Monday, February 10, 2014

Koh Samet - Paradise Near Enough

Regular contributor John Borthwick escapes to little Koh Samed, the closest resort island to Bangkok.

At around 200 kilometres from Bangkok you might expect Koh Samed to be over-paved and full of ravers. On the contrary, this predominantly jungle-clad island still has clean, tranquil beaches and, during the week at least, a lowkey booze scene.

Koh Samed (aka Koh Samet) was once known as Vast Jewel Island, a safe anchorage for sailors. In the 19th century its beauty was the inspiration for Thailand's best-loved romantic poet, Sunthorn Phu, whose tale of a lovesick mermaid and an exiled prince is commemorated in the colourful statues of the two lovers on Hat Sai Kaew.

Statues at Hat Sai Kaew

Hat Sai Kaew (“glass sand beach”) on the northeast of the island is Samed’s longest and most popular shore, an 800-metre strand of fine white sands, restaurants and bungalow hotels. From here, beaches loop down the east coast like links in a silica chain that become increasingly pristine — and decreasingly busy — the farther south you go.

Wongduan Beach

Ao Cho beach

Among the island’s virtues are its woeful roads — their washboard ruts successfully repel invaders who otherwise would over-run the place in coaches, limos and tuk-tuks. To get around, visitors either ride in songthaew pick-up trucks or hire light motorcycles or quad bikes. Having explored Samed by land you might want a different perspective. Boat excursions include snorkelling, fishing or just cruising around the island. The marine life and coral here aren’t Andaman-class but there are plenty of intro dives, night dives and certification courses.

Although this narrow, 13-sq km island in the Gulf is part of a Maritime National Park, that hasn’t stopped Thai developers building tourist facilities along its best beachfronts — the controversial paradox of public land becoming privately “owned”. Accommodation ranges from ageing bungalows to new spa resorts, and plenty in between. Rates rise according to the season (mid-October to March being more expensive). Due to Samed’s proximity to Bangkok and Pattaya, weekend rooms are in demand, so make your reservations in advance.

Tip: book a package for your first few nights accommodation on Samed that includes transport from BKK/Pattaya to Ban Phe public wharf (not to Ban Phe town), the ferry hop to Na Dan (Samed’s only village) and transfer to your resort. You’ll cut out the transport hucksters, hassles and several long waits.

In general, there’s gloriously little of note to do on Samed but eat, drink, read and be lazy. Post-sunset, look out on a dark horizon that’s hung with the carnival lights of squid boats and consider that, although the term “island paradise” — anywhere — is just a marketing crock, sometimes Koh Samed can feel like Paradise Near Enough.

Fire dance at Khlong Chao. Pics: John Borthwick

Getting there: A three-hour drive from Bangkok (or one hour from Pattaya) to Ban Phe wharf in Rayong Province, then a seven-kilometre ferry to the island. National Park entrance fee (mandatory) is 400 baht for foreigners, 40 baht for Thais.

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