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Saturday, September 27, 2014

A September in Ko Samui and Ko Phangan

Ferry from Ko Samui to Ko Phangan

We've just returned from a fantastic couple of weeks at Ko Samui and Ko Phangan (Thailand) - and I cannot wait to go there again. We chose these islands for our honeymoon because a detailed research into weather at beach destinations near India revealed that the Gulf of Thailand is the least likely in this region to be ravaged by monsoons in September (the Andaman sea is said to be the worst during this time). We were well rewarded for the research because we had glorious sunshine for ten of the twelve days of our holiday.

Ko Samui and Ko Phangan are tiny islands (247 and 125 sq.km respectively) and part of the Chumphon Archipelago in the Gulf of Thailand, about 700 km south of Bangkok. A quick image search will shows white sands, blue seas, and amazing sunsets - and all I can say is that the pictures do not exaggerate. At all. The sands are soft, clean and worthy of long romantic walks, and the sea at most beaches is like a massive bathtub - calm, clear and shallow - ideal for swimming, or just lying on your back and pretending you never have to go back to work again. There are some amazing coral reef formations too, and both islands are highly recommended for snorkelling and scuba diving, but this review is going to be totally from a beach bum's perspective.

Getting to Ko Samui requires a fair bit of decision making. The faster way is to take the hour long flight from Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport (Airport code: BKK) to the Ko Samui airport (Airport code: USM). Words fail me as I try to describe the Samui airport. I've never seen another airport that looks like a beach resort - the departure terminals come with thatched roofs, palm trees, lots of free food and free wifi. It has hourly flights from Bangkok, and until recently, Bangkok Airways, which built this terminal, was the only airline serving it. As one might expect, this option is a bit expensive (Bangkok Airways flight from BKK to USM is about INR 11,000 for a one way trip). The other option, which costs about a fourth of this, is to take a flight from Bangkok's Don Mueang Airport (DMK) to Surat Thani or Chumphon, which are both on the mainland, and are connected by ferries to Ko Samui and other islands (Ko Phangan, Ko Tao, and the rest) in the Gulf of Thailand. This latter option takes close to 6 hours to make it from Bangkok to Ko Samui (an hour for the flight to Surat-thani/Chumphon, an hour for the bus from the airport to the jetty, an hour for the ferry to Ko Samui, and a couple of hours of wait between each leg of the journey).

Ko Samui, they say, used to be a backpacker's paradise, and it used to be possible to find great places to stay in about 200 Baht in the not too distant past. Let's just say that those days are well past, but there are over 300 hotels and B&Bs on the island and it's easy to find great places for all budgets. It might be a good idea to pick the beach you want to stay at - which basically means choosing between breathtaking sunrises or picture-perfect sunsets. I would suggest picking the east coast in Ko Samui and the west coast in Ko Phangan and getting the best of both worlds. The main beaches, clockwise from Nathon, are:
  • Nathon and Lipa Noi on the west coast; the ports where your ferry from the mainland will arrive. Not a favourite with tourists for staying, but known for beautiful sunsets. 
  • Laem Yai, on the north-west tip of the island. Also not strewn with tourist accommodations (I think Four Seasons has a property here), also known for perfect sunsets. 
  • Maenam, on the northern coast, very quiet and relatively unknown 
  • Bophut, which is a quiet laid-back fishing village, but has some of the best restaurants 
  • Bang Rak, on the north eastern tip, well known for the Big Buddha statue 
  • Choeng Mon, the quiet beach on the north shore; parts of it are too rocky for swimming. We chose to stay here, at a resort called The Tongsai Bay, which I cannot recommend enough. This is the first five-star resort on the island, and I was blown away by their commitment to protecting the environment - recycled water for plants, and not a trace of plastic anywhere! 
  • Chaweng, which I believe is largest beach, and most favoured, because of its calm, warm water, of the hot-tub-in your backyard variety. I will remember it for the yummy street food, and the super-pocket friendly massages (an hour long foot-massage for 300 Baht! and it was really good). You can walk in the water for at least a kilometer and a half, with the water coming up to your waist. 
  • Lamai, the second most popular beach, filled with great eating places, and colorful shops. Both Lamai and Chaweng have the best nightlife on the island. 
  • South Samui beaches like Hua Thanon, LaemSet, Bang Kao are relatively untouched.
Ko Phangan is what Ko Samui was, about 20 years ago, before it became all swanky and five-star. Best known for the full moon party and the beautiful diving sites off Sailrock, it looks like a sleepy village with no more than 100 hotels and 200 restaurants (about 1 hotel and 2 restaurants per square kilometer - significantly less packed in comparison to Ko Samui). It is a budget traveller's dream, with restaurants serving delicious thai food at 50 bahts, and foot massages going at 100 Bahts! Below is a quick clockwise summary of my favourite beaches:
  • Thongsala - the port where the ferry from Ko Samui will drop you, also the busiest, most touristy part of the island. This is home to an amazing Saturday night market, with mountains of the most colorful food you'll ever see - from purple colored sushi retailing to bright yellow mangoes, from steaming phad thai noodles to some home-made icecream that was too delicious for words. We stayed in this part of town, at the quirkily named Divine Comedie, which was a great place to stay - the beautiful rooms, the beach facing pool and bar, the hammocks on the roof were perfect; my only (minor) grudge was that the beach in front of the hotel, was too shallow and too rocky to wade into. But there are some amazing beaches on both sides of the hotel, and the absolute best restaurant on island - Fisherman's restaurant - was a 5 minute walk away, so it was all good. 
  • Haad Salad - has some of the most high-end resorts 
  • Thong Nai Pan - locals call this beach the "paradise on earth" 
  • Haad Rin - this is where the famous full moon party takes place. I will remember the party for the beautiful neon colors and the alcohol being served in buckets (small ones), but I've seen crazier things at business school parties. 
There are other beaches too, that you stumble on to, when you're driving around lazily and have to stop because "o my god! this is so beautiful!" - beaches that have lovely names like the Secret Beach and Haad Yao. And there's a beach called the Bottle Beach, in a very secluded northern part of the island that you can only get to by boat.

Both islands, and this excited me more than the full moon party, have free apps (here and here) for exploring the islands, complete with reviews of beaches, restaurants, cooking classes, you name it. The most useful suggestion I can give would be to download these apps and use them mercilessly.

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