I had always wanted to live on a white sandy beach with blue green waters. Not for long, just a few days. I hadn’t figured out what we would do once we got there as a family but this was one long outstanding item on my wish list for many years. The one catch was my long list of requirements – the amenities of modern civilization. Running water, power, electricity, air-conditioning, functional and clean kitchens, bed rooms and living rooms with real furniture. Ambiance that would make you want to plan for an extended stay over. Good food and clean usable cutlery. 5 decades as a Karachiite and we haven’t had the opportunity to experience this here on the beaches or the hundreds of beach huts on our coastline.
We did get the chance to take shots at the dream twice. A night with a full moon at a friend summer home at Rayong beach in 2013. The beach hosts a number of gated retiree communities a few hours’ drive from Bangkok. It met all the requirements on my check list, but while I was with friends, my family was back home in Karachi. The second shot – a night with the kids off Galle in Sri Lanka, our way back from Nuwara Eilya. Gorgeous beachfront villa in the middle of fishermen village at Galle but no electricity and air conditioning and an entire reptilian tribe for company. The food, pool and beach were great. The humidity was not. The two attempts were significant upgrades over local experience in Karachi but had missing elements that made them short of perfect. Family in Rayong, electricity in Galle.
Finally, this June, a week after the break for Eid, on our third attempt, we got a chance to get it right.
Koh Samui – June weather update
White sandy beaches with blue and emerald green water tend to be found in hot and humid locations on the tropics. Not an ideal fit for people who are trying to catch a break away from hot, humid and dry weather of their own home town. Weather was a big initial filter and a search on Google as well as weather.com indicated that it would be a pleasant 24 – 28 centigrade in the week we would land at our destination. It wasn’t much later when the plans were locked that we found online weather coverage was notoriously wrong, especially for where we were headed, and the actual range was likely to be 29 – 35 centigrade. The same weather we were trying to escape.
We were flying into a hot, humid and wet zone with no room for “thou shall not sweat” in June in the Gulf of Thailand. Not perspiration, not glowing, just plain simple good old salty sweat by the bucket load. Luckily for us it rained four of our six-day break. The rain brought welcome relief from heat and humidity. All four downpours were short hour long spells with three in the evening while one hit us at mid-day.
One apology in advance. Given that we were running away from heat and humidity in Karachi and ran bang into the two in Thailand, you will notice an obsession with air-conditioning in the lines that follow. Please forgive us if that upsets you. While heat is something we are well conditioned to handle, humidity has been the kryptonite for our family for generations.
Koh Samui – island getaway.
Koh Samui is a small island in the Gulf of Thailand. While everyone has heard of Phuket, Pattaya, Krabi and Langkawai, Samui is a slightly less favored destination. Phuket, Krabi and Langkawai (Malaysia) are all on the Andaman sea side. In some ways Samui is a little pricier than other mainland destinations. Connections from Bangkok to Samui are frequent but relatively more expensive. All of my Thai friends, when asked, recommended Krabi over Samui.
Despite being a major tourist destination, Samui still has a small town feel to it. You get that sense as soon as you land. Samui airport (airport code USM), an old converted coconut plantation, is the first hint that this island is going to be different. A shaded, ventilated, open air buggy hitched to a train of other buggies is your ride from the aircraft to baggage claim. Cute, quaint and comfortable are three immediate reactions that come to your mind. The baggage claim area like the rides is shaded but open, shaped like a tropical hut with a high ceiling. The arrival section with counters for currency exchange, phone sims, hotel booking and rides out of the airport is a square that would fit in the atrium of a small hotel. (Phone SIMS with 10 GB data packet valid for a week will set you back 149 Thai Bhat). An around the island trip on the 2 lane ring road that circumnavigates Samui is roughly 90 minutes without stops. With stops for sightseeing, pictures, viewpoints, shopping and food, it can transform into a 6-8 hour day trip.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am a sucker for the small town feel. I am a certified crowd-phobic and will pick peace and quiet over buzz and activity any day of the week including weekends. When we picked Samui we weren’t sure what to expect other than a simple relaxing beach front vacation. Anything beyond that would have been a bonus.
If you are the sort of family that wants to do an activity twice as day as part of your break, Samui certainly has many options for you. They may not be as exciting or diverse as Phuket and Krabi but they are there. We on other hand only had a simple checklist. Disconnect electronics and work, spend time with family, explore beaches, be one with water, eat enough exotic seafood to feed a small village and find some serious “me time” and chill. Samui gave us all of that in 6 days.
Amongst its many flavors Samui has everything you could wish for on an island getaway. Water sports, zip lining, snorkeling, certified diving instructors, ATV and quad rides, go karting, island hops, city tours, regional flavors, traditional Thai cuisine and hospitality and for the young at heart an active night life and club scene. To be fair, compared to Bangkok it is more difficult to find Tub Tim Krab, the classic Thai dessert. But if you are willing to work with substitutes your sweet tooth will find peace with other shaved ice Thai desserts in Samui.
Koh Samui – Accommodation choices
In terms of places to stay you are spoiled for choice in Samui. It is a function of what you want from your week long break. You can get a small one bed basic fan cooled apartment for a month for 12,000 Bhat (USD 400) or get an upscale beach front villa for USD 800 a night. Do you wish to stay by a popular beach with lots of company, nearby attractions and night life that extends all the way into early hours or a quiet peaceful tucked away corner of paradise where you will only be accosted by a pair of friendly neighborhood dogs during your morning walk? Activity versus privacy? That choice determines location and pricing.
The eastern and south east part of the island is the life of the party. The north and north east is where the quiet ones looking for peace head to. Between the two extremes, you have a great deal of variation and choices. Bang Po village in the north west corner of the Island, between Mae Nam and Na Thon, a peaceful and relative quiet lane with a few shops and private beaches is the venue we picked for our week long break. Our criteria was simple. We wanted privacy, a place away from the crowds and a location where we could simply open the door and walk onto a clean accessible beach.
A van for six booked from Samui airport to Bang Po village costs 1050 Bhat. If you book it in advance with Mr. Samui, it would be significantly (40%) cheaper. If you need to stop at a local 7/11 or Tesco Lotus to pick up water and provisions for your hotel room or load credit into your SIM, the driver will be happy to make a short stop for you. Just ask politely.
While Grab and Navigo are both active and present in Samui, we ended up using a local service called Mr. Samui for our transportation needs. Getting a van in Samui made sense because as a group of six we would always need two taxies. Getting a dedicated driver for six days who knew what we had done and what worked for us, was a blessing. The trick was to come up with a plan that would require a van for four hours.
We quickly found the routine that worked for our group. Day break at the beach, catch the sunrise, walk while the weather behaved. Homemade breakfast with fruits and freshly cut coconuts followed by a long extended dip in the pool. Head out to lunch and the plan for the day just before noon.
The cost. A ten seater air-conditioned Toyota commuter van with a dedicated driver – 2000 Thai Bhat for the first four hours, extendible at 400 Bhat an hour for every extra hour. Aam our driver spoke English, knew his way around Samui, was always on time, very friendly and patient and a joy to drive with. The van became a travel hub during the day as smaller sub groups within our group would simply stop, go and checkout whatever caught their attention and come back.
The difference between the exchange rate you would get at the airport and in the city is about 2 Bhat. That is about 200 Bhat on a hundred dollars. The difference between the bank rate and the rate offering by the many currency exchanges boxes you will see in the city is much lower. But a personal id with a picture is required – doesn’t have to be a passport, could be your driver license or your national id card. The rate on the weekend (Saturday, Sunday) is worse than the rate on weekdays. Exchange on weekdays. Bank currency exchange counters close by 7 pm.
Tips are not expected but always appreciated. Don’t be a miser, be generous, anything between 10% to 15% works depending on how happy you are with the service.
Koh Samui – Local food flavors
The best food in Koh Samui is found on Thai version of dhabas. A dhaba is a desi term that describes a barebones dining experience that may or may not include a dilapidated table, plastic dishes, some form of sunshade and an open air, no air conditioning seating arrangement. The definitive user experience guide suggests the more dilapidated the premises, the better and cheaper is the food. The dhabas with dedicated seating arrangement with more than two tables are a bigger version of your street food vendor. They have a full sized kitchen and can accommodate and serve a few dozen customers. As you upgrade the quality of the venue and add frills like air-conditioning and bone china cutlery, the size of the serving and the richness of flavors goes down, prices go up and the focus shifts from taste to ambiance.
While there are a variety of sauces and flavors to try, fishes come in two modes in Samui. Deep fried and steamed. We would recommend both. We would also recommend the lemon and garlic variations if you like tangy flavors and Tamarind and chili if you favor the sweet side of the spectrum.
A full meal for our family of six ranged from 1,600 Bhat to 3,000 Bhat depending on what we ordered. King prawns ran between 150 to 200 Bhat per 100 grams. A half kg order with six – seven large size prawns would set you back by a 1,000 Bhat. Lobsters in the Muslim fishermen village ran at 1800 Bhat per piece. Fresh coconuts, fresh juices would also add to the bill. On a per head basis you can budget 150 to 300 Bhat per meal per head. All figures above are without alcohol.
If we planned properly, managed what we ordered and ate well the food bill could be lowered to the 1200 Bhat per meal range – 200 Bhat per person, 6 – 7 dollars per meal per head. The meals were filling enough that on most days we only had breakfast and lunch followed by a very light dinner or a servings of fresh fruits before we crashed for the day.
The cheapest food we ate added up to 190 Bhat for two grilled Halal beef sides from a street side vendor. A slightly higher end and pricier version was available at the food corner of the Night market.
In the month leading up to the trip, we spent time on trip advisor short listing places to eat and see. Having that list made a big difference. We were staying on the North coast of Samui, between Mae Nam and Na Thon and the search horizon was limited to venues within a twenty-minute driving distance radius. In terms of each of access and food, Kabori Sushi and Haad Bang Po made it to our lets-feed-ourselves-today list more than once and deserve special mention.
Kabori Sushi. Mae Nam and Na Thon Pier. We are a family of dedicated and committed sushi fans. Kabori has two outlets. The original one near the small Chinese Temple in Mae Nam. The other near the pier in Na Thon. The Na Thon venue comes with air conditioning and friendly founder chef. The Mae Nam one doesn’t. Same menu and prices but the Na Thon venue has more flavor. Cost of a typical meal for family of six – 2900 to 3300 Thai Bhat depending on what you order. Don’t forget to try the Aburi prawns.
Haad Bang Po. Bang Po Village. Haad Bang Po kept on popping up on our search radars when we searched for sea food places by the beach. Think a low end version of Ministry of Crabs from Colombo but tastier, fresher meals and friendlier service. The other reason why we were keen to try it out – it was a 5-minute walk from our residence.
The first time we walked in, we quickly walked out. We had had a long flight, our bodies hadn’t grown used to the humidity in Samui and we weren’t sure if would be able to take the open air service by the sea model. That was before we realized that open air service was common across Samui, not just the strip we were exploring. Once that realization sat in, we beat a hasty retreat and quietly took the offered table.
Do yourself a favor. Don’t let your first impressions mislead you when it comes to food in Samui. Once you sit down and the sea breeze finds you, it’s not that warm. The food and the hospitality is well worth it. Try the steamed fish with lemon and garlic, the deep fried fish with garlic and the two different variations of sea food soup and vegetable tempura.
Things to do in Koh Samui – a family friendly list
Sunrise and sunsets. With two committed and one wannabe photographers in the family catching the sunrise and the sunset on the beach was the first item on our joint family list. Walking and running back to our villa trying to protect our gear from an unexpected rain storm that blew onto our bit of sand out of nowhere was a much appreciated plus.
We accidentally mentioned our desire to catch the sunset to our driver. On our last evening in Samui, he took us to a small parking lot by the sea just before Na Thon pier, where we witnessed the best sunset of our stay. It had rained on and off during the day and as a result evening colors were brilliant.
Beaches were also great for running at day break while you waited for the sun to show up. The tide would come in the evening and recede in mornings. The absence of a strong sun made early mornings perfect for long runs and walks. Bare foot walks where you could alternate walking in water and sand or just find a comfortable location and hear the waves come in and go.
Samui Time. The Thai are an incredibly efficient nation. We see testaments to their efficiency again and again. On how our driver was always on time, ground and inflight services at airports, the speed of our hotel check in, the gadgets and processes kitchens used to prepare and pack our takeaway food orders, to social interaction with our gracious hosts over a decade and more of travel. Having said that the best way to enjoy Samui is put your watches back into you bags and enjoy Samui time.
What is Samui time? Remember that you are on vacation. Don’t get married to your schedule or your plan for the day. When you order food at your local table remember that they are going to put it together from scratch for you. Every ingredient, every meal. At the many local beach side restaurants you could see them at work in the open kitchen in front of you. Dishes are served one by one as they are prepared. Which means that it would be best to be in sharing mode. Everyone gets a taste of what comes on to the table and large meals orders take a while to complete. It’s part of the experience and the spirit of Samui. Take it in your stride, don’t complain about it.
While you can get away with it in Bangkok, in Samui don’t commit a time to anyone immediately after lunch or dinner. You will be there when you get there. Same thing goes with other commitments. Shopping at the Night market or food streets, out for a walk on the beach or a dip in the pool – don’t whip out your watch and check the time. Enjoy the moment, don’t spoil it.
While you are more than welcome to take work with you on the vacation, know that serious work will have to wait. You may be able to get a few minutes every alternate night to check email and respond to emergencies, but Samui time means that serious work will only get done when you have boarded your long haul flight back home.
Beaches and other assorted activities. Our bit of beach was a flat bay with clear water that allowed you to wade a hundred meters into the sea without the water rising above your calves. The only challenge was that as we moved further way from the coast, the texture of the sand changed from firm to muddy and our feet would sink and the mud would squelch. We had a rower in the group as well as access to a kayak but we didn’t venture far into the water. Our next door neighbors regularly did. Besides kayaking and walking, at least one morning beach run is recommended. You could do it barefoot but shoes are better since there is likely to be some flotsam with sharp edges that cut on the more isolated and private beaches on the north side of the island. Lower tides in mornings also open up access to coastal rock formations with viewpoints. Places where you can sit for hours in the shade and watch the water recede and come in.
A Samui tour itinerary. An ideal tour should go full circle around the island. While you can sign up for any of the standard tour packages, if you have a large enough group it may make sense to just book a van with Mr. Samui and ask the driver for his recommendations. Alternatively, you can create your list of points of interest that you do want to hit during the city tour. Best day to do this would be Saturday and Sunday as there is less traffic on the roads and you won’t get stuck behind the Samui version of rush hour traffic.
You can start at about ten am and head straight for a look at the water fall. It’s not much to look at as waterfalls go but it comes with the option to do an elephant trek across a tropical jungle and a small souvenir market. If you have young kids in your group or you have never enjoyed an elephant ride before, it is a worth a try. Next stop summit view point that allows you a 270-degree view of the city and the coast around it atop the biggest hill in Samui. On your way down you can stop at the Sky fox zip line for rebooting your adrenaline levels. Zip lining is an outdoor activity that allows you to zip on a taut reinforced steel cable sometimes across or above the canopy of a tropical forest. The experience costs 800 Bhat for a four-line course and 1500 Bhat for a ten-line course. It looks scary but is completely safe and a great deal of fun. Don’t forget to hand out your phones or cameras to the team that assists you and they will be happy to take candid shots and movies of you as you come zipping down the steel cable. From the zip line adventure, it is a short ride to the Muslim fisherman village and Melayu Samui Seafood Restaurant for the best Halal and seafood experience you could expect to have in Samui. Like Haad Bang Po, the venue and the location is not much to look at and you may have second thoughts if it is your first experience with these restaurants in Samui. This is not going to be a five-star dining experience if you just look at the venue. Having said that you will never get food like this in a Michelin star restaurant. The owners are very friendly and hospitable, the family quickly gets together to serve you, the food is in a different league and cheap.
If you started at 10 am, it is closer to 3 by the time you get done with lunch. Both Central and Big C are a short drive away. Head to the Central food court and look for the small counter in the middle by the main entrance that serves a selection of sweet Thai desserts. It’s opposite the fruit juice counter. Order everything on the menu and bump up your blood sugar by a notch. After a day out in the sun the Thai dessert selection is a good rest point for the group and you can put the sugar to good use.
If you are in the mood, there are quite a few small shops at Central. In night market and walking street mode, offering a range of local wares just outside the food court. Ask if they have any specials going on and you would be surprised by some of the deals on offer. You can also head into Tops market to load up on supplies and groceries for the week. Pack away a light dinner from the food court before you head out because while you won’t be feeling hungry at 4 pm, you will be by the time you get home. On your way home after you drop your haul from the day in your room, head out to the nearest spa / massage joint for an hour of winding down time. By the time you are done, your city tour checklist would be complete and you would be ready to crash and burn after a quick bite.
You can add and subtract items based on your budget and your preferences. ATV, quad biking, cycling tours and snorkeling are half day to full day affairs. Shooting ranges and go karting are shorter experiences. We had done our dose of temples in Bangkok and Chiang Mai on earlier trips and we skipped them in Samui.
Shopping and groceries
If you just wanted to stroll by touristy shops to buy touristy stuff and not be bothered by crowds, Na Thon is quiet and peaceful in early afternoon. Most street shops in Na Thon and Samui close by 6 pm. The smaller night markets and walking streets open by 6 pm and shut down by 9. The bigger ones go on for a little later. Central stays open from 11 am to 11 pm. Outside of Central, Big C and the corner grocery stores, you can haggle everywhere and anywhere for a discount. The Thai are a very polite people, if no haggling is possible, they will simply say no.
Central and Big C are two different planets in Koh Samui. It is very easy to confuse the two as I did during my first two days. Big C is a super store format store like Costco, Makro and Metro. Central is a mall with food courts, Tops Market and both small single room high street shops as well as large brands. Both places are close to each other so you can quickly hop between the two if you pick the wrong one by mistake.
Tesco Lotus is the local Thai brand neighborhood corner store that shuts down by 9 pm every day. Seven Elevens stay open 24 hours. If you are looking for basic fruits, ready to serve coconuts, groceries, eggs, milk, munchies, Tesco Lotus works just fine. If you need or want the high end variety ala Spinneys or Marks and Spencer, you have to head to Tops Market in Central.
If you are looking for the signature dried and rehydrated fruits the Far East is famous for your best bets are the fresh fruit street markets. Essentially similar and comparable quality at half the price of what you would find in stores and a third of what you would end up paying if you purchased them at Duty Free.
Ask your driver and your hosts about night markets. Night markets in Samui are significantly smaller than their counterparts in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. More than shopping, if you have teenagers in your group, they are a great way to expose them to the process of negotiation, haggling and bargaining in a foreign land.
Koh Samui dot – Bugs local flavor
Samui is a tropical paradise surrounded by water and blessed with indigenous tropical forests, hills, flora and fauna. The fauna is a problem. It includes a range of insects and bugs that can get downright irritating.
The smallest of these is a dot sized parasite that hunts in groups and regenerates its population irrespective of how much pesticide, insecticide and insect repellant you spray on yourself or on them. Smaller than a fruit fly with a bite that stings, itches and quickly puffs up. We named them Samui dots or dots for short. These parasites are also very selective and discerning in their tastes. As in they don’t bite every one. They pick and choose. In our family of 6, they focused only on three of the middle distance runners. The lizards and geckos are quite well behaved as long as you keep your doors and windows closed. Compared to the dots one almost feel sorry for the mosquitoes who look like large zeppelins compared to the dots. Then there are the regulars – dragonflies, butterflies, bees, wasps, centipedes and moths – not irritating but worthy of an unexpected shout or scream, specially from dark corners of your bathrooms.
The two way to go to war on this group are to make sure that you are fully covered in terms of dress code, nuke your room with bug spray every time you plan to step out for more than an hour, close the windows and turn and keep the air-conditioning on. If you are heading out to the many fine dining establishments highlighted above without air conditioning, the going “leave-no-patch-of-skin-accessible” route is your best bet. The dots have long grown immune to the local version of insect repellant and your results are going to be mixed if you just rely on stuff that you can rub on versus stuff that you can put on.
Depending on your hotel and location, it would also be advisable to not leave open food outside and keep edibles inside your refrigerator or within closed and sealed packaging. While we didn’t have an issue with fire ants at our villa in Samui, we weren’t as lucky at Rayong beach and Pattaya.
On road runs and beach runs, the dogs are generally friendly and laid back as long as you stay out of their territory.
Getting to Koh Samui
Because of the airspace closure between India and Pakistan on account of border tensions and Indian elections in May, our planned Thai Air flight kept on switching schedules and prices. The uncertainty made us opt for Emirates under duress. The net travel time increased by two hours as we first headed to Dubai and then turned back towards Bangkok on an A380 after a short transit. Emirates ended up being slightly cheaper than Thai and we got to experience the A380 together as a family. The added bonus were the free upgrades for kids and lounge access in Dubai.
Just for record the CIP lounge at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi costs PKR 2,500 per head in June 2019. If you need access to the Emirates/Dnata/Marhaba lounge for passengers beyond what you are allowed on your gold card, the charge is PKR 3,000 per head. The CIP lounge is bigger but the Dnata lounge is more upscale, has better bathrooms and food.
At Bangkok airport the distance from the gate at which Emirates flights land and Bangkok air flights take off is about 1.5 – 2 kilometers. If you are travelling with elderly family members, a wheel chair request is highly recommended. We landed at 8 am sharp and were in the Bangkok air lounge by 9 am.
Bangkok air is a really classy domestic discount airline. For transit passengers coming in on international flights, they have a lounge with a selection of light snacks and drink at Bangkok airport and their ground and inflight service was superb. Given the fact that we had one passenger on wheel chair with us, we had picked a longer transit in Bangkok to ensure that we had enough time to make the connection. That worry was unfounded as the Bangkok air team had us sitting in the lounge within an hour of landing in Thailand.
After the long flight from Dubai, it was certainly appreciated. I didn’t get a chance to compare them with other Thai discount carriers but they were certainly superior to my experience with Air Asia and Fly Dubai.
As an international passenger when you land at Koh Samui airport go to the international luggage collection areas. When the time comes for departure from Samui, you will also be able to get your immigration and customs done at Samui airport. Total time required for check in, security, customs, immigration is less than thirty minutes in Koh Samui. Boarding begins thirty minute before departure time. Add another thirty minutes for traffic and contingencies. If you get to the airport 70 to 90 minutes before departure of your flight to Bangkok, you will be fine. And yes, the international departure lounge at Samui is air-conditioned. You also have a choice of restaurants and shops to cool down in after check in and before you hit immigration, customs and security.
On the Emirates Bangkok air connection, you can check in your luggage all the way from Karachi to Koh Samui as well as Koh Samui to Karachi. This way you can get done with your immigration and security checks and go straight to the Bangkok air lounge without worrying about luggage. Bangkok air and Emirates will handle that for you. This is recommended compared to the scenario where you have two separate tickets on two different airlines and have to step outside, collect your luggage and head back to the Bangkok air check in counters. It just adds more friction to your travel experience, especially if you are traveling as a large group. On your way back to Karachi, despite the fact that Bangkok air will issue you boarding passes all the way to Karachi, you will have to go to the Emirates transfer desk and get new boarding passes issued. It would also be a good time to trace your luggage pieces and ensure that they board the flight. Remember that it’s a long walk from the domestic gate where the Bangkok air flight lands to the gate where the Emirate flight takes off. If you are young, strong and used to walking it will take about twenty to forty minutes to cover the distance including going through security. Follow the signs for CIQ passengers if you have been checked in all the way and are done with immigration.
Picture credits – Jawwad Farid, Amin Farid, Fawzia Salahuddin and Salwa Farid.