In Search of the Perfect Beach Hut: Thailand (1987) - Part 2
Renowned for its lush tropical islands, mouth-watering cuisine, and warm and gracious people, Thailand continues to be a favoured destination amongst savvy travellers. We continued our search for the perfect beach hut during our one year, round-the-world honeymoon adventure by sailing to the fabled island of Koh Samui.
Cheeseburger in Paradise
“I like mine with lettuce and tomato, Heinz 57, and french fried potatoes, big kosher pickle and a cold glass of beer, well good God almighty, which way do I steer, for my CHEESEBURGER IN PARADISE! Medium rare, with an onion slice, not too particular, not too nice, just a CHEESEBURGER IN PARADISE!” Jimmy Buffett, The Son of a Son of a Sailor
In those halcyon days, Koh Samui was one of the mythological "Ks" along the Hippy Trail, which extended from Istanbul to Sydney: Kathmandu, Khao San Road, Kuta. We heard about Samui while in Fiji from a fellow traveller; we'd been discussing Phuket (another K: Karon Beach) but the word on the coconut telegraph (travel rumours) was: give it a miss as it had gone to the dark side ie., mass tourism.
Consequently, we didn’t rush straight to Samui the moment we crossed into Thailand; we’d heard so many great things about the island, we figured it had to be spoiled!
“Every visitor hopes to keep his idyll to himself; he’s in heaven, and hell is other people. ‘The place is a Utopia,’ he’s likely to tell his friends, ‘but there’s no point in your going there. I saw it pristine, but now it’s spoiled forever.” (Pico Iyer)
In Fiji and Bali, we'd enjoyed slices of paradise found; but first, we needed to get there. A small ferry ran from Phi Phi to Krabi every other day; we booked tickets and boarded at sunrise for the two-hour journey back to Krabi.
Once we rounded the point at Long Beach away from the leeward shelter of the magnificent bay, taking one last long look at Phi Phi’s remarkable scenery, the sea turned increasingly choppy. As if to drive home the 1960s TV show, "Gilligan’s Island"'s theme song, “the tiny ship was tossed.”
The boat was pounded on all sides by unrelenting waves; those sitting in the front were completely soaked (we knew to sit in the back from experience). It was a harrowing ride, until the captain slowed the engines down to a crawl. Thus, the two-hour ride turned into a three-and-half hour virtual roller coaster. Oh yeah, we were more than grateful when we finally docked at the small Krabi inland port, Elaine in particular: her nerves would get frazzled whenever boats rolled and swayed, given our near-disaster in Fiji on an overnight ferry crossing.
Upon disembarking, we discovered our gear was thoroughly soaked! With mold being a concern in the sweltering tropics, we were not happy campers, especially as we still had a ways to go. A long bus ride was next so that meant it was going to be quite sometime before we could dry everything properly.
As we were regrouping, our travel buddy Brad ran off to the drug store to purchase over-the-counter Valium.
“I hate traveling by bus in Asia,” he explained. He and Emily had toured much of Asia for the past three years including China, India, Nepal and Indonesia with many backpack travel terror tales. “I found the best solution is to hop on the bus, pop some Valium, and sleep like a baby. When we arrive wherever we're going, I feel like I’ve had a refreshing nap.”
This particular bus was boarded at the main highway for the ride to the port town of Surathani, where we hoped to catch a fast boat to Samui. In 1987, Thailand's infrastructure, including its highways, were works in progress. Brad spread himself out across two seats, and was soon sleeping like a baby. We decided to forgo the valium and took in the scenery as we slowly made our way across the isthmus from the Andaman Sea to the Gulf of Siam. It was extremely warm in our non-air-conditioned bus; soon I too was dozing off, without the aid of medication.
We arrived at Ban Dong port but missed the last hydrofoil to Samui, so we figured why not book the overnight 6-hour slow boat instead of trying to find somewhere to crash in the port?
Dusk settled along the river, and street stalls magically appeared along the quay; these were our first glimpse of Thai night markets. Our mouth watered as we inspected a wide selection of street foods, all quite cheap. We dined on bar-b-q’d pork, chicken and seafood skewers; all sumptuous!
It seemed like the entire town had come out to eat. As we hadn’t been in contact with the Thai lifestyle before this, we began to get a feeling that the national pastime in this beautiful country was eating!
We purchased a $2.50 “sleeping berth” on a boat that reminded us of a floating double-decker bus. We decided the top level was the wiser choice ... there were more windows, so we figured it would be cooler and brighter, unlike darker quarters below; and we figured if there was an emergency, we could hop out of the windows!
We were assigned what were basically cubby holes and provided with pillows and sheets. As the spaces were meant for much smaller Thais, us big westerners required a space and a half. Fortunately, there was enough room to spread out and before long, we had made ourselves pretty comfortable.
It was actually not a bad way to cross the strait between the mainland and Samui. The boat was filled with locals who provided labour on Samui, a few tourists seeking a sense of adventure, or those arriving too late to catch the faster boats, like us. The ride was choppy at one point in the night, but fortunately, Elaine was fast asleep.
Later on during our trip, we heard tales of these boats getting stuck on sandbars at low tide for several hours; we were thankful not to have had to suffer that particular setback. But even worse, on a return trip to Thailand two years later, The Bangkok Post reported one of these slow ferries caught on fire, and there had been many casualties!
Thankfully, we made it to Koh Samui safe and sound, in about five and a half hours, although we were quite groggy due to arriving at the port of NaThon at the ungodly hour of 4:45 am.
Brad and Emily knew the drill regarding Samui, useful given the number of beach resorts on the island ... a staggering quantity even in 1987; this was their sixth trip to their beloved island.
Once we disembarked at the very long pier, we were greeted by overeager bemo drivers who were yelling "Chaweng, Chaweng, Chaweng!" or "Lamai, Lamai, Lamai!" ... in other words, "what beach do you guys want to go to, Chaweng or Lamai? Come with me!"
Brad claimed Chaweng was superior to Lamai Beach, so based on his considerable experience, that was our clear choice. The bemo drivers worked for a mafia who strictly controlled local transportation. There was no other way to get to the beaches unless you had a private car. We were happy to jump in one of their little converted pickup trucks as the price was certainly right. All we had to do was throw our backpacks on the convenient roof racks designed for backpackers ... far and away the majority here. Since we had arrived before dawn, there were few travellers and in fact, we were the only travellers headed to Chaweng Beach.
We were excited to finally be there, but our first impression of the island was shrouded in darkness; the only thing we could really see on the bemo ride to the beach were the coconut trees; they were everywhere! We later learned that the entire island supported coconut and copra production. In the days before farangs began flocking here, the white sandy beaches were considered useless.
We arrived at Chaweng Beach just as the sun rose; before Brad and Emily checked into their favourite beach resort, Magic Light Bungalows. Brad said we could secure a bungalow right next door at King Star Bungalows for the ridiculously low fee of 30 baht/day ($1.50), right on the beach!
We were too early to check in so Elaine and I sat in the sand and watched the sun rise. Soon, staff awoke from their slumber on the restaurant floor (no sense wasting space for employee beach huts, when every available room could be rented to tourists during peak season!). We were shown to a hut: it was extremely basic, just a couple of shelves, a thin mattress, and a single light bulb hung from a wire – really just somewhere to stow bags and sleep. But, it had an unimpeded view of the water. It was perfect.
Rather than grabbing some much needed sleep, Brad and I decided to smoke a joint of some wicked Thai weed (breakfast of champions!), then reconnoiter the situation. We started walking the beach, and I could definitely see why Samui was beloved by budget travellers.
Forming a wide bay, the beach was 7 km of white sand. The South China Sea was a postcard perfect blend of blue and green, even though a bit choppy as we had arrived near the end of the windy season.
"Time to hit the surf!" said Brad, and he ran into the water to do some body surfing; a California boy through and through.
"Wait for me!" I yelled, thinking what better way to start the day?
We spent the better part of the morning getting smacked around by giant breakers. The surf was ideal, all one had to do was walk through the shallow water out to the break, then dive through the waves to avoid being swept backwards toward shore. After a few trials and errors to determine which waves provided the best ride, it was easy to hop into the curl and get propelled like a missile onto the shore. Of course all this healthy activity increased our hunger threshold.
"Time to hit Lucky Mother's for a buff burger!" announced Brad.
We practically ran to the legendary Lucky Mother’s restaurant at the north end of the beach. Elaine and I had been regaled with tales of delicious “Buff” burgers while we were "starving" on Phi Phi Island. The Asian Buffalo are local beasts of burden, common fixtures in rice paddies, fields and hillsides throughout the region. I ordered a buff cheeseburger – 30 baht, (about $1.50), and it included real western-style french fries, was served on a homemade bun, and topped with locally produced cheese. There was even ketchup on the table!
My mouth literally watering, I opened wide for my first bite.
"Oh man," I sighed. "I think I've died and gone to heaven. Without a doubt, this is the best burger I’ve ever eaten, second to none!"
"What did I tell you?" crowed Brad shoving a bunch of fries into his mouth.
After weeks of curry, noodle, rice and fish, my taste buds literally swooned. What a tourist I'd become!
Evidently, Brad’s food fantasies while on Phi Phi were not ganga-induced; we were elated to discover eating was the other attraction on Samui.
But we couldn't help think about the impact we travellers were having on the locals. Samui was another in a long of places at that inflection point: the local tourist industry was growing rapidly since the first backpackers had landed in the seventies – hedonists who'd discovered unspoiled beaches, surviving by cooking over bonfires.Samui was a textbook case regarding how a secret island progresses from an undiscovered utopia to an over-commercialized tourist playground. When Elaine and I returned in 2015, we did not even recognize the place and were shocked by how the emphasis was no longer on the beautiful beaches, (no longer that beautiful due to water pollution), but on the streets lined with bars, restaurants and shopping centres that had been built inland.
Magical places were normally secret destinations; the only way to discover them in the 1980s was through word-of-mouth on the coconut telegraph, or printed guidebooks (no internet, influencers, or social media yet). Former havens such as Phuket soon became tourist magnets and off-the-beaten path adventurers sought out new retreats. Once discovered, the travellers encouraged locals to build cheap beach huts and design stoner menus featuring spaghetti, pizza and cheeseburgers, and of course, banana pancakes.
Updates to Lonely Planet guides and its foreign language cousins contributed to an influx of budget travellers and before long these magical places were also overrun. And then, with the advent of the internet, no photogenic place seemed safe from hordes seeking the next Instagram hot spot.
In 1987, we were travelling in a different space and time. A more upscale wave of development had just begun on Samui, but we weren't all that concerned. Flash bungalows were under construction everywhere it seemed, hermetically-sealed, critter-free air-con units with swimming pools, loungers and magnificent gardens.
We inspected Chaweng’s Pan-Sea, an ultra- modern resort, set in the coconut trees in harmony with nature. The bungalows featured tiled bathrooms with hot showers and western toilets (as opposed to the notorious Asian squatter); 24 hour a day electricity; sitting rooms with furniture and wide verandas; triple-thick foam mattresses, hole-free mosquito nets; wind surfing, diving, snorkeling, even water-skiing, and two upscale restaurants.
Someday we would travel like this...but not yet.
Pan Sea was one of the first to entice a more sophisticated traveler, carrying larger sums of cash, craving an adventure (no airport on Samui yet – it was a democratic form of travel – everyone had to arrive by hydrofoil and bemo pickups to the beach). Even in those pre-internet days, tales of Samui’s charms had spread rapidly, especially in Europe.
As Samui entered the next phase of tourism, fine restaurants popped up for travellers with discriminating tastes; it was an adventure in culinary delights! On Chewang, we could choose from Thai, Italian, German, American, French, Arabic, Chinese and Japanese cuisines. Crowd-pleasing cocktails were the norm rather than the exception. Bartenders blended fruity cocktails, from Margaritas to Mai Tais; fine wines had started to appear on menus. Prices remained ridiculously low compared to the west, even as one began to hear the inevitable complaints from old hands regarding how this was gonna spoil the island, following in the footsteps of Phuket.
But for now, it was exactly what we were looking for.
Change was inevitable; as travellers on an extended trip, we were beginning to see the benefits of being spoiled and not surviving on cheap noodles and rice.
The good news: it is a big world; there will always be unspoiled islands in Thailand and elsewhere. Low-budget travellers were already congregating on nearby Koh Phangan, the latest “escape” from “spoiled” Samui. Prices for a beach hut on Samui in ’87 were dirt cheap, from a low of 30 baht for a basic shack like ours to over 2,000 baht for a top-end room at Pan Sea (that's $1.50 to $100 a night). The average price for a more decent hut was still a ridiculous 80 to 100 baht, or just $4 to $5.
What independent travellers secretly feared would happen to their beloved beach was the dreaded third phase of development. “Off-the-beaten-track” travellers consider high-rise hotels amid palm trees, like Waikiki or Acapulco, anathema. Mega-operators such as The Hilton and Holiday Inn tend to draw fat-cat travellers like we'd encountered on Phi Phi.
Despite grumblings we’d heard on the old beaten trail to the contrary, over-development had yet to descend upon Samui. Not one building on its many beaches were taller than the coconut trees. The airport remained bogged down in the planning stages; everyone arrived by boat. When we spotted fat cats on the beach, we gave them props for making it. The journey automatically ruled out Club Med and short vacation types; getting to Samui was work.
Without an airport, tour groups stayed away from Samui. Chatting with restaurant and resort operators, we learned there was much speculation regarding Samui’s current and future expansion. The island was controlled by village people; only lately had the government begun to appreciate the dollar potential of young westerners flocking like so many migrating geese to the rock. Publicity remained low-key as Samui tried to maintain its image as a resort for the young, and the young at heart.
It didn’t take long for Samui to infuse into our system; we became content, well-fed, suntanned, chilled out farangs. We'd been on the low-budget trail for several months, including several terrible overland long hauls, so it felt great to recharge the batteries.
One important truth about long-term travel: no matter which class you take, it can be hard work, especially in SE Asia. But the tougher the journey, the more you appreciate its beauty.
Life for us on Chewang was a blur of volleyball, frisbee, body surfing (until the winds died down and the seas calmed down to sheets of glass), long delicious walks on the beach, lounging in cafes playing backgammon, cards, chess games and reading long novels. Often we didn't even have to budge from our spot on the beach as local vendors came by selling many delicacies and coconut oil for our bronzed skin.
Euro babes sunbathed in various stages of undress, with the G-String being the most popular ladies' swimsuit. Nude bathing was prohibited on Samui, as it offended the Thais, but many westerners pushed the limit of what could be considered “dressed for the beach.”
Dining was a never-ending quest to eat it all. Mama Montien for authentic Thai dishes: mussels in holy basil curry, seafood coconut with squid, shark, shrimp, crab, and the crowd favourite – BBQ shark steak.
Skindivers' joke: “Any sharks in these reefs?”
“What’s for dinner tonight?”
“Fresh shark steak!”
We scarfed down freshly baked breads for breakfast, spaghetti carbonara for lunch, chocolate cake after dinner. Widening our food horizon a bit, we also sampled humus, falafel and baba
at the Arabian Restaurant.
The Thais were resourceful operators. Almost every restaurant advertised movie nights, as VCRs had invaded the island. We made a point of never dining at a restaurant which aired videos during the important supper hour; it got in the way of great conversations with our ever-expanding group of diners.
Brad and Emily suggested we rent motorcycles to tour the island. As I’d never driven a scooter before, I was a bit apprehensive; we’d seen westerners bandaged after a fall on one of the treacherous island roads, and we’d heard of Aussies crippled or even killed on motorbikes in Bali.
But Brad was a good teacher, and after a couple of lessons, I felt prepared for our tour. On a gorgeous morning, we headed north out of town. One of the first stops was to fill up the bikes with gas, pumped by hand.
At BoPut Village, we turned towards the deserted Big Buddha Beach. According to our little locally printed guidebook, Welcome to Koh Samui and Koh Phangan:
“You will arrive at Big Buddha, it is on Fan Island. You can see it clear in the long way from there. Around this island have many small huts for monks and there are many small shops that sell many things too.”
The Big Buddha temple clung to a hill surrounding by the sea – a massive young Buddha statue of the younger lending its name to the holy site. We explored the temple, with its brightly painted 40 feet statue, and guardian demons at the gate. We were afforded incredible vistas of Koh Phangan, which beckoned.
In NaThon, a sleepy town awakening to new economy, catering to throngs of travellers rushing on and off the Hydrofoils. At the Bamboo Restaurant, along the quayside, we munched on buff burgers washed down with cold Singha beers for only $2. Sitting at the port, we were very impressed with the numbers of farangs traveling to the island in high season. Yet because of its size and great sweeps of beach, we never had a sense of being overcrowded.
We walked around town for a while; our guide book providing further insights into the little village:
“When you arrive at Koh Samui, at Nathon harbour you will see many cars, you must take them first to bring you to the other place that you want ... At NaThon, can communicate the else where every directions.”
Brad led us down a small alleyway, and pointed to a sign: Italian and French meat and cheeses.
"Oh my god!" said Elaine. "It's been so long!"
We just had to get a sandwich. We chose from salami and provolone, back bacon and cheddar, prepared on a fresh kaiser or French stick.
"And look, newspapers!" cried Elaine.
It wasn't just a deli, it was an oasis in the news desert for off-the-beaten-track travelers.
We continued our Easy Rider Tour around the island, inspecting empty beaches along the west coast. We followed a sandy bumpy road to the Coco Cabanas Resort, a favoured haunt for scuba divers. The reefs off shore were spectacular; the beach was so different than at Chaweng – narrow and brown. Samui’s other ferry jetty was here and received buses, cars and trucks that serviced the island.
Waterfalls were visited, but as it hadn’t rained on Samui in two months, they were dry. We tried to negotiate a goat path to gain a look out, but the road was too steep for motorcycles, so we abandoned this quest. We passed brown shimmering rice fields, with locals harvesting the life-giving crop.
The island’s main road was paved, but side trips were a challenge, so we eventually looped the south coast toward Lamai Beach, with a brief stop at the famous grandmother and grandfather rocks. Our guidebook was especially vivid on this topic:
“You must feel surprised at the odd rock or the strange rock because it looks like the reproductive organ of man and woman. You can see them clear when you arrive there. It’s very peculiar place on Samui. Nature makes jokes with our...you know?“
Lamai Beach was as beautiful as Chaweng, while though it was not as long, we could see its attraction. We looked for our friend Big Brother Bill, a New Yorker we’d met in Bali. Searching for “Poppa” elicited excited recognition from staff. We’d missed him by two weeks, as he’d headed up to Bangkok; from there, who knew where? (We would catch up with Bill later in New York City.)
Brad decided it was time to blaze, so we sat on the beach at Lamai for a smoke. This was probably not the greatest call for a novice biker like myself, and could help explain why there were so many westerners injured on scooters (not to mention the cheap liquor).
The beaches of Lamai and Chaweng were separated by imposing cliffs, and the bemo drivers cleverly carved the island into two zones from Nathon: one way south to Lamai, and the other north to Chaweng. Travel directly between the two beaches necessitated renting a scooter or jeep, or heading back to NaThon to circle around the island.
We referred to our quirky Samui guidebook:
“MaNgan Hill means the dog looks up lift one’s eyes. At this place before was very dangerous and it’s the fearful road too. It’s very difficult for the builder when they build this road because it’s composed of many complex hills near the shore."
Navigating this road was a rush, given the reefers we’d smoked. We stopped at a resort set in the cliffs called Coral Cove Plantations, with stunning views of Chaweng Beach, pretty bungalows set among the rocks on a perfect bay, ideal for those seeking isolation, a perfect compromise when deciding between Chaweng and Lamai.
The road back down to Chewang was tricky to negotiate with my novice biker skills, not to mention my buzz. Only half the road was paved, and I still wasn’t 100% comfortable with driving on the left (wrong) side of the road. Huge trucks churning behind us didn’t help matters, so I decided to take it easy. Meantime, Brad & Emily were long gone aboard their 750 Honda. Despite my fear and loathing, we managed to make it to the bottom of the steep hill, and soon, we were safe and sound at our little shack, and ready for a swim.
Every night, one of the bungalow operators hosted a beach party. Disc jockeys set up speakers, cassette players (!) with piles of tapes. At around ten o’clock, we’d stroll down to a party, bottles of Mekong and SamSong in tow. The proprietors didn’t mind if we brought our own booze, as long as we ordered soft drinks and buckets of ice. They didn’t gouge us either, as might normally be expected. They also sold local whiskey and rum by the bottle, so drinking oneself into oblivion was a cheap proposition.
We’d dance the night away; boogieing on the beach has to be one of the best exercises! We were very impressed with the DJ's musical repertoire: Talking Heads, Grace Slick, Simply Red, Dire Straits, Billy Idol: pull up to the bumper baby.
One night, we sat at homemade bamboo tables as a perfect full moon rise out of the ocean. We toasted the moon, the drinks, the doobies, the music, the company, feeling a sensation as near to perfect bliss as is possible on this planet.
According to our Samui guidebook: “What do you think about Samui?...That the cheerful and gay traveling for you or not. What the best that you kept in your mind when you come here?”
Who were we to argue? We had definitely found what we were looking for here; was it the perfect beach hut? It was pretty darn close.
Next Stop: Bangkok - City of Angels