Sitting in Starbucks, sipping a cappuccino and updating these blogs, I seem to have developed an affliction I shall refer to as "Starbucks arse" - this is what happens when, after spending a couple of hours sitting at an exotic branch of this particular coffee chain, writing up all your travel notes and rearranging them into an order which makes some sort of sense, you decide finally to get up and discover that the air conditioning hasn't worked and that you have produced enough sweat to stick you to the chair. Needless to say, this is not a pleasant sight to behold and many of you are probably wondering why I would want to share it with you - but I feel that a warning is in order, just in case any of you feel like emulating my travels and taking off to exotic climes with laptop in hand. "Starbucks arse", of course, means something entirely different to fans of the new Battlestar Galactica.
At 6.30 this morning to the second, my breakfast of steaming hot bacon and eggs, toast with Australian Honey, tea and pineapple chunks arrived and was set down on the balcony by a man who didn't even stop bowing for long enough for me to see if he had a face. I then treated myself to the supreme indulgence of sitting outside my French doors, watching the sun come up as I pictured the rest of Pattaya rolling over in bed and pushing the snooze button. Well, you've got to indulge yourself occasionally, haven't you? I should probably point out, however, that you can actually do things like this in Thailand without requiring a bank loan first, and that I haven't simply lost the plot and decided to blow my entire budget on extravagant luxuries. The cost of living here, even when you're staying in top of the range hotels like the Dusit Thani, is next to nothing. My companion at dinner last night - who, I should point out rather hastily, was a random middle aged Thai gentleman who took it upon himself to sit at my table, and not a red-dressed nymphette from the other end of the strip - nearly choked on his meaty chunks when I mentioned casually that I was paying 4,500 Baht per night for my hotel room. He was only paying 10,000 a month for his house. Choking on your meaty chunks, incidentally, is one of the services they offer on Walking Street.
An hour and a half later, because you simply can't rush breakfast in paradise, I decided it was about time I made an effort to get ready for my day trip. Slapping on as much sun lotion as I could squeeze from the bottle, I immediately wiped it all off again with the mosquito repellent and headed for the bus. To reach Koh Samet, or Ko Samet, or Samet Island, or Samed - it seems to be something of a tradition over here to give things as many different names as possible - you must first get to the port of Ban Phe, from where the ferry departs. Unfortunately, what with Koh Samet bring such a popular destination and everything, nobody has thought to lay on a direct bus - so you can either book a day trip courtesy of your hotel's tour desk, or take a bus to Rayong Bus Station and another to the pier at Ban Phe, which is cheap but certainly not convenient. I took the former option, if only because it seemed to be rather easier to take the elevator down to the lobby and walk over to the tour desk than it would've been to spend the morning searching for a bus stop and then trying to get the driver to understand where I wanted to go. Also, organised tours tend to have their own boats waiting at the pier, and this saves having to queue for the last remaining space on a cramped ferry with several hundred other people. Again, we come back to the cost of living over here - even if you're staying in the poshest hotel in Thailand, booking an organised tour is going to be somewhat cheaper than it would be in most other places, and you've usually got the option of telling the hotel where to stick their prices and getting the same thing much cheaper from a nearby tourist information centre anyway. Just try not to book your tour in advance before you leave home unless you know for sure that you won't be able to get it at the last minute in resort - you'll end up paying much more for the same thing, as well as agency fees to everybody and their dog.
At only five square miles in size, Koh Samet isn't exactly the largest island you'll ever visit but is certainly one of the most beautiful. Its perfect white sandy beaches draw day visitors all the way from Bangkok who make regular trips to the island and consider it a weekend retreat from the stress of the city - no face masks and pollution filters required on Kah Samet. This means that you are just as likely to see Thai families enjoying the crystal waters surrounding the island as you are tourists, and ensures that the island is busy all year around. For this reason, you'll find plenty to do on Koh Samet, from diving and snorkelling to a wide variety of restaurants and cafes. Luckily, though, the island has so far managed to avoid recent efforts to change it by those in the government who wish to see the gulf of Thailand covered in hotels and bars. Sometimes, you arrive on an island and find it seemingly covered in more concrete than sand, but that's simply not the case with not Koh Samet. Here, you can still book a room in a beautiful beach front bungalow, wait for the tourists to leave in the evening and enjoy your own personal slice of heaven. Don't get me wrong - there are plenty of beach bars and eating establishments on the island, it's just that most of them are nothing more than simple shacks which look as though they might fall down at any moment and are run by residents of the island who use the money they earn from tourism to live rather than to pay some faceless parent company in Bangkok. Long live the revolution.
As with many other islands in this part of the world, boats cannot take you right into the beach. Becoming stranded on a tropical island because your ship has struck a rock and disappeared beneath the waves might sound like a slice of heaven, but probably starts to become a little old after a couple of weeks of eating nothing but fish and coconuts. Instead, day trippers are offloaded onto flimsy looking rafts out at sea and paddled to the shore. A more perfect way to arrive anywhere, I cannot imagine - except for Sainsbury's, obviously. That would just be weird.
Despite the ever present hoards of visitors, peace and tranquility is still very much the order of the day on Kah Samet. Because the island is basically no more than a massive sandbank with a forest in the middle, many people don't bother exploring any further than the first beach they come to - so if you're willing to walk around the edge of the island for a bit, you will almost certainly find somewhere semi-deserted fairly quickly. If you've arrived as part of a tour group, your guide will probably go around taking everybody's orders for lunch as soon as you arrive and then disappear into the restaurant - I found this to be something approaching magic, as there wasn't a piece of paper or pen to be seen anywhere, but sure enough everybody got exactly what they'd ordered come lunchtime when a gong sounded and we all crowded into the lunch hut like zombies. I had ordered, as a starter, a steaming bowl of onion soup - mainly because I've never had such a thing outside the UK that wasn't off the scale in terms of flavour. It could've been a bowl of hot water for all the colour it had when it arrived, but it was still the most amazing thing I'd eaten for several days, and I wanted to stand up and announce the pleasure my taste buds were experiencing to the room. Quite why tinned onion soup in the UK consists of a thick brown stew containing more onions than liquid and in which you can stand a spoon is beyond me - anywhere else in the world, you get a bowl of water with the flavour of a million onions. In the UK, you get a million onions in a brown sludge. What's that about? I tried once to make clear onion soup at home, and boiled far more onions than the recipe suggested until they all but withered up. The result - a bowl of slightly warm water with no flavour of onions whatsoever. So feel free to tell me what I'm doing wrong, or hassle the soup companies until they let me have clear onion soup in a can. But I digress.
There really wasn't much to do on Koh Samet except perhaps relax myself into a coma. The options presented to the group on arrival included lounging in a deckchair all day, snorkelling, swimming, hiring a Jet-Ski or eating until we burst. Occasionally, throughout the day, a salesman would stroll past with a bucket of fruit and wave it under my nose, but that was the only distraction. Eventually, when I became bored with bleaching my eyeballs on the beach, I kicked off my shoes and headed off to explore. It came as no great surprise to find nothing more exciting during my explorations than the occasional sign stuck on a palm tree which read "Next Beach - This way". Then, when it came time to head back, a very strange thing happened. I turned around and retraced my steps along what I thought was the path I had come, and emerged from the trees onto a totally unfamiliar beach - something which was particularly strange as I had been walking inland for some time. Lying under a tree with its tongue hanging out, the local dog managed to muster up just enough energy to turn its head toward me before concluding that I wasn't nearly interesting enough to justify any further effort. Somehow, on an island small enough to be drawn at full scale on a map, I was lost.
Picking what I thought seemed like the most likely path back towards the distant sounds of people playing beach volleyball, it wasn't long before I realised that the sounds were getting further away. Suddenly, I was walking along a dirt-track up a very steep hill, without any shade from the burning sun. A little voice inside my head insisted that, if I could just reach the brow of the hill, I would be on top of the world and able to to see exactly where I was, so on I trudged, my tongue hanging out like the dogs on the beach. I reached the top of the hill, but the track just kept on going. In the distance in front of me, I could see the brow of the next hill, followed by the brow of the hill beyond it, and on the horizon I was sure I could just make out a beautiful oasis of crystal clear water surrounded by a thousand copies of Liv Tyler in a bikini. With the benefit of hindsight, I feel that this might have been a mirage.
Then, almost as quickly as my ill-advised excursion had begun, it was over. Through the trees to my left, two girls appeared carrying a volley ball and being chased by a guy with his trousers around his ankles. In any other situation I may have had something hugely funny to say about this, but frankly I was far too happy to have rediscovered civilisation to care - so I chased after them until I found myself mysteriously back where I had started on the beach next to the restaurant. And there, on the sand next to me, was a flimsy wooden sign pointing back up the hill:
"Paradise Beach", it said, mockingly. Or perhaps it was another mirage.
About Simon and Burfords Travels:
Simon Burford is a UK based travel writer. He will be re-publishing his travel blogs, chapters from his books and other miscellaneous rantings on these pages over the coming weeks and months, and the entry on this page may not necessarily reflect todays date.