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Koh Samui - Which Beach?

oldpicWhen I visited Koh Samui 25 years ago there were already many small and simple collections of huts - no electricity and simple outdoor showers with bucket in many - on the sand emerging from the thick coconut palms. Even all those years ago there were seasoned travellers keenly telling us how Koh Samui had been spoilt since they first came 6 years before. What would they think now? I arrived with an open mind. Of course it had become developed but the beauty of the place couldn't be wiped out. Because Koh Samui isn't the cheapest or easiest island to get to I think it has kept some integrity, over say Phuket, not appealing to some of the brasher groups or, like Pattaya, not as enticing to the worst type of single middle aged man.

There is still plenty of spirit in Koh Samui. If you want nightlife its there. In fact the Reggae Pub is still going strong 25 years on in the centre of Chaweng ready for all night dancing. There is something for those wanting a quiet getaway too. Although more beaches have been built on around the island as the years have passed, not everywhere is lively and you can find gaps where the palms still grow unhindered up to the beach.

CHAWENG and LAMAI

Chaweng and Lamai were the first resorts on Koh Samui, built up around the best stretches of beach. They have grown beyond recognition and although it is still possible to stay in fairly simple beachfront huts these are now tucked between larger uninspiring or sophisticated properties. The main towns behind redpoolthe beach in these resorts are packed with bars, restaurants, (some seedy) clubs, massage places and shops. You can buy colourful clothing, hats, bags, fake goods, wooden carvings...but there didn't seem to be much room for bartering and you had to look hard to find something unusual or of quality.

Chaweng is still the busiest beach area, with jetskis whizzing about, inflated pyramids, jet boots propelling people into the air and a steady stream of aircraft coming overhead. The turquoise water is a distraction and the beach is kept clean so its not as nasty as it may sound. All along the beach there are restaurants for an array of budgets offering green curry, mango smoothies, pad thai and mekong whiskey.

On my birthday we lunched, as a treat, at The Page at The Library in Chaweng - probably one of the most sophisticated hotels on the island. It's red pool a cruel temptation in the hot breeze - only residents may swim. We enjoyed a tasty modern twist on lunch and settled on the big beanbags on the beach for bubbles and a bit of percussion music.

My friend Claire who has holidayed there says - I thought I had died and gone to heaven. This hotel is right up my street, so much so I didn't want to go and explore or search for anything further on the island. I knew I was in the best place and I had everything I needed at The Library. It's still my favourite hotel experience.

Lamai, Chaweng's more casual cousin, has a laid back feel to its beachside properties. I can recommend a few on a range of budgets.

beachrepublicNew Hut - These cheap but cheerful huts with a restaurant / bar could be a fun spot backpacker styley. Everything looks fresh and bright. Walkable along the beach to Lamai.

The Spa Resorts with wholefood and raw food restaurant. There's a pool and individual huts for 700 baht and eating here should mean you come home feeling healthier than when you left.

Beach Republic - DJs and Sunday buffet. I loved the atmosphere here. Very friendly staff - we felt like part of the family. Great to have music round the pool and large sunbeds. Very easy to hang out here and order cocktails. Nice view out to sea but not great for swimming. Stay in a villa with private pool if you can.

These are away from the town, but you can reach it, and several restaurants en route, by walking along the beach at low tide, or take a transfer, songthaew or taxi along the road. Songthaew's are open backed trucks with benches that pick up and drop off around the island - usually for about 50 baht a ride although they will try for more of course! Negotiate before you get on board and ring the bell when you are ready to hop off and pay. Sometimes they will pick you up just to pass you on to another songthaew en route and one time I went in and out of Chaweng several times like this before getting to the other side of the island. Luckily I wasn't in a hurry and got into several interesting conversations with other travellers.

Talking about getting around the island, what once was a dirt track is now a really busy ring road in a 50km loop - with buildings of some sort pretty much all the way round. You can hire a bike or car pretty cheaply, compared to the pricey fares in a taxi (the drivers refuse to put on their meters), but its hectic driving at points.

MAE NAM and FISHERMAN's VILLAGE

If you want to have a quieter holiday then you would appreciate Mae Nam. The beach is pretty, fairly empty and you get to see the sun go down each night. The sand is courser and the water not so clear, but if you have a pool where you are staying perhaps that doesn't matter. Here we walked along the beach in the evening, with crabs scrambling over our toes, to try the food in various places. It's not back to back accommodation along here and with not so much going on you slow right down and really relax.

I didn't find a village centre of interest to Mae Nam but the advantage of its location, north on the island, is that a short ride away is Fisherman's Village/Bophut. This waterfront hub of restaurants and stalls and candle lit paper lanterns and fire juggling entertainment is so utterly charming I was immediately won over. Of course it is totally touristy - there is no getting away from that here - but I liked it. I found some intricately cut out coconut husks with lights inside which I have brought back to bring a little bit of Thailand in my home. Bartering here seems to work better. (A productive bit of shopping always leaves a woman happy!)  Sit on the sandside tables and let off a lantern into the sky, and if you come a second night do eat at Red Moon which is not waterfront but worth it.

wretreatA range of places to stay at Mae Nam are -

W Retreat - This is large, pure design luxury. No need to leave the resort.

Escape Beach Resort - This place is compact but nicely styled and with a good social atmosphere. Good value but not much privacy.

Silent Bungalows - No website for this place, call 088-083 7184. It's simple, quiet (as the name implies) with traditional style huts and simple restaurant and masseurs beachside - all pretty cheap and the food is excellent. Ask for a beachfront hut (about £15 a night). This is old school.

CHOENG MON BEACH

I visited the Imperial Boat House Resort & Spa at Choeng Mon Beach. This is set on a lovely white sand cove, good for swimming and shallow enough for children. A fairly quiet area, but not very far from Chaweng if you want a night out or buy things. The hotel entrance is large and impressive and the grounds where the rice barge boathouses are green and pretty leading you through to the boat shaped pool. The rice barges, now on dry land, have space for a family in their 2 stories and although there are also rooms for couples at the hotel, I really felt that this hotel worked very well for a family with young children. The beach and pool and accommodation would suit them and there was also a designated room to play with little ones.

imperialchoengmon

 

 

 

 

 

ENTERTAINMENT

If you want to do that typical Thai thing of having a massage, be prepared for a strenuous manipulation. At a hotel you could pay £30-40 for this as in Europe, while there are many small beachside or roadside places offering an hours massage for £4-5. I did have one experience that concerned me though in one of the cheap places, but generally I think they are great value. My birthday present this year was to go to Tamarind Springs, near Lamai. Its a magical place where you soak and scrub in natural cool plunge pools and sweat in rock saunas. After a tasty snack I was then taken up into the tree canopy to lay out in a pavillion and have a 2.5 hours (!!!) treatment. I have never felt so pampered, de-knotted and priviledged. I even got a piece of homemade cake with a candle on the way out. This is pricey, but this was a memorable half day that left me floating. There are Tropical Villas there too if you want to get away from it all or join a yoga holiday.

Try a Thai cookery course - SITCA is a well known one in Chaweng, but it could be more interesting to find a smaller, more personalised class.

zipwireThere are various excursions you can do when on Koh Samui. We kept this to a minimum wanting to avoid the touristy spots as much as possible. We did meet a nice local guy called Mr Yut, (081-9701255) who drove us around in his chunky 4x4 one day for a good price (something like £4 for 3 hours). We went into Namuang Safari Park to try the zip wire experience (it was brief but we were grateful for that) and then the kids took the 'easy' slide at the bottom of the waterfall (the steeper one 'hurts more' we were told) - the whole thing was a bit naff, and we were glad we hadn't been herded around in a group. There are elephant and monkey shows (I'm never very comfortable with animal attractions like this) and you can take a truck to the waterfall at death defying speed - but there is nothing here that cannot be missed. At least if you arrive independently, not on a tour, you can pay individually for the thing that appeals to you. Mr Yut stopped off at a temple with a mummified monk in sunglasses and we got a blessing from a live one while there too.

The only other outing we took (once my sister arrived and offered to have our kids for the night) was to the Full Moon Party on neighbouring Koh Phangan. See my blog about that here.