A week in Koh Samui is a vivid reminder that, despite the dense cannonball of despair that has been 2020, on a personal level we have been insanely lucky.
Lucky to have a family and a place to unexpectedly stay for 4 months in the UK. Lucky to get back to Thailand as soon as we did. Lucky to have stable jobs which haven’t been affected by the pandemic. And now lucky to travel in Thailand when 99% of the world cannot.
There’s been no extra work on our part, no smart predictions, no good decisions – it’s just been luck and circumstance.
That’s also been the thought in my mind after spending a week in Bophut, Koh Samui – there are decent places here that are absolutely flying, and great places that are on the brink of collapse. Just luck and circumstance.
Koh Samui in all its glory
This is the first time we’ve come to Koh Samui. It’s also our first break of longer than a few days in about 2 years, and it’s certainly the first and likely the last time we’ve been able to enjoy a Thai island in almost total solitude. Needless to say it’s been pretty darned great.
Historically we’ve been priced out of Koh Samui. The Bangkok Airways monopoly on the airport has meant prices 2-3x higher than to other destinations, and for the alternative flight-bus-ferry-vomit option via Surat Thani you may as well end up somewhere a bit more off the tourist trail than Koh Samui.
Given it positions heavily at foreign tourism, in normal times Koh Samui is also pretty expensive to stay on.
But with Thailand effectively closed to the outside world at present, the shoe is firmly on the other foot. Flights, hotels and activities are on offer at knock down prices, often less than half the normal rate. Koh Samui is suddenly an extremely good option and just a 45 minute flight from Bangkok. With our hotel just 10 minutes away from the tiny, charming airport, I can think of fewer easier places to get to.
Right now, I can think of few nicer places either. We stayed at the Hansar on Bophut Beach in a cavernous beach front room with this distinctly pleasant view from the balcony. The colours here are really something else.
The hotel is fancy without being fusty, and was also quite busy throughout our whole stay, mostly with Thai people visiting for a few days as well as some fellow foreigners presumably pinching themselves like us.
For those who simply can’t countenance the 9 steps it takes to get to the beach, there’s a swish infinity pool looking into the sea where a barman with the superbly apt name Beer will fuel you on 89 baht mojitos to your heart’s content.
Bophut Beach itself is deserted between sunrise and sunset, leaving us to sunbathe with just the peaceful sounds of the waves and the half-hearted building work going on next door – 5 minutes of drilling followed by a 6 hour break.
So basically we were lazy toads for almost the entire duration of this trip, and it was fantastic. Samui as an island is dreamy, all soft sand beaches and glittering, bath-warm sea. Lush, steep jungle covers the interior and a gentle breeze keeps the worst of the heat off your back.
We were also extremely lucky with the weather, a groundhog day of clear blue sky, sparkling green sea and thumping sun. I had pegged Thailand as being a washout in August and September, but apparently this isn’t the case for the Ang Thong cluster of Koh Samui, Koh Tao and Koh Phangan who see good weather this time of year, shielded from the southwest monsoon.
Around Koh Samui: The Ritz and the Rubble
With it annoyingly being inadvisable to sunbathe and drink fruity cocktails 24hrs a day for a week, we ventured out exploring a fair bit.
Koh Samui is more open and lively than I would have expected. Bophut, or the Fisherman’s Village (devoid of any actual fishermen, natch), is pretty upscale and it is attracting a lot of Thai visitors. There are shuttered shops and many restaurants are quiet, but it’s far from the ghost town we had expected.
However, those incoming visitors are largely here for the ‘gram, it appears. Coco Tam’s, a sprawling collection of beach bars and cafes, is the beating heart of Bophut – lit up in neon, bean bags on the sand, bursting with ‘features’ and the kind of trendy kids who love having photos taken while studiously looking disinterested near said features.
It is a study in girls dressed to the nines trailed by bedraggled boyfriends in boardies toting multiple cameras. We saw one girl attempting to walk casually towards the place wearing a floppy hat that had a diameter of at least four feet. It would be more accurate to say the hat was wearing her. On a windy day.
We felt a bit guilty finishing excellent cocktails and decent, proper Italian pizzas without even taking a picture, when apparently the etiquette is to take a snap, take a small bite, then ignore it.
This is of course unfair on both the crowd and what is actually a good bar and restaurant, but there’s a definite trend for style over substance which benefits some businesses and kills others.
My favourite example of the cool crowd was this lady in search of the perfect paddle board shot. She had the board. She had the paddle. She had the fully dressed man hiding underwater to stop her pitching into the sea. Use the slider below to see what I mean.
Coco Tam’s is busy by day and packed by night. It is justifiably good, but it’s also lucky in that its target audience is more or less the only visiting group to the island right now.
Most are less lucky. 100m away, off the beach, is a Thai restaurant called Aroy Dee run by a husband and wife. At Aroy Dee they serve delicious, lovingly home made Thai food for about 100 baht a plate, less than half of what you expect to pay here.
We visit for lunch three times. The lady who cooks serves up gorgeous, fresh made prawn cakes, proper garlic pork, a string of lovely, tasty food. She brings us plates of watermelon for free.
She tells us in a soft voice she hopes we can taste her heart in the food. Every time, we are the only customers that day. She says it’s been like that since March.
If you’re here, stop for lunch at Aroy Dee.
Here are two businesses who both do very good things for different crowds. The fancy one is booming, the homespun one is devastated. It feels so unfair. It must be especially galling for the many good places along Bophut to see a lot of passing traffic but with little hope of attracting that audience. It’s awful to be a Thai restaurant serving home-style Thai food on Koh Samui, because that’s not what an army of weekenders from Bangkok want. They get that every day in Bangkok. It’s not their fault. It’s not the restaurant’s fault. It’s just luck and circumstance.
I can go on.
On another day we saunter half a mile down the road to Infusion cookery school for a half day course. I am a keen home cook, much to the amusement of Thai friends in Bangkok.
This is the best cookery class we’ve done in Thailand. You pre-pick 3 from over 200 dishes to cook – we are taught to make soft shell crab, banana blossom salad and hunglay curry, all of which are excellent to eat and very well-taught by the chef, Praiwan. The whole thing is extremely good value.
Frankie is particularly excited by the food, and I manage to take a snap that I’m sure Infusions will be rushing to use in their promotional material…
Of course, we are the only customers. This disparity of fortune comes up time and again in Samui, and to understate the issue, it sucks. It’s surely the same story across Thailand and indeed across the world. As ever, you hope that a vaccine, treatment or solution isn’t too far away…
It is nice to see some doing well though.
On one evening we head towards the Big Buddha and meet friends at Sunset by Angelina. They dish out copious amounts of rosé, good food and a remarkable sunset, as promised. The place isn’t fancy but it bustles all night.
On another scorching, cloudless day we head out with Oceana Samui boat tours.
We have to club together to privately hire a boat between us and a superb, perma-chatting 70 year old Bangkok mother and her rather more reserved daughter, who are staying at the same hotel.
Jenni, the mum, flits between demanding key facts and figures from the tour guide in exact percentages to telling us in Thai and English how much she loves to visit Bath. She wears extravagant green shades, a felt hat and along with her daughter is great company all day. We can’t keep up with her – one moment she’s waxing lyrical about the Diana memorial in Hyde Park, the next she’s posing for photos, legs flung skyward, on the beach.
Going with Oceana Samui and their speedboats is a cut above the packed longtail boats puttering between islands. The guy who arranged it all, Dit, went out of his way to make sure we could go and helped find the other pair to join up with.
Our guide, Blue, and his small crew are relaxed and friendly, taking us to snorkel on the reefs by Koh Tan, then hop across to Koh Madsum to frolic with the family of pigs that live there.
I’m not sure why pigs living on a tropical island are so popular, but they are, and I’ve rarely seen Frankie this delighted. The few Thai people also making the trip on other boats are equally thrilled, literally chasing the hammy porkers down the beach for a photo.
At one point the pig urinates heartily onto a girl’s foot while she has her photo op with it. To her credit she is totally unperturbed, and I imagine the urine won’t go on Insta.
Although it’s mildly busy with Thai groups, there is no better time to visit somewhere like this. We stroll around empty puffs of pure white sand, stretching into a bath-warm turquoise sea. Normally this kind of paradise would be jam packed, so we appreciate what we have, lens flare and all.
After a good lunch on Koh Tan which Oceana have very kindly thrown in for free, we climb a palm tree at Jenni’s behest – I don’t doubt she could still do it – while she takes several weirdly lit pictures of us looking ‘romantic’ (her words).
Blue tells us that he’s worked 28 days of the last 30. He says in the worst month, March, he worked 20 of 30 days. He says it quietly, like it’s a guilty secret. But business has been good, and we’re glad for them. They’re also running at a big discount at the moment so their tours are very reasonable – to privately rent the boat, crew and guide + do the excursions + tranfers for half a day was 10k between the 4 us, which is unbelievable value.
We hear a similar story at 2 Fishes, a knockout Italian restaurant on Bophut’s main street. Along with Coco Tam’s, this is the place that is consistently busy. The first night we eat there, the chef/owner asks if we have a reservation. We almost laugh – the restaurant is empty at 7.15. He squeezes us into a corner spot.
15 minutes later the place is heaving, the open kitchen a well-oiled machine with added fire and the occasional dead fish.
A table of 20 already battered people pours out of of minivans and order everything. Several reservations turn up, and in keeping with the area the lady next to us refuses the menu and asks only for things she has seen on Instagram.
The chef describes the fickle concept of the daily catch and she is disappointed but accepting. Her meal arrives, she takes a picture, she takes a bite, she ignores it. Her partner is left to make a heroic, doomed one man attempt on both the gigantic fish and the towering pile of bruschetta.
We go predictably mental on some of the best Italian food and local seafood we’ve had in or out of Italy. Returning a few nights later on a quieter Wednesday, the chef tells us in the same hushed and slightly disbelieving tone as the boat crew that his place has done fine. That his place is full most nights.
It’s the same tone of voice from both the lucky and the unlucky. That whichever way their luck has fallen, they can’t quite believe it. That they have no idea what comes next, because how could anyone?
Everyone we speak to gets to a point, mid-sentence, where they forget us completely and think about what comes next. That’s what many of us are thinking anyway, and if you own a business that relies on tourism it must be omnipresent.
So while we were beyond lucky to be in Koh Samui now, I hope that this is a truly once in a lifetime experience. I hope that we come back to a crowded beach and busy street. I hope we get priced out.
I hope for something closer to normal. For us, this has been one of the best holidays we’ve ever had, but for everyone, I hope it will never happen again.