Living and working in the Arab Gulf has afforded my husband and me some remarkable travel opportunities, including visits to alluring Thailand.
Koh Samui conjured up a sense of magic upon first mention of this small, sleepy island between Thailand’s eastern coast and the western contours of Cambodia and Vietnam. The name, itself, Koh Samui (koh suh-moo-ee), both peculiar and exotic, stirred notions of vagary and mystery along the fringes of my mind. My husband, Bishara, and I were on Phuket Island years ago reveling in the swells of the glimmering Andaman Sea, five dollar massages on the beach, and haggling at the humming, and sometimes off-color, markets and eateries, when our dear Omani friends who were vacationing with us contended that if we liked the laid back and whimsical nature of Phuket we would love Koh Samui. Thus began a nagging interest in visiting the easygoing, fanciful, and picturesque island of Koh Samui.
We would have traveled to Koh Samui sooner, however, feeling grateful for residing in the Arab Gulf, a region providing boundless travel opportunities, we sought to maximize the count of new countries on our list of vacation destinations. More than ten years elapsed between visiting the entertaining and celebrated Phuket, and the mellow, lush, and engaging Koh Samui.
Our first introduction to Koh Samui, the Samui International Airport, hinted at the carefree and cheery nature of the place. Open air surroundings with rustic wooden beams and trellises, absent were the strained, tension-laden feelings often pervasive at even smaller international airports where fatigued travelers are ready for circumstances to go awry; missed connections, lost luggage, ground transportation issues, and such. No, this was more of an oasis, a placid place where even weary travelers had a glint in their eye with expectations of more of the same. There was no jostling for luggage, no vocal eruptions regarding missing suitcases, only families and sweethearts coolly collecting their luggage and drifting along the tree-lined pathway to waiting hotel vans.
Our prompt and attentive hotel driver at the ready, we were mesmerized by the endless stream of twinkling small open cafes and shops threaded along the winding nighttime roads. Nearly thirty minutes later, snaking up a steep and narrow incline, our hotel shuttle van arrived at our accommodations, Sandalwood Resort, after 11:00 PM.
Impressed with, and soothed by, the gracious and personalized service we received upon arriving at the resort, we swiftly fell into “island rhythm,” as we were shown to our lodging, the Lotus Villa, a cavernous space with living room and dining area, fully stocked kitchen, lovely bedroom with Thai accents, a second bedroom and bathroom upstairs, and an immense balcony. The area proved far too large for us prompting a relocation two days into our stay from the Lotus to the Jasmine Villa, a very comfortable one-bedroom abode, with a loft and balcony. Sandalwood’s modest-sized property hosting ten, one to four-bedroom, luxury villas, enhances the overall sense of intimacy and privacy for guests, however, can lead to limited villa availability. The resort’s personal touch was amplified our first night when our pre-ordered meals of Som Tom Gai (papaya salad with chicken) and Gai Pad King (ginger chicken) awaited us in our villa.
Morning light revealed the exquisite beauty of the Gulf of Thailand framed by plush undulating hillsides. We rollicked in the serenity and charm of the captivating landscape before aiming for the breakfast room. Not one to appreciate the gluttonous and gridlocked nature of “breakfast included” buffets, I was relieved and heartened after clambering along stone steps and through sumptuous verdure to discover an alfresco and intimate dining area. Surrounded by Buddhist offerings of fruits and flowers, and a smattering of barefoot patrons, we kicked off our flip flops, padded across a beige-tiled floor, and slipped into wicker chairs. Releasing an expansive exhale, I felt serene and at home. Easing into the breakfast cuisine of the locale, we complemented our Thai vegetable and pork soup with western omelets filled with tomatoes, mushroom, bell pepper, ham and cheese.
Ingesting the delectable viands and ambrosial environs of the distant sea wrapped in luxuriant greenery, and assuaged by the tranquil, yet “other worldly,” setting of the breezy breakfast corner, rendered me into ultimate relaxation mode. Unusually content to undertake very little that first day other than to absorb the breathtaking, almost surreal, panoramic view from our balcony, read, and nap, the latter part of the afternoon girded us for widening our awareness of the island.
Furnished with a cell phone from the hotel, and a car plus driver provided to guests to alleviate the difficulty of maneuvering the formidable gradient between the hotel and the road below, we embarked on a sojourn to nearby Silver Beach. Silver Beach is an appealing, comparatively small horseshoe-shaped beach, with collections of gray polished boulders, and beach-lovers, projecting from the shallow waters. After delighting in the warm and mollifying azure sea, we opted for satisfying our budding hunger pangs at the outdoor restaurant of a neighboring rather nondescript hotel. In sharp contrast to the rudimentary ambience, the red curry, basil pork, and chicken satay were thoroughly impressive bolstering a heightened appreciation for a looming sunset.
Our quarters at Sandalwood and the proximate Silver Beach were positioned between two dominant towns on Koh Samui Island; Chewang and Lamai, the former larger and awash with shopping, nightlife, restaurants, and beaches, and the latter a smaller, and more relaxed, version of Chewang. Our choice of Sandalwood Resort was based on our interest in managing a parity between absolute rest and occasions for cultural exploration, adventure (culinary and otherwise), and gift shopping.
Making a habit of opening our day with a considerable breakfast at the resort’s Ginger Restaurant, and lounging in our room while savoring luscious views, equipped us for departing the hotel mid-afternoon for island excursions most days. The afternoon of our second full day on Koh Samui was infused with body surfing in the gentle surges of the sea, lunch on the beach in Lamai with servings of pork salad, fresh king prawns, vegetable fried rice, and delectable mango sticky rice, and just down the stretch of sand, full body massages. Our tour of Lamai also yielded a stroll through town, loaded with eateries, gift shops, and street markets catering to visitors with ubiquitous t-shirts and souvenirs, and locals alike. Our evenings concluded with nighttime swims in Sandalwood’s enticing infinity pool, the lone patrons relishing the far-flung sparkling lights co-opting the once sunlit shimmering Gulf.
The resort’s niceties, however, did not end with physical amenities; the owner, Robert, a former San Francisco resident, was exceedingly accommodating, going so far as to offer to drive us to Chewang and escort us to a trendy beach at the edge of town. A shared lunch on the beach was accompanied by an exchange about Thailand history, a dip in the sea and another curative beachside massage.
Following Robert’s departure, we rambled from the thatched roofed massage hut to the next door restaurant where toes tucked in the sand, we treasured the sea gusts, colorful Thai paper lanterns, murmur of cresting waves lapping onto the beach, and flavorsome green curry and mango sticky rice, a new comestible favorite. Our evening incorporated a visit to the “Center Festival,” a patchwork of frenetic activity amongst a labyrinth of traditional market stalls, local popular music teamed with live singing and provocative dancing, and culminated with two young vigilant Thai women refusing to leave our side in a colossal uninviting public parking lot until our missing hotel driver arrived.
Our time in Koh Samui continued its effortless flow between idling at the hotel and venturing out to probe Fisherman’s Village, on the northern coast, with its quaint beachfront cafes and tourist shops, Zazen Resort, to the west of Fisherman’s Village, where we sipped exotic and refreshing ginger and coriander fruit drinks in seaside Zen-like surroundings, and Lamai’s chaotic yet pleasing evening Sunday Market.
While in Lamai, we feasted on choice green curry and prawns with asparagus at Palate restaurant, as well as the engaging customs of Songkran, Thailand’s New Year. Informed earlier by Robert that Songkran would fall on April 13, fortuitously a couple of days before we left the island, we felt privileged to witness this special holiday. Evidently, in earlier times the younger generation washed the feet and hands of their parents. A time of physical and spiritual cleansing, the tradition of washing images of Buddha continues and a newer ritual of soaking people using monster water guns and water-filled buckets has become entrenched in the festivities of the holiday. On our saunter to and from Palate restaurant on Songkran, where the strains of Neil Diamond emanated from a guitar-playing Aussie, despite Bishara’s best efforts to shield us from the persistent spray of blatant torrents of water, more often than not, we were the recipients of “direct hits.” Blanketed in the celebratory mood, and without water ammunition of our own, we shared a good chuckle with our benevolent assailants.
Our final full day on Koh Samui found us discarding our flip flops and ascending drizzle-smeared stairs to view the majesty of the “Big Buddha,” and thrilling in the ringing of the Buddhist temple bells. Receiving the honor of prayers and sprinkles of holy water from a Buddhist monk capped our visit to the “Big Buddha.” Continuing with the incorporeal motif, we caught a taxi to Wat Plai Laem, site of assorted Buddhist temples and figures, including Guanyin, the 18-arm Goddess of Mercy and Compassion; where we delighted in feeding catfish food pellets along the adjoining lake and touring the multi-hued temples abounding with intriguing architecture and Buddhist alms. Our day ended with calming massages at D’s in Chewang, fully meeting the spirited recommendation provided by our hotel, and some of the best chicken Pad Thai and pork red curry we had sampled to date.
The accommodating staff of Sandalwood waved us off the following day as we reluctantly left this enchanting paradise, with hopes of returning in the not-too-distant future.