YOUR GUIDE TO KOH SAMUI
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As the number of visitors coming to the island increases, so does the number of shops and stalls selling everything that you could want. In addition to the famous Thai copy watches, designer label T-shirts, pirated CDs and souvenir elephant carvings, there are also some excellent local products, with smarter boutiques and designer shops springing up all the time. Favourite items include: Thai triangle cushions, antique reproductions and Buddha images from ancient Thai civilizations, and brightly painted batiks or silks, which are very affordable on Koh Samui. (Note: It is forbidden to export genuine antiques. Always keep a receipt for the purchase. It is uncertain whether an untrained customs official would be able to tell the difference between a genuine antique and a fake).
Both Thailand and India are famous for quality, low cost clothing, and on Koh Samui, the two cultures work together to provide some excellent fabrics and expertly tailored garments. There are literally hundreds of tailor shops and their staff will help you chose the right material and design from catalogues or they can copy a garment of your choice. Having taken note of your preferences and measurements, within a few days they can produce made-to-measure suits, shirts, skirts, blouses and jackets at a fraction of the cost you would expect to pay at home.
SPAS AND HEALTH
The Spa culture explosion has definitely had a profound effect on Koh Samui, which now boasts more than 15 quality Spas and Health resorts. In fact Thailand is often referred to as the new health destination in Asia, and Samui definitely fits in to that category given the range of treatments on offer for those in search of stress relief and holistic fitness. Services on offer at various health spas around the island include colonic irrigation programmes, body treatments, acupuncture, massage and reiki, skin therapies and even cleansing and exercise for the mind and body with yoga and tai-chi.
FOOD AND FUN
Thai food is an intermingling of Thai, Chinese, and to a lesser extent, Indian cuisines. This helps to explain why restaurants produce dishes which are some of the spiciest and hottest in the world, as well as others which are rather bland. Laap (chopped beef mixed with rice, herbs and spices) is a traditional Thai dish; Pla priaw waan (whole fish with soy and ginger) is Chinese in origin; while gaeng mussaman (beef 'Muslim' curry) was brought to Thailand by Muslim immigrants. Even satay, provided by most restaurants as a Thai dish, was introduced from Malaysia and Indonesia (which themselves adopted it from Arab traders during the middle ages). 'Lao' food is heavily influenced by the cuisine from the north-east border area with Laos.
Despite these various influences, Thai cooking is distinctive. Thais have managed to combine the best of each tradition, adapting elements to fit their own preferences. The Thai philosophy on eating is 'often', and most Thais will snack throughout the day, and so it is possible to get good, tasty and nutritious meals almost anywhere - and at any time of the day or night in seafood restaurants, noodle shops, curry houses, and from stalls and food carts.
In addition to traditional Thai cooking the larger resorts and towns also offer International cuisine, including Italian, German, Swedish, Indian, Spanish (tapas) and, of course, English. Fast food outlets include McDonalds, Burger King and KFC.
Given the warm weather, dining 'alfresco' is popular and many of the larger and more salubrious restaurants will provide entertainment in the form of traditional Thai dancers and singers. In many of the larger resorts and towns there are night clubs but most entertainment is in the form of music in local bars.
Jazz: There is an Annual Jazz Festival attracting stars from around the world. Jules Holland and other internationally acclaimed artists have participated in the past. The festival is held over a week using a range of different venues.
Thai Kickboxing is both a sport and a means of self-defence and differs from western boxing in that contestants are allowed to use almost any part of their body. Traditional music is played during bouts and Thai Kickboxing tournaments are a popular form of entertainment for all the family. Thai boxing at the 'round bars' in Lamai is billed as 'Lady Boxing Night', although male kick boxers are featured as well. This takes place every Saturday night and is free. The boxing stadiums in Chaweng, and Lamai, have more frequent bouts but charge an entrance fee.
RESORTS, BEACHES AND SIGHTS
The North Coast
Nathon is Koh Samui's capital, where the ferry docks. It is a town geared to tourism, with travel agents, exchange booths, clothes stalls, bars and restaurants. Nathon consists of three roads running parallel to the seafront with two main roads at either end linking them together.
Maenam has a long stretch of wide beach on the Island's north coast facing Koh Phangan. It has long been a popular destination for budget travellers but recently has started to attract a more salubrious clientele, thanks mainly to the presence of the top class Santiburi Dusit Resort and some expensive residential developments. Maenam has a quiet and relaxed feel about it, and is a popular area with foreign residents and a number of good restaurants and shops can be found along the main road.
Bophut: once a simple fishing village, Bophut has since been transformed into a fashionable centre for shopping and dining, as well as an elegant and peaceful place to stay. It is also one of the few places on the island where there are still traditional wooden Samui houses with Chinese lettering above the doors side-by-side with modern tourist accommodation. Unsurprisingly, it has grown increasingly popular in the last few years and there are now currency exchanges, bookshops, restaurants and good watersport facilities. The French and Italian influence is strong around this part of the island and this certainly affects the ambience of the town, which is an interesting blend of local Thai, Chinese and Southern European styles.
The beach itself if straight and lacks the sweeping expanse of Chaweng, or Lamai, yet the place maintains a friendly village atmosphere. A daily passenger boat leaves here for Koh Phangan. There are no clubs in Bophut so the nightlife is less noisy (or less fun, depending on your viewpoint), than Chaweng or Lamai but the restaurant scene is popular and vibrant.
Big Buddha Beach or Bang Rak is also located on the northern coast, and on an island linked to the mainland by a short causeway, near Bophut Beach. So named after the famous golden statue which stands 17m tall in the Temple of the Big Buddha, which is a popular shrine and meditation centre. Many people prefer to stay here as an alternative to the tourist beaches and its proximity to the airport makes it a convenient first and last stop on trips to all of the three local islands. The long sweep of beach enjoys tranquil waters all year round and there are several good beachside restaurants. Roadside bars and restaurants are also numerous, and it's only 15 minutes away from Chaweng for those who want a big night out.
Choeng Mon: At the north-eastern most part of the island, this is arguably the prettiest bay on Samui. The crescent of extremely fine white sand has an island at the most eastern end, attached to the mainland by a sandbar, traversable at low tide. While in places it is rocky underfoot in the centre of the bay, the sand continues well out to sea. The beach does not have any nightlife to speak of; everything grinds to a halt well before midnight. Prior to this, however, the restaurant scene is pretty lively, particularly in the centre of the beach where bamboo tables with oil lamps reach right down to the bonfires near the water's edge. Occasionally fire jugglers are hired to provide entertainment.
Chaweng: This is the largest and most developed of Samui's beaches on the island, split into three areas - north, central and Chaweng Noi. Some of the most expensive hotels on the island are located at Chaweng Noi, which is to the South, roun a headland. Central Chaweng is a vast sweep of sand with a proliferation of bungalow resorts, restaurants and bars. The town that has grown up here is entirely geared towards tourism and is the resort capital of the island. There are stalls and shops selling every kind of gift and souvenir plus innumerable bars, clubs and restaurants; even fast food chains have outlets in Chaweng. For those trying to find a secluded spot, this area is best avoided. In comparison to the other beaches on the island, it is also very crowded.
Lamai: Koh Samui's 'second beach' is 5km long, with good swimming and lush tropical scenery all around. Although it quieter than Chaweng its popularity has meant that it too has seen considerable development across the years, and the number of bars, clubs and restaurants is increasing all the time. The food market in Lamai is also an attraction with stalls serving up authentic local dishes and some excellent fresh seafood.
The South Coast
The small beaches that line the south coast from Ban Hua Thanon west to Thong Krut are quieter and less well developed, with only a handful of hotels and bungalows. Hua Thanon fishing village is an attractive rambling village with wooden shop houses, kwaytio stalls, and a small harbour where brightly coloured local fishing boats come to unload their catch of the day, which is served up in the local seafood restaurants and at the fresh food market. A stroll through the village provides an insight into what Samui was like before tourism arrived. Ban Hua Thanon is the only Muslim community on Koh Samui, the forebears of the which came from Pattani in Thailand's far south.
The West Coast
Like the south coast, the western coastline south of Nathon is undeveloped, with secluded coves and beautiful sunsets. Phangka, near the southwest tip of the island has good snorkelling in the quiet waters of a small bay; Thong Yang, further north, is an isolated strip of beach, relatively untouched by the frantic developments underway elsewhere. The vehicle ferry from Don Sak on the mainland, docks here. Chon Khram is the last bay before Nathon.
Although the island's main attractions are its wonderful beaches, Koh Samui has plenty to offer those in search of a more natural island experience. Two-thirds of the island is forested and hilly and the tropical vegetation, concealed waterfalls, indigenous species and limestone rock formations make for a fascinating ecological tour.
There are three impressive waterfalls on Koh Samui: Namuang 1 and 2 in the south western part of the island, and Hin Lad waterfall just outside Nathon town.
Namung 1: this is the most easily reached, as there is a proper access road located just off the island road about five minutes after Hua Thanon fishing village. This leads directly to the pool where water comes splashing down from the mountain. There are parking and refreshment facilities here, and elephant treks are also available.
Namung 2: is larger than number one, and therefore also more spectacular. A longer concrete road leads from the main island road not far past the Namung 1 turning and arrives at a dirt track, from which it's a ten minute walk to the base of the falls. There are also elephants here if you would prefer to ride rather than walk up to the top.
Hin Lad Waterfall and Wat are 3km south of Nathon and can be reached from the town on foot, or by road. Na Muang Waterfalls, are a short drive from Nathon Town. The first cascade, almost 20m high, can be reached by car up an unpaved road. The second, the tallest at 80m, can be reached through a half-hour uphill trek. There is also an interesting temple at the base of the waterfall with a pleasant garden full of wild flowers and shrubs.
Hin Ta and Hin Yai, or better known as Grandfather and Grandmother Rocks, or "wonderful rocks" as they are signposted, are situated a few kilometres south west of Lamai, and are island's second most visited attraction at the Big Buddha temple. Their strange shape is explained by a local tale about an old couple ship-wrecked in the bay whose bodies washed up to create the formations.
The Overlap Stone is a giant bolder that hangs what seems quite perilously over a steep cliff edge above Lamai beach. The track that leads to it is on the non-beach side of the road about a kilometre from Hin Ta and Hin Yai. Walking up is quite a trek, but you'll be rewarded with a scary balancing act as well as some fine views of the southern part of the island in all its tropical glory.
Buddha Footprints is another revered sight on the island, but is a bit tough to reach. There are no signs posted and so finding this attraction can be a bit of an adventure. The Buddha Footprints are on a hilltop shrine which you can reach after negotiating a total of 163 steps. You should find four footprints engraved one on top of the other. The views from here are quite spectacular.