Looking for a one stop overseas destination that’ll offer everything? Adrenaline opportunities? Foodie paradise? Somewhere you can seriously relax and get away from it all? What about amazing tropical weather so you can return home with a kick butt tan? Well, I personally don’t think you can beat Thailand’s Koh Samui. Our family holiday there was so amazing I’ve (uncharacteristically) struggled with the words to do this paradise justice. Also I’ve got so much to say I’m going to have to divide my narration into two parts! Here’s part one.
Where is it?
To pinpoint it on the globe, Koh Samui is an island in the Gulf of Thailand, a one hour flight from Bangkok, or 2.5 hours from Singapore, in an archipelago of sixty other islands which make up the Ang Thong Marine National Park. It’s Thailand’s second biggest island after Phuket, and it is a destination that’s seen a huge boom in tourism in the past five years. Despite it’s growing popularity I’d never heard of Koh Samui until my friend Lisa went there (she came home positively raving).
We had a needy wish list for our family holiday. Our travel group was comprised of our small family of three and my Mum, the four of us were travelling from NZ. My brother and his girlfriend were joining us from the UK. Here’s our wish list: Stinking hot weather, picture-book tropical beaches, a resort with a great pool, family friendly, heaps of things to do, nightlife for the twenty-somethings, cultural experiences, shopping opportunities and lets not forget cooking classes (guess who likes those…?). A destination that offered bang for buck was also really important!
Lets get affordability out of the way: For the same price as three nights accommodation in a mediocre hotel in Auckland we got 10 nights’ accommodation (including buffet breakfast) at an amazing resort on a tropical island for our family of three (huge shared room). This was NZ$500! (We got a package special). Eating out, usually our biggest expense on holiday, was, as cheap as chips: NZ$6 got us an amazing Thai meal… and a beer. I’d spend NZ$40 on a nice meal in Welly or Auckland. Big picture, even considering the cost of the flights to get there, we got a great deal. If you cost out the price of going from NZ to somewhere more ‘local’ for the same timeframe (e.g. Aussie or the Cook Islands), yes, of course the flights to Thailand cost a lot more and the flight time is double, but affordability at the destination is incredible (though that depends on how much shopping you do…). Who has been out in Aussie and had an amazing meal and a beer/wine for less than AUD$30? It can be done, sure, but you take my point.
How to get there
From NZ you fly to Koh Samui via either Singapore or Bangkok. We wanted stopovers in both Bangkok and Singapore, so that worked well for us. We flew a mix of Air New Zealand, Singapore Airlines and Silk Air (a Thai carrier). As always Air New Zealand was the standout airline, they have a firm place in my heart for their amazing, welcoming and attentive and personalised service. I want to work for them some day!
We flew out of Auckland at 11.50pm bound for Singapore and this flight worked brilliantly as our little man crashed (no pun intended) not long after takeoff and woke full of beans after a seven hour sleep just in time for breakfast. We had a four hour stopover at Singapore’s Changi airport which was awesome. We had breakfast, browsed the Orchid garden and, of course, hit duty free, hard. It would be rude not to buy shoes at Singapore’s leading shoe retailer, Charles & Keith when the prices are tax free – right? Three pairs of shoes later the duty free beauty counters had me bouncing around like a kid in a candy store. I finally got the infamous Shu Umeura eyelash curlers I’ve been coverting for years, along with some perfume, Clinique, Kiehl’s and Clarins skincare goodies (I didn’t buy any makeup though! Shock!). We left Singapore for a three day stopover Bangkok (click here for that blog post) before flying on to our main holiday destination: Koh Samui where we spent ten blissful ten days I’ll fondly remember forever.
By the way, if you are considering spending time in Singapore as part of a trip to Thailand, then here’s a tip: Spend your time in Singapore on the way to Thailand, not on the way home. This is because, like us, you may find Singapore so expensive after Thailand it will seriously detract from your enjoyment!
Rest assured there’s no shortage of accommodation in Koh Samui. There’s resorts, simple hotels, bamboo beach huts, B&Bs, backpackers: All budgets are catered to. Choosing a resort suited to our needs actually got overwhelming so finally we went with the Chaba Cabana that our travel agent recommended. My research showed that this had four stars on Trip Advisor and few scathing reviews – right, lock it in love! Chaba Cabana is a charming beachfront resort located 2.5km out of Koh Samui’s main town, Chaweng. What a score… We had everything on tap: Stunning beach, a glorious swimming pool (complete with a swim-up bar), fabulous restaurant, delicious buffet breakfast, bar with a daily Happy Hour, oh and a massage/ beauty therapist service on site. We were located just far enough out of Chaweng to ‘get away from it all’, yet it was only a walk into town along the beach, or quick cheap taxi ride (NZ$4). Our resort also had a courtesy shuttle that went ran into town and back. Pleasingly there was an abundance of great restaurants on our doorstep, as well as a massage shop, tailors, laundromat (attached to the car rental place, as you do), and a convenience store selling most basic items (including bottled water and alcohol!).
Koh Samui’s climate is tropical and high in both temperature in humidity. We went in July and our temperatures were in the mid thirties most days with humidity usually above 85% (if you have frizz prone hair, take a hat). I thought I’d come home and write blog posts for you all on ‘sweatproof makeup’ and do a tutorial on ‘the perfect smokey eye for the tropics’ – what a joke. My face started glowing within minutes of arriving in Thailand and never stopped! I tried foundation primer, industrial makeup setting spray, waterproof eyeliner and mascara: Nothing really worked (except Stila smudgeproof eyeiner and Rimmels Exaggerate Waterproof eyeliner!) so I gave up and slathered myself in sunblock. I was constantly in awe of the exquisitely made up Thai girls whose makeup, seemingly, stayed put all day. I guess they are acclimatised! On that note, winged out eyeliner in Thailand is all the rage as are ‘oversized’ contact lenses to make their eyes look bigger. I was fascinated by this.
We coped pretty well with the heat and humidity by endlessly swimming. As a family of early risers some mornings we were hanging around the pool at opening time at 8.00am! Shopping in town around all the markets was when the heat really got to me the most, though I quickly learnt to take a break, recharge my batteries, rehydrate and seek out the air conditioning. Luckily there’s pubs and cafes galore on the island so stopping for a beer, or better still, a tropical fruit smoothie, was easy. Or even an iced coffee – I had the best iced coffees of my life in Thailand. Wherever you stay, I’d definitely recommend making sure your accommodation has a pool or is close to a beach. Also, for Pete’s sake, make sure your bedroom has aircon, or good luck trying to sleep!
What To Do
As I’ve already hinted, you name it, Koh Samui has it: Jungle safaris, 4WD treks, coconut farms, aquarium and tiger zoo, giant inflatable beach aquapark, mini golf, go-karting, snorkelling, elephant trekking, butterfly garden, football golf, fishing tours, monkey show, cooking classes, nature hiking, plastic surgery, health resorts, full moon parties, Thai kickboxing, erotic night clubs with Russian show girls, island hopping trips around the Gulf . Oh, lets not forget plastic surgery or dental opportunities: We met a couple who were return visitors to the island, on their last visit they got lots of dental work done and stocked up on contact lenses and glasses at local optometrists! All medical, dental and optometrist products and services in Thailand are a fraction of the price back home and the facilities, from the outside anyway, are absolutely first world class.
We did a handful of the above activities (no show girls though, sorry) and I’d definitely recommend doing a day trip of the island to take in all the sites. We looked at doing an organised excursion with one of the (many) tour companies, but we didn’t want to be constrained to someone else’s timetable (we learnt that lesson on Bangkok). Also, we quickly worked out the cost of a day trip for two of us was the same price as a one day car rental (with seven seats) and we could see the island at our leisure. We took this approach and, so, armed with tourist brochures, off we went exploring, reading and learning about the local sites along the way. We went elephant riding, visited the Big Buddha, the delightfully quaint Bo Phut Fishing Village, as well as the Mummified Monk at Wat Khunaram. The latter was an unusual sight, but it offered a unique insight into Buddhist and Thai culture. We also freaked Mum out by going off-road four wheel driving through the mountainous jungle (my Husband later told me we had no insurance for this – grrr!). One of the memorable moments of this day was when the mercury peaked at 40 degrees, we were in an air conditioned vehicle at the time, thank goodness!
If, like me, you are a foodie, you’ll be in culinary heaven in Koh Samui. I had a list of restaurants I wanted to visit, but only got to a tiny handful of them as there is so many. Every meal was a culinary experience and the fussiest of eaters will usually find a mix of local Thai and Western cuisine on every menu, including pizzas, fish and chips and burgers (which was great, as our fussy six year old didn’t go hungry, although I’m proud to say he did start eating Thai food towards the end of our holiday).
Our favourite spots were the beachfront restaurant and bars close to our resort including ‘The Choice’ and ‘Our Place’. We especially enjoyed being able to turn up in our best holiday clothes or super scruffy in our swimming costumes without anyone batting an eyelid and I guess, on reflection, you can do that in most places in Koh Samui as it’s super laid back. Our Place offered one special memory for my little family of three: One night after dinner we snuggled up on giant beanbags right on the beach, sipped cocktails (wee man had an apple juice, obviously!), star gazed and told stories. It is one of my favourite holiday memories.
The best meals I had were, without doubt, Thai food, which is one of my favourite cuisines anyway. The range and diversity of the food is mind blowing. We loved the seafood, especially the giant sea prawns, some of which resemble small lobsters! We discovered a gorgeous quaint beachfront restaurant at the south end of the island on the day we did our DIY island tour called ‘The Beach’. My brother and I ordered their sea prawns were cooked simply in lime and garlic and garnished with chilli and coriander… It’s one of the most delicious and memorable meals we’ve both ever had.
Other dishes that are a must try whilst in Thailand is an authentic Thai Green Curry (Gaeng Keow Waan), but be warned, this won’t taste like the westernised version you are used to from back home – but it will be much nicer, in my opinion! Spicy Paw Paw salad (Somtam) is also a popular must-try dish, although establish how spicy it is before you order it: My brother and I both ordered one and… blimey… I thought I was tough with Thai food but I could barely eat mine. My brother played tough nut and ate his, washing it down with several Singas, but he later suffered the aftermath! (I’ll spare you the details…) Heat aside, it was a gorgeous and unique dish. Dessert lovers should hunt out Mango Sticky Rice. We sampled this dish at a foodcourt in Bangkok and fell in love and we subsequently spent the rest of our holiday in Koh Samui on a quest to find the best version. My Mum finally found it in Captain Kirk restaurant in Chaweng, she’s a wise woman: She had this as her main course. Go Mum!
If you need a break from Thai food definitely check out the Mexican Cantina in the centre of Chaweng (it’s located down an alleyway opposite Captain Kirk restaurant and Ark Bar). This place was so good, in terms of food, menu range (kid friendly as well), service quality, as well as price, that we went twice! Also wee man and my brother enjoyed Mini Golf which is just out the back of the Cantina. Lastly I must mention the french bakeries dotted around the island which are very popular and offer sandwiches, pastries and delicious coffee.
I want to quickly mention dodgy tummies, which lots of people cautioned me about before we went on holiday, or I hear “I couldn’t go there, I’d be worried about the food and getting sick”. We had no trouble at all but we were sensible: We wouldn’t consider buying cooked chicken from a street vendor where, clearly, there is no refrigeration and it’s possible the chicken has been sitting in the sun for hours. With water, we drank bottled water only and we were quite pedantic, even going so far as to brush our teeth with bottled water. Bugs aside, to avoid crampy tummy, if you don’t like your food too hot, specifically ask the wait staff for ‘no too spicy’ or risk being up all night with an upset tum! Thai spicy is at an entirely new level, as my brother and I discovered…
Coming up in my next blog post – Part 2 of Koh Samui: Cooking Schools, massage, shopping and ordering tailor made clothes and more!