22 March 2008

Travel: Ko Samui

Thailand's third largest island, Ko Samui (alternatively, Koh Samui), is a sparkling gem in the Gulf of Thailand, just off the sliver of mainland resting between Myanmar and Malaysia. I was fortunate to travel there on business, and I stayed the weekend to see the island. Bangkok Airways, "Asia's Boutique Airline" (as it calls itself), offers the only non-stop service from Singapore, and the flight is just over an hour and a half. Upon arrival, however, you feel as if you could not be farther away from the urban environment of Singapore. The airport is entirely out of doors - you walk off the plane, across the tarmac to the open air arrival area, with Customs & Immigration, baggage claim, waiting and transport pick-up areas. The ride in the hotel van takes you through back streets and what appear to be dark alleys, and all of a sudden you pull onto a heavily trafficked commercial street, full of restaurants, bars, retail, and tourists.

I stayed in Chaweng, on the east coast of the island. It boasts (according to the guidebooks) of the most beautiful beaches on the island, and it did not disappoint. The island is also home to beautiful mountains and jungle, which in some areas rise directly up from the beaches. We experienced this first-hand with a round of golf at Santiburi, a picturesque course with extreme elevation changes. The course itself was a bit tricked-up, but the views were worth it. The only person who did not enjoy was my caddy, who spent a good number of the holes looking for my drives in jungle and ravine. Amazingly, she found nearly every one!

At the end of the conference, I stayed on and welcomed a friend from Singapore for the weekend. While the beaches were calling, we decided to tour the island and hired a van to drive us all over the place. As you go south from Chaweng, the road climbs up to some very nice vistas and sea views. Just as quickly, it descends back to sea level, to Hin Ta and Hin Yai, the Grandmother and Grandfather Rocks, two formations that remarkably resemble the male and female privates. As you can imagine, this attracts all kinds of tourists. I will leave it to you to find pictures (this is a family blog!). Coincidentally, I just read an article on the "fairy chimneys" of Turkey, which appear to be geological cousins, at least to Hin Ta!

Next, we went off the beaten path to check out a small Muslim fishing village on the southeastern portion of the island. This simple village is quite poor, and life is lived like it has been for years: small fishing boats are moored in the shallow water, with hundreds of fish from the day's catch drying in the sun, while the residents go about their daily routines, trying to stay out of the sun. The village is dominated by a mosque. As we were looking at it, we were approached by a man who told us of the needs of the community in funding the construction of the site. Relentless in his explanation (he essentially read from the board on the outer wall appealing for donations), he successfully procured twenty baht from me. It is not much, but now I am a real estate owner in Thailand, as well as Dallas. We took a quick walk around, but I felt as if we were infringing on someone's home; this was not a tourist site.

So, we headed back out to visit such sites, stopping next at the Wat Khunaram, home to the Mummified Monk. Luong Por Ruam was a wealthy resident who converted to Buddhism and gave up his earthly possession. He became an honored spiritual leader in Ko Samui, with legendary abilities. He reportedly even foretold the time of his death, which occurred in 1973. Normally, Buddhists are cremated, but he told his family to bury him sitting up. Before burial, his followers noticed that his body was not decaying. Believing this to be a miracle, they put his mummified remains on display, and they remain so today. He actually looks pretty good for a mummy! Pretty hip, too, in a pair of sunglasses.

Next, we experienced the biggest tourist rip-off on the island: elephant trekking. The interior of the island features a couple of waterfalls, and we thought we could ride an elephant to see them. Because of a lack of water, only one waterfall was actually worth seeing, and it was an hour ride on the back of the pachyderm. I misunderstood the handlers, however, and I thought we could do it. So, we hopped on our elephant and headed out. If you have ridden a horse, and you remember the first time when the saddle was swaying back and forth and you were terrified you were going to fall off - well, it was like that. Only the saddle was a bench big enough for two, and you were twice as high off the ground, and the elephant weighs three times as much as a horse. To make matters worse, our elephant did not want to follow the path at first. He lunged to the left, into some trees, and began to eat. His handler (who sits on his neck - we sit on the back) took his prod - a large hook - and jabbed it below the elephant's left ear to get him to go back right. Well, the creature wasn't pleased, and he let out a huge bellow. I imagined him rearing on his hind legs, which would have meant curtains for us! But, the handler got the beast back on the trail, and we were off. We followed several other elephants on what turned out to be a 30-minute circular route around a primitive zoo, never completely out of sight of our point of departure. I could have run the distance in less than two minutes. All in all, I wasn't displeased to get off the animal. Between the ride and the zoo, it really is sort of sad, and I think that was my first and last ride on an elephant.

We stopped in the main town of Nathon (a few blocks of restaurants, a post office, and administrative offices) for lunch (including a cup of Tom Yum soup, a yummy staple for me in Thailand). It was a good stop, as I ran into a colleague who has a house on the island, and she suggested a good place for dinner (more later). Then, to round out our tour, we were off to the Big Buddha. This statue of the sitting Buddha - 15 metres tall - sits on a small island just off the northeastern tip of Ko Samui. While surrounded by typical tourist shops, the statue and surrounding wat are quite peaceful, and it is a nice stop. The staircase leading up to the Buddha is a representation of the Naga, the legendary snake that was protector to the Buddha. I could have skipped the shops (one that makes strange, full-size statues of the Alien, Predator, and Terminator out of all kinds of metal - nails, bolts, rebar, you name it; this was quite bizarre, as I can't imagine who would buy these things!), but it was worth seeing the statue.

We were wrecked, so we went to the hotel to rest before our dinner. My colleague recommended Zazen, a nice restaurant set in a leafy resort on Bo Phut on the north end of the island. This was perfect, with a view out to the sea, soft breezes, and a great menu. I could have spent hours there, but we wanted to get an early start on the next day.

I wanted to see the sunrise on our eastern-facing beach, so we were up at 5.30 and down to the beach just a few minutes later. And the sun never came up. It was gray and overcast all day, so all we saw was a gradual lightening of a drab sky. I suppose a refreshing dip made up for some of the disappointment, but I will consult the forecast the next time. For the rest of our stay, we braved a steady and at times heavy rain to do some shopping - you can't get away without a trinket or two! Actually, my favorite shop there is the Jim Thompson store, with its famous silks. This company, headquartered in Bangkok, has stores in Singapore, but the Thailand shops seem so much more authentic.

As usual, we arrived at the airport two hours in advance of our international flight. Remember, the airport is outdoors. There was an overcrowded (but very heavily air-conditioned!) coffee shop, but we opted for the departures lounge, a sitting area under a thatched roof. It was enough to keep the heavy rain off of us, and the area was actually a nice, if crowded, place to wait for our flight back to reality.

One last thing - Thailand is a peaceful and polite country. Ninety percent of its citizens are Buddhist, and I have found it very pleasant to visit on the three occasions I have done so. Thais greet others by folding their hands together and bowing politely, and this practice is pervasive throughout the country. So much so that I even saw representations of the Michelin Man and Ronald McDonald doing so.

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