Bangkok Phil

Four days on Koh Samui

This is a perfect time to travel - but it's impossible to ignore the travel industry hardships


My wife and I ambled along the beach at Chaweng, the most popular resort on the island of Koh Samui. There wasn't another tourist around. 

A handful of beach vendors, normally busy hiring out sun-beds and running backwards and forwards with trays of food and drink, paid us little attention. It was as if they had given up altogether.

Most of the restaurants and bungalow complexes that occupy prime locations on the beach-front were shuttered and in darkness. 

A hawker selling ethnic jewelry approached us. We were probably her first potential customers that morning. She told us how bad business had become but that much was obvious. We bought a few pieces from her but buying a couple of wristbands off a beach vendor isn't even a drop in the ocean when it comes to supporting and saving local tourism. This is the 'new normal' and millions of those involved in the Thai tourist trade are struggling, with no real end in sight.

This was my wife's first visit to Koh Samui; I had been once before, way back in about 1995, just before we met. 

We had decided to do things in style and booked ourselves into a beachfront villa at a 5-star resort, a Dutch-owned concern that is part of a chain that includes several world-famous designer brands. Luxury is what we expected and luxury is what we got. The villas normally go for in the region of 8,000 baht a night, but thanks to an internet promotion, we grabbed a 4,800 baht a night deal that included both breakfast and a choice of lunch or evening meal. 

If you've got the free time and some spare cash, this is simply a wonderful time to travel in Thailand, especially at the higher end of the market where there are numerous bargains to be had. 

Eating lunch on our first day (having built up an appetite with a pleasant stroll along the resort's deserted private beach) we got an inkling that business at the resort was well down. We just didn't realize by how much. 

Once a rapport with the restaurant staff had been established, I quizzed the waitress on how many guests were staying there today. 

"Seven" she said solemnly, "we have over 60 villas and bungalows, but only three of them are rented out today, including yours"

You're probably thinking it couldn't get any worse than that, but let me tell you it could. On the second day, we were the only two guests. Two guests with over a hundred staff to look after us. The biggest Hollywood movie stars probably don't enjoy those kind of ratios.

And yet every single member of staff we encountered somehow managed to keep a smile on their face and a spring in their step. I watched the pool boy lay out mattresses and towels on the sun-loungers each morning, only to collect them all up again - unruffled and untouched - once the sun began to set. You felt his pain. A staff member with no other option but to go through the motions. I asked him how he had coped during the three-month total lock down, which lasted from March through to May, a period of time when the resort would have been closed completely.

"Oh, I was one of the lucky ones" he said. "About 30% of the staff were let go but for the remaining 70%, we not only kept our jobs but received full pay for three months. I believe we were the only resort on Koh Samui to get that kind of benefit. I have friends working at other places who only get 50% of their normal salary or got nothing and had to apply for government help" 

All I could think was three cheers for The Dutch owners. Just imagine the kind of loyalty they had bought by treating their staff that way. 

We went quietly about our business. We enjoyed the spectacular sunrises from our balcony each morning and twice a day, we gorged on food that wouldn't have looked out of place at a Michelin-starred restaurant (certainly in terms of presentation). My wife swam lengths of her own private pool, we sipped cocktails under a starry sky and fresh coconut water under nodding palm trees. I feel guilty saying this but everything becomes infinitely more pleasurable when there are no other guests around. The resort treated us like royalty. I left a review on Trip Advisor and wrote that there wasn't a single aspect of our stay that I wouldn't rate as a ten out of ten.

On Friday evening, we drove out to the nearby Fisherman's Village in Bo Phut. Its weekly 'walking' street' - actually several streets lined with trendy boutiques and lively bars - is a popular tourist attraction. But apart from two 'name' restaurants playing live music (some joints will always survive on reputation) the rest were either closed or virtually empty. Front of house staff did their best to try and convince passers-by that their restaurant was the best place in town for a romantic evening dinner but by and large, it was a lost cause.  Boutique and souvenir shop owners could barely muster a 'please come in and have a look'. They had stopped short of putting their head in their hands and sobbing uncontrollably, but give it a few more months and who knows?

During our stay, we also drove down to Lamai, another beach resort popular with foreign travelers, but like its neighbor, Chaweng, the sun-loungers were stacked in piles on empty sands, the umbrellas folded away and the cafe owners gone for an extremely long lunch. At the normally bustling passenger and car ferry port of Na Thon - Samui's first point of entry for those who choose to boat over rather than fly in from the mainland - the tumbleweed was blowing down the high street.  

In their infinite wisdom, The tourist authorities (or whoever makes these decisions) have done their utmost to encourage and kick-start the domestic travel market. With no foreign holidaymakers allowed to enter the country, could the domestic market become Thailand's saviour? I don't think so.  

On our second full day, we chartered a boat to take us out to the nearby islands of Koh Tan and Koh Madsum. Both islands can be reached comfortably by long-tailed boat in less than twenty minutes from the mainland.

Koh Madsum also goes under the name of 'Pig Island' thanks to the wild pigs that waddle up and down the shoreline and are happy to pose for selfies, provided you've bought them some leafy green stuff from the food sellers.  Koh Tan has little to offer the visitor bar a giant swing suspended from a couple of tall coconut trees (the Instagram crowd seemed to like it) and a beach-side restaurant with a pricey menu and slow service. 

The Koh Tan / Koh Madsum combo is a half-day trip that has become increasingly popular for young Thais and judging by the sizable number of them on both islands, you wonder if perhaps the tourist authorities are on to something. But are the domestic tourists spending any money? I'm not sure 40 baht's worth of pig food and taking selfies for an hour or two are going to save the day.  

The restaurant on Koh Tan also offered one-hour tours of the island by golf buggy for around 700 baht, but as far as I could see, we were the only takers.      

I know it's a delicate situation where a government has to safeguard the health of the population, but if international tourists are kept out for many more months on end, I'm really not sure how the Thai tourist industry can survive.

As I said to the pool boy back at our resort - I really hope we can get back to normal soon.  




Comments

What was the name of that resort again? Sounds nice!

(Phil - Belmond Napasai)

By John C, Bangkok (31st August 2020)

Hi Tony,
In fact, we did the golf cart tour of Koh Tan and walked around the mangrove forest you mentioned. There is also a very interesting white pebble beach and a majestic white Buddha looking out to sea.

By Philip, Samut Prakarn (26th August 2020)

Excellent read, Phil. Having spent the week on Samui for New Year and visited many of the places you did, it's just incredible how much it has changed in such a short time. I imagine Samui (and Chang for that matter) hurt even more as they are relatively difficult to get to compared to mainland beaches and/or linked islands like Phuket. Here's to hoping the economy and its lovely Thai people trying to make a living adapt, as it's unlikely they'll be getting much external help in the short term!

Will definitely check our that resort too, if only because of them keeping on the staff. There are still good businesses in the world.

By Sammy, Bangkok (26th August 2020)

Hey Phil. Interesting piece, thanks.
A few thoughts:
Koh Madsum is an island with no natural water supply, so there was really nobody there - other than pearl farmers, apparently - until maybe 10 years ago. The pigs aren't wild, they're fresh arrivals in the last couple of years as a tourist attraction.
If the number of Instagram snaps is any indication it's a popular one, but I do worry about the damage they're doing to the environment. I'm Robinson Crusoe on that front, if you'll pardon the pun.
Also I'm somewhat concerned about the sewerage treatment for the facilities for so many tourists...but, mai pen rai.
Koh Tan actually has an interesting history. Before tourism came to Samui there was a weekly boat from Bangkok to Koh Tan for coconuts. The island supported about 300 people and there was even a school (which is sadly, crumbling).
I'd guess the island was settled around the same time as Samui - one village head told me his grandmother spoke Chinese.
After Samui became popular, the locals drifted away - there's probably only around 30 left. It didn't help that they never got connected to the electric grid.
On the beach with the coconut swing there are two other tourist restaurants (expensive too, though they do have to bring everything over by boat. Still. If you want cheap eats, Bangkok is a way better bet than Samui).
There's also a temple which I know was once used to help heroin addicts detox, but is somewhat quieter these days. There's a whale skeleton under the floorboards, but I can't understand enough Thai to figure out how it got there.
There are a couple of natural ponds that I'm told used to be covered in lilies, but there are also feral pigs and water buffaloes (that were used to cart coconuts around when that business thrived, and were then released into the wild...doh!), so the ponds are now pretty muddy affairs.
And there's a relatively intact mangrove forest on the western side, around a small bay with a couple more tourist restaurants.
Anyway.
It's interesting to me that *before* tourism the place thrived. Now, it manufactures attractions - swings! beach restaurants! photogenic pigs! - while ignoring what it was (and is) that makes it unique.
Fewer full moon parties and Instagram moments and more meaningful cultural exchanges and appreciation for nature may make for a better - and lower impact - travel industry in the future. Here's hoping, anyway.

By Tony W, Bangkok (26th August 2020)

Great post Phil.

I don't often post here but have lived in Thailand for more than 14 years.I found this heartbreaking as I taught in a 5 star resort a few years back and remember how great the staff were.

As you said,kudos to the Dutch owners for their support during this difficult time and let's hope we can get back to normal as soon as possible.

By David Mackenzie, Chonburi (26th August 2020)

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