Apple and I spent the weekend in Koh Samui, and the experience was so incredible that I’m going to post about it here, despite the fact that I really feel rather dead right now. Is this feeling due to the inevitable gloom associated with having to put an end to what was possibly life’s greatest vacation, you ask? Probably so, and it’s also possibly due to the major sunburn I’m still nursing. But with working hours (thankfully) over for the day, I can no longer hold back from espousing how great the island of Samui is.
A little backstory: Koh Samui is an island — “Koh” is Thai for “island,” actually — in the southeastern region of Thailand that’s well known as a favorite tourist destination, particularly for westerners of all stripes. During our first couple months of marriage, Apple and I watched Jules Asner spout off about how “Wild!” Samui was on her E! network show “Wild On!” and since then we’ve had an underlying desire to travel there ourselves. Now we’ve finally done it. And while we’re not exactly the world’s wildest couple, the short two-and-a-half days we spent there definitely rank among the best of our lives.
Originally we had planned to visit Samui in March, but everything sorta fell into place rather abruptly in late February, so after I cleared it with my boss, we decided to head out on the last Friday of the month. To kick off the trip, late Thursday evening Apple and I went to Sittara Spa for another one of those two-hour massages, which was an excellent way to just chill out and get things started on the right foot. The next morning, we set off for Samui.
Friday, February 27
Because we embarked from Hat Yai, getting to Samui was a bit complicated. Samui caters to westerners, who mostly arrive in Thailand via Bangkok, so you can fly directly to Samui island from Thailand’s capitol. But from Hat Yai, if you want to fly, you have to go via Bangkok — which is nuts, since you fly right over the island and waste a bunch of time and money connecting in Bangkok for no good reason. Your other option is to take a bus to Surat Thani and then cross over to Samui island on a ferry, so that’s what we did.
To be honest, it was a lonnnnng day. We got up at 6:40 AM and went to the print shop where Apple’s family works, so that we could get a ride to the travel agency. We were then taken to Hat Yai’s bus depot via tuk-tuk at 10:30. The bus trip itself was pretty long; after a variety of stops in various towns, we made it to Surat Thani around 5:30. It was great to finally get off the thing; although the seats were comfortable, the air conditioning wasn’t effective enough. The ferry departed half an hour later. The ferries that run between Surat Thani and Samui, incidentally, are so huge that the bus went along with us, as did a whole bunch of other cars and trucks. The good thing about that was, we got to leave our luggage on board the bus and didn’t have to drag it up on deck with us.
After a 90-minute ferry ride — on which I started nodding off, since as I noted this day was lonnnnng — we got to the island proper. We then retrieved our bags from the bus and hired a taxi to take us to the Samui Orchid Resort about 25 minutes away. Yeah…we did a LOT of traveling before we finally wound up getting where we wanted to go!
By the time we finally checked in, it was 8:30 in the evening and we’d both had fairly little to eat all day. The hotel restaurant closed at seven o’clock, so the front desk staff recommended that we take a stroll up the street to a little cafe a short distance away. It was dark by then and very quiet — all of the other guests were in town visiting the carnival that was running that night — which made us feel like we had the whole island to ourselves.
Just up the road, we found a little restaurant called “The Trap.” Yeah; it sounds like an ominous name for such a joint, but I could find nothing negative to say about the place after getting a taste of it. There were no other customers there, so we settled in and investigated the menu. Much to my surprise, it was loaded with western food — bruschetta, hamburgers, club sandwiches, fish & chips, spaghetti, and lots more. Ironically, I’d had a craving for a hamburger all day, for some reason. I didn’t dare think that The Trap’s burger would live up to my America-centric daydream, but I underestimated the little cafe — it was amazing. Apple and I shared some unexpectedly great food and Diet Cokes as we talked up a storm, letting ourselves unwind after a full day’s worth of traveling.
After a satisfying meal, we returned to the hotel. The resort we picked is literally right on the beach, and the room we booked — #609 — is literally a few steps away from the sand. It even has its own pool right outside the door. Here, we were in for our second pleasant surprise of the evening: The room was fantastic. The nice young woman at the front desk said that several people had tried to request our room because it’s the only one literally right on the beach. Good thing we specifically requested it ourselves in advance, after seeing it in a photo on the resort’s website!
The first thing we did was change and jump in our private pool. The pool was about 4 feet deep, smoothly tiled from top to bottom, and the water was the perfect temperature — cool, but not cold. There were even orchids floating in it, which was appropriate since they’re the hotel’s namesake and all. We spent about an hour out there, letting all the discomfort of the day just melt away. Although it was too dark to see the beach, we could hear the relaxing rush of the waves coming from the darkness just a few yards away. There still appeared to be no one around for miles. It was bliss. (And the room, I should mention, was only about $85 a night.)
It’s about half past midnight now, so we’re about to hit the sack. Tomorrow we’ll do a little touring around town, and on Sunday we plan to rent a motorcycle and do some pleasure driving. Most of the time, though, we’ll be hanging out here, relaxing in the pool or on the beach. (And we’re anxious for daylight to come so we can see what the beach actually looks like.)
Saturday, February 28
On Saturday we slept until a nice, comfortable mid-morning time and then arose, anxious to see what our beach view looked like. Despite being overcast outside, it was pretty impressive. The sand stretched on for miles, and there was a ton of beach to walk on as the water very gradually got deep quite some ways out. The tide hadn’t come in yet, apparently, so it was a little less spectacular than we’d hoped. But I had read up about this beach beforehand and knew that it would look more impressive later, so we decided to go grab some food in town and come back to enjoy the beach in the afternoon.
The hotel provided a free shuttle to the neighboring town of Lamai Beach, which was about a 10-minute drive away from the fairly secluded resort grounds. We hopped on board at noon and decided to come back on the 2:15 shuttle to go beachwalking. Down in Lamai, we found a winding street lined with more restaurants, shops and pubs than I can recall seeing before — and most impressive of all, each one offered a different type of cuisine. There was truly a smorgasbord there, with everything from a British restaurant called “Sir Winston Churchill’s” to an Irish pub and about a dozen “Italian owned” pizzerias and cafes. Most places offered Thai food too, so it was like dining nirvana — with local treats on offer for both Apple and myself.
We strolled around lazily for awhile until we found an Italian restaurant called “Tropicana” that looked enticing. It was purportedly operated by three Italian chefs, decorated with stylized paintings of ’60s American music icons and offering open-air seating under a shady overhang. We enjoyed some bruschetta, tasty homemade pasta and cold drinks for a while before continuing our walking tour of Lamai. There were tons of shops offering clothing of all sorts, most of which was of the “surf friendly” variety. Apple bought several really nice sun dresses, and I found a pair of camo shorts and a couple of T-shirts that sported apropos artwork.
By the time we got back to the hotel, we were already sunburnt. Having only expected to be in town for a couple of hours, we hadn’t thought it necessary to put the sunscreen on. Mistake number one! Apparently the sun is pretty damn ferocious in Samui, because we were scorched in no time — me in particular. Incidentally, I wouldn’t start to really feel it until sometime later.
Clearly we had made the right decision in waiting until afternoon to enjoy the beach, because by now it was picture-perfect. The clouds had mostly passed and the sun was blazing by now, illuminating the sea with a beautiful blue-green color. We found shady spots under the huge coconut palms to lay our beach mat, and spent a couple hours reading and relaxing. It was amazing and surreal to lay there on your back, slowly open your eyes and see nothing but the intense blue of the sky surrounding you.
Although the temperatures were perfect, we naturally got pretty warm out there, so before dinner we cooled off in the pool. Having that pool was simply glorious, incidentally. After that refreshment, we boarded the 8:00 Lamai Beach shuttle — along with a hearty complement of other hotel guests — to go in search of dinner in town.
We dined at a fairly large outdoor restaurant called “Mr. Pown’s” that specialized in local seafood. Apple thoroughly enjoyed some incredibly huge oysters (that were freshly caught and cost only $1 apiece) while I had a whole fried white snapper, and snuck in a little western food with a cup of French onion soup. Afterwards, we strolled around town a while longer and saw the night markets, bars and billiard halls in full swing.
If you like to people-watch, you’d see folks on Samui from every point of the spectrum. It seemed like the “white guys” vastly outnumbered even the local Thais, with guys (and couples) speaking German, French, Italian and British or Australian English no matter where you turned. There were young Thai girls playing billiards in ridiculously small miniskirts, and the requisite ladyboys walking the street in their gaudy “look at me” outfits. We enjoyed a lemon tart and orange juice at a coffee shop before taking the evening’s last shuttle back to the hotel. That night was still and warm, so we went for another blissful swim in our pool before turning in.
“This really is heaven, right here,” remarked Apple wistfully, and she was right.
Sunday, March 1
On this day, we decided to be a little more adventurous. In our case, that meant renting a motorcycle and doing our own driving around the island for a change. There are absolutely scores of places on Samui from which to rent motorbikes (small Hondas and Yamahas, mostly) and Jeeps; every time you turn around you see another such place. Even our hotel itself claimed to have rental facilities, which we had read about on their website before we even booked. So, in the late morning, we headed up to the front desk to inquire about getting a bike.
As it turned out, the hotel outsourced vehicle rental to a place up the street. Upon request, a vehicle can usually be procured and brought to the resort in about 20 minutes. But in order to speed things up for us, the girl at the front desk actually rented us her brand new bike, a Honda Click Play (yep, that’s the model name) with an automatic transmission. This was a first for me — driving a motorcycle, and driving on Thai roads. The former proved much easier than the latter, but fortunately traffic on Samui is mostly very light, and we had no mishaps. In a way, it was strangely like coming full-circle — as I used to have a Honda ATV when I was a kid, although admittedly that one had four wheels.
We took the bike back down to Lamai and had lunch at the Samui Shamrock, the Irish pub I mentioned seeing earlier. They had a really good Shepherd’s Pie, and it was the first time I’d seen the western-style “slab of bread” brought to the table anywhere in Thailand. After that, we went up the street to a travel agency we’d scoped out on Saturday and bought bus tickets back to Hat Yai for the following day. We were glad we went in search of other bus lines besides the one that brought us to Samui, because we were able to find one that left at 8:30 a.m. instead of 6:30 a.m. — and on top of that, they’d come to the hotel to pick us up in the morning.
We then went looking for some fuel, since the bike’s ludicrously small tank was running low. These tiny bikes — ours probably had a 110cc motor — sip fuel, but thanks to the small tank, you might be refilling it often. Fortunately, they run on this kerosene-like stuff that’s sold all over Thailand in empty whiskey bottles. No joke. One bottle is about 1/3rd of a tank and sets you back 30 baht, or less than $1 USD. So we bought a bottle and then headed back to the resort for more beach fun.
It was another glorious afternoon of lying on the beach under the clear blue sky. And as a bonus, this time there was a stiff breeze blowing in constantly from the sea, keeping things comfortable the whole time. I got through about half of a book we’d brought, while a variety of parasailers enjoyed being swept to and fro across the ocean’s surface. If we’d thought Saturday was picture-perfect, Sunday managed to surpass it.
Another refreshing dip in the pool was followed by a leisurely motorcycle ride down to the Grandfather and Grandmother rocks — or Hin Ta Hin Yai in Thai — one of the most well-known landmarks on Koh Samui. It consists of natural rock formations that weirdly resemble certain parts of the male and female anatomy, respectively, which I’m sure answers your question about where they got their name. This was one of the sights we saw on that E! network show so many years ago, and now we were here, visiting it ourselves. The sun was setting, and the view from the rocks — which jut out into the ocean — was absolutely breathtaking. There were, of course, plenty of tourists about, including one couple who were cuddling up right there on the rocks for a little romantic encounter. (They were still fully-clothed, if that’s what you’re wondering, but that reminds me that I did see a condom wrapper on the beach.)
There were local vendors selling coconut-caramel flavored candies on site, so we bought some to take home and then hopped back on the bike. Returning to the area of our resort as night fell, we went exploring down a small sidestreet in search of a new restaurant at which to enjoy our last meal on Samui. We found a quaint little place called “The Simple Life,” which was decorated in traditional Thai style and purportedly offered both Thai and European food. I’d heard glowing opinions of this place in several of the reviews I read for our resort (all of which stated that the hotel’s own restaurant wasn’t that good), so we stopped in to check it out.
Our dinner at The Simple Life ended up being pretty tasty. We had yum woon sen, Apple’s perennial favorite, which was a little salty but otherwise quite good. The husband-and-wife owners (and chefs) cooked up some really good fried chicken, french fries and cole slaw, and Apple had a plate of Pad Thai that was also good — cooked in the authentic Thai style, using tamarind. And so, our last meal of the trip was exemplary of Samui itself: A blend of cultures, a casual atmosphere, and satisfying all-around.
We made one last attempt at swimming in our private pool before bed, but that stiff breeze was still blowing, which — combined with the lack of sunlight at that late hour — made it too chilly to enjoy. After a few minutes of freezing our butts off, we went inside and lounged in our hotel room for a while. Apple read a magazine and I watched videos on my iPhone. We had a somewhat early start ahead of us the next morning, so before long we went to bed for a good night’s sleep.
After a light Euro-style breakfast (read: fruit, cereal and toast) at the hotel restaurant, our shuttle arrived to pick us up, and off we went. We had another long day of travel ahead of us, but it was better-handled than our trip out. The new bus line we went with was a little more expensive, but worth it in the end — as it got us there ahead of schedule, and the air conditioning in the bus was much more effective. A little too effective, in fact, as when we arrived in Hat Yai it was dark, cloudy and raining, and already quite cool. The only thing that made the trip irritating was the young boy right behind us who would randomly squeal at ear-piercing volumes for, oh I dunno, the entire trip. But other than that, it was fine.
Getting back home was sobering. We were reminded right away of just what a great time we’d had in Samui when we promptly had to jump through a bunch of hoops and talk to a bunch of family members on the phone in order to secure something to eat for dinner. Apple remarked irritably how “this is what it’s like when you have to depend on somebody else to get around.” Oh, I know, my dear. I know. Despite the absolutely ungodly rush hour traffic we had to wade through before we got back to our house, I still wished I had that Honda Click Play with me so we could just flippin’ go eat without having to clear the rest of the family’s calendars. In the end, though, we found somebody to pick us up and take us by some food stalls to get some dinner before heading home.
Despite only spending a little more than two days in Koh Samui, I am ready to go back this second. The broader influence of western culture there (which is all but nonexistent in Hat Yai), combined with that brief taste of freedom we got when we rented the motorcycle, showed us what living our own lives would really be like here. If, later in life, I ever have a “vacation home” somewhere in Thailand, I want it to be on Samui. The cultural mix is perfect, prices are a little “touristy” but still reasonable, high-speed Internet seems readily available, and the relatively quiet island roads are fun to zip up and down. I’m emphatically glad that I got to experience a bit of “real life” here.
Now that we’re back, we’re settling into our usual routine. We’ve got a final two months here in Thailand before we return to the U.S. with our new outlook on life, new plans and new things to do. Unfortunately, we don’t have any more Samui-like excursions planned during March or April, so it’s likely to be a little on the boring side. We’ll see if we can spice it up with a few nights out on the town, maybe a day trip to Malaysia (for real this time, not just a visa run), dinner at some favorite restaurants and perhaps a movie or two, if anything decent comes to Hat Yai with English subtitles. And of course I have my electronic stuff to keep me busy in the off-hours, as well as lots of creative writing projects that I’m eager to get into.
Naturally, we took a ton of pictures (and video) while we were in Samui, so if you’d like to see some of that bounty, check it out on Flickr.