Koh Samet: island escape in Thailand
- Recommended for:
- Beach, Budget, Mid-range, Expensive
A short bus-ride from Bangkok brings you to the island of Koh Samet, where the superb beaches offer a perfect break from life in the big city
The taxi hadn’t moved more than a hundred yards in 20 minutes. An elderly monk in the back of the pick-up truck alongside us lit another cigarette and rested his arm nonchalantly on the tailgate. He was obviously feeling better about this than I was. Staring out at the clogged mass of rush-hour traffic, I realised it was time to escape from Bangkok. Don’t get me wrong - I love the place. I used to live there, and I’d go back in a heartbeat. But cities are cities, and not even Bangkok’s most loyal fan would deny that it has its downsides. Simply, there are times when you need a break.
Which is how I came to be a regular at the Eastern Bus Terminal. It’s only a stone’s throw from the Ekamai skytrain station, and if you turn up pretty well any time of the day you’ll be able to get a coach to Koh Samet within half an hour.
A coach? You can hop on a plane to Phuket or Koh Samui and be there in an hour, so why bother with coaches? Precisely because a lot of other people don’t. Most of the package tourists who descend on Phuket and Samui by the planeload wouldn’t touch Koh Samet with a bargepole. And that’s the first of many things the place has going for it.
Years ago I found my way to Koh Samui when there was nothing much there but coconut trees. The odd bungalows along the beaches were lit by oil lamps and there was little in the way of running water. A shrewd Australian I met gave a remarkably accurate forecast of what would happen to the island over the next few years. ‘Enjoy it before the airport gets here, mate,’ he concluded. ‘That’s the trick.’ Koh Samet has gone well beyond the oil-lamp stage (if you check in for a night at the Paradee Resort and Spa, you won’t see much change out of $500), but the fact that it still doesn’t have an airport has kept development on the island within bounds.
The journey is straightforward enough: a three-hour bus ride to the ferry at Ban Phe, half an hour on the boat, and that’s it. You can leave Bangkok after an early breakfast and be there in time to enjoy lunch with the sand between your toes, a cajeput tree shading you from the sun and a glinting curve of sea waiting to wash away thoughts of city life.
Luxury resorts like the Paradee and Ao Prao Resort are at one end of the scale. At the other there are still fairly basic bungalows, often in some of the prettiest spots, that you can get for under $10. If luxury’s not a major concern, then aim for one of the smaller beaches towards the south-eastern end of the island. The facilities are limited, but as long as you’re happy with a hammock by the sea, it doesn’t get much better than this.
The most popular part of the island is the strip of fine white sand that runs down the east coast from the tip of Diamond Beach (Hat Sai Kaew) across a little outcrop of rocks to Ao Phai Beach. Diamond is a favourite with Thai holidaymakers, who tend to be out in force at weekends and across public holidays. There are lots of restaurants, lots of shops, and more than a hint of overdevelopment. On Ao Phai, Silver Sand has modern, well-equipped bungalows and a good restaurant with unpredictable service. But if you’re over 25, be warned: it also has a nightly discotheque that rarely stops before three in the morning.
On my last visit I ended up at Samed Villa, whose bungalows are right at the end of the beach. In the evening they set out low tables in the sand. You choose your food at the barbecue then eat it in the light of small lamps within a whisper of the lapping sea. I don’t think I’ve ever felt the sheer bliss of being out of England in the middle of winter more intensely.
Running past the front of our bungalow was the track that leads through the trees to Ao Pudsa. For me, this is one of the prettiest spots on the island. The tattooists, masseuses, manicurists and fruit-sellers that ply their trade among the tourists still find their way here, but the atmosphere is more tranquil – think beachcomber rather than holiday resort.
Over the years larger islands have developed an inventive range of tourist attractions to fill up the hours – monkey shows, snake farms, waterfall excursions etc – but there’s little of this on Samet, apart from the inevitable water sports. You can hire a motorbike and spend the day bumping your way round the island’s potholed roads to get an idea of what it has to offer, but really Koh Samet is about beaches. And if what you’re after is a brief respite from the exhilarating buzz of Bangkok – or even from its less exhilarating traffic-jams – you won’t be complaining.