Dim Sum Dialogues in Thailand: Ko Samui

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.

Dim Sum Dialogues in Thailand: The road (+ rail + ferry) to Ko Pha Ngan

The neon pink taxi screeches to a halt. “You must be the best taxi driver in Bangkok.” I declare to the driver, and I mean it.

Moments ago we were at a complete standstill for nearly twenty minutes, in the center of a jammed four-lane road. An everyday occurrence in Bangkok. I had already started considering alternate travel plans, since I was sure that I’d be missing the southbound train.

Could I still make it to Ko Pha Ngan for the full moon party? Were there night buses? How could I have been so foolish as to not account for traffic on the way to the station? And of course, how much would the miscalculation end up costing me?
Luckily, the taxi driver was capable of maneuvers that I didn’t know were possible in a moving vehicle. And apparently, he was used to performing them in these situations. The two previous drivers that I had hailed took one look at the departure time on my train ticket and laughed, telling me it wasn’t likely and then quoting an equally unlikely fare. But this courageous driver gave a grin and said “Don’t know, but think it’s possible. We try.”

He nods at me in the mirror and I hand him the amount on the meter plus a few extra baht. I exit the car and rush towards the departures board in the large open-air station. I find the correct platform and at the end of it, the one sleeper car of the train. The sleeper car is easy to spot – a few gargantuan North Face® backpacks are clumsily making an effort to squeeze through the train’s doors. Bingo.

The train is basic. There are no compartments, but rather fold out bunks – two to a berth, with curtains to shut out the light that would remain on all night. In the berths adjacent to me: a girl from Prague, a couple from England, a DJ from Italy, and a Thai family. The train starts rolling, and the sun sets over small packets of wooden shacks that weren’t visible from the lively streets of the city. As we get further outside of Bangkok, the sharp smell of bonfires becomes more frequent and the landscape gradually transitions into dense palm trees.

With every station stop, vendors come on board carrying tea, small cakes, and snacks down the aisles. Instead, I opt to make a trip to the restaurant car where a few tourists are seated playing card games and staring out the window. A young British man that’s had a few too many Changs is asleep at one of the tables, oblivious to the chatter and laughter around him. I ask some of the others for the best strategy to find lodging on Ko Phan Ngan the day before the full moon party – I’ve not booked anything in advance.

Halfway through the night, the spirited head waiter of the restaurant car begins to hook up a television and an amplifier. I’m unable to figure out what’s happening until it’s too late. Thai karaoke.


I would’ve paid more for my ticket if I’d known the train included karaoke, but I guess some gifts in life are free. I try to keep a straight face along with the rest of the tourists in the car, as the slightly tipsy waiter sings his heart out to the songs and the equally humorous music videos that accompany the audio.

(Listen to a quick sample of the karaoke by clicking play)

There’s an inaudible sigh of relief when the Italian DJ offers to hook his computer up to the amplifier and spin some electronic music. Conversation resumes, and it’s a memorable scene: warm summer air drifting through the open train windows. The unhurried repetition of the train’s wheels on the tracks. Scattered palm trees floating by, reflecting light from a nearly-full moon perched high in the night sky. And a little techno music to help prepare us backpackers for the scene that awaits in Ko Pha Ngan.

At four in the morning, those of us departing the train at Surat Thani are prompted awake by the conductors and shuffle out into the bitter morning air. There is a large coach waiting at the train station for those that bought combination tickets – which conveniently whisks us to another bus stop that is packed with other frazzled, sleep-deprived full-moon pilgrims.

One more hour-long coach ride takes us to a ferry pier, where about 150 people sprawl out in under the early morning sun to catch a few moments of sleep. I’ve never traveled with so many other tourists at one time, and I realize that it’s probably the closest I’ve ever come to being on a guided tour. It’s a nice feeling. I don’t have to worry about where I’m going…just follow the crowd.

Eventually the fatigued mass is corralled onto a narrow boat. As the ferry begins to cut through the choppy sea, passengers take turns basking in the sun on the outdoor deck and retreating to the indoor seating area to buy a freshly made ham sandwich.

There’s not much conversation among the passengers at this point, so I silently take a seat next to a few people dangling their legs off the side of the upper deck. The seawater sprays our bare feet and we stare out across the Gulf of Thailand, searching for a glimpse of our destination.

For the previous articles in this series, be sure to check out the entire Dim Sum Dialogues column. If you’re looking to do a similar trip and would like details on the specifics of the transport, feel free to leave a comment below.