My ears are still ringing from the stacks of speakers that exhilarated Haad Rin all night. The lack of sleep is making my eyes heavy, but the lurching of the ferry refuses to let my body sleep.
I’m departing Ko Pha Ngan and am en route to Ko Samui – the largest island in the Surat Thani province, and the third largest island in Thailand. It’s a forty minute ride from the beaches of Haad Rin, and when we arrive, there is another entourage of taxi drivers and hotel workers with signs and suggestions for lodging.
The island was first inhabited by Malay and Chinese settlers, the name is thought to have come from a degeneracy of the Chinese word Saboey, which translates in English as “safe haven”. A welcome thought for those looking to escape the aftermath of a full moon party.
With a population of 50,000 people over an area of 228 km2, Samui is considerably more developed than Pha Ngan, and lacks the quaint charm of the smaller island.
Riding on a scooter through the town of Baan Chaweng, it’s easy to see that tourism is the island’s main source of income – especially in this area, which is known for attracting rowdy backpackers.
The streets are an overwhelming barrage of polychromatic signs that advertise hostels, restaurants and luxury beach resorts. I dodge a few bikini and boardshort-clad tourists, weave past tuk tuks congesting the road, and inhale the sharp scent of thai food being grilled up near the street.
I park the scooter near the sand and walk past countless oceanfront resorts. The establishments are guarded by sun-beds and banana-leaf umbrellas in neat rows. Older couples lie stretched out in the sunshine, eager to work on their tan. They thumb through paperback books, only to lay their head on the sun-bed and close their eyes.
There are fancy swimming pools. Security guards. Valet attendants. Buffet lunches. There are families here. It’s a vacation destination – a different vibe than the island across the channel.
But it wasn’t always this way. Until the 1940′s, there were no roads or cars on Samui. There was no outside influence. The inhabitants traveled everywhere by foot or by boat. Then, in the 1970′s, backpackers began to access the island by way of coconut boats. A handful of bungalows were created and travelers on the island began to increase.
By the 1990′s, ferries of passengers were arriving on the island, and investors began to build five-star resorts in order to compete with Phuket as a tourist destination. Once Bangkok Airways committed to fund and build the island’s only airport, Samui’s fate as a tourist destination was sealed.
It’s a great tourist destination at that. Beautiful, large beaches. Several waterfalls. Plenty of day-hiking & trekking. Golfing. Kayaking. Boxing. ATV’s. Elephant riding. Paintball. The list goes on – there is no shortage of things to do on the island. It’s just not the low-key hippy haven that it once was.
Parts of the island reminds me of Phuket – pockets of upscale resorts are interspersed with areas containing cheap bars and a more rowdy atmosphere. But my general feeling is that Samui is cleaner, less tacky, and more family friendly than Phuket. The beaches are just as beautiful, and Samui will still be less developed in 5 years than Phuket is now.
If I were forced to choose between the two for a week long vacation, there is absolutely no doubt that I would head to Samui over Phuket.
After a little over 36 hours on the island, I have to catch a flight back to Bangkok. As much as I would like to stay, I’m also looking forward to one more night in Bangkok, and on the Khao San.
I step into the welcome area of the tiny tropical airport, and any last doubts that I have between Phuket and Samui are completely gone. The airport is a beautiful, well laid out, and very easy to access from almost anywhere on the island. The waiting lounges feature comfortable couches under large wooden ceiling fans. There is live news broadcast on brand new TV’s. Free coffee, juice, chocolate rolls, and WIFI. After a long week of questionable toilets, ferries, buses, and train transit – it’s heaven…or in the least, a safe haven.
If you’ve missed the previous articles in this series, be sure to check out the entire Dim Sum Dialogues column for more on the road from Bangkok to Ko Pha Ngan.