"The legend has it that in
1971 two tourists discovered this untouched virgin paradise. By
2009, the island had almost 300 resort and bungalow developments.
If further 'progress' is made, by 2040 the entire island may be just one
mega condo complex."
I won't write about a place in Thailand unless I've been there; and
once I've decided to write about it, I do some research to see how the
place ended up in the condition I found it in.
When I was growing up and traveling around America with my parents and
siblings in, first, a trailer, then later a motorhome, we'd sometimes
visit places that my parents had been to years before, possibly even
before I was born. They'd comment how much a place had changed.
When I visited Cancun (Mexico) for the first time in 2003, my father was
trying to get his bearings. He'd been to Cancun way back in the
early 1970's and barely recognized it.
Participating in Koh Samui's tourist dream at Wat Phrayai, otherwise
known as the Big Buddha
I first landed on Koh Samui in the summer of 1994.
Plenty of development had already gone on up till that
point, and I remember that on the low budget I was on then,
the place was expensive. Elsewhere in Thailand, you
could get a bottom-of-the-barrel bungalow, fan cooled,
minimal electricity and only at certain hours, for USD 2
maximum. I was landing on Samui during a high season
period for Western backpackers, and there wasn't enough of
this el cheapo bare bones accommodation available to satisfy
the demand. I wound up sharing a bungalow with a
German for USD 4 apiece. Under the influence of
alcohol or drugs, you would still not refer to this bungalow
as anything special. At the restaurant I ate at
for dinner, two Europeans were talking about how developed
the place had become since their last visit in 1990.
undeveloped Samui was a Samui I never saw. Was Samui
really undeveloped in 1990? Based on what I could
uncover online, it was. Tourist development started
unabated in the early 90's. I saw another
traveler's photographs from 1980, I couldn't recognize it,
and Koh Samui, circa 1990, must not have looked very
Back in those undeveloped days, the two most popular beaches, Lamai and Chaweng were just
that -- beaches. There was no massively developed high
rise resorts and hotels, tourist restaurants, and activity
My expectations and perceptions changed with age. Today, I
wouldn't find paying USD 8 for that bungalow all by myself,
equivalent to 200 baht back then, very expensive.
But that's really an academic point because I wouldn't opt
to stay in that quality bungalow today for USD 8.
Which in itself is a moot point because today on Koh Samui
you wouldn't find a bungalow of that quality for USD 8.
It would cost USD 14. I wouldn't guarantee you could
find anything on Koh Samui for USD 8 anymore.
In 1994, relative to the prices of that time, Samui was
already positioning itself on the upper end, and by the time
I returned again in 2007 for a visa extension and in 2008
with my father, Samui had
solidly carved out its role of a spa and luxurious hangout.
of Samui: (left)
swimming pool of one of many spas on the island;
(middle) typical street scene in Samui near Lamai
Beach; (right) Doug in front of Na Muang Waterfall
Koh Samui's Allure
From my 1994 experience, the most memorable thing about Koh Samui was
trying magic mushrooms for the very first time and even that turned out
to not be as great an experience as it should have been. The
German I was sharing my bungalow with took them as well, and he was
paranoid the entire time.
By 1994, Koh Samui was no longer catering mainly to the budget
backpackers it served in the 1970's and 1980's. That
doesn't mean it's like visiting Switzerland. It just means USD 3 a
day bungalows aren't around for the grabbing. If you're willing to
spend at least USD 25-30 a night, not a far cry more than you'd pay for
decent accommodation anywhere in the Kingdom, Koh Samui could be your
cup of tea.
For all its recent development, Samui is still a tropical island.
Lamai and Chaweng, especially, have been transformed into well trodden
tourist meccas, and Chaweng's beach ain't so clean anymore. 1980's
visitors should steer clear for risk of having their beautiful memories
tainted. But the center of the island is still vegetation and
waterfalls, and the island is still fringed and densely populated with
In the low season particularly, deals are to be had. My
father and I scored
pool villa accommodation on Maenam Beach for USD
200/night. The resort hadn't yet completed its two-bedroom suites
and so upgraded us, at no charge, to a two-bedroom pool villa.
Being in the right place at the right time always has its perks.
Koh Samui is just the right size -- for a holiday or for long term
living. Phuket, Thailand's largest
island, is about two-and-a-half times larger. A large
island means you need a car to get around. Koh Samui's
circumference is only 55 km. Even with just a
motorbike, you can get to all the main beaches and towns without
difficulty or serious time expenditure. When I did my visa
extension in 2007, I rented a motorbike near the pier in Nathon for less
than USD 5. I drove to the visa extension office a few kilometers
south of Nathon, and then for the helluva it, drove around the entire
island in just a few hours.
If one were going to pursue diving to divemaster status and do so in
Thailand, I can't think of a better place to be based.
The diving off Koh Samui isn't renowned as some of the best
in Thailand. In fact, what dive schools tend to
do is funnel students over to Koh Tao
for dives. However, Koh Tao is a tiny, tiny island,
which became quite developed in less than a decade, and I
feel you could get bored shacked up there for the long term.
Samui is the island I'd rather be 'stuck' on if I needed to
be in the area for several months. You could also
pursue other water sports like kiteboarding or windsurfing
in windy season. Good luck doing that on Koh
Samui offers plenty of attractions and balances all that
with bigger amenities. There are spas,
detoxification clinics, multi-ethnic restaurants,
nightclubs, gyms, and an international school, too.
You get your nature hikes and serene beachside walks, and
you also get your Tesco Lotus and Big C supermarkets.
For the party animals and debauched sorts: can
you quickly name me another tropical island where you can
have your way with bargirls, ladyboys, homosexuals, and
everything in between? I hear Tahiti is nice, but can
you exercise your perversions in such relative ease over
there? Doug's Republic doesn't judge you for loving to
pay to play. Doug's Republic will think you're
an idiot for trying to execute your fantasies on an island
that won't permit optimal expression, such as Lamu in
Yeonpyeong, the South Korean island North Korea shelled in
Are you a pet lover? My wife is. And while
vacationing at a pool villa in Koh Samui with my father, an
adorable cat came around the place and made herself at home.
She was in impeccable shape and looked like she already had
an owner. The staff confirmed that she currently
didn't. I picked up a folder storage box at Big C,
punched a few holes in the top, and brought the cat to the
mainland with me, where she continues to live with us to
this day. We named this cat after Koh Samui, too.
She's called Sami. You could be just as
fortunate in kidnapping a pet as long as you hang out at
upscale pool villas.
Koh Samui isn't what it used to be, but then, neither is Youngstown,
Ohio or the north of England. If you want a place that forever
stays the same, build a condo on Mars.