The sun is so bright my eyes hurt. I edge myself back into the shady veranda, not wanting to burn bright red on my first day at this small resort situated right on Koh Samui’s Bo Phut beach.
From my private view, sprawled out on a day bed overlooking the pool bordering the beach, I pick out baking sun-seekers from Mittel Europe resting on chaises-longue a step from the water. They snared the best poolside lounges before breakfast, marking their territories with bags and beach towels.
An Australian foursome, 60ish holiday-makers, clearly frequent travelling companions, splash about in the shallow end throwing a ball around making a lot of noise while annoying the other guests.
A few hard working hotel employees ferry cold drinks from the pool bar to guests reading books, checking their smart phones or napping.
Four children bob up and down in the smaller kiddie pool situated next to the larger adult’s pool. The kids aren’t as noisy as the four Australians.
All the pool side lounge seats are occupied. The resort is operating at over 90% capacity.
It’s a scene I’ve seen played out in resorts all round the world.
The beach is nearly empty. Conversely, the pool is crowded.
I’m tempted by the beach but at midday, the passing parade isn’t much in evidence. Local Thais don’t visit the beach until sunset’s subsiding temperature provides cooling relief.
Tourists apparently prefer a pool to a beach, particularly at this location as Bo Phut beach isn’t Koh Samui’s best. It’s a narrow sandy strip, not much to it at high tide while low tide necessitates a long wade out to reach chest deep water. There’s no shade to speak of either; not a Koh Samui coconut tree anywhere near.
The view however is spectacularly photogenic. Twenty kilometres away mountainous Koh Pha Ngan raises its leafy green head. Home to a famous monthly Full Moon Party, it’s a favourite hang-out for the backpacking set.
At this bottom end of the Gulf of Thailand around Koh Samui, the Ang Thong National Marine Reserve speckles the sea with 40 or so islands and fringing coral reefs. Day trips (snorkelling or diving) to the park are easily arranged from Koh Samui. Inquire at your hotel or from one of dozens of travel agencies operating at Bo Phut, Chaweng and Lamai.
(Naked Tip: An airport is under construction on Koh Pha Ngan. Fairly soon, this ’backwater’ will become just as crowded as Koh Samui.)
How to get the best out of your visit to a Thai beach destination?
Thailand’s biggest beach resorts offer a mixed bag of treats. By choosing carefully, the rewards should follow.
Though Koh Samui has become one of Thailand’s most popular beach hangouts, it’s still big enough to tempt the peace-seeking visitor with a few remaining quiet corners.
Pattaya is all about mass tourism with an emphasis on the booze and sex aspect though tourism authorities continue their efforts to promote Pattaya as a family friendly destination. The same description may apply to Phuket though like Koh Samui, it’s also big enough to offer escape routes away from the crowds if needed.
This leaves one other large beach destination to the international crowds: Hua Hin, more on that later in this piece.
Not so long ago, the early 80s in fact, Koh Samui was ’being discovered’ by international vagabonds looking for a Thai island escape with excellent beaches.
Now it’s almost as crowded as Pattaya, Phuket and Hua Hin but the beaches are better on Koh Samui than at the other three destinations.
As Koh Samui continues its growth trajectory on the Top Ten Thai Tourist Traps list, construction is never-ending. Resorts pop up on Koh Samui like Pad Thai noodles; on every menu and just as common.
I’ve heard about concerned citizens’ attempts to limit further environmental damage on this ’Island of a Million Coconut Trees’, but this being Thailand, there’s always a path to get round building restrictions. A cash gift slipped to the right hand, be it a politician or developer smooths the way.
For now, like Bali and dozens of other popular so-called island paradises, Koh Samui will be nice when it’s finished.
Even so, the place hasn’t been totally ruined yet.
The Hansar Samui Resort & Spa is one of Koh Samui’s finest, a gorgeous little hotel that has managed to avoid the excesses of Koh Samui’s rampant building boom.
Service is good, typically for a Thai resort. The Thai people have a knack for being genuinely friendly. I’ve yet to observe a Thai hospitality employee lose his or her cool, even when faced with a frustrated impatient tourist who doesn’t understand how embarrassing it is to show anger and lose face.
That being said, in my opinion, the best thing about the Hansar is the superior quality of the food and beverage choices.
Since it opened four years ago, the same executive chef has stayed on board. Chef Stephen Jean Dion has lifted the food and beverage bar at Hansar Samui Resort & Spa to another level entirely. The ’H’ Bistro is really a stand-alone restaurant, certainly one of the best on the whole island.
Even if I wasn’t staying in house, I’d make a point of dining here.
Differentiating from the rest of Koh Samui’s hotel resorts, the Hansar team is developing an organic garden at the back of the hotel, a win-win for the kitchen team and guests alike. Given the sandy soil and alternating extreme wet and dry weather, the effort put into creating a kitchen garden is highly commendable.
The hotel’s LUXSA spa is drop-dead gorgeous. Unlike a lot of hotel spas, this one is spacious. The treatment menu covers a broad range, from the obligatory after-sun skin refreshers, to a range of massage types (Thai, Swedish, Reflexology, Shiatsu and combinations of several), facials, manicures and pedicures, wraps and pampering packages.
The pool bar boasts a daily 5pm until 7pm two-for-one happy hour cocktail time. I arrived one evening at 6:55pm, ordered one drink and was given another well past the official happy hour end time. I like that generous quality in a bartender.
The rooms all overlook the single large pool, gardens and beach. Larger than most standard resort rooms I’ve slept in, they’re well appointed with bespoke toiletries, a wide-screen television with cable channel access, king sized beds, a room-for-two shower and plenty of wardrobe space.
Though Bophut beach isn’t Koh Samui’s best, it’s good enough, fairly clean and usually uncrowded. The resort is within a few minute’s walk to the ’Fisherman’s Village’, certainly Koh Samui’s most pedestrian friendly shopping and dining precinct. An eclectic assortment of beachside bars, restaurants and cafes line its single long main strip. From cheap and cheerful to pricey and sophisticated, all kinds of eating establishments can be found here. Perfect if you need an excuse to dine away from the resort, though I haven’t found anywhere yet on Koh Samui serving food as good as at the Hansar.
400 Baht will get you by taxi in about 20 minutes to Samui’s biggest beach and tourist centre at Chaweng. Lamai beach is another 10 minutes from Chaweng’s southern end. Add another 100 Baht to the taxi fare.
Five minute’s walk from the Hansar foyer door is the main road where numerous ’Songthaew’ (from the Thai ’Two Rows’, a small pick-up truck with two under cover bench seats) regularly stop to collect passengers. 50 Baht takes you as far as Chaweng.
Motorbikes and hire cars are plentiful. Drive a motorbike or car at your own risk. Traffic on Koh Samui has increased exponentially in recent years along with commensurate number of motorbike injuries.
Hua Hin is Thailand’s royal resort. Since His Majesty the King and entourage are permanently ensconced, Hua Hin’s traffic has become more frantic. That being said, the general atmosphere remains reserved in respect to His Royal Majesty’s presence. Girly strip bars, ladyboy clubs and the worst kind of Euro-trash drinking dives are informally forbidden.
Tourist sights in Hua Hin are relatively sparse. It’s a relaxed small beach city with a lot of hotels built right on the greyish sands. Water quality this close to Bangkok’s effluent drifting down from the Chao Praya river estuary isn’t great; murky is the word that best describes it.
Like all popular seaside resort destinations in Thailand, property development is unrelenting. No fat cat with a spare Baht wants to miss out getting a piece of the golden tourist pie.
Hua Hin’s curse (and its blessing if a weekend escape from the capital is the ticket) is its relative close proximity to Bangkok. In a fast car, the journey between the Big Mango and Hua Hin is fewer than three hours, perfect for a weekend escape, simultaneously attractive to middle class Thais looking for a place to spend their retirement whilst not being too far removed from the family. Similarly, farangs hunting for cheaper-than-home beachside houses are buying up ’land and house package deals’ in some very dodgy instant towns, public transport, local shops and basic infrastructure not included.
Land speculation around Hua Hin appears grabbier than other parts of Thailand.
High rise towers line the beach all the way from Cha Am. Looking like a Thai Waikiki or Gold Coast strip than a quiet seaside resort, Hua Hin is bursting at its sandy seam.
Holiday units on upper levels face directly into the windows of other holiday units, all vying for prime position within skipping distance to the crowded beach. I look at this ridiculous overcrowding and think, ’Holiday from Hell’.
For the casual visitor, Hua Hin boasts Thailand’s cleanest railway station (in respect to the King’s presence), a relic from an older age when steam trains carried the royal family from Bangkok to Klai Kangwon, the first palace built by King Rama Vll in 1928.
The royal palace grounds are open to the public, one of which is a lovely garden filled with middle class Thais doing a morning or evening jog on very tidy paths.
A very long stretch of beach extends for almost twenty kilometres from Cha Am in the northern fringe to its southern end at the monastery temple on the rocky outcrop at Wat Khao Taklap where Hua Hin’s urban sprawl finishes at An Taklap (Chopsticks Bay). The main beach of Hua Hin is a short walk from the historic railway station in the centre of town.
The Chatchai fresh food and seafood market also conveniently located in the centre of town is where all the tourist action is focused. Eating options vary from dives selling familiar food (i.e. sausage and chips) to hapless farangs to street stalls grilling sticks of chicken, fish and squid. Som Dtam sold from countless mortars gets a constant pounding from smashing pestles. A few really good Thai joints with interesting menus with well-prepared local dishes rounds out the satisfying culinary picture. The Night Market virtually adjoining Chatchai opens daily. The whole place really starts hopping from sunset to about 10pm.
I stayed at the Let’s Sea Al Fresco Resort in Hua Hin’s southern fringe, a boutique hotel that provides rare direct access to the beach. No higher than two stories, its forty or so rooms in two facing wings are large, airy and well designed for the tropical climate. Each room faces one of the biggest swimming pools I’ve ever seen in Thailand. It’s a private lagoon instead of merely a pool, like a watery throughway bisecting the resort from lobby to beach restaurant.
I was upgraded to a second story room sporting a private roof garden with sun bed and outside shower. Getting to the pool was as easy as falling out my window; instead I used the stairs.
My bed was huge. The bathroom was enormous; a double shower and bathtub big enough for two completes the picture. I loved the space and used every corner.
Kids under 16 are not allowed so no loud splashing or screaming will be heard outside your door early in the morning, unless of course four 60ish Australians decide to play water polo and drink beer all night.
A small spa accompanies the picture. If a massage or facial is part of your holiday routine (like it is mine when I’m in Thailand), the list of treatments is long, enough to satisfy an ardent hedonist.
What I enjoyed most about the Let’s Sea Al Fresco Resort was the catering. The restaurant occupies a renovated house facing the beach. Later additions expanded the dining areas to accommodate small functions but no matter where you’re seated, the sense is that you’re a special customer with privileged access to a lovely restaurant situated on a quiet private beach. This is quite an achievement in crowded Hua Hin.
Each employee I engaged with at Let’s Sea was helpful and disarmingly friendly, smiles wide, ever ready with a respectful Wai and a Sabaidee Krub or Ka.
Not one for spending more than one day sitting near a pool, nice as it occasionally is, I’m easily restless and opted for a day trip to the Sam Roi Yod (300 Peaks) National Park some forty kilometres from Hua Hin. Here some of Thailand’s largest remaining mangrove forests and lagoons are protected despite continued encroachment from shrimp and mussel farms swallowing up surrounding wild land. Birdlife is extensive while a small population of Serow (a rare antelope that looks like a goat) exists amongst the peaks though habitat pressure from increasing tourism poses an ongoing threat.
Sprouting up from swampy lowlands like giant sugar cones, the karst peaks create breathtaking landscapes. Remote beaches are accessible but would require serious hiking to reach. I wish I’d had more time so I stopped at the touristy fishing village within the park instead of climbing steep mountains. From there a fast boat will take you across a shallow channel to a small island and the Than Phraya Nakhon, a large cave which is famous for King Chulalongkorn’s royal visit in the late 19th century, the same cave his father King Mongkut visited to witness the solar eclipse and where he coincidentally caught malaria which caused his death six weeks later.
Sad to say, I was bored by the whole exercise. The boat ride was overpriced, the water dirty, the cave littered and the island utterly disappointing. It looked so much better from a distance. Up close, I regretted the experience.
After a couple hours desultorily wandering round the glum village replete with tacky shops selling tourist tat, sleeping dogs bored out of their brains like me, I asked my guide if there was anywhere nearby to visit during the remainder of my one day tour. He was somewhat at a loss to provide alternative options. I’m not sure if he was being lazy or perhaps he misunderstood my wish to climb a mountain or walk in a mangrove swamp.
Being a heavy smoker, I forgave the guide his lack of energy, so we stopped at the Three Buddha Temple (Hoop Ta Khot) in the middle of paddy fields at the edge of the national park. The walk from the car to the temple was fewer than ten metres but he sat in the car anyway.
After an hour at that temple, me killing time by taking photos of the three Buddha images from as many angles as possible, we stopped at the Wat Khao Taklap near Hua Hin where I was the only visiting farang. A Siamese cat scratched at my bare feet, begging for a rub behind the ears. I thought, ’Funny this, my first Siamese cat in a Thai temple, how many trips to Thailand has it taken me to see a Thai cat in a Siamese temple?’ I think the sun was getting to me at that point so we drove back to the Let’s Sea Resort but not before I made a donation and bought a tiny brass Buddha statue in remembrance of the strange day. Incidentally, the view overlooking Hua Hin’s long beach is worth the climb to the top of the promontory where the temple.
By then I was ready for a Tom Yum Martini at the restaurant bar.
I watched the light change from a deckchair, sipping from my drink. Two Irrawaddy dolphins swam by not one hundred metres offshore. A bartender shouted ’Lohmaa!’ (Dolphin!), while a small crowd of beachcombers gathered, watching as the dolphins swam south towards the temple I’d visited earlier.
Was it another ordinary day at a Thai beach resort town?
I don’t believe there’s any such thing as ordinary.
Tom Neal Tacker travelled courtesy of Tourism Authority of Thailand and as a guest of Hansar Samui Resort & Spa and Let’s Sea Al Fresco Resort.