, however, and responded to the man’s prodding with only a snap of the jaws and a sulky sloping off into the surrounding pool.
Although the animal lover inside of me felt sorry for the creatures, I am led to believe that they are well cared for at Namuang. I couldn’t help but watch in stunned amazement as the keeper strolled through the enclosure, completely unfazed that at any given moment he could be torn limb from limb – which is what I would do if I had teeth that size and someone was poking me with a pole.
Wat Khunaram: Located at the Samathakittikhun monastery, Wat Khunaram literally translated means “Mummified Monk”. The body of ex-abbot Phra Khru has remained inexplicably composed since his death in 1973, and until this day remains remarkably intact. He is placed upright in the meditation position and, incongruous to his sacred surroundings, is wearing a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses!
Visiting any monastery or place of worship in Koh Samui is typically free of charge but it is customary that visitors put something in the donation box.
Big Buddha: Aptly named, this gigantic golden statue of the Buddha on Samui’s north coast is 15 metres tall. Built in 1972, it is surrounded by prayer bells, and if you ring each one you will receive good luck every day of the week – so far so good! Not to miss out on the passing trade, several shops and a market have occupied the area beneath the Buddha.
Wat Plai Laem: A short distance from Big Buddha, Wat Plai Laem houses some beautiful and ornate temples and statues. The main temple is set on a giant lotus leaf and surrounded by a huge pond, in which live thousands of large catfish. We bought a bag of fish food and threw handfuls of it into the pond, which attracted a seething mass of its hungry residents.
Namuang Waterfall: There are three waterfalls in Samui, and the one at Namuang is 18 metres high. To get the best views you must traverse a precarious walk over some slippery rocks, so I recommend wearing shoes with a good grip. The waterfall cascades into a lagoon, and tourists are able to swim if they want to. We opted out of a dip as the water had turned a murky brown after some recent heavy downpours.
Just south of the Chaweng tourist strip, Lamai was the first port of call for the original travellers who came to Thailand in the late 1960s. Low-rise shops with corrugated iron roofs line the main town, and locals sell everything from fake CDs to their famous rambutan. This part of Samui, like Chaweng is popular with tourists, but if you hop over to the capital, Nathon, on the other side of the island, you will find loads of shops and fewer visitors. You can still find the usual tourist fare, but also some authentic Thai craftwork and several marketplaces.
There are heaps of shops in Nathon, selling everything from guitars and Buddha statues to sunglasses and Thai fishing pants. Street food is sold from small carts, the most common being barbecued meats and freshly cut fruits and noodles.
Before the airport was built, visitors arrived in Koh Samui at Nathon, after catching a ferry from the mainland city of Surit Thani. Although the ferry still operates, most prefer to fly.
The Cliff: As its name suggests, it’s perched on a cliff, affording diners great views of the ocean and the granite rocks below. The décor is chic and the food, Mediterranean in origin, is very good. There is a large selection of fresh seafood, pastas and steaks to choose from, plus an extensive wine list. The bar connected to the restaurant pumps out club tunes while you eat, which tends to draw in a younger crowd.
Rocky’s Resort: The European chef serves up a mix of Western and Thai cuisine, in a beautifully lit setting on the beachfront, in what is said to be one of the best restaurants on the island. Sunday is barbecue night, during which guests are entertained by a glamorous ladyboy cabaret. Sala, or private, romantic dinners are also available upon request.
How to get there
The only air route from Singapore to Koh Samui is with Bangkok Airways. This boutique airline is a pleasure to fly. The service is friendly and they manage to squeeze in a movie during the flying time of under two hours. Plus, their inflight meals are better than what you would expect from airplane food.
Koh Samui’s privately owned boutique airport has been hyped, and with justification. Arriving there is like landing at a resort with thatched roofing, quaint courtyard cafés, tropical flora, and a brand new outdoor shopping strip called Park Avenue. It’s not that crowded, either. Here you will find plenty of coffee shops, designer boutiques, bars and restaurants.
Watch for Bangkok Airways’ new business class in December.
Where to Stay
Rocky’s Resort is one kilometre from Lamai beach and is set in a secluded cove with a private beach. It caters well to families and couples, and has only 33 units among its rooms, suites and villages.
Possibly the best thing about this lovely boutique hotel is the flora. The word “lush” is often overused, but with it’s superbly maintained tropical gardens, Rocky’s is lushness incarnate.
There are two swimming pools. One at the beachfront, popular with families with small children, has a lovely thatched bar that serves wonderful fresh fruit cocktails.
The other pool, called “the quiet zone”, is where you will find solitude if a shrieking child isn’t your cup of tea.
Our deluxe junior suite with an ocean view was well appointed. While the room was a decent size, the bathroom was huge, occupying a third of the suite and featuring a mini-tropical garden and rain shower.
Often it is the little touches that make a hotel lovable, and at Rocky’s they are especially meticulous. They place orchids on your pillows, in your towels, on sun loungers, and even beneath the toilet. My favourite touch was finding sweets on the bed with a card saying “sweet dreams” each night after dinner – so thoughtful!
The friendly staff greet you in typical Thai fashion, with a tuneful “sawadeekaa” – hello – whenever they pass by.
Dutch general manager John Ens says that they have a very good staff training programme “We offer free English and computer courses, among others,” he says.
The hotel is popular with couples wanting to “Thai” the knot, and an onsite wedding planner accommodates everything from elephants on the beach to a cacophony of Harley Davidson bikes.
Renowned for being a spa resort, Rocky’s offers a number of treatments, and if you can tear yourself away from the sun lounger, the hotel’s tours and activities are well worth the effort.