Adventures in Lone Parenting, Koh Samui, Part 3 by Samantha TaylorPosted: September 21, 2011
If you’ve read my other posts about my recent two week stint on Koh Samui – alone with the kids- and prior to Daddy’s arrival, then you may appreciate just how much we appreciated his eventual arrival. The kids: whom, despite my best efforts to be entertaining and fun, clearly ranked me a poor second to Daddy. Me: well obviously because I’d missed his company, but if I’m slightly more honest, I simply yearned to lie horizontally in daylight hours because, as the sole steadying chaperone to a newly toddling child, I was developing the aches- and tan- of a hunchback. I was longing to take a shower without two other spacially unaware people sharing it with me, and more importantly, I needed to Spa. And so it was we excitedly greeted Daddy at the airport with
barely concealed ulterior motives huge smiles and enthusiastic hugs because we knew, from that point on, the holiday was about to get considerably better.
Blue skies all the way for Daddy
The very best part was getting our own wheels. Daddy was brave enough to negotiate the roads and so we hired a car. At around £25 per day for a standard 4 door Toyota Vios, car hire represents pretty good value in comparison to taxis. It gave us the freedom to really explore, provided a handy dumping ground for excess kit while out, and some much needed air con between excursions. Samui was totally without roads in the 1970’s when travellers first discovered its idyllic palm fringed beaches. There is now a very handy (from a motorist’s perspective) ring road circling the entire island, which is easily navigable in just a couple of hours. It’s not always pretty (what ring road ever is?) and you’ll find a lot of tat along the way, particularly along the developed East coast, but head West and things get considerably more rural, and the interior backdrop of dense, mountainous jungle is fairly dramatic and rather lovely. Out here you can still find the ‘real’ Samui; stretches of empty beaches, rustic wooden houses on stilts that exude genuine charm, and acres of as-yet-unspoiled coconut plantations and the occasional waterfall. It’s lush and green, but, importantly when you are traveling with kids, fairly compact and so you are never far from worldly necessities. Negotiating the dusty back roads can take some patience and nerve (and good suspension) but you will be rewarded with a glimpse into a far slower pace of life, and some good photo opportunities to share on Facebook with friends that holidayed in the rain back home.
Samui chic- you could do a lot worse than channel his look this Autumn:
But it was more sybaritic pleasures that were on my mind. Two weeks of kid-friendly activities had me wanting for a little more luxury and lot of pampering. I kicked off with a trip to The Sundays Sanctuary Resort and Spa set fairly high up a hill in forest behind a temple in Bophut. The spa isn’t big, or particularly fancy but is set in a lovely little jungle-like clearing, with steam room, outdoor plunge pool with little waterfall and open air massage area (Sala). I’m a total sucker for outdoor spas in hot countries. I can think of hardly anything better than lying with eyes closed listening only to the sounds of waves or trickling water and birdsong, with the occasional cool breeze wafting over me as I am scrubbed, wrapped and massaged into oblivion by smiling professionals. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take an indoor massage too, but I usually find I am too easily distracted by the music, invariably played at the wrong level, and always on a loop; whereupon I find myself playing silent ‘name that tune’ to pan-piped versions of Greensleeves or Dido. It’s not entirely relaxing.
Admittedly these outdoor affairs have their distractions too. You will often find yourself separated from other patrons by a mere curtain. Sounds awful but I can assure you, once you’ve all settled into your own personal state of massage Nirvana, you completely forget that anyone else even exists, unless of course they are French and taking great lengths to explain, very loudly, in broken English to the Thai Massage Therapist, that they have back problems. At one point, mid way through my own treatment, I was quietly enjoying a refreshing and delicious cup of ginger tea. Suddenly a largish black cocoon-like object fell from the roof and landed in the lap of the Masseuse who promptly squealed and jumped away. Naturally I inquired as to its origin which, to my mind, was still firmly in the ballpark of chrysalis/butterfly . She smiled and said “No, Gecko poo”. Eyes widening, I inquired further as to its possible size whilst eying the rafters for Geckos with crocodile-like proportions. She shrugged and held her fingers about 5 or 6 inches apart. Now I probably don’t need to point out the mental calculations that were going on in my brain but that’s like us doing a poo about a foot and a half long. Either way, it was all slightly disturbing but, most of all, it was definitely messing with the zen thing I had going on. I laughed it off, however, and tried to lighten the moment by asking if she felt lucky. She stared at me blankly and so I went on to explain that in the UK, if a pigeon poos on you, it’s considered lucky. Her English vocabulary, whilst fairly good, probably only centred on spa-related talk and so this was now a little out of the box . So she smiled at me in the benevolent and forgiving way that Thai people do, whilst eying me with the slightly incredulous and irritated look of a woman who had just been pood on by another creature, and replied with a flat, “No”. At that point the Frenchman cleared his throat and signaled the end of the conversation. I settled back to my treatment and tried hard not to think about what lay above.
And so over the following couple of weeks I mixed it up with inexpensive 300 baht massages at walk-in places (Chaweng has some great options) and the occasional posher treatment at nicer resorts. In truth, it’s hard to get a bad massage in Thailand and there is often little difference in the quality of the treatment itself, it often comes down to setting and attention to detail. I’ve tried all kinds of treatments and i’m not at all keen on overly faddy things like gold leaf facials but a new one this time, and the one I’ve gone absolutely ga ga over, was the Luk Pra Kob massage at the Eranda Spa. A traditional hour long Thai massage is followed by a further hour long massage with hot compresses filled with Thai herbs. It was quite literally two hours of utter bliss and particularly recommended for aching muscles after sport, as the hot compresses literally seem to melt away deep tissue aches and pains. Best massage ever and ideal for ‘toddler back’. It’s outdoors (but with indoor rooms too), with a steam cave and cascading plunge pool and the hillside setting, high up in the trees looking out to sea, is breathtaking. Best of all, it’s very reasonably priced. And no Gecko poo.
For reasons of etiquette it was tricky to get a photo of a spa, so here’s some squid:
I hesitate to venture the opinion that a Thai curry must surely have overtaken the Indian version in the hearts of the British? Strangely, I think I barely ate a curry the entire time I was in Koh Samui, though that’s not to say there wasn’t a delicious abundance of the stuff but for me it was all about the seafood. The simple places were preferable and one of our favourite meals was a lunch at Bang Por beach; a low key, virtually empty stretch of narrow beach on the North West coast. There are a few well regarded seafood restaurants dotted along a short stretch of the ring road. They offer few frills (think basic kitchens and plastic tables and chairs) but who needs linen napkins when you have great fresh food, with the sea just a few feet away and the sand under your toes?
Nothing wrong with a bit of Formica when the grub is as good as this:
For a slightly more upmarket, and even more idyllic beachside experience we loved the fabulous Five Islands restaurant in a totally unspoiled part of the island where local fisherman beat the sea with sticks to encourage fish into their nets then use Water Buffalo to haul in the catch. Diners go to catch the gorgeous sunsets and for the stunning views out to the Angthong National Marine Park. We arrived late afternoon and had the beach to ourselves, save for a Buffalo and a couple of other diners. It was magical, and had the kids not reached meltdown stage we might still be there now.
From the sublime to the apparently ridiculous: Buffet Brunches to be specific. We’d been told that for some, Sundays in Samui was all about brunch at one of two resorts: Nikki Beach on the West coast and Beach Republic on the East. The marketing from both is clearly aimed at everything we aren’t: young, thin and childless, with a penchant for champagne fueled ‘sexy’ Ibiza-style ‘fun’. And if you aren’t entirely certain of your suitability for such resorts, there are helpful posters and ads all around the Island featuring very young, very thin, and very ‘sexy’ girls in suitably microscopic bikinis to guide you. It all sounded excruciatingly try-hard and yet I had it on very good authority that we should take the kids and go. In truth there was a tiny part of me (the part that used to love dancing till 6 am, though never in a bikini) that secretly wanted to see what it was all about. And so I squeezed into the Liz Hurley, brushed my hair, and we headed off to Lipa Noi to hang with the beautiful people.
Beach Republic. Same same but different:
En route we decided to make a small detour to visit a temple: Wat Khunaram, ostensibly so our eldest could see something cultural, but if I’m honest, to see the mummified body of a deceased Monk, Loung Pordaeng, who died nearly 30 years ago in the meditation position. Before his death he requested that, after death, should his body not decompose, he be kept in an upright coffin at the temple to inspire future generations to follow the path of Buddhism. In a slightly disconcerting, but ultimately practical gesture, once his eyes had sunken into his sockets, the other monks had thoughtfully placed sunglasses on him. I’d seen pictures and, I have to admit, they were some funky shades he was rocking and cemented the idea in my mind that this was something I had to see.
We turned up and ascertained we were the only visitors. The temple buildings are charming and refreshingly ungarish, but in truth, there isn’t much to see and there wasn’t a (living) soul in sight. We were slightly surprised therefore to suddenly see a real live Monk sitting cross-legged, apparently guarding the entrance to the building housing the dead Monk. He seemed to be in quiet contemplation, or asleep; either way we figured our presence would be a little disturbing and began heading back to the car. The Monk immediately beckoned us over, however, and seemed genuinely pleased of the company all the while exuding that serene-yet-slightly-intimidating zen thing that Monks do. He then gestured to us to stand before a large urn containing hundreds of unlit incense sticks, and before we could make a polite retreat, handed each of us a fresh stick. I could just about see the dead monk in a case behind the urn, but between gold leaf applied to the glass and the incense sticks, the view wasn’t great. It was clear however, that he was no longer wearing the shades, and in fact, for a man who had been dead for almost 30 years, actually looked a little better than the real live Monk who now had us sitting cross legged on the floor in front of him. Mostly, however, I was finding it hard to think about anything because beads of sweat were forming on my brow wondering what horrors my kids would inflict upon this moment and at what point the youngest would poke his incense stick into the Monk.
Miraculously, however, both sat utterly still while he proceeded to gently, and silently, bless each of us. He finished up by tying little fluorescent woven cotton bracelets around our wrists (quite deftly in my case as it is forbidden for a Monk to touch, or be touched, by a woman) and sat back serenely to smile and coo silently over our youngest. It was all quite unexpected, yet strangely humbling, and we did indeed ‘feel’ genuinely really blessed. After a discreet donation we quietly mumbled reverential Basil Faulty style thank you’s, in the way that only awkward non-religious English people could, whilst simultaneously each dragging a child a little too fast as we walked backwards all the way to the car. The Monk simply smiled and waved benevolently in the way you do with half wits . Once in the safety of the car we were able to take a more relaxed look at the previous events, and reflect on our own spirituality, or possible lack thereof. My eldest however, had other ideas. “Yes Mummy, but tell me more about the dead guy”. Chips and blocks you may say and so, with Damien Hirst’s iconic instillation in mind, we spent the rest of the journey attempting to gently discuss the Physical Impossibility of Death, and what possibly lies beyond, to a very excited four year old who had just seen the corpse of a dead Monk in a glass box. And it wasn’t even lunch time.
It may surprise you to learn that Nikki Beach was a blast. For the second time that day we were given a bracelet to wear, only this one indicated more earthly pleasures; free reign on the buffet (which was excellent by the way). And no, the irony was not lost on us. From the moment we arrived, we and our kids, were treated fabulously by the utterly charming and mercifully unpretentious staff. The decor was actually pretty chic, but the vibe was laid back and better still, there were no stick insects dancing sexily in bikinis; rather a mixed bag of very normal, very friendly family groups and couples just doing their own thing. Ok so there was one couple who had clearly taken the marketing to heart who posed and preened so self-consciously, it bordered on ridiculous. But they were the exception, and admittedly pretty funny. The music was great (in my book you can’t really go wrong with early 80’s grooves and a bit of Bobby Brown). Best of all: my youngest fell asleep for over two blissful hours which meant Mummy got to eat and enjoy a couple of glasses of the bubbly stuff in peace. It was if the stars in the heavens had aligned perfectly, and someone ‘up there’ was smiling upon us. And who knows, thanks to our little day-glo bracelets, maybe they were? God works in mysterious ways, so I’m told.
Overall, Samui has been a great location for a far flung family holiday (even if it’s not so far flung to us). It’s less developed with slightly poorer infracstructure than Phuket, and in truth isn’t as ‘grown up’ (read: over-developed) but for me there’s no comparison in terms of natural beauty, particularly when you factor in the stunning Angthong Marine park and direct neighbour, Koh Phagnan, which are both easy day trips. There’s definitely more for kids to do on Samui and there is a rustic charm still in evidence despite the inexorable push of development. English is widely spoken and aside from the occasional power outage to remind you that you aren’t in Kansas anymore, there is every facility you could wish for (but do be careful what you put down the toilet thanks to Samui’s delicate sewage system). Some people prefer to stick to more familiar surroundings, closer to home, and usually I’d agree; but if you’re considering a great escape from all the doom and gloom in the UK or indeed anywhere, you could do a lot worse than heading to Koh Samui.
Here’s a few suggestions for things to see and do:
Eat : It goes without saying that you will not be left wanting for delicious food as there are restaurants absolutely everywhere, from the very modest to show-stoppers in dramatic locations. A must is the seafood (i’m a big fan of Pomfret) and don’t be afraid to try street snacks from one of the local sellers, including pancakes; the subject of which was made (in)famous by a certain guidebook’s sniffy references to the hoards of backpackers following the ‘Banana Pancake Trail’. For a change from Thai, we loved Ad Hoc : A chic beachside restaurant between Bang Rak and Bophut serving really delicious and authentic Italian food with homemade pasta and a decent wine list. Run by a lovely couple- preppy Minnesotan Tim, and his chilled Japanese wife, Yuri- they barely batted an eyelid when our eldest threw up on a chair and tried to (lovingly) strangle their cat. Forget crayons and ice cream factories, that’s what I call a truly child-friendly restaurant.
Spa – from the uber posh Six Senses or Four Seasons to simple places next to Bungalow operations on the beach, you are never more than a few paces away from a massage place or spa. There are too many to list but my favourite was the aforementioned Eranda Herbal Spa up in the hills in North Chaweng. I also heard very good things about Tamarind Springs down south in Lamai. Many offer complimentary hotel pick-up and drop-off.
Explore – hire a moped or car and drive around the island. Head west around Lipa Noi for the real Samui with empty beaches and great sunsets. The interior is mountainous and covered in dense jungle-like forest and there are lookout points for stunning views out to Sea. There are several waterfalls which you can trek to or take a four wheel drive tour. Elephant trekking seems to be a big draw though I’m never entirely comfortable with that kind of thing, but bizarrely I contemplated taking our eldest to one of the famous local Buffalo fights as he became utterly obsessed with the bovine creatures, which can be spotted everywhere. I was told the bouts last seconds and end with no serious injuries, after a bit of rutting, when the first one to get bored walks away. Thankfully I thought better of it and we stuck to chasing chickens.
Big Buddha – has to be done if newish built temples are your thing (though I confess I did it the first time around on my initial trip in 2001 and didn’t feel the need to do it again this time). Standing 12 meters high and visible from outer space..I’m kidding. It’s actually visible from a few kilometres away and is incredibly gold but makes for quite a particularly striking landmark as you fly in and worth at least one visit.
Koh Phagnan – Samui’s neighboring island, situated off the north coast. Famous for the rave-y ‘Full Moon’ parties, but don’t let that put you off. I first visited 10 years ago when there was only one road and the only means to get there was on a traditional longtail boat across open sea from which I arrived soaked and deafened. A daily Catamaran does a far more civilized job in just half an hour and so day trips with non-swimming juveniles are entirely possible, and there are a smattering of high-end resorts should you wish to stay a while in style. I’m pleased to report that more roads and inevitable development hasn’t ruined the place, in fact it’s really very charming and maintains a genuinely low key backpacker-y vibe with stunning beaches, lush interior (much of which is protected) and spectacular views. We shared a Songthaew (open-backed pick-up converted to take passengers like a taxi) with chatty traveller types: a couple of Irish professional tap dancers – en route to a vegetarian retreat – and a Korean/German Christian Pastor- who was celebrating passing his studies 6 months early – and headed to Haad Rin for lunch and to hang out on the beach. It was just like old times in so many ways, which pleased me immensely.
Angthong Marine Park – alas our nerves weren’t up to a boat trip given our youngest is just 14 months old but it has to be a must-do for anyone else and there are various tour operators offering options to this stunning archipelago of limestone islands situated just to the North West of Samui, or flash some cash for a private boat charter. Fish, dive, snorkel, visit caves and deserted beaches or see the stunning turquoise lagoon in the middle of Ko Mae Ko (Mother Island).
Fisherman’s Village in Bophut. My favourite ‘touristy’ bit. A bustley, vibey little area next to the beach and full of character with great little restaurants in traditional shophouses (thanks in no small part to a small contingent of French expats who have opened businesses there, and who are also responsible for the best bakeries on the island, naturellement). Every Friday night the place really comes alive as traffic is banned and it becomes a ‘Walking Street’ with lots of stalls selling knick-knacks, clothes, snacks and cocktails. It’s busy, but great fun and very family- friendly. The Hansar is a boutique hotel situated right next to the beach at one end, with a great open-air bar – perfect for Sundowners.
Nathong – the main town and probably ignored by most tourists unless passing through to the ferry piers. We liked the slightly shabby- but charming- workaday feel and the (admittedly faint) whiff of 50’s Havana about it, particularly the traditional shophouses along the main street housing everyday items along with obligatory tourist paraphernalia.