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May 21, 2008

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Where's Aubrey?                                          Ko Samui


Welcome to Ko Samui, Thailand
Visit for a day and you may just stay.
By Aubrey Lampkin

Similar to some past relationships, Samui was supposed to be a one-night stand. But when I woke up the next morning lying next to her looking and smelling so good and so warm, I called off all bets and gave her my house key and credit card. What can I say? I'm a sucker for a warm body ... of water. So one month later, here I am. When people ask what it's like living in Ko Samui, Thailand, I think for a while (because thoughts just don't come quickly here) and then I answer with the delayed profundity of someone whose intellect has been numbed by a month of sunstroke and unemployment: "It's like living in a tropical screensaver, man. You know, the beach and palm tree show you set up on your office computer when you're having a case of the Mondays?" I think what I'm trying to say is, it's purdy here. Wouldn't want to think too hard now.

It sounds random (which it is), but I originally ended up in Ko Samui because it was the first page I turned to in my travel guide, while ruminating upon the next place to jet-set after Hanoi and Bangkok. After visiting my father in Vietnam, I came to Thailand where I'd just spent the past five gluttonous days in Bangkok with my adorable cousin, Marc, who was now leaving me on my own. Facing traveling alone for the first time in my life -- with two hours to go until hotel check-out and no connecting plan of action -- excitement and anxiety were each toying their weight on the emotional see-saw. When this happens, I remember one of my favorite proverbs: If you want to make God laugh, tell Him about your plans. With this, I took a reassuring breath and opened my guide straight to the section on Ko Samui touting, 'paradisiacal white-sand beaches, palms blowing in the wind ... clear green seas sparkling in the sunlight'. (Ironically, it also forebodes, 'some travelers plan to stay a week and three months later are still entranced.') Considering my other options for a New York minute, I promptly dubbed this random page-turning event A Sign, since, hey, I needed one. Four hours later, I was on a plane to Samui.

Ko (island) Samui is in southeast Thailand, an hour flight from Bangkok, and is the country's third largest island with 50 miles in circumference and about 50,000 residents in the Gulf of Thailand. Unpaved until the early 1970s, Samui and its neighboring islands are now developing tourist-darlings and honeymoon-havens. They were only brought into the mainstream travel radar in the past decade or so when the teen cult flick, The Beach, popularized the previously homogeneous and undeveloped archipelago with its seductive depiction of endless unscathed porcelain beaches, Robinson Crusoe-style dwellings and free love. (I suppose that's why one of the most popular slogan T-shirts in Samui is, 'I (Heart) Leo'; I imagine the Thais are personally thanking DiCaprio for turning them into capitalistic folk just like us). Unfortunately, the rest of the world was introduced to the general vicinity via Phuket (about 100 miles across the mainland from Samui on the Indian Ocean) when news of the devastating tsunami hit worldwide headlines on December 26, 2004. Ko Pha-Ngan (about 20 minutes from Samui by speedboat) is about one quarter the size of Samui but more popular with backpacker crowds due to its notorious Full Moon Parties, most succinctly described as monthly beachside rave parties (i.e. whiskey, drugs, dancing, techno, glow sticks, minimal clothing, etc.). According to the locals, each island is now unrecognizable compared to only six to 10 years ago when Ko Pha-Ngan had only one ATM and Samui didn't have a 24-hour McDonald's.

My little plane landed in Samui at the most magical time of day on the island, around 5pm when the oppression of the day's heat (usually teetering around 90 degrees) just starts to taper off and the warm breeze waves the branches of the coconut trees in a welcoming gesture. To call Samui airport an 'airport' would give you the wrong idea -- it's more like a runway next to a jungle marked by an immaculately manicured open-air hut where you go to collect your bags and hitch a ride. (A Jungle Book version of Long Beach airport in LA if you've been there.) I think I may have shed a tear when I spotted the big golden Buddha from my airplane window, stoically perched amongst the palm trees on a nearby mountaintop jollily overseeing us as we landed. No wonder it's dubbed The Land of Smiles.

Samui contains about nine towns, all with distinguishing characteristics. I chose Hat (beach) Bo Phut since it was described as a quiet fisherman's village with charming boutique-style hotels and restaurants with a 'Mediterranean feel'. Stepping out of the mini-van (200 baht/$6 from the airport) onto Fisherman's Village Road, I could see why ... Bo Phut village is centered around two streets: Bo Phut Road and Fisherman's Village Road, a narrow one-way street housing the quaintest of eateries (French, Italian, Indian, Thai, etc.), bungalow-style hotels and unobtrusive boutique beachside resorts, all resting against a modest white beach with translucent blue water. It's the kind of town where you don't have to wear shoes if you don't wanna, there's no such thing as too little to do and everyone knows your name (or motorbike, at least). Since it was bordering on the island's slow season, I was able to check into Cocooning Hotel with no formal reservation for 1,200 baht/$32 per night. I let the staff know I intended to stay for just one night and take a ferry to Koh Pha-Ngan the next day to stay on the move.

This was one of those times in life when an inexplicable force was about to take charge and you're suddenly sent spiraling in a whole different orbit. Some people call it divine intervention. I tend to believe it's more terrestrial. I dig when this happens, because frankly, planning my own life all the time can be a real drag. (It's like when someone orders dinner for you and you can kick back and relax, sipping the wine.) After checking into the hotel, I headed straight to a hot yoga class at Absolute Yoga on Bo Phut Road. Good class, especially entertaining as taught in both English and Thai, but is a heated yoga room really necessary in 90-degree natural heat? Are they trying to kill us? After perspiring like a Neapolitan brick-oven pizza boy, I showered and headed off to find somewhere for dinner.

En route, I passed a pristine-looking scuba dive shop named Bophut Diving School. The shop's floor-to-ceiling sparkling storefront window showcasing luxury dive equipment and titillating underwater flat-screen video footage, instantly lured me to the door and, though it was already about 9pm, the shop looked open so I decided to pop in. Five minutes later, I'd signed up for a dive in Koh Tao the next morning at 8am. The fact that the two twenty-something scuba guys who greeted me at the counter were ridiculously good-looking and quick-witted, sporting killer tans and beaming smiles and were French had absolutely nothing to do with my spontaneous enrollment. I've just always had an undying love for scuba. Okay, fine. They could've been selling hot air balloon trips to the Arctic and I'd have bought myself a ticket, as long as they were there. So as much as I'd like to give myself autonomous credit for the decision to stay in Samui for as long as I did (after the first dive I promptly enrolled in a three-month dive master training course with the school), I really owe it to Max and Sebastian. They have me retrospectively kicking myself for not paying enough attention in high-school French. Had I known the incentive back then, I'd be so fluent right now, I'd be translating for the UN.

Whether or not you've ever dived, this is the best place to do it. Conditions are near always perfect with 20-30 meters (65-100 feet) visibility, bath-warm water and a plethora of fish you can walk on; if you're lucky you'll see a whale shark. Bias and boys aside, Bophut Diving School (owned by a team of French brothers, Patrice and Serge Coue, and Australian father and son, Collin and Sean Miles), has the most experienced staff with the best equipment and facilities on the island and a rockin'-ass boat -- very important for long trips. Dive tours range from 3,700-4,000 baht/day ($100-$130), which includes hotel pick-up, lunch, drinks, full equipment rental and accompanying eye-candy. You can also enroll with them for an open water certification, scuba review, rescue diver and medic first-aid or dive master course (prices available upon consultation). Don't even waste your time with another dive company -- even the unbiased will agree.

Still cooling down from yoga (and my experience at the dive shop), I happened upon The Happy Elephant, one of the many open-air beachfront seafood eateries on Fisherman's Village Road. Touting 'Happy Lunch, Happy Dinner', The Happy Elephant is one of Bo Phut's most frequented restaurants given its central location, street-side barbeque emitting mouthwatering odors of fresh grilled seafood and steak and a live band playing endearing Thai covers of Western beach tunes. (The first night I ate there, a Thai singer performed an earnest rendition of Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, along with a few Beatles and Elvis numbers that had me choked up in laughter. He stopped me in the street later that night from his pick-up truck to thank me for coming. He seemed immensely proud I was so moved by his performance.) Grab a table with a water view (they all have one) and don't even bother looking at the menu. Just choose your own fish from the table out front displaying the fresh catches of the day ... a wide selection of white/red snapper, sole, squid, mackerel, crab, barracuda, shark ... and get it grilled on the barbeque for about 400 baht ($12) with their own garlic and pepper sauce. Instead of a side of rice (standard), ask for a baked potato. And polish it off with a glass of white wine (about $6). Best meal you'll ever have - and you can jump right in the ocean when you're finished to de-grease.

A few doors down sits Villa Bianca, an elegant Italian restaurant owned by one of the most worldly and informative members of Bo Phut Beach, Mr. Malcolm McKenzie-Vass. This jovial man has a helpful answer to every question I've ever asked him, along with the town's best thin-crust pizza, prosciutto and fresh pasta. The restaurant, also overlooking the beach, has a romantic all-white stark decor (true to its name), punctuated by wrought iron fencing and a semi-circular bar at the entranceway next to the street. You can catch Malcolm perched at the end of the bar sampling his daily fare almost every evening, while personally greeting guests as they arrive at the door. At the higher end of the price spectrum, Villa Bianca will run you at least 1,000 baht a head ($30) with wine. They have one of the best wine selections in town (there's usually little to no selection in Thailand). Great place to bring a date. One you're planning to see again.

Next door to the Dive School at the west end of Fisherman's Village Road is Eden Bungalow, a casual French-owned hotel/restaurant with a wooden decor enveloped by hanging vines and a little pool in the back. Expect to see patrons (mostly French) gathered 'round the bar every evening amid animated discussion with the ultra-cool, bohemian-spirited owners, Gerald and Lydia, who effortlessly make marriage and parenthood look appealingly sexy. Though French-owned, Eden Bungalow serves up mostly northeast Thai-style cuisine mostly at moderate prices, 150 baht ($5), unless you opt for a fish dinner (250 baht, $8) or set menu (450 to 700 baht, $14 to $21). I'm a big fan of their French breakfast for 140 baht ($5), which includes a baguette or croissant, butter and jam and fresh fruit and juice. Or you can get crepes – two for 100 baht ($3). Any way you slice it, Eden Bungalow is worth a visit if just for the breezy vibe and sexy regulars. Rooms are $2,000 baht a night ($60) and they can book any local tour packages for you (most hotels can do this, as they make a commission).

Bo Phut is quickly filling up with fancy beachside resorts, ranging from 2,000 to 5,000 baht/night ($45 to $90). For example, Peace Resort, a Zen-inspired oasis just west of the main beach, can be yours for about $130 a night. Each guest has their own Thai-style bungalow and the enormous beachside pool, romantic beachfront tiki-hut restaurant/bar and little book-exchange library are all charming touches. On the other hand, my resort, Cocooning Hotel, was much more moderate and local (but equally charming) on the east end of Fisherman's Village Road. Cocooning has six uniquely designed rooms, which look like they came out of an IKEA showroom, but not in a negative way (I stayed in the lovely 'inspiration room'). The hotel also has a charming little pool and restaurant serving Thai-style tapas -- some of the most delectable local food I've had on the island at great prices and impeccable service. The ultra-hospitable and exceedingly fit Swedish owner, Fredrik, can often be found chatting with his staff at the downstairs restaurant and is always available for friendly conversation and local advice. I cocooned there for 10 days and had a tough time metamorphosizing.

A few doors down from Cocooning, Carpe Diem, another open-air hotel/restaurant haven, offers an exotic poolside restaurant and rooms for about 2,000 baht a night ($65). Also French-owned, Carpe Diem has the best laidback breezy vibe, glass of rose and dinner special in town. Stop by on a Thursday night for their weekly couscous dinner (400 baht a person, $15), which includes a generous portion of couscous with fresh meatballs and grilled French sausage, boiled vegetables and chicken. The friendly owners, Claude and Sonia Cerl and their adorable son, Benjamin, are on the premises every day and graciously lent me their high-speed WiFi (and many cafe lattes) to write this article -- which honestly has absolutely nothing to do with their raving review. They're just that good. By way of nothing, an Australian supermodel is rumored to be building a house just across the street. Another reason you may want to stick around.

  • Despite the fact Thailand has a notoriously seedy counter-culture, the Thais are actually very conservative by nature (remember, most are Buddhist). Both men and women are generally fully dressed even in the hottest season, since they believe in shielding their skin from the sun. Since the beach vibe is relaxed and tropical, ladies might be tempted to go topless. Don't. It's offensive to the locals and could actually be quite dangerous since it could be misconstrued as an open invitation for foul play, which there's been a lot of lately geared towards European-looking women. Ladies, keep your wits about you and don't walk around alone at night. The more low profile you look and behave, the better.

  • Thais are extremely hospitable, affable and honest for the most part, but don't forget their economy is being fueled by the tourist industry more so now than ever. This means lots of new money coming in, clashing with a relatively poor populace, which leads to crime. Try not to carry more than 1,000 baht ($30) on you ever and you won't be fooled. Also, remember the actual cost of whatever you're trying to buy (taxi, clothing, food, etc.) is lower than you can ever imagine (the average Thai person earns about $200/month to put it into perspective). The Thais will try to rip you off in your sleep and then rip you off again -- it's nothing personal, it's just how they've been raised to make ends meet. Bargain, bargain, bargain. Never pay more than 300 baht ($10) for a taxi. Agree to the price before you get in and just get out if they try to change it on you during the ride. And when the Thais tell you something isn't possible, it is. They just don't want to be bothered to do it -- especially for a 'falang' (foreigner); it's a cultural thang.

  • Street food is actually some of the best -- just choose wisely. Barbequed chicken with sticky rice for 30 baht ($1) can be the most succulent treat (especially for a hangover). Just make sure it's well cooked. Street noodles with chicken for 30 baht is just as great. You can usually catch a streetcar between noon and 2pm selling something amazing. Don't be scared.

  • For the fellas, take heed: Thai street-ladies are not always ladies (they're called 'lady-boys'). And as much as you'd like to believe those pretty young thangs (who really are ladies) love you for your mind, let's be clear. It's tit-for-tat here, if you get my drift (excuse the pun).

  • Motorbike rentals look like a lot of fun ... and they are (150 baht/day, $5). Just know the odds are seriously stacked against you for coming out unscathed. Horror stories of daily motor accidents would probably steer you clear of the temptation, but if you choose to ride, be ultra local with your trips, wear shoes and a real helmet (the ones they give you will crack like an eggshell) and don't drive at night (everyone else on the road is drunk).

  • Last and most important -- don't get into trouble with the law because there is no law in Thailand. Especially for foreigners. They'll use any excuse to fine you a large sum or throw you in jail and throw away the key. This can easily be avoided: Don't buy drugs.

    Another popular Thai slogan T-shirt reads, 'Same Same, But Different', satirizing the Thais' favorite 'English' expression, 'same, same'. This overused idiom is often heard when comparing two similar but notably different things, like a new and old motorbike you're trying to rent for the same price. The Thais will look you straight in the eye, smile and chime, 'Same, same'. To which there's not much you can reply. They're just so charming. It's no wonder people come here and never leave and that I chose to remain for three months. Life is easy and healthy, surroundings picture-perfect, food incomparable and people delightful. For the same budget you'd blow in Paris or London on a night out on the town, instead stay at a decadent resort in Ko Samui for a week, laze in the tropical ocean by day or night, get daily Thai massages for 250 baht an hour ($8) and eat fresh seafood every night. And ... if you come in the next two months, maybe you can even stay with my adopted guard dog, Bobby and me. Need there be more incentive to visit? Come for a day and you may just stay.

    *Please tell us what you think of this week's newsletter!

    All information presented here is accurate at the time of publication but prices, dates and other details are all subject to change. Please confirm all information before making any travel arrangements.

  • Pictures From

    The Trip


    Samui Airport


    Bo Phut Beach, Ko Samui


    Chewang Beach, Ko Samui


    Big Buddha Beach, Ko Samui


    Fisherman's Village Road, Bo Phut Beach, Samui


    Bo Phut Beach, Samui


    Bophut Diving School


    Bophut Diving School Crew


    Bophut Diving School: Beautiful Boat (Sao Samui)


    Sebastian and Max, My French Scuba Instructors


    Sebastian and Max


    Me and Sean, My Aussie Scuba Instructor


    Me and Max Doing the Underwater Waltz


    View From Back of Boat


    Carpe Diem Resort


    Cocooning Hotel


    Cocooning Hotel Bedroom


    Eden Bungalows


    My Lovely Home


    My Lovely Danish Roommate


    My Mo-To-Bi. (Matching Nails ... Coincidence?)


    My Beach Bum Dog, Bobby


    He's Usually Not Allowed Inside


    Full Moon Party Girls


    Full Moon Party, Koh Pangnang


    Full Moon Party


    My Favorite Thai Lady, Jo Jo


    Only a Few Inches to Go


    Typical Thai Street Noodles With 'Fish Balls'. Mmmm!


    Thai Whole Fish With White Rice


    Popular Thai Beverages: Singha, Chang and Thai Redbull


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