For us, Samui optimised the fabled Thai islands, Samui was our Nirvana. It's white powder beaches, it's lush forests that hid tumbling waterfalls, it's nightlife of beach barbecues and bars. We were a nippy 2 hour ferry ride away. En route to the ferry port the driver was surprised that we were going from the Raja port rather than the Lomprayah port. Not even the locals used the Raja port, he kindly notified us. This sent our imaginations into overdrive. The tickets were cheap...were we going 'Goat and chicken' class?
The ferry pulled in and it was a rust bucket. Swallowing hard, we boarded and took two seats at the back of the boat. We had a really pleasant journey, it was smooth, there were other foot passengers and we arrived on time.
Our transfer at the Samui end was another matter, they either forgot about us or didn't want to leave until the minivan was full. So we waited for 45 minutes before asking again and we were finally shown to our car. The driver dithered and delayed until he sheepishly asked if we'd mind waiting another hour until the next ferry arrived, we told him that we'd already been waiting an hour and we had to get to the hotel. He remonstrated for a while before finally driving us to Lamai. Just outside of town he pulled over and asked us where the hotel was, we gave him the address but he said he didn't know the street and sat there arms folded waiting. We asked him to ask a local for directions, he refused. Jan used his satnav to try to find the address which was in Thai, the driver laughed and said the satnav had never worked and he only used it as a clock. We got out the Thai phrasebook and asked the guy in Thai to ask for help, this seemed to trigger something in his brain and he suddenly drove on. Within 5 minutes we had arrived at the hotel. We got out bewildered as to what had just happened.
Lamai is a sleazy, overcrowded party town. There are 5 types of establishments here, bars (of differing respectability), supermarkets, restaurants, massage parlours (of differing respectability) and travel agents and really not much else. We were devastated. We knew we were coming to a tourist area but this was off the scale. It's the sort of place where you wipe your feet when you leave but it was home for a few days and we had to grin and bear it.
The beach was busy but not overly crowded, in part this was because it was so narrow, it wasn't wide enough to lay down on but also because of the full moon, the waves were enormous and they thundered down upon the sand relentlessly. The beach was nice to walk along and a handful of restaurants and hotels offered comfortable looking seating areas to have a drink and watch the tide roll back and forth.
The beach scene was a breath of fresh air after seeing the seedy street life not 15 metres the other way.
We were here for New Year's Eve and we had to make the best of it, we decided we'd head back to the bars in the evening and try to choose a bar that we wanted to celebrate 2013 in. Our walk found us wandering into a night market, the stalls were predominantly selling fake 'designer' clothes, bags and watches - the usual junk found in most Thai night markets. There were also a few street bars, tiny counters that sell cocktails or spirits and mixers for 50 baht (£1.00). We ordered two rum and cokes and took a seat on some steps with the other drinkers. We took a sip, our lips puckered, our eyes screwed up and shivers ran down our spines, these were good drinks. We had to buy an extra coke to weaken the things, and we didn't go back for seconds.
New Year's Eve rolled round and we plumped on an Aussie bar to see in 2013, it was a higher end place with no dubious characters. We blew a few days budget in a single go but the cocktails were good and the live band kicked out some great sing a long anthems but generally it was pretty low key for us. Somewhere near midnight (it was 11:50 by my watch) they announced it was the new year and we were all ushered out the front for an amazing ariel firework display and it was impressive.
We finally decided we'd had enough about 3am, we sauntered across the road where the street food was still being sold. Jan ordered something and as we stood waiting for it to be cooked, one of the stall owners offered Jan a drink. To my amazement, she accepted a huge whisky and coke, had a brief chat in Thai/English and off we went when the food was ready. 5 minutes from home and we walked passed a massage parlour where the all-female staff were in a circle have a drink and a dance. I feel a tug on my arm as Jan pulls me in to join them, we have a dance, they laugh a lot at us and we go on our merry way. 3 minutes from home Jan wants some chips, we stop off at a bar and get some. 2 minutes from home, a lady walks passed with a hat that looks like a shark, Jan wants that hat and strikes up a conversation with the bemused lady, Jan puts on the hat, photos are taken and we're back en route home. 20 minutes after leaving a bar 5 minutes away, we made it! But I had left her spring rolls at the massage parlour. Tough!
The next day, I'd like to say we woke bright eyed and bushy tailed. We didn't. We were rotten and we vowed NEVER to drink again...
Let's fast forward to 2nd Jan. We decided not to go to the rum distillery but instead took a walk to Hat Chaweng, the next major town on from us. It was about 10 kilometres of moderate hills but the day was overcast and the going wasn't too bad. The road hugged the coastline and every so often we'd get a glimpse of the turquoise sea below.
We reached Hat Chaweng, the town is a bigger than Lamai, but looks very similar. The beach however is completely different, it's long and wide, it's bustling with life and is entirely lined by hotels and bars for as far as the eye can see. The sea is a little calmer and entices people in for a swim or to play. It feels happier here. We sit for a few hours and watch the sun go down, the reward for our long walk.
Back in Lamai and the town is noticeably quieter after the new year celebrations both in numbers of people and level of noise from the bars.The restaurants and bars that were full two nights ago were all but empty. It's was like the party was over and the lights were on, waiting for the stragglers to leave. But for us walking around in the calmer environment was a pleasure.
We felt invigorated by our previous days walk and decided to do another (we were still not quite ready for the distillery) . There are a couple of rock formations in the area, Hin Ta and Hin Yai (grandfather and grandmother) and they apparently look like the male and female, erm, er, you know...bits. We walked a couple of kilometres to them and sure enough the grandfather rock did look a little bit like a knob. But there were loads of rocks that had cracks in and we couldn't see any that was particularly anatomically correct for the grandmother so we photographed all the crevices and even some that looked like bums when we squinted (male or female it was hard to tell, we'll it is Thailand).
We continued our walk along the coastal road until we came across Wat Sila Ngu & Sila Chedi. This small temple complex is breathtakingly beautiful. The ornate red temple that loomed in front of us as we entered the gate was simply jaw dropping, we'd not seen anything like it, sculpted depictions of Buddha, fiery dragons, monstrous guardians wielding clubs. All these plus thousands of intricate figures of animals and other beings bombarded us in a visual overload. Inside was a bit calmer but all four walls were adorned with terracotta coloured scenes of the life of Buddha, each scene cast in 3D as the red plaster protruded from the wall.
Outside there was a gold Chedi, we've seen a few of these before in Bangkok and Chiang Mai but none of the previous ones had a location like this. The Chedi was at the edge of a small cliff, at its rear a stone serpent lined staircase led down to a treelined beach. A small stretch of golden sand lay in each direction and as the bay curved round, we could see the small fishing town of Hua Thanon about another kilometre away.
Back up on the road the short walk to Hua Thanon was broken up by frequent visits to the beach for photos. Sadly much of the beach in this area is covered in rubbish, both flotsam washed up from the sea but also from people using a small piece of paradise as a dumping ground. It took me back to a similar situation in Trivandrum, India and again, I couldn't help thinking that there must be a better way of disposing of local rubbish.
Hua Thanon is a small Muslim fishing village that offers visitors a glimpse as to what Koh Samui used to be like, before the tourist boom. It's rustic (some might say rundown), on the sea front little houses were set on rickety looking stilts and from out of the sea white concrete steps, most with gaping holes led a precarious path to the doorways. Wandering round the small market was interesting though a little gory by the butcher stalls which line up side by side with clothes stalls and fishmongers alike, it's a one stop shopping experience for sure.
Back on the road and we head back toward Lamai, about a kilometre before we reach the town we visited what looked like it was going to be a scenic extravaganza. The Valentine stone, a waterfall and a viewpoint all in one location, we couldn't pass it by. We walked up the track to the sights and paid the 80 baht to enter the 'park'. Literally 10 steps in we were stood looking at a sign that pointed to the Valentine stone, which if we tilted our heads sideways and imagined really hard, it looked ever so slightly like a lopsided heart. Next to it a 20 foot high rock that had a trickle of water running down it, like a tramp urinating up a wall, here was our waterfall. That left the viewpoint. Dare we even bother? We did and it was a nice 15 minute walk up through the forest until to the viewing platform. Our view across the surrounding hillocks that then swept down to the sparkling sea was well worth the entrance fee.
Samui still has natural beauty, you have to now go and look for it but it can be found and for us, we got a little feel of what we, perhaps naively, expected from this faraway island.
Koh Phangan next and the half moon party (gulp).