Koh Samui – Paradise Island?

Chaweng, Bophut,Lamai and Bangrak

Arriving at Koh Samui

Koh Samui airport was unlike any airport I had seen before, privately owned by Bangkok Airways, it looked more like a holiday village than an airport. With open arrival halls covered with thatched roofs, the atmosphere of a tropical getaway was already in the making.

First stop – Lamai Beach

Our first stop in Samui was at the Spa Garden in Lamai, some 15 kilometres south of the main resort of Chaweng. We were pre-warned that travel was costly on Samui, and getting there cost us 700baht by taxi, a journey that would have cost no more than 150 baht in Bangkok.

Despite the driver claiming to know where he was going it soon became clear this was not the case, fortunately we were armed with google-maps and were soon checking in at our hotel.

The rooms at the Spa Garden were large, and clean, and the bed was large and comfortable, strangely there we no clothes hangers in the room, but these were available on request???

We were on the ground floor and our room was furnished with a patio door, which was something of a security concern as this could be lifted off its latch even when locked, and opened. The resort did however have a security guard, and laptop size safes in the room, so we were not overly concerned. The only real problem with the room was that the walls were paper thin, you could hear the occupants of the next room talking as clearly as if they were in your room. The hotel grounds were well manicured, and the pool area was inviting. Annoyingly the entire pool area was devoid of shade, rendering it useless unless your goal was to receive 3rd degree burns. In fairness there were 2 umbrellas, unfortunately both of these were broken, so basically there were 2 canvas covered posts.

The life in Lamai, along with the beach were both a kilometre down a narrow road from where we were staying. The road we were on was primarily devoted to motorcycle repairs and old refrigeration equipment.

We found Lamai “proper” to be a pleasant resort, hosting a reasonable mix of Thai, and international shops and restaurants, and as it transpired, we were either very lucky with our choices, or Lamai is where you should head if you’re looking for great food, notable mentions, Brown Sugar, for authentic Thai food, and El Dorado for excellent Mediterranean food.

Lamai Beach Koh Samui

The resort is built up around a single road, Had Lamai Road, which runs parallel to the beautiful beach. Though the sand is grittier here than in neighbouring Chaweng the beach was much cleaner, quieter, and certainly towards the southern end, much, much prettier. The resort concludes with the Hin-Ya and Hin-Ya Grandfather, and Grandmother stones, famous for their genital representations. The “male” stone was obvious, but I’m still unsure which of the stones was supposed to represent the female bits. And before you point and laugh, my wife was with me so that’s no reflection on me.

Grandfather Stone

Every Sunday night the northern end of Had Lamai Road is occupied by a night market. A bustle of stalls selling tourist trinkets, and authentic Thai street food, surrounding a central stage, which, on our visit, hosted a Rolling Stones tribute act for those who hate the Rolling Stones.

We found Lamai to be a good base, and transport wasn’t as expensive as we first feared. Decked out pick-up trucks acting as mini buses (Songtaews) circle the island and will transport you between the main resorts for around 100 baht per journey, and despite the numerous blogs we had read saying this didn’t happen, we found taxi drivers do negotiate on Samui, just not the ones at the airport.

Heading north – Bophut

After 5 days in Lamai we moved north to the Samui Bamboo Garden Bungalows in Bophut, though this turned out to be a temporary situation. It’s fair to say that we have become accustomed to a certain amount of luxury, and it transpired that this was a step too far. I’m sure many would find the bungalows cute, and quaint, and would relish the experience. We found them way too small, and without anywhere secure to store our valuables, wholly inadequate for our needs. The next morning, after being kept awake the majority of the night by an impromptu music festival that had set up directly behind the bungalows, we checked out.

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I don’t want to be to hard on this place. The owner, and the staff were lovely, and graciously refunded our unused nights when we checked out. The place wasn’t bad we had just learnt a lesson. Osprey packs do not maketh the traveller.

This is where we go off the rails a little. Instead of a slight upgrade we check into the Bandara Spa, a beautiful 5 star resort. It’s kinda like we crashed and rebooted to our most recent backup. This definitely did not fit within our travellers budget, but that said, I’m glad we did it. We are old dogs, and its going to take time to learn new tricks, we were smashing the budget, but we were starting to enjoy ourselves, something we hadn’t realised that we weren’t really doing up to this point.

The Bandara Spa was just what the doctor ordered. A big room, a comfortable bed, power shower with consistent water temperature a lovely pool area (well, actually 3 lovely pool areas), plenty of sun-loungers with shade, and free beds on the beach, with towels.

A 5 minute walk took us into Fisherman’s Village, the main resort area of Bophut. It’s a beautiful area of old Chinese shop houses converted into bars and restaurants, many of them with tables on the seafront. It’s easy to fall in love with Fisherman’s village. If you’re looking for an authentic Thai experience, or looking after the pennies, its probably not for you, but as we sat at our seafront pew at the Happy Elephant drinking pineapple shakes, and picking at a Thai platter, we knew we had found our little piece of heaven. Fully fledged travellers we may not be, but happy we are.

Bophut Beach - Koh Samui

Outside of Fisherman’s Village there wasn’t much to Bophut. The main road that ran through the resort had a smattering of Thai restaurants, and shops, and a number of the larger resort hotels, as you head north towards the neighbouring resort of Mae Nam, a tiny resort with a decent beach, hosting the Lomprayah ferry pier for onward travel to Koh Phangan, and Koh Tao.

Back in Fisherman’s Village we found the food in the restaurants to be of a high standard, if a little pricer than back in Lamai. A couple of worthy mentions, Sabeinglae serves excellent Thai food, and we enjoyed the Mediterranean fare at Link, and Gusto’s.

After 4 nights in Bophut we were due to be catching the Lomprayah Ferry to Chumphon, with onward bus travel to Hua Hin at 8am the next morning. However in a moment of weakness, no doubt fuelled by Chang beer & Cocktails we decided we weren’t done with Samui just yet, and hastily made a booking at the Lanna Hotel in Neighbouring Bang Rak.

North, part 2  – Bangrak

Lanna was another, budget be damned choice, a beautiful hotel, possibly even nicer than the Bandara Spa. The rooms were huge and included a large seating area, and were impeccably clean. The only slight gripe was that despite having a smorgasbord of lighting and cooling options, non of the controls were anywhere near the bed, so on a night you had to navigate your way back to bed in the pitch dark.

The hotel throughout was well manicured, and the service was excellent, had the hotel been 300 meters closer to the beach it would have been perfect.

As a resort Bangrak is unexceptional. The beach is decent, like neighbouring Bophut the water is a little murky, but it shares the picturesque view across the narrow bay to Koh Phangan. There are a smattering of bars and restaurants at each side of the main road, but nothing stands out as a must see. A little way further east stands “Big Buddha” known locally as Wat Phra Yaia, a 12 meter tall Buddha seated atop a platform on a rocky island. Connected to the mainland by a causeway, big Buddha can be seen from several kilometres away. Around the base of the temple are a number of vendors selling amulets, snacks and t-shirts as well as other touristy wares. Don’t visit Big Buddha without following the main road a little further east to the Wat Plai Leam Temple. This is a really beautiful Temple complex, and all the better for the lack of notoriety. We almost had the place to ourselves.

Wat Plai Laem (2)Wat Plai Laem (3) Wat Plai Laem (4)Wat Plai Laem

We really enjoyed our time on Koh Samui, its a beautiful island, and despite the popularity its easy to escape the crowds. There are also plenty of activities available to those looking for excitement. For us it was an opportunity to us to relax and regroup, and maybe just start to realise what type of travellers we are going to be.

 

5 Nights in Bangkok

Our flight from the UK to Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport had been an uneventful one. Our connection in Dubai had passed without hitch and an hour lost on the tarmac at Manchester was offset by a generous tailwind.

It was 3pm Thailand time and as we waited at the carousel to collect our cases, we allowed ourselves a moment; we had done it. The house, the cars, the jobs, indeed life as we knew it, was all now behind us.

We took the Airport rail link to Phaya Thai BTS station (40baht), but then decided due to the position of our hotel, the iCheck-Inn Silom, being 500 meters from the nearest station, that we would take a taxi the rest of the way, 5 minutes later we were hurtling through Bangkok with all our worldly good strapped to the back of a tuk-tuk.

iCheck-Inn Silom is set back from Silom Road, on Soi 28 a tiny little road that looks more like a private drive than an actual road. The hotel has a good sized reception with seating and free tea, coffee and hot chocolate for guests, and check in was swift and pleasant.

iCheck-Inn Soi 18

Our room was a good size for the £24 per night we had paid, was clean, had a comfortable bed, a good shower, and free toiletries. It was also equipped with an in room safe, but this did not work, and from time to time the bathroom suffered from sewage stench, but all considered not bad bang for the bucks.

As we had arrived on a Sunday we decided to head straight out to the Talad Rot Fai night market, as this is only open on weekends, and we were only in Bangkok 5 nights.

We really enjoyed the night market, despite the jet lag starting to take its toll we had a good poke around, sampled some of the street food, and grabbed a beer at one of the bars that encircles the market. I’m not sure how to best describe it, its an eclectic mix of souvenir stalls, and traditional Thai vendors all blended together. Somehow it works.

Rot Fai Night Market

The next day we decided to explore Silom Road, our hotel was a good 10 minutes walk from the built up areas, and Patpong Market. There wasn’t much to see and do in the immediate area but it did have a “real Bangkok” feel to it. We found a good food court in the Silom Centre which was clearly popular with the locals, and had Tom Yung Goong, and crispy pork noodle soup. It was good, and cheap. Sorry I cant tell you what the vendor was called as there was no English translation of their name.

We headed back the same way that evening to check out Patpong night market (Thanon Patpong 1). The market sells predominantly tourist tat, copy bags, copy watches, t-shirts etc, at very much tourist prices, and is flanked on both sides by dodgy bars, and dodgier touts promoting ping pong shows and the like. As there appears to be no immediate way to determine which bars are “adult” and which aren’t we decided to get a beer from the next street down.

This is where slightly seedy becomes very seedy, and the veil of touristy tongue in cheek naughtiness becomes something much darker. Patpong 2 is a wide Soi dominated by Japanese restaurants, but come nightfall sushi isn’t the only thing for sale here. Regularly spaced down the road are metal barriers, with girls lined up behind them. As the “vendors” wave laminated price-lists at passer-bys its difficult not to make comparisons with the “goods” being hawked on the next street. I’m trying to be as sensitive as possible here, and non judgemental, but its difficult not to compare the feeling to being in a cattle market.

The next morning we walked from our hotel to the main ferry stop on the Chao Phraya River, and caught the Tourist ferry, this cost 40 baht, (you can catch the non-tourist ferry for 27 baht, which does the same thing, but if you turn up at the pier looking indecisive, you’ll end up on the tourist one). Our intention was to go to Wat Arun, unfortunately the temple was undergoing restoration work and was covered in scaffolding, so we opted to stay on the ferry and go to the Grand Palace, and Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Prakaew).

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We’d heard about the tourist scams around the temple, and these had obviously reached endemic proportions as now the temple makes constant announcements warning tourists not to listen to anyone who approaches them in the vicinity.

This is our second attempt to access the temple, having being dissuaded by the heaving crowds on a previous visit to Bangkok, we hoped it would be better this time.

We were wrong.

The combination of heat, humidity, and thronging crowd was all too much, and within minutes we found ourselves back outside, promising ourselves that we will definitely come back when we are better acclimatised.

We decided to walk to Siam, so with a vague idea of our heading we set off, and 2 hours later after taking an accidental tour of the old town we were welcomed into the air-conditioned wonderland of the MBK centre, a huge shopping centre come indoor market that marks the beginning of Siam.

In the evening we braved the rain and caught the free tourist boat down the Chao Praya to Asiatique, a tourist mecca 5 minutes down river.

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Asiatique is an old warehouse complex that has been transformed into a sprawling market area divided into indistinct districts, selling mainly touristy souvenirs, and numerous up-scale bars, and eateries. This would have been very much our kind of place, travellers budget not prevailing. After much justification we allowed ourselves a slight splurge and ate in one of the Japanese restaurants, Katcha Katcha. The venue was beautiful, and the service excellent, but the food was a little disappointing. That said we’re hardly experts on Japanese food, it may have been impeccably recreated, just not to our western palate.

The following day we visited Lumphini Park, a large area of greenery and lakes right in the heart of Bangkok. The well manicured park is home to numerous large monitor lizards, birds and the odd squirrel. Considering its vicinity to Silom Road we were amazed by how quiet it was, that said maybe the locals knew something we didn’t and soon we were darting for cover as the rain swept in.

Lumphini Park

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Day 4 we made our travellers pilgrimage to Khao San Road. I’ve got to say I don’t really understand why this area is so popular with backpackers, as with the possible exception of Asiatique it’s the least authentic place in Bangkok. Khao San is a surprisingly short street of bars and restaurants, fast-food chains line up amongst stalls selling the usual, hats, t-shits, and elephant trousers. We found the road which runs parallel, Rambuttri, a much more pleasant place to be, that said its still not a place to spend time if you want to see the real Bangkok.

So that’s our second trip to Bangkok, and our first as fledgling travellers. I’m still not a massive fan, however I’m reluctant to pass judgement as I’ve read so many times that Bangkok is very much an acquired taste, and I’m sure we’ll be back this way soon. Despite my limited experience I do still have a couple of tips I’d like to share.

No.1 Choose accommodation close to a BTS station. It may only look like a 5 minute walk, but 5 minutes carrying a pack through the bustle, heat and humidity of Bangkok is no fun.

No.2 Sukhumvit Road is the place to be, ideally near the Asoke BTS/MRT interchange. Sukhumvit Road has a perfect mix of old, and new. It has bars, it has restaurants, it has food stalls, and it has an excellent food court in Terminal 21 shopping centre, and most importantly, it also has great transport links.

Next stop Koh Samui………….

It’s all gone

Let the Gap Year Begin

  • It’s been a stressful week there’s no denying it. I must admit previously when I’d heard people talk of the stresses of moving house I’d been pretty dismissive. Even whilst living in the UK we’ve been semi nomadic, moving house whenever the whim took us, and we never found the experience particularly traumatic.

But this is different.

We aren’t neatly packing our belongings away, in anticipation of releasing them into their new home. No. With the exception of what we can fit into 2 Osprey packs we are selling, giving away, and throwing away everything we have accumulated in 16 years together.

Understandably we were reluctant to do this until the house sale was nailed on, so we were in a kind of limbo until the solicitors exchanged contracts.

With a completion date tentatively agreed for the 8th July we failed to exchange contracts on Thursday 30th June, then on Friday 1st July, then again on Monday 4th, then Tuesday, then again on Wednesday, by which time we were both jibbering wrecks.

We always thought we would have at least a week to get our affairs in order, however on the morning of Thursday 7th July and still with no guaranteed sale, we decide we cannot wait any longer, and start to clear the house.

By the time we get the call at 2:30pm saying that the contracts have been exchanged the house is almost empty, and the relief is palpable.

And by 4pm the next day we are half way to Manchester airport after making a stop off at our local webuyanycar outlet, to relinquish the last “necessity” from our previous life, when we get the call from the solicitor confirming that the money from the house sale is in our account.

So was it all worth it.

I hope so, but that page isn’t written yet……..