So Hidden

"So Hidden" means the name of Koh Samui in my language; being one of the most popular island resorts in Thailand, choosing the Hebrew translation of the name as a title for the journal was deliciously irresistible.


Choosing Sides

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by SeenThat on March 25, 2009


"Choosing Sides" I named this entry and with a good reason; being an island roughly rectangular in shape, deciding where to stay in Koh Samui means choosing a side.

The choices are clear; the western coast faces the mainland and is the arrival place to the island. It offers the best sunsets and the only sizable town, Nathon. The northern side has a few good beaches but its main role is being the access point to other islands in the area, namely to Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Tao. The eastern coast is where the star beaches, Chaweng and Lamai, are; sadly that means hyper-super-mega-development. The southern side is rather isolated, offering the very few beaches that could be defined as undeveloped. The inner parts of the islands offer several attractions like butterfly gardens and waterfalls.

Choosing sides here is not a definitive event, moving around is possible and even recommended. This richness of opportunities is what transforms Koh Samui into an extremely varied and desired destination despite its overdevelopment.

Reaching the Island

This is the type of destination you cannot walk there; being an island some type of travel machine must be chosen. The fastest and simplest choice is by air. Sadly, that means missing most of the landscape in the way there. Bangkok Airways spans the distance in less than ninety minutes, offering around ten flights per day, depending on the season, arriving at the airport and buying a ticket on the spot is a real option. A more attractive option is flying with Thai Airways to Surat Thani and continuing there by ferry. The last offers unforgettable views of the Gulf of Thailand and the ragged, green line of the mainland.

Surat Thani is connected to Bangkok also by train, meaning that it is possible to travel there by train and continuing by ferry. Sleeper cars exist, but traveling by night means missing the lush views of southern Thailand.

Another option is traveling by bus; considering the high quality of these in Thailand this may be the most attractive one for this trip. VIP buses leave from the new southern bus terminal (deep within Thonburi, bus 4 reach it from the Victory Monument) at all hours, offering very comfortable seats, meals, snacks, coffee, movies, air-conditioned, and ten hours of awesome views along the way. What else can a traveler ask for? The last leg of the trip is done on the ferry from Surat Thani. Of course, cheaper buses to Surat Thani exist; from there the ferry can be booked independently. However, since the pier is away from town that means an extra expense and this approach ends up costing about the same.

Traveling within the Island

Traveling within the island is simple since there are only two options: by taxi or tuk-tuk, or by renting some type of vehicle.

Small motorbikes are recommended, though they create the annoying duty of looking for them while on the beach. If choosing to move around by taxi or tuk-tuk, bargaining and setting the trip’s price before boarding the vehicle is essential. It is possible to travel across the island by tuk-tuk for about two dollars.

Accommodations

Being one of the most developed resorts in Thailand, there is an awesome variety of hotels crowding almost every beach along the island’s circumference. The only thing all of them have in common is that they are more expensive that in most of the rest of Thailand, maybe with the exception of Phuket.

If searching for cheaper options, then rooms in private houses and guesthouses are available in the town of Nathon. The only drawback of this option is that is the arrival port to the island, meaning it does not offer beaches. However, the island is tiny and moving around is easy, so that this is not a real limitation.

Weather

"Turquoise waters" may seem a strange definition of the weather, but I have nothing more to say about it in Koh Samui. Regardless the deason, gulf waters are gorgeous; though from October to December it gets rainy due to the monsoons. Warm rain on a beach; who cares?

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White sand beaches by turquoise, warm waters; refreshing breezes and smiling denizens await the traveler here. What better way of taking a vacation within the vacations that visiting Koh Samui?

Fishing Piers, Seafood and Sunsets

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by SeenThat on March 26, 2009




Koh Samui is the island that began the tourism boom in Thailand; despite the development that followed its discovery by the tourists, it has an overwhelming beauty. The boat reaching it crosses incredibly beautiful turquoise waters spotted with small islets; this view justifies the trip by itself.

Layout

On the southwest coast, Nathon is Koh Samui’s capital and main administrative center, as well as main port, commercial center and travel hub. As such it resembles a regular Thai town more than any other spot on the island.

Yet, it is small enough for exploring it by foot. Two piers are located at the north end of town, while a promenade stretches south from the piers. Another road runs parallel to the promenade; both are connected by a several small streets. A large fresh market is along the inner road. Typical Thai shop houses line the streets.

Travel Hub

The bus terminal – and this is an overstatement - is next to the piers, in an area hosting several travel agencies selling bus, boats, train tickets and flights to everywhere in Thailand and even to popular international destinations. Renting motorbikes and other motorized vehicles for touring the island is also possible here; bank services are well developed.

The islands of Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Tao and the Angthong National Marine Park can be reached with boats departing from these piers, though the beaches on the northern side of the island (see that entry in this journal) also offer that option.

Beaches and Sights

Nathon doesn’t feature proper beaches, the only swimming beach on the western side of the island is on Lipa Noi, south of Nathon and next to Lipa Yai (in Thai "Yai" means "big" and "noi" means "little"), where water buffalo fights take place. Lipa Noi is quiet and rather undeveloped while compared with Chaweng and Lamai, but it is nonetheless a worthy beach with probably the best sunsets in the island; facing the mainland, its waters are calmer than on the eastern coast of the island.

A point to remember is that arriving by plane from Bangkok may be faster – especially since the airport is next to Hat Chaweng, the main beach on the island – but the views along the ferry trip from the mainland are unmatched. Rainforest covered hills seem to drop into the water, blue-green islets creates magical sights and the shoreline views from Nathon may be the best in the island.

In addition to these, the fishing fleet offers views of extraordinary beauty. During the evenings, they bring to shore the seafood to be served at the town’s restaurants. The best of these are located on the southern side of the promenade, opposite the piers.

Winning Strategies

The island is big enough to offer a wide variety of environments and beaches; like in other Thai islands, the beaches facing the mainland are considered less good and thus are not very popular. The last fact opens a gate to various interesting options for budget travelers.

Since the distances in the island are short, it is possible to find a guesthouse within one of the settlements facing the mainland, which are less expensive and then visiting the beaches on the opposite side of the island during the day. Rooms in private houses and guesthouses are available in for rent in Nathon

Moreover, despite their fame, the inner beaches are very attractive and offer a real opportunity to find a semi-isolated spot. The people on this side are friendlier and less profit-driven. Looking with care, pleasant surprises can be found: along the coast road I found a shiny and spotless Japanese espresso machine operating from within a feeble bamboo hut.

Shopping

Nathon features many shops and boutiques, including tailors that would make that perfect suit while the client sunbaths elsewhere. Most items a traveler may search can be easily found here, including within several supermarkets and department stores. Convenience stores are conveniently scattered around.

Thinking of the way back, also Thai items like silk, antiques, lacquer ware, paintings, gold and silver, wood-carvings, precious gems, Buddhas and other souvenirs are available. If buying one of those ubiquitous, Buddha's tiny statues, care should be taken to ensure that taking it out of the country is permitted.

It is worth mentioning that Nathon is less expensive than Chaweng, Lamai and the other centers in the island, despite it offering the same items.

Hin Lad Waterfall

Amidst the rainforest, the Hin Lad Waterfall is a couple of kilometers south of Nathon and can be reached through a special path; it features several fresh water pools than allow swimming in them.

Koh Samui’s Northern Beaches

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by SeenThat on March 25, 2009




If advancing northwards from Nathon – the main arrival port in Koh Samui - the first cluster of beaches will appear on the northern side of the island. Mostly overlooked, they offer unmatched sights and access to other islands. Shared trucks, taxis and tuk-tuks are the best way of traveling among the several attractions of the area.

Hat in Koh Samui

The most important Thai word to keep in mind while visiting the southern parts of Thailand is "hat;" it means beach and always precedes the name of a beach.

Hat Maenam, Hat Bophut and Hat Bang Rak are three beautiful beaches in the northern side of Koh Samui, which are less popular than the ones at the eastern coast, despite not being less enjoyable; maybe thus they should be given special attention.

Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Tao

Koh Pha Ngan is an island north of Koh Samui, while Koh Tao is another one located north of Koh Pha Ngan. This trio was developed in sequential order, beginning with Koh Samui.

After the last was developed, tourists began travelling to Koh Pha Ngan (which is the best candidate for the secret island described in Alex Garland’s book The Beach) and afterwards to Koh Tao.

Koh Pha Ngan is very similar in spirit to Koh Samui, while Koh Tao caters mainly for scuba diving and snorkeling. Both islands can be reached from Surat Thani on the mainland or from Koh Samui. If travelling from the last, boats depart from the piers at Nathon, Hat Maenam and Hat Bophut.

Hat Maenam

The first beach north of Nathon, is called Hat Maenam and is located roughly at the center of the island’s northern side. Apparently, the main reason it is underrated is its featuring golden sand instead of the white in the other beaches of the island.

As a result, it is among the most inexpensive beaches in the island, but despite that it offers some of the best views: Koh Pha Ngan is in front of it. Another attraction in the area is fishing in the blue waters.

The beach features a pier offering boats to Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Tao and offers the calmest waters in the island since the beach is protected by the nearby Koh Pha Ngan. Wood structures house restaurants, bars and hotels, giving – as all this side of the island – a taste of traditional Thailand. However, the Santiburi Resort, one of the oldest and most exclusive hotels in the island, is here together with the largest golf course.

Hat Bophut

Hat Bophut is just east of Maenam and can be reached from there by foot. It is known also as the Fisherman's Village. The beach features a pier offering boats to Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Tao together with fishing activities. Modern, but ugly, cement paths connect here a mishmash of traditional wood houses with more modern structures; the alleys offer attractive views of the shore. Despite the beach lack of fame, it offers awesome views of Koh Pha Ngan and the northern shores of Koh Samui. A visit here is best if combined with a visit to Hat Maenam, since the last is better developed.

Beyond that, Bophut offers a very good selection of coffee shops. The shore may not be the prettiest in the island, but the views of Koh Pha Ngan more than compensate for that.

Temple of the Big Buddha - Wat Phra Yai

East of Bophut is Hat Bang Rak, which is better known as the Big Buddha Beach. Expectedly, a tall golden Buddha can be seen atop a low hill. Built in 1972, it is the main landmark in the whole island; despite its lack of artistic interest, it is worth a visit due to other features of the site.

At its base are additional statues and a wide staircase leading to it; the last is delimited with naga (mythological serpents) banisters. Mighty guardians and warriors fighting from elephants’ backs are among the main sights in the surrounding structures. Restaurants and shops offer additional points of attraction for the travelers. Great views of the sea and the surroundings can be enjoyed from there, despite the low altitude of the site.

Regardless of the attraction, the beach is not very good, maybe as a result of the ferries leaving from here and traveling to the adjacent Koh Pha Nghan. Moreover, the nearby airport is a source of undesired noise.

Choeng Mon

The last beach in this review is Choeng Mon, which is located roughly on the northeastern corner of the island, just north of Chaweng. It is with no doubt the most under-developed beach in the northern and eastern sides of the island and worth a dedicated visit of those seeking quiet; especially so since that every time it gets too quiet, Chaweng – one of the two main beaches in the island – is a few minutes away.

A Simple Kind of Beauty

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by SeenThat on March 26, 2009




On the eastern side of Koh Samui, are its two main beaches: Chaweng and Lamai, the last being the southernmost and slightly less developed. These two are the counterparts of Patong in Phuket, offering water sports, top-end hotels, open bars and expensive restaurants for endless crowds of tourists; during the nights, they seem to be more alive than during the hot, sleepy days.

A point to keep in mind is to beware of booking a hotel room before reaching the area or seeing pictures of the location; I even recommend checking the location on an accurate street map. Simply, many of these are not along the shore. Some of them are located along the inland roads (despite their address implying being nearby a beach), and despite providing nice views of the rainforest, most travelers arrive here for the beaches.

Hat Chaweng

If having the means, Chaweng is the place to settle while in Koh Samui; few beaches in Thailand can match the beauty of its simple lines and relaxing colors: white sands and turquoise waters. A crescent shaped shore ends at a ragged line of rainforest hills ending by the sea.

This is the longest beach in the island and despite not being an official town, the surroundings have developed to such an extent that the settlement is probably larger than Nathon, the only town in the island. The inland road connecting the beach with Hat Bophut to the north (see that entry in this journal) is lined with buildings, including many hotels. For sure, Hat Chaweng offers much more restaurants, coffee shops, bars, hotels and other entertainment centers than any other spot in the island and is thus the main nightlife area. Roughly three kilometers long, the main road along the beach is known as the Mango Strip.

As in the rest of the island, the ground rises quickly toward the inland hills, thus the settlement is narrow and long, following the beach with one main axial road. Further inland is the Chaweng Lake, offering beautiful views, especially if climbing up the hills so that it can be seen together with the nearby beach. Hotels are available also next to the lake. Note that what looks like an island (if watching from the northern side of the lake) is actually an isthmus connected to the island at the southern side of the lake. The views are impressive because it seems that the inland rainforest is connected to the beach; the buildings occupying space stolen from the tropical trees. This creates an irresistible landscape of blue (sea and skies), white (sands) and green (everything else).

North of the lake is the island’s airport and beyond it is the northeastern corner of the island with the Choeng Mon Beach. Note that the road traveling around the island and connecting the main beaches enters the inland at this part, completely avoiding Choeng Mon.

The elevated point connecting the beach with Lamai to the south provides the best viewpoint in the island; visiting it in the late afternoon will lead to postcard like photographs. A small beach called Chawen Noi (Little Chaweng) is located between Chaweng and Lamai.

Hat Lamai

Hat Lamai is the second largest beach on the island, providing the same sparkling white sands as Chaweng. Shaped as a crescent and featuring palms reaching the shoreline and granite boulders at its northern end, Hat Lamai is slightly less developed than Chaweng. Since the area is less crowded than its northern neighbor, it invites staying there with occasional visits to Chaweng, whenever feeling in a more social mood. However, don’t get me wrong, Lamai still offers plenty of shopping and entertainment.

Hin Ta and Hin Yai

Hin Ta and Hin Yai is a popular rocky spot between Lamai and Hua Thanon; the last is a fishing village of Muslim population, the original denizens of the area. The rocks are shaped as genitals and represent two doomed lovers who drowned themselves here, because their families disapproved of their relationship.
On Both Beaches

A point to keep in mind is that these two beaches feature ambulant vendors approaching sunbathers. Snacks, food, cold drinks, souvenirs, massages and even henna tattoos would be offered every few minutes creating an annoyance that does not exist in less crowded beaches.

On the other hand, the massive crowds mean that water-sport facilities are for rent here, including jet-skis, kayaks, speedboats, and windsurfing, waterskiing, wakeboarding, parasailing facilities, among any other imaginable water-based torture device.

Buddhas and Butterflies

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by SeenThat on March 26, 2009


Koh Samui’s inland features an almost inaccessible rainforest set atop high hills; yet, the area features several attractions and is worth of a visit even if the main reason for visiting the island are its beaches.

Traveling there is possible in two fashions: with a rented vehicle or with a local taxi or tuk-tuk. Over time I have used both transport methods. Taxis and tuk-tuks are highly effective while traveling among beach locations, among places the traveler wants to stay for a while but are cumbersome if traveling between attractions that demand short visits, In this last case, they tend to become expensive affairs including the uninvited company of drivers. Thus, while visiting the inland attractions, the best strategy is to rent a small (100cc) motorbike. Those are readily available at all the settlements in the island.

Across Koh Samui



Na Muang Waterfall

Located a few kilometers south of Nathon, and up Road 4169 from Ban Thurian is the Na Muang Waterfall. The site includes two waterfalls. The first is eighteen meters high and can be reached with the vehicle. The second is thirty minutes away by foot through a comfortable path and is eighty meters high. It is the highest waterfall in the island.

Magic Buddha Garden

The Magic Buddha Garden is a half hidden attraction, deep in the hills of Koh Samui. The several statues were built by a single man - Nim Thongsuk - during more than twenty years, beginning in 1976. Unluckily, the only paved road belongs to the army is is usually closed.

However, the temple can be accessed with any of the jungle tours offered by travel agents. Most of these tours access the rainforest through Hat Lamai.

Koh Samui's Highest Point

In the way to the Magic Buddha Garden, Koh Samui’s highest point is passed. From there are good views of the island, especially on the north to south axis. Mainland Thailand can be also seen in clear days.

Samui Aquarium

Located in Hua Thanon, a Muslim village south of Hat Lamai, the Samui Aquarium is open daily between 9 AM and 6 PM. The marine life displayed there includes corals, colorful tropical fish and sharks, which can be enjoyed without entering the water.

Strangely enough, the institution also features birds and tigers. For a hundred baht, the visitor can have his picture taken while hugging one of those mighty hunters.

Na Tian Butterfly Garden

This attraction is located at the bottom of the hill in the southern side of the island. It displays butterflies native of the area, a bee house, and an insect museum, displaying rare insects from Thailand and other countries.

Samui Snake Farm

Not far from the butterflies garden, on the island’s southwest corner is the Samui Snake Farm. This site offers shows every day at 11 AM and 2 PM, which include king cobras and giant phytons (the last lives in the island’s rainforests) shows in the snakes category, as well as shows with crocodiles, scorpions and centipedes. Cock fights are also featured.

The site may seem strange, and it is so; however, it shows some of the local fascination with these creatures. Fried scorpions are a popular snack in Thailand. Maybe here it is worth mentioning that two related Guinness Book of World Records were achieved here; namely "The Longest Stay with Scorpions" and "The Longest Stay with Centipedes."


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