At 12.28 Train 48 pulled out of Prachuap Khiri Khan station and just over 4 hours later – a jaunt by comparison with earlier journeys – arrived at Surathani. Too late in the day for the ferries for the islands, we took the bus outside the station to the Lomprayah city office – 20 baht – to put our names down for the first ferry on the following morning and then a sawthaeng to a hotel for the night. At 8.30 we were back by tuk tuk at the office and at 9am on the bus to the ferry pier at Donsak an hour away, and an hour after that we were disembarking at Nathon Pier on the west coast of Ko Samui. What an efficient organisation Lomprayah has become.
Thirty minutes by minibus took us to Mae Nam on the north of the island to the Coco Palm Resort and a bungalow in a tropical garden, luxury by our standards, where for the next eight days we lounged bedside the sea and read, took long walks on the beach, ate seafood pad Thai and green curry and listened to the weather reports from Devon: bitter winter winds from the East, rain, heavy frosts. We woke in the morning to birdsong: coucals, mynah birds, sun birds, bulbuls, drongoes and warblers. At dusk the garden was heavy with the scent of frangipani and jasmine.
To identify some of the unfamiliar bird life we took to the internet and came across the Koh Samui Sunset Birdwatchers site. These are our kind of people; no sweaty treks through the jungled interior or getting up at godless hours for them. They describe themselves as authors of a ‘self-confessed birdwatching guide for the lazy’ and amongst the advice they offer is to ‘sit somewhere pretty, order a round of beers and wait …. Stay at a resort with extensive gardens where you can watch from the veranda in your pyjamas …. Take lunch or drinks at the Santiburi Golf Club and observe the birdlife from your table’. And sure enough, some of the images on their site include a distant view of a sea eagle out over the water, taken from a beach side bar, a silhouetted drongo on a branch at the Jungle Club and a red whispered bulbul in a cage. This is the Art of Coarse Birdwatching. To be fair, there were also some excellent images on the site and we found them very useful.
We had expected Ko Samui to have suffered from some of the worst excesses of mass tourism in the twenty years since we were last here, but Mae Nam, described by the island’s tourist site as Ko Samui’s last backpacker beach, seemed to have escaped. That may be pushing things too far, but it’s still a relatively quiet rural enclave, set back from the road which encircles the island. Accommodation of all kinds, from wooden shacks on stilts to one or two high end resorts, have managed to establish themselves in the tropical landscape without obliterating it. The quiet narrow lanes weave in and out of the palm groves and water buffalo wade in the shallow pools, backwaters and fields still flooded from the two months’ rain that preceded our arrival. In those lanes too are are an assortment of bars and eating places, many not grand enough to be called restaurants. We tried a number of them but kept returning to the Peace Kitchen, a modest place with modest prices, friendly staff, cold beer and excellent seafood phad thai.
The three kilometre long stretch of yellow sand at Mae Nam is palm fringed and the accommodation that sits on it is unobtrusive. There are some wonderful Robinson Crusoe style beach bars constructed of flotsam and jetsam. On our early morning walks we had the beach to ourselves, but for a few friendly dogs. At mid morning every day three fishing boats pulled up on to the sand to unload their catch in baskets and take them to the local restaurants.
Mae Nam looks across to Koh Phan Ngan, a 20 minute ferry ride away, where the infamous Full Moon Party was to take place on the 12th and just along the beach at Pra Larn pier crowds of would be revellers were embarking. We were to share a ferry back to the mainland with some of these a day after the festivities. It was like being on a boat with the walking dead.
So much for Mae Nam, but venture out on to the road that runs for 50k around the island and it’s a different story: paradise lost. Ko Samui’s beaches are still beautiful and the interior unspoilt but in the morning and late afternoon when the hotel workers are heading back home the ring road becomes the island’s M25. Chaweng, the island’s prime destination, is simply dreadful: crass, cacophonous, crowded, full of glitzy shopping malls, fast food joints, seedy bars, touts, jet skis, sawthaengs blaring out western pop music and promoting Muay Thai events at the local stadium; Tropical Murphy’s Irish Pub – it says it all. The beautiful beach is accessible only through one or two public alleys; the resorts and bars have taken over the beach front access. The place is popular with Russian and Chinese package tourists.
But back in the sanctuary of Mae Nam we contentedly idled away our remaining days on the island before taking the minibus, ferry, bus and overnight sleeper back to Bangkok and, three days later, to the English winter.