Delightful Ko Samui (3 / 5) Trips To Lamai And To The South
Delightful Ko Samui (3/5) – Trips To Lamai And The South
Stayed long enough at Chaweng beach. As much as Chaweng isn't all beaches and bitches, Samui isn't all Chaweng and Chaweng Noi. There is famous Lamai beach and a lot of rather untouristed land further down the road. I want to see more and plan
to head south.
I drive my rental Honda Dream along the ring road near Lamai beach, happy to return to air-con and shower after some hours of pothole research on a hot Samui day. Suddenly, fat rain drops splash down – one of those surprise Samui downpours. On the other side of the road I see a default tour-internet-shop; they have a large awning and a bank outside. I pull along and sit down on the bank under the roof, from inside the lady smiles at me. I need internet anyway, but the two internet terminals are still occupied by two Rasta farangs. Another Thai motosai rider seeks shelter from the rain, too. Nice chap him: Sits down, offers me a cigarette and as I decline he lights himself one and puffs away into my face. He is from Udon Thani and works as a gardener; black as it gets. The dreadlocked westerners are still hacking into the PCs, when the rain suddenly is switched off. Mr. Udon Thani roars off, and I follow him on my way to Chaweng.
On Ko Samui, you get the usual 110 ccm four gear scooters for the usual 150 baht per day. If you are inexperienced, they also rent more expensive fully automatic Yamaha Nouvos. Many times, I set out for pothole research at about 3 p.m., a hot time. But then you arrive at your destination maybe at 3.30, so there are a few hours left for beach or forest walk. I do only few day-long excursions, it is simply too hot: After one hour I badly need a shower; the shirt hangs down on me like a soaked towel, I don't like walking into shops and restaurants like that.
I had the idea to leave Chaweng beach after a few days for a less crowded place with sunset view. But I skip that plan: The beaches on the western, sunset side of the island are mostly to shallow for swimming and just not so delightful. Also, the low afternoon sun is too strong even at 5 p.m. So I prefer to stay on Chaweng, facing east; it has good shadow as of 4 p.m. – nice for strolling and jogging. Occasionally I instruct my mobile phone to wake me up at 5.20 a.m. for the first rays of sunrise, but mostly the sun ascends behind Ko Matlang quite unspectacularly. At least it is cool.
From a beach bum's view, Samui has three streams of traffic. Closest to the water are the beaches itself, which often allow you to walk several kilometers. Immediately behind the sand is no road, but the bungalow blocks. Only after the bungalows comes the beach road, jam-packed with all kinds of tourist-oriented shops. Even further inland is road 4169, the ring road going around the isle. This layout is valid for the beaches of Chaweng, Lamai, Bophut, Choeng Mon and most places in the deep south or on the west coast around the harbour town of Nathon. Other beaches have no beach road, but are directly attached to the well used noisy ring road: Among them Chaweng Noi, Hua Thanon and Maenam; strolling, dining and window shopping there is even less delightful than in places that have a beach road apart from the ring road.
Samui's roads are a bit crumbling, but show no potholes. Still motorcyclists are in for a ride: even the main ring road features sand layers, mud layers, flooded sections and parts full of coconuts or palm tree rubbish. The very steep and curvy part between Chaweng and Lamai is tricky anyway. At any given time surprise rain showers plus gusty winds can hit you. The gullies on Chaweng beach road and other parts of the island are designed to fell motorcyclists; and when then roads are flooded – after ten minutes of downpour – you don't even see those gullies, you just crash into them through the wild waters that are gurgling down the lane.
Night rides offer more holiday entertainment: be ready to meet unlit super slow coconut trucks and all those slow pickup taxis ready for a sudden stop; plus the usual Thai assortment of dogs, cats, unlit strollers, unlit bicycles and unlit motosais that happily takes to the street after dark. There are many drunk/inexperienced farang drivers with completely unexpected behaviour; near Chaweng party zone they expose suicidal symptoms.
The ring road is dotted with signs "Please remember to drive ON THE LEFT"; plus they painted fat arrows on the asphalt that show which side is for which direction. Even on the driveway to my resort I meet tourists riding their Honda on the wrong side of the road – I get annoyed looks as they suspect me to be the irregular one. For tourists' sake, Samui should change to right-side-driving; Chaweng beach road could be renamed "Samui Scooter Range".
The ring road is also dotted with English language signs, guiding you to beaches or tourist attractions. Those signs peter out as soon as you leave the ring road and get into rural Samui. One night, after a sunset stroll on the empty beach north of Big Buddha, I get lost on my way back to Chaweng. I stop at a dark junction and have no idea where to turn. Finally another Honda rider shows up. I gesture him for help; a young Thai stops abruptly, almost sliding away on the sand covered asphalt. He politely instructs me how to find back to my air-con home. Khop khun krap, sabaidee khrap, chokdee khrap, and everybody roars off in his direction.
The friendly Samuians – native or not – seem always happy to give directions. But some parts of the island, especially the deep south, do not have many people to help you along. Here you need a map, and you get huge maps for free at any tourist point around the isle. There is the free "Samui Info Map" with a yellow cover, but it only shows locations of advertisers; some people recommend it for the mountainous parts of the island, altitudes appear with more detail. But I mostly prefer the "Samui Guide Map" that comes in a blue envelope; it seems to highlight about every single business on Samui, plus all waterfalls, pagodas and offices. It contains very good detailed maps of major beaches, and the advertisement is unobtrusive. By default it falls apart after two days, so I always keep a stock on hand. If I want to find a certain beach or road, I check on the map if the destination has any business like a bungalow resort or spa. Then on the main road I watch out for a sign to that business. With this system you make it to any destination on Samui – as there are businesses, pagodas or waterfalls on every road end, and the "Samui Guide Map" reveals them all.
Of course you can also tour Samui with one of the many pickup-taxis that look like Pattaya's baht Bus. At daytime, they collect passengers on their route for a fixed price of 20 to 150 baht depending on distance. It is just boring as they go so slow
to find more customers, and honk all the time. In the night, you mostly charter them for yourself. On one rainy night I need to go to the airport and back; so this is two times four kilometers. They ask for 300 and do not go below 250 baht for
the return trip. The drivers are mostly grim-faced bearded males; they definitely do not deserve the always charming beautiful Thai ladies who sit besides them – those lovelies explain the whopping prices to you with many smiles and polite "khaa"s.
After long beach strolls I use the pickup-taxis to get back to motosai or to the bungalow. Samui also has a lot of motorcycle taxis plus Bangkok-style "Taxi-Meter" Toyotas. I heard they never use the meter; I never use those taxis.
According to all books and leaflets, Lamai beach is the second-most important place for independent travelers on Ko Samui. It is about 10 kilometers south of Chaweng. I start motosai about 3 pm to get there. On the beach road, I stop at a makeshift one-barrel gas station and have a friendly talk with the attendant. After cashing 75 baht, he suddenly invites me to the shop next door; this is full of paintings with curvy nudes in the waves, white horses in the dark and other tasteful themes. Heck, my petrol man is a frustrated artist like me – I jump into first gear.
The road from Chaweng leads over a few steep hills. There are great views over Chaweng beach and other parts of the archipelago. They even built a few public car parks with signs like "Scenic View". But of course every single hill boasts three seafood venues and a snack stall. And should you feel the urge to book a diving trip in a booth with a view – the curves are full of them.
As usual, I find no public access or car park for the beach. To reach Lamai waterfront, I have to walk through the bungalow resorts. I park motosai at Star Bay, one of Lamai's northernmost resorts, where it enjoys fine security while I walk about.
Star Bay has cute real houses with several rooms, no sleeping boxes like elsewhere. I ask about rental prices at the restaurant. "Don't know", says the lady, "today manager no come." I fancy the only house that actually
faces the beach. "Not free", says the lady, "this one for manager".
When I finally overlook the whole stretched sand arch that is Lamai beach, I am quite shocked: There are no people! Coming from busy Chaweng beach, Lamai looks deserted. Funny, normally I would clearly prefer untouched, quiet, natural places. But after the noisy Chaweng days with all their distraction, I suspect there is something wrong with dead-quiet Lamai and its air of a graveyard. Or why should this beach be so empty?
As my feet dig their way south, I find the sand not as white and walkable as in Chaweng. Swimming seems ok, but it is not as flat and baby-friendly as some parts of Chaweng; at least it is definitely cooler. There are more bungalow places coming up towards the center and the south of the beach, but Lamai has no luxurious splendour as Chaweng. I even spot a few windowless triangular straw boxes that cater to backpackers or maybe to their dogs. Other bungalows are of solid concrete, sit right on the beachfront and have one big window plus terrace; however, on the attractive sea side those bungalows sport pure windowless concrete walls – window and terrace do not face the sea, but the neighbor's loo. In sharp contrast to Chaweng, very few bungalows look inviting, Lamai features only few swimming pools, and at dinner time I discover just one or two Chaweng style restaurants with lights and tables in the sand. There is however a whole block of noisy grotty reggae shacks that seat their patrons on very dirty straw mats in the sand; no place to pass out for the discerning traveller.
After a dinner on the beach's southern end, I find a small lane leading inland to the main road. I walk my way along a pitch black dirt track; cutting out of the bush, I am greeted with frenetic "Hello Misteeeeh!!" – I arrived at a parking
lot full of girlie bars. This goes on as I make it to the main road proper: lots and lots of girlie bar areas go off the main road, and then lots and lots more of them. This is Girlieland, and the girlie-farang ratio is about 10:1. But the strip
in Lamai also has quite stylish restaurants and pubs plus the usual supermarkets, travel-rental-internet shops and exchange booths; compared to Chaweng beach road, it is quiet and walkable. As Chaweng, Lamai is a very handy sex tourist destination:
if you desire blueberry yoghurt, The Economist and an Isaan stunner in your beachfront bungalow, you walk three minutes and grab it all from the main road.
On my stroll through side roads of Lamai, I see a nice peaceful scene: a ten-piece-family, young and old, lounging on the floor of their street side veranda and sharing dinner. A little later I run into a small market plus a very peaceful night food market that reminds me of Trat. Two tiny slices of real Thailand – I am looking forward to my onward travels in real Thai towns on the mainland.
Motosai is still waiting at Star Bay resort on the northern edge of Lamai beach. A pickup taxi brings me there and charges 40 baht for the two kilometers – this price won't go down "because night time, sir". I ride my Honda back at 11 p.m. on the curvy steep road between Lamai and Chaweng. There has been lightning on the horizon for hours. But I make it home dry and in one piece.
Outer Island – the South
With Chaweng and Lamai I have sampled the most famous tourist beaches. It is about time to venture further into the outback. So I board motosai for a trip to the beaches south of Lamai. From the resort's driveway in northern Chaweng, I have to ride about four kilometers along Chaweng beach road until the ring road is reached. And you wouldn't believe it, all those four kilometers I have to follow a loudspeaker car announcing a beer drinking contest at Reggae Pub. This crazy car does about 20 km/h, and no one can pass because of traffic from the other side. I hear the message about 500 times – the time, the day, the beer price -, and at the ring road I am a nervous wreck. What kind of an ego does one need to block whole rows of innocent traffic with a slow car and a dull message like this?
This time I pass without stopping at the sand and sea boomerang of Lamai beach and make it all the way to powerful phallic Grandfather Rock, Lamai beach's southern landmark. From here I walk south over some more sand. There are a few bungalow resorts here, and lovely swaying palm trees, but it is no longer a tourist beach: The waters are shallow and muddy, and this is one beach to keep on your shoes – not only broken shell, but also broken glass and other trash wait for your soles. After milling south for some time, the beach gets even dirtier, and then, you wouldn't believe it on Ko Samui, there are indeed: Thai family homes on the beach. Decrepit tin shacks they are, I guess fisherman's homes. It feels slightly like a Bangkok klong here, but the Samui variety looks even more miserable. There is a three year old boy. He stops chasing a three months old dog, stares at me wide-eyed, and then it happens: He smiles, even though not very much, and he says "Hello", even though not very loud. It's by far not the enthusiastic reception you get in Isaan or anywhere in rural Indochina, still it's a relict of real Thailand.
This part of the island, one beach south of Lamai, is known as Hua Thanon and lies straight on the ring road. They have this market here on the waterline where according to my sources all the big resorts shop for seafood. When I visit the market one early Sunday morning, it looks smallish, dark and shabby, no place for an interesting stroll, photogenic as a trash pit. But I walk further into what seems to be a Muslim village there. The atmosphere is different from elsewhere on the island; real stone houses built along a narrow stone road. Some houses have colourful decoration with broken tiles. Just a few ladies wear a scarf around the head or a chador. Then there is a smallish mosque, without minarets, but with muezzin howling via megaphone. I get no special attention as I walk on, ending up where I always end up on Ko Samui – in a coconut grove.
After Hua Thanon, the ring road turns west to the port town of Nathon on the west coast, skipping all of southern Samui. So I happily turn left onto small leafy road 4170. Now here Sabai-Sabai-Land sets in. Traffic remains thin, palm trees and other greenery provide good shadow, the olden ones lounge on wooden platforms around their homes, while the kids happily torture cat and dog. Even a few real buffaloes and cows add up to a Thai countryside illusion. The roads are mostly flat and ok, so this would make for good bicycling and jogging, too. Southern Samui sports a few scattered resorts and spas, but these businesses remain unobtrusive, different from the commercial beaches further north. After all, the south's muddy shallow beaches full of rubble reefs don't invite swimmers.
I return to southern Samui many times. I love the backwaters. It is here, on the junction of provincial roads 4170 and 4173, in a mini-market cum gasoline, that I meet my first and only original Samui native. As if it were somewhere in rural Thailand, the shop lady asks me "Khun yuu tee nai?" (Where are you from), while handling the petrol hose. I don't miss my chance to ask back, and yes, she is a born chao Samui. Her grandmother is Chinese, she says; Samui was once settled by Hainan Chinese.
Baan Khao is another delightful crumbling settlement down south, right on the water's edge. Small rocky islets line up on the horizon. Many houses here are "for rent" (signs in English only), and there is even a small real estate agency. When I call them, they promise to show me around more rental houses, but I never turn up. A few cute young ones play on the beach. They come running at me farang with happy faces. How lovely and innocent! I fancy a few nice photographs with kids, palms and sea, when I hear their voices: "Mister! Ten baht!" So I take out the camera to snap the scenery only, without the youngsters. Anyway they line up in front of me as if for a group picture. They look really sweet, but are they doing it for money? "Ao satang mai?", I ask (you want money?). They nod. No kiddie pictures on this beach. I walk a bit over the sand. As always, the beach looks nice. But the sand is far from the delightful white powder of Chaweng, Chaweng Noi or Choeng Mon. Actually you can tear up your soles here with broken glass or shells, and as always south of Lamai the waters are too shallow and muddy for any dip. I stumble into a fisherman working on his barge. I start to gather a few Thai words about the current seafood market prices. He turns to me farang with a happy face: "Mister! You go boat trip! Good price for you!"
On to Thong Krut on the southern tip. Here provincial road 4173 scratches the coast for a moment, and there is a small string of low key tourist restaurants. It is sunset time by now, and with no food after the breakfast buffet, I am really in for dinner. I stop at the first place, only to hear: "Sorry sir, we just close." At 6.30 p.m.? The next place has a good sea view and a very oily fried rice for me. When I want to remove the oily taste with a banana in coconut milk, I hear "Sorry sir, cook go home already" – maybe he feared my anger. But I get a banana for free. For the rice grease they charge 90 baht; I remember a peaceful afternoon not long ago, when I had a much better rice plus coke, coffee and very good talk, all for only 45 baht – on the Mekong riverside in Isaan.
Every second palm tree in the south features "land for sale" or for long term lease, in English only, they even mention the title. Even tourist brochures inform me about the regulations: Farangs may own condominiums, but not houses. They may
not own more than 39 percent of companies that own land. The tourist paper assures me that extended land leasing is just as fine as owning the place. Sounds tempting, but not on Samui!
On my forays into the southern bushes, I meet quite a few Thai and Farang dropouts who live on gardening, organic farming or banana whine production. Or so they say – their businesses look so small and irrelevant that I wonder what they are really up to. No native Samuians among them, of course. We agree that relaxed, lush and slightly crumbling South Samui has an atmosphere similar to Hawaii's outer islands, that is the less touristy parts of Kauai and Big Island.
In the southwest of Ko Samui, I find the very special Laem Set Inn bungalow resort. After breakfastless early morning starts, here I retreat for morning food. I drive up the steep hill, park and walk down to the seaside again. Through a slightly landscaped hilltop jungle, I wander down many stairs past intensively smelling flowers to the restaurant; butterflies show me the way. I meet no other guests, as resident customers use different walkways. The restaurant has a nice view onto swimming pool, beach and voluptuous soft form boulders. It is almost otherwordly quiet there. Believe it or not, but sometimes they do not play any music, and later they put up unobtrusive uninspired George-Winston-like piano solos. I tend to whisper to the service, and they whisper back. The place has nothing of the forced hipness and youthfulness that so many other resorts dish up. Some elderly guests appear and shuffle around in super slow motion – it feels like a sanatorium. On my second time they remember my breakfast preferences, but then they try to charge coffee extra even though it is part of the set breakfast.
This place Laem Set Inn is fiercely advertising. It is easy to see that their default, paradise like ad picture is a photo composition, as proportions, colors and transitions look weird. And upon site inspection Laem Set Inn differs somewhat from their advertised image. The beach is not inviting like shown – stones, mud blocks and rubble reefs distort the paradise look more than just a little bit, and they even offer a pedal boat to cruise the pond-like dingy waters. The swimming pool is way smaller than it looks in the ads, but maybe everybody is used to this trick from ads for cars, burgers or ice-cream. The place is geared towards nature, quietness and privacy; where possibly every single bungalow gets its own walkway plus mini-gate – if three of them stand side by side, they built three mini-gates. I notice that some of the wooden bungalows look friendly, but very simple; according to the brochures, prices begin at 75 USD.
Not far from Laem Set Inn, Butterfly Garden occupies a hillside, managed by the all-concrete Central Samui Village spa and resort on the beach side of the road. A uniformed keeper signals me to a Honda parking lot as if I were a visiting statesman. After
paying 170 baht I am allowed to crawl up a steep sort of botanical garden. It is all covered in black netting, a delightfully lush place, and after about an hour I guess I have spotted about three butterflies. Walk around Laem Set Inn or any nature
trail in Hawaii or Costa Rica, and you see more lepidopters, and more exotic ones. The semi-wild garden is pleasant, though, especially the tiny, picturesque waterfall. There are a few displays with butterflies in various stages of their life
circle, you can look inside beehives and you can buy dead butterflies and spiders. Fortunately they put up a few banks, and as I make it further uphill, I get sweeping views across Samui's south coast and some rocky islets in the sparkling
sea. After some more sweaty upward climb out of the netted area, I reach the last view point sala. It comes without a roof, though – so I enjoy the panorama with raindrops cooling my red and steaming head. Back down I request the complimentary
drink that goes with the entrance fee. I get a very small glass of very strange fruit juice; what I like is that I can sample it over a Bangkok Post in the souvenir and coffee shop – in soothing air conditioned comfort.
Delightful Ko Samui (1/5): Chaweng Beach and People
Delightful Ko Samui (2/5): Chaweng Beach Road and Services
Delightful Ko Samui (3/5): Trips to Lamai and to the South
Delightful Ko Samui (4/5): Waterfalls and Hills
Delightful Ko Samui (5/5): The North and the West
My e-mail: PotholeResearch@aol.com