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Koh Samui
Pristine island to cash cow in 40 years

"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."  Doug Knell, Doug's Republic

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. 

Samui Big Buddha 

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.  

coconut SamuiThis 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 different.  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 outlets.  

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. 

Samui spa  Lamai beach   Na Muang Waterfall 
Scenes 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.  ThatKoh Samui pool villa 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 coconut trees.

  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.    
Map Koh Samui 
   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 Tao.

  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 Kenya or Yeonpyeong, the South Korean island North Korea shelled in November 2010.  Samui cat

  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.


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Fascinating Ideas You Could Care Less About

  Koh Samuiin Thailand has the coconut trees and spa culture. It's an island with diving and kiteboarding. Visit Big Buddha or get your cock sucked in Lamai or Chaweng by Thai bargirls or ladyboys.