Seeking Samui

Undiscovered by Westerners until the 1960s, the Thai island of Samui, with its jungle-clad mountains and coral-covered seas, still retains a sense of tradition and mystery

In July 1965, a small monthly Swiss art and culture magazine called Du published one of the first Western travel stories about Koh Samui. The author, Manuel Gasser, was accompanied on his trip by Zurich photographer René Burri, who had already found global fame for his iconic portraits of Pablo Picasso and Che Guevarra. They hadn't even intended to visit the island for the story, instead planning to explore Thailand's southern provinces, but, upon arriving on the shores of the Gulf of Siam on a Sunday afternoon, intrigued by the “paradise” described by their guide, caught a boat over.

Having spent a day exploring the island's many coconut groves, beaches, and village markets, they reflected on their first day's discoveries over a glass of rice wine. “The scenery of the island is more beautiful and varied than anything we have seen in this country so far,” said Burri to his traveling companion. “The people here are more friendly, intelligent and quite definitely more agreeable to the eye than the inhabitants of the mainland. Going by what we have heard of the south of Thailand, there's nothing we should see there that cannot be found here, and in a more characteristic and unspoiled form too. So why not stay here?” Gasser wrote that, “I thought just the same, so we decided to spend the rest of our time on Koh Samui.” More than 50 years later, Koh Samui's natural charms continue to have the same effect on many visitors.

“I first went to Samui in 2009 on holiday,” says Ferdinand Dienst (the Bavarian former chef-owner of Barracuda, a restaurant on the north coast that sadly, has now closed), “and immediately decided to move there”. With a background in fine dining, he saw that there was a gap on the island for a high-end culinary experience, and launched the first itineration of Barracuda in June 2010. With initially just nine tables, he soon found himself packed every night, his instant success necessitating a move to a larger beachside space four years later. “Samui has really changed in a positive way since I first arrived”, says Dienst. “For instance, in dining they now have better chefs - both independent venues and at hotels - service, and standards.” However, outside of the kitchen what keeps him on the island is its natural beauty. “Just look around you, you really can't find this anywhere else,” he says. “The chilled island life, positive vibe and sunny days - I sometimes have to pinch myself to check I'm not living in a dream.”

Measuring roughly 10 by 12 miles, Koh Samui (“Koh” is the Thai word for island) is the third largest island in Thailand, after nearby Phuket and Koh Chang to the far north. The largest by far in a sprawling archipelago of some 50 isles, it's home to around 70,000 people - a multicultural mix of ethnic Thais, Chinese, Malays, and expats - with a mountain-covered centre ringed by a small two-lane road. Circumnavigating the island clockwise, the scenery and atmosphere changes remarkably - the northeast coast is home to the bustling beach town of Chaweng, where the streets are lined with shops, local eateries, and the island's only shopping mall. Heading south of here, you pass high-end bars and restaurants hugging the cliffside, before descending into laid back Lamai, where backpackers and open front cafes combine to create a bohemian enclave. From here, taking the coastal road, the tourist facade fades away as you pass through local villages made up of wooden stilt homes, vast plantations of coconut trees stretching out in endless lines, and the odd water buffalo or two, grazing underneath. 

“The south of Samui feels more like old Thailand to me,” says Amy Arman, a wellness expert who has lived on the island since 2004. “You're surrounded by nature, Thai people are living their normal day-to-day lives, fresh markets are full of local produce, and you have the buffalo. The whole area also has rich religious traditions, such as the wonderful Laem Sor pagoda, which sits serenely at the end of Bang Kao beach, and has a golden glow at sunset.” During her time, Arman has worked in almost every wellness job one can imagine, including yoga instructor, writer, marketer, and resort manager.

Arman explains that when the first tourists started arriving in Samui many years ago, some in search of a slice of serenity, others looking for Buddhist enlightenment, they headed for the south of the island - for the strong traditions, bountiful nature, and sense of spirituality. “There has always been a certain 'seeking' about Samui,” she says, “and when people come to the south of the island they have the feeling they've found somewhere special, that people don't know about. They're not here to party, they're coming to feel better, take a break from alcohol, and detox from their busy lives.”

However, others come for fitness and fighting - to learn Muay Thai, the country’s national martial art. Known as the science of eight limbs, practitioners make use of fists, elbows, shins, and knees, with an average of 1000 calories burnt in an hour's training. It also promotes a sense of spiritual wellness with its integral religious rituals such as the ‘Wai Kru’, where you pay respect to your teachers, family and Buddhist figures. One of the best places on the island to learn this ancient sport is the Lamai Muay Thai Camp, run by Briton Ralph Beale, who has lived on the island for more than 25 years. “I first got into Muay Thai in the late 1970s when it was pretty much unknown in Europe,” he says. “I was planning a trip to Bangkok anyway, so I did some research and when I tried the sport was immediately intrigued by its grace and calm.”

In 1997, Beale was a part of group of likeminded people who wanted to give back to Muay Thai, so they took on a rundown backpacker resort and completely rebuilt it. They then sponsored 10 underprivileged local children that were willing to learn the sport, under the guidance of a respected island master and his family, who looked after the camp at the local temple. “We funded the kids' education in Thai and English whilst helping to train them in Muay Thai after school and at weekends,” he says. “Falling in love with the island's natural beauty - clean air to breath, white sand beaches to run on - we then thought it would be the perfect place for international students to learn the national sport. It was also much quieter, as Samui has developed at a much slower rate than busier and larger destinations like Phuket and Pattaya.”

This quietness is readily apparent in Baan Taling Ngam, a traditional village on the hilly southwest coast of Samui, whose name directly translates as “home on a beautiful cliff”. The scenery here is stunning (especially from the cliffside InterCon hotel), not least because the west-facing shoreline means you enjoy the best sunsets Samui has to offer, though the largest nearby settlement is Nathon, a sleepy town populated mostly by ethnic Chinese, who came here via the mainland ferries that continue to drop off arrivals (and supplies) at the main pier. At its centre is a pretty cluster of traditional shophouses, recognizable for their distinctive wooden door shutters. From here, the ring road continues through a mountain pass and then back round to the north shore.

It's an interesting fact that no building on Samui is allowed to be taller than a coconut tree, and once you start looking around it's something you quickly notice. It's part of the respect for an industry that was once the life bread of islanders (so much so it was once nicknamed Koh Maphrao, 'Coconut Island'), with the hardy fruit sent by ship to Bangkok, and then harvested for their husk, flesh and water. Even though in recent years it has played second fiddle to tourism, Samui still produces an annual harvest of more than 40 million coconuts, which are variously made into lip balms, shampoos, conditioners, lotions, and soaps - even the thatched roofs at the airport use locally produced palm leaves. Of course, the best thing to do is order a freshly cut one with your lunch, drink down the delicious water, and then scoop out the rich white fruit.

Back in 1965, Gasser and Burri were particularly fascinated by the use of trained monkeys to climb the trees and twist the coconuts off, and appreciative of its value. “What is particularly remarkable is that the palm yields all this bounty and demands almost nothing in return,” wrote Grasser. “The owner does not even have to pluck the ripe fruit; his monkeys see to that. The islanders are very much aware of the debt they owe to the munificent palm tree, for in the temples there is always a particularly beautiful coconut in a brass holder on the altar. The coconut palm gives the island not only its wealth but also its beauty.” Despite Samui's evolvement over the last 50 years, it's this remaining natural beauty, and traditional way of life, that continues to entice.