Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Koh Samui: One of the most beautiful tropical islands in South-East Asia.

The experience starts before you even arrive, climbing into a rainbow-hued turboprop that flies you into what looks like a tropical resort, with thatched roofs, open golf-carts… no, wait, that’s Samui Airport!

The ride to the resort on the island’s opposite end is a killer four-wheel drive truck, zipping through the island at ninety in just a few minutes. The first evening, we’re just relaxing at Thong Krut beach, strolling, watching the sun go down into a maze of tiny islands off the coast.

The only practical – and flexible - way to get around is by yourself, so we hire a bike the next day. Awesome range. Small gearless mopeds are about 200 baht; you can also, if you like, hire cruisers, dirt bikes, racing superbikes, and Harleys.

Samui’s a beach paradise, with all the action along the coastlines – the restaurants, shops, clubs, watersports, and places to see, all line the beaches. Chaweng and Lamai are the established beaches, the heart of all the activity; others get less crowded the further you go, cleaner, quieter.

We decide to leave beaches for later, and start with the interior; there’s a series of waterfalls, trekking trails, and Namuang Sanctuary. Here’s where we meet and go for a ride on Nuona, a beautiful twenty-year-old Thai… elephant.

Next is a two-hour walk up to the top of Namuang waterfall, and our local guide shows us a secluded, calm pool where you can leap off an overhanging rock down twenty-five feet into the water, swim under the waterfall, and into a small cave.

There’s also a series of cable-rides where you can get into a harness, clip yourself onto a series of cables between the tall trees, and go sliding through the air, sometimes hanging upside-down – if you have the guts to, that is.

Next is a full-day trip to Anthong Marine Park, reachable only by boat. It’s a collection of islands, dozens, carved by the wind and the sea into fantastic shapes – huge vertical standing rocks hundreds of feet tall, sphinxes, monkeys… you can do this by ferry, but I strongly recommend the (slightly) more expensive speedboat option; it’s far more enjoyable, and you get to see a lot more, not counting the speedboat experience itself. I’d sat right up front, sipping a Singha as the boat reached top speed across the azure ocean; it’s like sitting on the roof of a racing bus. Amazing speed, the wind in your hair and the sun on your face, while waves skim past at 90 kmph a few feet away…

At Anthong, we make four major stops. The first - snorkeling around a coral reef at Koh Wao Lai. My first time; the mouthpiece takes a lot of getting used to before you’re ready to actually relax and enjoy the sun-dappled world below, filled with little quicksilver flashes as the local fauna comes up to investigate this strange new shape splashing about in their ‘sky’. I get a little distance away from the rest of the crowd, the water’s clearer, more to see.

Second stop is the Green Lagoon at Koh Mae Koh, an inland lake, gleaming emerald against the surrounding sapphire seas. The walk up to the lagoon – and a lookout point above it – is from a series of wooden walkways and ladders. The lookout itself is just a small platform, but the view is to die for – a birds’ eye view of the archipelago, a panorama of green islands dreaming in the sun, spread all around.

Then – lunch. At a small fishing village at Paluay, we enjoy a traditional fisherman’s lunch – giant freshly-caught shrimp, rice, vegetables and fresh fruit.

And finally, after we’ve rested, there’s a long halt at Koh Lak, where they bring out a couple of kayaks. Some of us go rowing around the island to explore more marine caves, and others laze around on a pristine white-sand beach or play in the surf.

It ends, finally, with the long ripping ride back along the island’s northern beaches, glowing in the setting sun. I might have been roasted like tandoori chicken, but it’s been one of the best days so far.

I’ve kept a day for roaming around the island. We take a look at the Aquarium & Zoo, (where I got to touch a Giant Manta Ray as it swam past) and a touristy, but still fun, bird and tiger show.

We also drop in at a few temples, including the Wat Khunaram which has the several hundred-year-old mummified body of a Buddhist Monk on display;

the Grandfather-Grandmother rocks (rock formations that bear a remarkable resemblance to human genitalia and could have been celebrated as a tourist attraction only in Thailand).

Another interesting discovery in Chaweng is a shooting gallery, where I try out a .45 automatic and turn out to be a surprisingly good shot.

We wrap up with a look around Lamai’s nightlife, through the karaoke bars, a rocking Irish pub, and other general revelry.

Towards the end of the holiday, we move to Lamai, and spend a while just bumming around on the beaches. The evenings is when Lamai’s real character comes out; hundreds of multi-colored lamps, lanterns and lights illuminate the sands, deckchairs get replaced by tables and open-air displays of the days’ catch on ice, and you can sit with a drink and watch dozens of ‘good-luck lanterns’, rice-paper balloons with a lamp suspended inside, rising into the night sky. The effect is magical; it’s as though the land, having so much beauty, has decided to give some away to heavens, and is sending little colored stars sailing up to add to the night sky.

Under these stars, bare feet in soft, cool sand, to the faint music – the ubiquitous beach anthem, Bob Marley – and the ever-present soft crashing of the waves, I raise a toast to a small experience of paradise.

To the first of many such more.

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