Outside there are all the troubles on earth – in the worlds of politics, religion, employment and inflation. And then there’s Samui, sitting in the sun in its own little realm of tropical beauty. It’s a getaway. It’s a timeless little haven where you can live the dream for a while, and forget all about the problems of the big wide world outside.
But we’re not just about miles of dreamy beaches and little fluffy clouds hanging in a turquoise sky. There are actually a hundred-and-one things to do and see as well. There’s a richness of cultural experience here, from the usual temple trips to the quirky mummified monk in his sunglasses to the sheer wonder of Buddha’s Secret Garden that’s hidden away up the mountain.
And for the young in heart there are all the activities you could imagine, from scuba and snorkelling outings, a whole range of exciting and extreme water sports, go karting, the intriguing football golf, several water parks if you have kiddies, and even a shooting range with real guns and ammo if you haven’t!
There are also some world-class spas on Samui that offer everything from a quick manicure right through to a full course of pampering and rejuvenating treatment for newly-married couples. And if that’s not what you’re looking for then lose yourself in a different way by wandering around Central Festival shopping mall. But don’t forget to buy something waterproof for your valuables – you’ll get soaking wet at Songkran on 13th April!
RECIPE FOR SUCCESS
Five reasons to choose Sheraton Samui Resort.
When it comes to tropical holidays, everyone has an idea of what they want. There’ll be a beautiful blue sea backed by coconut trees, lush green vegetation, plenty of sun and, of course, a gorgeous place to stay. It’s a vision that’s long since become part of the psyche for most of us, a kind of holiday archetype, languid, sun-drenched, and filled with relaxation and fun. It seems as if it’d be a simple matter to build a hotel that embodies that dream. But only very astute hoteliers actually get it right, and create a venue that meets all our expectations.
Sheraton has a blueprint for the hotels they’re famed for building; they know exactly what makes a wonderful vacation. One of their main aims is to create properties where everything needed is right at hand, easy to access and convenient to use. In Thailand, the properties then have to dovetail with those tropical dreams we all have. The results are bound to please.
On Samui, they have a resort that’s extremely sought after; it draws in many newcomers, returning guests, and plenty of people who visit for the superb dining. To say it has a lot going for it is a bit of an understatement.
Guests could probably suggest many more, but here are the top five reasons to choose Sheraton Samui Resort.
The meaning of ‘spa’ has changed a lot over the years – we take a look at what Samui now has to offer.
How many of you have had a weekend away at a spa somewhere? You know, one of those getaways that offer attractive weekend promotion rates. Somewhere you can just drive off to on a Friday night and get low rates for a couple of evening’s accommodation plus a spa package included? I would imagine, seeing that you are reading this on Sami, the answer is a lot! There are probably quite a few of you, reading this, who have already done exactly that.
As it happens, the island of Sami has turned out to be quite an interesting place. It began as a back-packers’ hide-away in the 1970s. It later acquired an airport and an influx of package tourists. A lot of development then occurred – new hotels and resorts, condominiums, hypermarkets, fast food chains, international rent-a-car outlets, multiplex cinemas, a couple of shopping malls, all of the multinational 5-star hotel names, and lots of other stuff besides.
Yet it did not bow down. Samui refused to turn into a citified neon-and-chrome hi-rise playground such as Pattaya or Phuket. There is still only one main road. Nearly all the ongoing development is low rise and around the coast – leaving most of the old rustic villages still in place. And there’s mile after mile of roads with nothing on either side, unspoiled beaches to discover, remote tracks upland to breath-taking viewpoints, and a tropical island feel that is simply dreamy. As one newcomer once put it, “After looking on the internet I was expecting downtown Miami. Instead there’s a lovely little unspoiled island!”
Drink Gallery isn’t just a wonderful spot for a tipple, check out the great food and ambience too.
Even amongst the bold, bright lights of Chaweng’s main strip, Drink Gallery is one place that stands out. Located half way down the beach road, it attracts many a curious stare and raised eyebrow. People pause as they walk past its long frontage, and it certainly challenges perceptions. For a start, the name alone is a conundrum: it seems to have stepped straight out of film noir territory, and suggests a grainy, endlessly long bar at which tightlipped loners sit in hats and overcoats, slugging back small glasses of highoctane booze. But it isn’t that at all, it oozes sophistication and conviviality instead.
It’s run by the same creative minds who built The Library, just behind Drink Gallery, a very avant-garde resort that’s unique for its artistic style which is effortlessly blended with minimalism. The Library is one of those places that made a name for itself from the moment it opened its doors. As a one-of-akind place to stay, it’s delightfully unforgettable.
Drink Gallery is a similarly creative space, too, though there’s no minimalism here. Instead there’s a lot going on, and wherever you look you’ll see that enormous effort has gone into the decor here. But maybe what’s even more noticeable is that there’s plenty more going on here than just drinking. Food’s being served, and there’s that culinary, busy hum that all good restaurants have. But, whatever, an important consideration is price, and given the chic feel of the place, taking a seat here looks like it’s going to set you back armfuls of money. Expensive, then? Surely, it’s got to be!
Explore hidden caves and lakes with Blue Stars kayaking and snorkelling tours.
Established as a marine national park in 1980, Ang Thong National Park is an archipelago of 42 islands covering 102 square kilometres, and is situated between the Thai mainland and Samui island in the Gulf of Thailand. The islands themselves cover 18 square kilometres of the park, and consist mainly of amazingly rugged and steep limestone hills, sinkholes, caves, inland marine lakes and forests. There are two nomadic villages, one at Koh Wua-Ta-Lap and the other at Koh Phaluai, all other islands are uninhabited. Best visibility for snorkelling is around March and April, lucky you!
Blue Stars have been organising and running kayaking and snorkelling tours to Ang Thong like a well-oiled machine for over 20 years. They know all the best seasonal spots around the islands, and how to stay away from the potentially busy areas in peak seasons. You get picked up from your hotel or resort around 7.15 am, and whisked off to Nathon pier, board the boat and depart around 8:00 am. From here you have the shortest distance to the marine park.
Your full day tour includes your pick up and drop off, a light breakfast, full buffet lunch, an afternoon snack of fruit and banana cake in case you get peckish and unlimited tea, coffee, water and soft drinks throughout the day. Also included are full insurance, national park fees, lifejackets in varying sizes (which must be worn for insurance purposes), kayaking instruction, snorkelling equipment and waterproof dry-bags for cameras and small personal effects. The boat is officially licenced to carry 96 passengers, but a fully booked Blue Stars tour will only take a maximum of 50 people, and more often less than that, providing a roomy and spacious environment. The tours go out four days a week, every week, on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursday and Saturdays. At peak times, there may be additional days added to cope with demand.
Wat Plai Laem beguiles with its bright colours and giant statues.
Samui’s foremost tourist attraction is the Big Buddha temple, and you’ll no doubt have seen many references to it. There are scores of tours that stop by daily. But for some strange reason, an equally amazing temple, just a few kilometres away, remains much less visited. Wat Plai Laem is on the agenda of far fewer holidaymakers, and it tends to be the local islanders who come here. Big Buddha is in fact merely an outlier of Wat Plai Laem, which is considered to be the main temple in the area. To reach Wat Plai Laem, just drive past Big Buddha and keep following the road north and then east as it leaves Bangrak, and then on your left you’ll see Plai Laem temple. It’s easy to spot: you’ll see a massive statue with 18 arms!
Wat Plai Laem is much quieter than Big Buddha, and has none of its in-yourface commercialism, but it’s definitely not an earnest kind of a place. On the contrary, it’s filled with colour, and there’s light-heartedness here, even if it may seem filled with symbols, motifs and ideas that are incomprehensible to most westerners. Even people who follow a religion may be bemused by what they see. Speaking of the differences in religions, the abbot, Phra Maha says, “I believe that all religions are essentially the same and that it’s really a question of following one’s chosen religion in the right way, with true understanding.” He acknowledges that the temple complex here is hard to comprehend if you’re from outside Thailand, but even without understanding, it’s an unusually uplifting experience to come here. And sometimes just witnessing what’s going on may somehow cause a shift in mood and perspective.
Arm yourself for Samui’s wet, wild and water-filled party.
It’s billed as the world’s greatest water fight, but some people don’t believe it – until they’ve actually seen it and got soaked umpteen times. When it comes to hyperbole, Songkran takes home all the prizes. In fact when people tell you about it, they’re probably not exaggerating, but playing it down!
However genteel your holiday is (or isn’t), when it comes to Songkran, it’s party time. And you won’t actually need to seek it out: it’s so big, so all-encompassing that it’ll come to you. If you really want to avoid it, you definitely can, but it’ll mean taking fairly drastic measures such as staying holed up in your hotel room, or leaving for a deserted island the day before. Songkran recluses are few and far between, however, as this is one party where the fun is guaranteed and literally on tap.
Thursday 13th April marks the start of this three day festival, with the Thursday being the big water fight day. The following two days are remarkably quiet on Samui, and if you want to continue the festivities then travel to Bangkok; here the aquatically-minded citizenry will be drenching each other for the entire period of Songkran.
Speaking of travel, the days leading up to Songkran and the days after it are peak times for all kinds of journeys, and you may need to book tickets extra early to avoid disappointment. For many Thais it’s a time to return home and spend time with family and friends. Unfortunately, it’s also peak time for road accidents, as there are so many people on the roads, and there’s also, as with western New Year, plenty of drunk driving.
The fastest way to learn Thai cooking is to don a chef’s toque and learn from the maestros at Nora Beach Resort & Spa.
For many of us novices, learning Thai cooking, in all its glorious messiness, is its own reward. There are plenty of accidents along the way, and much of it is a chance thing anyway. But out of all of this, given enough determination, we can make something that’s truly tasty, and gradually improve on it over time. But all this takes patience and dedication – months, if not years. Is there a way to wield the wooden spoon and proceed to make a few great dishes that we can savour before our calendar, if not our patience, runs out?
Happily there is, and better still, it’s possible to learn while on holiday, at a steady pace. And this is something that many holidaymakers now do. Thousands of people come to Thailand every year not simply to visit beaches and beauty spots, but also to learn the art of cooking Thai food. Some courses are for professionals only, and can stretch out over days and weeks. But if you would just like to be able to make excellent Thai dishes for your friends and family, then a cooking class will probably be just right for you.
If you drop into Nora Beach Resort round 1:00 pm, any day of the week, you’ll see one of the island’s most professional cooking classes getting underway. The first thing you’ll notice is how relaxed the ambience is. There’s always a sense of fun and a lot of laughter; people are cooking dishes they’ve never attempted before, and doing it with what looks like joy rather than gritted teeth. The proof of the pudding is literally in the eating, and when they sit down to eat what they’ve made, they’re wowed by the results. The food’s good enough to be eaten in a restaurant. This is no exaggeration. So how is it that complete novices can produce such professional-tasting fare?
There’s lots of different ways to get around Samui – here’s what you need to know and why!
Let’s see how much you understand about Koh Samui – you’re here on holiday after all! The following are four popular international holiday destinations. Which is the odd-one out: Phuket, Koh Samui, Pattaya or Casablanca? Puzzled? Good. It’s a trick question. But only partly so. Because two of these places have developed with care and thought and planning, and two of them haven’t. Two of these places began with dozens of little coastal fishing villages, then became popular and suddenly there were grids of streets, planned areas of connected construction and post office areas with developments, buildings and numbers growing logically. And the other two just . . . happened.
Yes, it does matter! Because once you’ve gained an insight into the thinking that underlies a place, then lots of odd little things begin to make sense. Both Samui and Casablanca just happened to have beautiful, unspoiled stretches of pure white palm-fringed beaches that stretched for miles. The other thing they share is they’ve both got just one main road. Plus the fact that anyone could build anything they wanted without needing much in the way of permission. But, then, Samui exploded into a 20-year frenzy of unregulated development which made some things very strange indeed – unlike Casablanca.
There’s a lot more to Poppies restaurant and seaside cottages than meets the eye.
The cottage is set up a winding garden path that might well have stepped out of a fairy-story. There’s even a little stream, a waterfall and a pool where fat Koi carp lazily swim about, as if they too are on holiday. Up ahead there’s a cottage with its own little garden. An oldfashioned brass key turns in a lock, and doors open to reveal a room so cosy that it might seem like home; the best of both worlds – the one you’ve left behind in your home country and the fabled one that you’ve just entered.
Mesmerizing and filled with surprises, the cottages and gardens are a haven unto themselves. The meandering paths, seemingly so random, are the work of a maestro architect who laid them out over two decades ago, with each part meticulously planned. The cottages are hard to count, as they’re hidden by trees and foliage in the neatly-tended yet jungle-green garden; they’ve also been angled so that there’s maximum privacy. They bring guests a delicious sense of well-being. To sit out here on the porch in the evening, under the gentle, romantic lights is to savour tropical life at its most beguiling. You might be somewhere far more remote; there’s no real way of knowing.
How to keep in shape on holiday, whilst still enjoying the delights of Koh Samui.
Everyone will experience an interruption in their exercise or healthy eating habits from time to time. Holidays, as well as injury or illness, can force you to take some time off no matter how dedicated you are. People are creatures of habit, and holidays can alter your normal routines. So, how can you keep in shape when you fly off to exotic Koh Samui and your schedule changes?
Well, there isn’t one right answer for everyone; it all depends upon your goals, current level of fitness and normal habits. If your main goal is to maintain your fitness level during a few weeks of holiday time, then some moderate exercise for 30 minutes, every other day, is all you need. If your current level of fitness is high, and you want to keep it that way, you will need to adjust your exercise time, type and intensity accordingly. If you have set eating habits with specific foods and times of eating it can be a bit more tricky, but not impossible.
Experts say that you’ll start losing fitness in about two weeks if you stop exercising altogether. Once lost, it takes nearly three times as long to recondition as it took to ‘detrain.’ Studies have shown that you can prevent declines in cardiovascular fitness for up to three weeks simply by doing higher intensity exercise (70-75 percent of maximum heart rate)for as little as two days per week. If your goal is just to stay in shape, remember that any type of exercise is better than nothing, and you might try something new, find that you love it and can start to incorporate when you get back home. Don’t despair; there are many options here on Samui that you can do in-between sunbathing, enjoying the beaches, culture, sightseeing, shopping, eating out and nightlife.
With their vibrant colours and exotic shapes, it’s no wonder that orchids are Thailand’s most popular flowers.
Whilst you’re reading this, scores of people here and there on Samui are inordinately busy with an extremely delicate task. If you glimpse them at work, you’ll see lots of dedication in their eyes, and patience, too. It also takes great skill to do what they do each day. They work with flowers. But not just any old flowers. Their attention is focused a flower that epitomizes Asia in general, and Thailand in particular. And that’s the orchid.
Some of the orchids are simply cut and placed in vases, whilst others are wrapped carefully in thin wire to make sure they hold up during the long hot day. And still others are made into garlands which are given to guests and dignitaries. At some resorts, orchids appear in flower bouquets on tables, and they’re even used to spell out words of welcome that are left on guests’ beds.
Their population has boomed over the last 30 years, due to this love and demand. Hotels and resorts are filled with orchids thanks to farms producing millions of them every year. Most of the farms are to be found in the cooler north of Thailand, but they exist just about everywhere, showing just how popular orchids have become.
You may even wish to take some home. And, surprisingly, you can do this with ease. There’s no problem with taking entire orchids out of the country, or taking them into Europe. Conveniently, you can even pick up an orchid or two at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport and take them along with you. Naturally, you can also ask at your resort if they can spare you an orchid to take home.
There’s a new top chef at Anantara’s super Full Moon restaurant in Bophut!
You’ll find Anantara Bophut fronting onto the ring-road, not so far from the traffic lights near Fisherman’s Village. This strip, running maybe a kilometre northwards, is special. There’s lots of space here between the road and the beach, and the plots of land are effortlessly spacious. In fact, if Samui was in Europe, this is where we’d find the grand Victorian mansions; opulent, elegant and refined. The big difference being that instead of mature oaks and elms, here you’ll see a landscaped riot of lush tropical foliage beneath the gigantic trees that tower above.
Like all 5-star resorts it has a restaurant to match; in this case two. As you come through from the reception area you’ll come down a few steps and see the cool and shady High Tide, the resort’s all day restaurant on your left. But if you keep following the path through the greenery and past the constant murmur of the water features, you’ll emerge close to the beach and Anantara’s signature fine-dining restaurant, Full Moon. The word ‘anantara’ itself comes from ancient Sanskrit, and literally translated means ‘water flowing without boundaries’. But apply this to a selective and exclusive group of hotels which are under the umbrella of the famous Minor International Group, and it translates into ‘sheer quality’.
Homemade and heartfelt is what Samui Green Market is all about. And people come to it not just to trudge around and make a few purchases, but to enjoy the fun, vibrant atmosphere. Since it kicked off some years ago, it’s been happily free of the earnestness that seems to hallmark some of today’s new-style markets. It’s a chance to get to know other people – it’s surprisingly friendly – and to enjoy food, drink, locally made goods and a relaxed space. The market’s not really a commercial venture per se, but originated with the Samui Mala, a loose coalition of ad hoc volunteers on Samui, who support a vision for a clean and green Samui.
Some islanders may remember how nine years ago, Tamarind Springs hosted the first Samui Mala festival, in 2007. Originally the organizers wanted to arrange a little yoga festival, but ended up hosting a full day event with yoga, healing, environmental education and a great party. Says Shelley Poplak, a leading light in both the Samui Mala and the Green Market, “We realised how much everyone wants connection, and how hard that is on our island with everyone coming from other parts of the world or of the country. Since that time, Samui Mala has helped coordinate various events, but we realised that we needed a regular community forum, rather than an annual event. Once we found a venue that was open to hosting this on a regular basis, at Elysia Boutique Resort in Fisherman’s Village, the market really came to life.” Since the first Green Market was hosted there in October, 2015, it has become the home base every six weeks. “Sometimes for special occasions, the market moves to other locations as we did with the highly successful event hosted by Six Senses Resort, in August 2016,” says Pat Kell, owner of Elysia and Greenlight Cafe and Bar.
Bangkok Hospital Samui can help you make the best of a bad time – if not prevent it in the first place.
Sunset. Out comes the mosquito repellent, windows are closed and rooms checked for the tiny yet just visible black bodies of mosquitoes. We listen out for their miniscule whine. We swear if we have the misfortune to get bitten – we know we’ll feel the sting for a while. But basically, we know that here on Samui, they’re more of a night-time nuisance than anything else. During the day, we go about our business quite happily, mosquitoes all but forgotten. This is our playtime and we do as we please.
But unfortunately it’s also playtime for Aedes aegypti, another type of mosquito, and one that’s a lot more dangerous. We’ll probably not feel its sting, as it’s so mild – the creature merely sips, as it were, rather than does a full-scale bite. Then it moves on. It’s hard to see because its body is white and tends to be camouflaged against many surfaces. We can recognize it very easily, however, due to its unusual stripy legs. By night it’s all but gone, and we may never realise it was ever there at all. It portends nothing remotely good, of course – it’s the bearer of one of the world’s emergent diseases, dengue fever. An infected mosquito picks up the disease from someone who has it and passes it on. Dengue is therefore not a contagious disease, which is good news for us humans.
A look at how gold is very much a part of daily life in Thailand.
“All that glisters is not gold . . .” William Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice; Act II - Scene VII.
When I first came to Thailand, I wasn’t interested in gold. I knew nothing much about it. So my awareness of Thai gold was fragmented. It was formed from bits and pieces of rumour and gossip picked up in bars and via the internet. And that’s where the 400 year-old quotation from the Bard of Avon comes in – as far as I was concerned, in my ignorance, I had the impression that Thai gold was far too glittery and the wrong colour to be much good. Gold jewellery was put together with old-fashioned and inferior technology. And the whole business was a minefield of schemes and scams to fleece foreigners, and not to be trusted. Oh boy, was I ever wrong!
Yes, as in every big city all over the world, there are some who seek to prey on the weak or uninformed. Gem scams in Thailand (and unfortunately therefore also gold, by implication) are legendary, tarred by the same brush as is usually applied to the jet ski ‘mafia’. But I read the other day that far more people are ripped-off, and for far more money, by the extortionate currency conversion rates of reputable institutions like Western Union or Amazon. So it all boils down to the instinct to trust something familiar, as opposed to the suspicions of being a stranger in a strange land, especially when you can’t speak the language or read the small print. However, unlike gemstones (which are still something of a grey area when it comes to ‘bargains’), Thailand’s gold industry has an excellent worldwide reputation, and is probably more unified, regulated and scrutinised than is the nation’s general banking system.
When it comes to the sun, follow some simple guidelines to avoid spoiling your holiday happiness.
Can you imagine going on holiday in the tropics and not having the sun play a major part? Probably not! The sun makes us feel good, lightens our mood and makes our days positive. It can help us health-wise by putting us in the mood for fun and relaxation, and of course, it gives us vitamin D. For many of us, holidays are a time to go on an all-out solar binge. Unfortunately, as soon as you’re spending large amounts of time outside (here in the tropics that could be as little as 20 minutes) exposure to the sun presents some dangers. Every year in Thailand hundreds of holidaymakers put themselves at risk or end up sick because they’ve misjudged the sun. Here’s a brief guide to keeping safe on sunny days.
Sunburn’s always a worry when it comes to hot climates; it’s easy to go red. Just because it’s a bit cloudy doesn’t mean to say you can’t get sunburned. A few hours, albeit under a hazy ceiling of cirrus cloud can leave you groaning with pain by the evening. Similarly, driving along the road with your elbow sticking out of the open window may seem innocuous but it can give you nasty localized sunburn – though of course you may not end up with any elbow at all given the dangers of the roads here! Possibly the most unexpected of all sunburns happens when travelling on an open boat. How come? Because it doesn’t feel hot thanks to the sea breeze, and you may be lulled into a false sense of security. Thirty minutes at sea is quite enough time for you to begin that short metamorphosis from human to lobster. Likewise, if you’re constantly going in and out of the sea or the swimming pool, you may not feel hot at all, and psychologically you may believe you’re not at risk from sunburn. Even if you’re used to the heat and sun of the Mediterranean, here the sun is more ferocious still.
A look at Lamai’s Grandmother and Grandfather Rocks.
It’s always puzzled me. I mean, look at it this way. Suppose somebody said to you, “Hey! What should we do while we’re in Paris? Shall we go to The Louvre and see some art treasures? Or would you rather go and see a rock which looks like a badly deformed penis instead?” Well, surely no contest. And there are two quite alarming aspects to this proposition anyway, assuming you apply it to the famous landmarks on Samui. First of all, what possible reason might there be for anyone over the age of 13 years to want to go out of their way to see a rock that’s shaped like a penis?
The other aspect touches upon the darker side of Man’s nature. The sort of thing that FBI profilers spend years being trained for, and then sneakily slip into psychological tests alongside inkblots that look like two fish and a violin. Because, you see, the Grandfather Rock looks nothing at all like a penis. Some kind of wobbly mushroom that’s been trimmed to a point; perhaps. Put a photo of it in front of a psychopathic serial rapist and ask him what he sees. If he says ‘penis’, that’s it. Conclusive proof of a warped imagination, and being abnormally disturbed. And yet every year, thousands of tourists haul themselves and their cameraphones off the road, down a narrow track and towards the sea, to take photos of it.
Cock-fighting is one of Thailand’s most popular activities – we take a look at what’s going on nationally and on Samui.
This is something that goes back to the beginnings of recorded time. There are images of cock-fights surviving in fragments of Phoenician pottery from 3,000 years ago. The Ancient Egyptians loved such sports. It was the same with the Persians and the Greeks; the Greek general Themistocles used to hold cock-fights to inspire his troops. But the Romans found this all very curious and were astounded that rooster-eating was banned by the ancient Britons – they were bred and trained only to fight. Indeed, this was the reason that cock-fighting went on to become popular in Rome.
There’s something almost spiritual about roosters. They’re proud, fierce, handsome and majestic. In many cultures they’ve been attributed with demigod status, and frequently used in divination rituals; a favourite of the Roman Oracles who weren’t at all happy when cock-fighting caught on. In Thailand, too, the roots of cock-fighting were closely linked with the honouring of ancestral spirits, as you’ll discover in a moment!
It’s difficult to convey quite how high-profile this activity is. Or used to be, at any rate. You have to keep it in mind that roosters are territorial and aggressive, as any farmer will tell you. ‘Cock of the roost’ is not a groundless term; put two cocks anywhere near each other and they will do battle with a vengeance. Many English kings were supporters of this ‘noble sport’, and Henry VIII even had his own royal cockpit at Whitehall Palace. This activity was considered to be England’s national sport for almost 150 years, and schools were set up to teach the finer points, including breeding, exercise, training and conditioning.