Ko Samet - An Island Inspiration
The beaches of Thailand are world famous for their beautiful coasts, azure blue waters and relatively unspoiled settings. Surprisingly, Ko Samet, the island closest to Bangkok (2.5 hours drive), where millions of Thailand tourists arrive to begin their holiday travels, is still relatively unknown. What the island may lack in an energetic nightlife compared to that of the beaches in Pattaya, or in majestic, exotic scenery like in Phuket far to the south, it makes up for with a natural, easy charm and 14 accessible white sand beaches and a national park.
My stay in Ko Samet (or Ko Samed, as some Thai sites will spell it) was purely by accident. I was traveling in Thailand with a friend who had family to visit in Rayong, a province about 2 hours south of Bangkok on the mainland near the Gulf of Thailand. Rayong is only 20 km east of the fishing village of Ban Peh from where one catches a short ferry boat to the island. I looked into the idea of heading over to the island to relax for a couple of days so as to not intrude on my friend's family visit. When another traveler on the plane eagerly endorsed a resort on the island, everything fell right into place and I was island bound.
Ban Peh is a both a working fishing village, and the last shopping strip for supplies and the ever-present Thailand souvenir before heading over to the island. There are ferries daily that make three stops along the north end of Ko Samet. Depending on your accommodations, some resorts on the island also provide their own boat service from the pier at Ban Peh to the island.
The resort recommended to me was Mooban Talay, a moderate to upper-end priced resort isolated along Ao Noi Na bay on the northeast coast. All of the lodging is in simple yet elegantly designed bungalows just a few steps away from the beach. The new bungalows, (the resort opened in 2001) all had wonderful furnishings, picture windows, decks, and in the first row of bungalows like the one I was in that fronted the beach, also had their own hammock in the front "yard" under a thatched Thai-style gazebo. To wake up in the morning to the sound of the ocean gently lapping up to the shore, and the warm glow of the light from the sun just rising over the horizon and be two steps from your hammock and the beach was like heaven on earth.
My traveling companion and an adventurous aunt in the family initially accompanied me on the ferry over to the island to make sure there were no problems checking in at the resort. The aunt admitted to never having visited the island, of the opinion that it was more of a place for "farang" (foreigners) to visit with accommodations that catered to their tastes (and their currency) rather than to local Thai's in nearby Rayong. I can't say that her perception was completely off the mark, as I found myself the constant point of focus from the staff who at the same time cast wary eyes on the two Thai people next to me.
Within an hour after arriving and dropping my bags at the bungalow, checking out the lush grounds, the pool, and the outdoor restaurant, my visitors had to say goodbye and catch the next ferry off the island. Walking to the dock, they repeatedly asked whether I wouldn't be bored, and what I would do for 3 days until they returned to pick me up. I assured them I would be doing "nothing" which was sort of the point, just relaxing, reading a book and going for a swim, or a walk along the beach. For the remainder of my first day and the next, I blissfully followed this routine, only taking short "breaks" for eating and afternoon siestas.
But the funny thing about doing nothing is that one can get their fill of it pretty quickly. So, after a day and a half it did get a little too relaxing, curiosity got the best of me and I set out and explore the rest of the island.
I found that the small T-shaped island (about 7 km long and 5 km across) is segregated both by topography, and somewhat by clientele. Transportation activity is centered around the piers on the north end of the island, and there is only one real road in the interior of the island that runs north-south. There is an east-west "passage" that is something between an off-road trail and a washed out dirt road, but is almost inhospitable to drive, even when you're just sitting as the passenger in one of the open air pick-up trucks that serve as the taxi service around the island.
In my first trip off of the grounds of the resort on the back of my taxi/truck I took a short ride south and was dropped off at the front gate of the national park on the interior of the island, a sign for Had Sai Kaeo beach to my left, and for Ao Phrao beach on the western side of the island to my right. The park was clearly signed to pay an admission, yet the visitor center was empty, so I strolled through the front gate. There was both an easy path to the beach, and another unmarked side road. Tempting as the distant view of the water was in the late morning sun, I took the detour instead. The road ran parallel behind the beach, essentially along the back side of all of the resorts and the modest housing for the island families and the employees of the resorts.
The influence of the economic crash in many Asian countries in the late 1990's was obvious as I came across entire resorts of small bungalows that were abandoned, no longer in business. The housing was often unfinished shacks with scattered laundry lines, power generators and piles of refuse. I passed one larger school and a small wat (temple) in poor condition its concrete Buddha peeling weathered layers of white paint.
Between the houses were small local businesses, mostly shops with mothers and small children minding the store sitting languidly in shady corners while watching television or taking a nap. I had stumbled into the real life surroundings of those who lived and worked on the island before experiencing the white sand beaches and the blue waters. For the rest of the trip, no matter how pretty the made-for-the-brochure view, I couldn't forget that there was another side of life being experienced by those who tried so hard to make this place such a perfect paradise for visitors.
Finally, I had my feet in the warm water and the soft white sand of the beach that stretched for as far as my eyes could see south along the gentle curve of the bay on the east side of the island. As I walked along, I passed tourists relaxing in the sun and Thai men with baskets on either end of long poles across their shoulders selling fresh fruit and drinks. Others vendors with backpacks pulled out brightly colored sarongs for sale as a beach cover-up. At the inland edge of the beach were strung restaurants, cafes, and resorts that seemed to cater to a younger crowd offering a better priced accommodation and an active nightlife. At this part of the island, an easy stumble back to your bungalow after a night at the bar was as critical of a selling point as enjoying the natural scenery and taking quiet walks along the beach.
After a quick lunch of Tom Ka Gai soup and rice with a lemongrass ice tea afternoon clouds began to block out the midday sun. I headed back north towards the point of the island that jutted out at the northeast, following a rocky outcrop with an abandoned bamboo chair, and up the side of the island a small statue in honor of Pra Apai Manee, part of the legend written by the famous Thai poet Sunthon Phu. The view around the edge of the rocks, up towards the north shore of the island was deceiving, as all walks along the beach can be when looking at distant landmarks like my resort, they appear closer than is really the case.
With serious cloud cover coming ashore and little white caps appearing in the bay, I made a whimsical error in judgment and decided to hike along the rocks and the shore back to my bungalow at Mooban Talay. After a few minutes hiking around two more corners that I thought would drop back down to a beach, I found only steeper rocks, and now the tide was rising and pools of water were where the beach used to be in between the rocks. At one point I was truly rock climbing up a vertical face (I've never rock climbed, not even a fake wall in an outdoor gear store), and when I reached the top I was greeted by a small spirit house, and an empty bottle of Singha beer. On the other side of the spirit house, a sheer drop down into water.
The only option was to back down the way I came, shimmy across two dead tree trunks and head to real land. Between me and the coastline, well, cliff actually, was a large shallow pool of water filled with hundreds of water strider bugs on the surface, and a type of cockroach insect scurrying all over the rocks themselves. None of this was ever in any of the tourist literature about Ko Samet!
I finally made back onto real land and around yet another corner saw a defined foot path, with my resort still well ahead in the distance. I walked into what a sign said was "Pineapple Resort" but instead was an unkempt grounds and a scattering of small bungalows on stilt legs. I continued on the footpath around another bend until...it disappeared. A more prudent person would have turned around and found some sort of road that must have been used by the resort when it was open, but a more stubborn person keeps going ahead on the "mission" to walk the coastline and get back home.
Onward I went, into low lying brush and rocky shores. Persistence paid off when a path reappeared ahead, but then through rustling leaves about 20 meters in front of me a panting pack of 5 street dogs came out from the interior bushes. I was now sure I was going to become one of those bizarre headlines you only see in Thai newspapers, "Farang Mauled on Deserted Coast of Ko Samet during Storm". Fortunately, the dogs seemed more shocked to see me than I was to see them, and they quickly turned around and headed the other way leading me down the path.
With the clouds only stirring up a brisk wind, no rain, and no wild dogs, I confidently marched along the path and into an open clearing at what appeared to be the Ko Samet water treatment station, a ranger station, or a military base (one of the buildings was painted camouflage). Seven to eight Thai's in green uniforms were sitting around a picnic table when out I walked, a sweaty, wet, scratched up, sun-burned foreigner stumbling out of the brush along the rocky coast. There was a service road next to the camouflage building. Stubborn but not stupid, I gave up my quest and in my best dignified air of "I always walk this route around the island" I bid the group a polite "Sawadee" and headed up the road back onto the lone paved street of the island that had brought me down this direction a few hours ago.
Along the way I noticed a few resorts and family houses that I hadn't paid attention to when I was holding on for dear life in the back of the pick up truck in the morning. I also noticed a pier, or a restaurant off the shore out in the bay. There was a small boat on the shore and a bell on a rope. Later during my stay when my friends returned for the last day we came back here, took the boat over to the restaurant and sat on cushions on the deck behind a glass top table with a hole in the floor, below the table our feet dangled as we looked at the water below. Fresh caught fish was brought to the table in plastic wash baskets and you could pick the fish you wanted for dinner. Afterwards, they gave us a tour of their structure, on the back of the restaurant they were adding a new building with a couple of rooms for those who might want to stay the night out on the bay.
On every trip, I seem to be predisposed to take the roads less traveled, and to intentionally create a plan that is really no plan at all. Traveling for pleasure or on a "vacation" seems to me to be a time to embrace discovery and to follow your own natural rhythms and intuitions - those parts of you that go so unused in the daily grind of "taking what they're giving when you're working for a living". Ko Samet is a beautiful place to be sure, and Ao Phrao beaches on the west (another story for another day) are spectacular as well, but for me the island is also sleeping shop keepers, wild dogs, a spirit house on the rocks and an abandoned bamboo chair in the middle of nowhere. Those memories are uniquely mine, and they're what I hope to gather with every trip I take back to Thailand.
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Published on 12/21/04