Koh Samet – also known as Koh Samed – is another neat little island fairly close to Bangkok, toward the east. It’s in Rayong province, just a little over two hours from Pattaya and four hours from Bangkok.
Since I’m already in Pattaya, the plan is to go on further ahead, to Samet and thence to Koh Chang. What a devil of a job it is getting to a travel agent in Pattaya! It’s not as easy as Samui or Krabi, where every third shop is a 7Eleven followed by a massage joint followed by a ticket agent 🙂 So I’m hotfooting it all over the place in the hot sun, wasting my last day at Pattaya in this futile search. Khun Durian, this really kind lady on the Amari’s staff, takes pity on me and drives me to an agent she knows and voila – I’m in business. I still can’t figure out why they make it so complex, though 🙁 The minivan and ferry combo ticket has cost me 250baht, no bargaining this time; the travel agent, who is called Miaow and has a sweet smile, refuses all haggling overtures with the sweet smile firmly in place!
Wonders will never cease – the minivan arrives on time to pick me from the hotel, so much so that I’m caught on the wrong foot and am a few minutes late climbing in. I turn to my fellow travellers as is my wont, with a cheery “sorry guys, wasn’t expecting punctuality” and get a barrel-load of glares from the all-Russian contingent. Oh well. So much for glasnost!
The driver more than makes up, becoming progressively chatty once he learns I speak some Thai. The most pressing question on his mind is – do I have a fan (boyfriend – isn’t it absolutely befitting that the Thai word for boyfriend is ‘fan’!) I think Thai guys are the biggest flirts ever; about every cabbie I’ve met has wanted to know if I have a fan and how old I am 😉
Anyhow, we make good time; we left Pattaya at 9am and are at Nuanthip pier at 10.30 for the ferry across to Koh Samet. There is about a 15-minute wait here, in which various touts try to pitch various hotels on Samet to me once they figure out I don’t yet have a place to stay. Naah, seems over-priced, so I decide to wait and try my luck on the island.
The time on the ferry passes disconcertingly quickly as I chat with this katoey who’s so obviously happy to be spending some time alone on Samet with her Irish boyfriend. She tells me proudly that he paid for her boob job, and has now promised to pay for the genitalia operation which will make her a complete woman. She has no qualms about posing with me; meanwhile, boyo can’t look me in the eye!
Some forty five minutes later we thump against Ban Phe’s Nadan pier and it’s a scramble to get across. Right – I think I’m a veteran now with all the travelling I’ve done, so look around confidently for a songtaew. The first thing that throws me is that the songtaews here come without a roof; just two rows of hard, unyielding wooden seats either side. We all squeeze in and the scorching sun beats down on our heads relentlessly. Oh my Buddha! For 20baht, I’m going to be fried to a crisp. And no, before you ask, there are no ‘taxis’ as you and I know it in the civilised world, on Samet. Even if you ask your hotel to whistle up a taxi, what you’re gonna get is one of these contraptions.
Samet has been declared as a National Park, so all visitors are required to pay a fee upon entry. As is the norm in most countries, foreigners pay more (200baht) as compared to the locals (40baht), however, if you are an expat working or living in Thailand and have the necessary work permit or identity card to prove it then you pay the same as the Thais. Since I had been forewarned about this, I am carrying my work permit with me and end up paying 40baht only.
So here’s what the guidebooks don’t tell you. If you’re staying at Saikaew beach, you don’t need a songtaew – you can just hoof it down the road and you’re at the beach about ten minutes later. Anyhow. The songtaew dumps me unceremoniously at the side of the road and I see some kitsch shops lining the road and ahead, the glorious blue sea. Some of these shops have rooms to let above them. The going rate seems to be a 1000baht. I trudge around for a bit in the vain hope of finding a decent room for cheaper and then get pissed off at myself for wasting a perfectly lovely day when I could be lounging on that inviting beach instead. So I march back to one of the shops where I had seen a really nice, neat and clean room with working air conditioner and a view of the sea through the windows, although the owner is a bit of a sourpuss. The only time she bursts out into a cackle of laughter is when I quote some hilarious (according to her!) figure in my futile attempts to bargain. Finally, we close at 900baht at the grandly named Taikaew Village 🙂 only if I promise to stay for three nights.
Man. Although my room is quite charming, all done up in lavender J and it must be said I’m slumming in comparative style, what a far cry it is from the luxurious Amari Orchid at Pattaya that I’ve just left behind – talk about contrasts! Anyhow, mustn’t complain; it seems veritable bliss to Kreig (aircon? AND hot water?) who is paying 300baht for a fan room close to the pier. A word here – iIf it’s high-end hotels you’re looking at, then you should skip all this foreplay 😉 and head straight for Ao Phrao beach.
I dump my bag and change into a pair of shorts; by now, I’m virtually steaming in my clothes. That done, I decide to take in a couple of other beaches, more so as my friend Susie had recommended Candlelight Beach, and then return here well in time to soak up some sun. The songtaew dudes quote 300baht to take me to Vongduean beach. I say ‘no’, they say diddlysquat. Right. Impasse. Not to be outdone, I march back the way I had come, back towards the pier, with the bright idea that there would be passengers alighting from the next ferry and going on to Point B and so I could get on to a ‘shared’ songtaew. Bloody hell, it’s HOT. I’m mopping my face and cursing myself for my bright ideas when a stacked songtaew comes trundling up the path. The driver has no choice but to stop as I’ve parked myself firmly in the middle of the road. I hop up nimbly, dodging between feet; there’s standing room only but I’m beyond caring.
The roads connecting one beach to another are little more than narrow dirt tracks, so once again, I’m left wondering what the authorities do with all the moolah they collect from us poor suckers. If you recall, Phi Phi had this weird ‘landing-on-the-island-fee’ too that ostensibly went toward keeping it clean!
Ahh – some people alight and I thankfully sink onto a pew but it’s short-lived relief…the road is so bumpy that my ass rises with each little incline and comes back to roost with a jarring thump as the vehicle hits terra firma again. I can only imagine what a mangled shape the Thai guy sitting across from me must be in; his grimaces of pain change into weak little smiles when he catches me glancing at him 😉
Almost half an hour into this bone-rattling joyride, we see our first glimpse of Ao Vongduean beach. Mmm, VERY nice indeed. Softly swaying palms lead to a clean soft beach and an azure blue sea. I’m more than a little amused as I walk down to the beach, to find signs for taxis and an ATM along this dirt track 🙂
All the requisites for a picture postcard are in place – bikini clad beauties, toddlers with their colourful beach buckets, children making sand castles. What we need now is a barbeque on the beach and there she comes – balancing her twin baskets, settling down on her little stool and deftly frying some fish on her portable barbeque. I can’t help but marvel at Thai ingenuity!
The skies begin to darken threateningly, hinting at a sudden shower, and I hurry on to Ao Thien or Candlelight beach, which is easy walking from Vongduean. Ao Thien and Ao Noina beaches are much quieter, almost isolated when you compare it to the bustle of Saikaew.
Right – all this recce notwithstanding, something else no one tells you is how the dickens you’re gonna get back to Saikaew. Apparently all the traffic happens from Saikaew to these more isolated spots, and not vice versa. Big fat raindrops are now pelting down on me so I’m forced to hire a songtaew at 200baht, cursing myself roundly all the way back for having listened to Sue and missed out on a beach a mere hop, skip and jump away from my room and having a perfectly glorious day ruined by rain 🙁
Back in my room, a quick shower later I’m headed down to the ‘main’ street for a bite to eat. I decide on Chilli restaurant halfway to the pier, which is owned by a Swedish guy who also runs a small but clean, well appointed air conditioned hotel at a 1000baht per night. The food is good and inexpensive. Fed and sated, I decide to stroll around and check out on tickets for Koh Chang.
The plan of going on to Chang seems to be quite involved; apparently the ticket price does not include the cost of the ferries and basically one’s got to wend one’s own way. The rainy season adds its own complication to the whole factor. Brooding, I walk on down the street when my eye suddenly alights upon a sign offering rooms at 250baht a night! This is too good to be true, so I walk up to the old crone sitting outside and ask to see the room. With much sighing and creaking of joints she takes me in; the room is truly basic and I’ve got to share the loo with two dudes from the other rooms. Taikaew Village looks positively seven star-ish at this point 😉 so I mumble a thanks and step back out. I’m asking her about tickets to Chang next, when one of the aforementioned dudes butts in and pretty soon we’ve got a conversation going here! Meet Rob (the quiet one) and Randy (who’s been there, done all of that!) both from England and probably into their sixties. Randy gives me some valuable insight into Chang; the clincher is that Samet has the better beach and so ends the question of whether I go forth or not. Randy invites me to take a pew, and we chew the cud a bit on this, that and the other.
I tell him about the katoey story I’m working on and he surreptiously whips out his mobile phone to show me some pictures, careful of avoiding Rob’s clearly disapproving gaze 🙂 Turns out the lads are good friends and Rob is visiting Randy in Thailand as the latter heads here for a few months each year. They had been to Pattaya themselves a few days ago where Randy had been showing Rob the city 😉 by visiting the infamous Soi 6, street of the ladyboy bars. I tell him about the German guy I met, who was happy to talk about his ‘conquests’ with katoeys, not fooled at all but knowing fully well he was with ladyboys, and we spend a mentally invigorating hour pondering on why someone would willfully choose to go with a ladyboy rather than a real woman; does he have latent homosexual tendencies or is he plain kinky?! This academic debate is fortified by Randy dipping enthusiastically into the old crone’s beer stock however, with no fruitful answer forthcoming, I call it a night and head back to my royal chambers, praying the skies would clear for the next day.
Some prayers are duly answered and I wake to a gloriously sunny day. It is more than a bit disconcerting to have my morning routine interrupted by the fact that there’s no hot water kettle or tea mug; this, after I’ve done my backpacker preparations and arrived with plenty of teabags, sugar and milk powder sachets carefully filched from various hotels! I’ve always fervently believed I’m not human till I’ve had my one and only cuppa of the day L Merde! And so I set forth gingerly, holding on to my head and squinting against the sun till I find a nice ‘empty’ patch on the beach and settle down.
Koh Samet is a popular holiday destination with the Thais and they’re out in full force now, as it’s a long weekend with a holiday on the coming Monday. Honestly, it’s fun to watch the Thais enjoy what constitutes their day out on the beach, and I don’t mean that unkindly. I mean, picture the more decently clad Thai women with their baggy shorts and long T-shirts against the skimpy bikini clad Russian dolls and you’ll see how the mind boggles! Not that I mind; I’m enjoying the contrasting views 🙂 I’ve also perked up considerably since this Roti man has wheeled his cart on to the beach; for some reason rotis seem to be a big deal here on Samet and, if you haven’t had a hot melting honey and banana roti on the beach – dude, you’ve got a lot of living ahead to do!
Saikaew beach is absolutely marvellous, it must be said. A fine pale sandy colour, near enough to white to satisfy me, it’s absolutely powder soft. The only deterrent though is that the Thais are not very hygienic or civic-minded; while they are responsible enough not to be chucking beer bottles into the sea, they think nothing of spitting on the beach L and it’s something that absolutely drives me, well, bananas! The rummest thing is that they carry their pet Chihuahuas along; it must be said the doggies enjoy relative comfort 🙂
Towards the evening, there I am, lying on my sarong on the beach, duly sunscreen-ed up, Givenchy shades firmly in place, lost in a world of Jackie Collins characters where everyone has either slept or is about to have sex with everyone else, making this one big happy incestuous party – and this, I’ll have you know, is a hard plot to keep track of, much more so that counting bodies and measuring bloodstains! when a voice above me says: “I see this lady lying in the only patch of sunlight left on the beach, completely lost in her book and I’m intrigued to see what is holding her attention so and it’s a Jackie Collins of all things!” I squint up startled, and Kreig plonks down like some friendly, over-large puppy, shaking sand all over me and the dratted book. Once we’ve established that I’m not a mindless, sex-starved bimbo and he’s not a raving sex-crazed serial rapist 🙂 we get along fabulously well and are pretty much inseparable for the rest of our time on Samet. Since we’re talking books, I tell him about the katoey story I’m writing and about my conversation with Randy last night, and try to prod him about his own Thai ‘experiences’, girls or otherwise 😉 until Kreig fixes me with an unblinking, blue-eyed stare and says clearly – “I’m not part of your book, okay?” Okay.
We make plans to meet for dinner and push off to our respective hotels to get cleaned up. The 7Eleven seems a good central meeting point and I skid to a halt there an hour later, breathless at almost having run as I’m a few minutes late, to find Kreig has made friends with a complete Thai stranger and is swigging away happily at his concoction of rum and coke. We set off for Chili’s again because it has a good selection of tasty and inexpensive Thai food, although Kreig has eaten at Barbados earlier and recommends that too. Another good place for Continental cuisine appears to be Banana, as we see when we walk past and find Rob and Randy tucking into some chicken in white sauce thing. I make the introductions and we faff around amiably till Kreig and I peel off for our own supper.
Dinner done, we walk back to the beach. Saikaew puts up a fire show every night; I’m told some of the other beaches have it too. It’s one of those absolutely magical nights where God decides to orchestrate everything to perfection.…a midnight blue sky, the moonlight dancing off the waves, the sea lapping amiably against the beach, and us indulging in a sheesha peacefully, spouting Shakespeare at each other. A Shakespeare-quoting Aussie! God, I think I’m in love 😉 Kidding aside, this is one of those rare companionable moments that come all too briefly in life, where you choose to be with someone; no strings attached, just a mutual sharing of the sour lemons life has doled us and genuine, relieved laughter that we’re the lemonade, we made it! We’re here, we’re strong – we’re the survivors!
The next day dawns bright and sunny again, praise the Lord. The plan is to hit the beach and laze around all day. Kreig coaxes me into the sea, which is something I’ve never done before; I’m a self-taught swimmer and it’s been just about a month, so I’m not too confident. However, he is a Navy medic and assures me he won’t let me drown and won’t let me swallow the sea either 🙂 Once I’m in he has the devil of a job getting me out, so the only way is to leave me alone in the sea flailing my arms while he wades to the beach to dry out. I scamper after him, and remark wistfully on the crimson skin tone the westerners sitting next to us seem to have acquired, while I’m merely turning brown as a berry. Kreig takes one scornful look at them and tells me they look like boiled lobsters – is that what I want?? I have lovely skin, he assures me, and I command him to slather on the sunscreen on aforementioned lovely skin 😉 The sand is so fine it clings to the hands and somehow gets into the tube of cream, making this more of an exfoliating experience!
All too soon, it’s time to say goodbye to Samet. I am headed back to Bangkok for a change of clothes merely, as I have a trip lined up to Phuket next, while Kreig needs to exit the country as his Thai visa runs out, so he’s off to Cambodia for some hiking in the jungles, shudder, shudder! He decides to leave on the first ferry out, while I plan on leaving at a more human hour 🙂
The morning is absolutely disastrous! I wake at 5.30am to the sound of thunder and the rain pelting at my window panes, and snuggle in more cosily under the covers, hoping this is one of those sniffle storms Thailand is famous for. As it turns out – not. It’s still coming down in torrents and reluctantly, at about 8am, I decide there’s nothing to it except to brave the elements. I wait until it slows to a bearable drizzle and then set off; I’m quite aware of what a sight I must present, with a shower cap firmly on my head! My denim backpack, which is also my handbag and of which I was so proud, is quite useless under these circumstances and is now shoved ingloriously into a plastic bag I’ve managed to wheedle out of ole sourpuss 🙂
It’s a slushy trudge to the pier and I’m pretty mud spattered by the time I get there. I hand over 50baht for the ferry and my temper doesn’t improve when the guy waves a languid hand in the general direction of some boats and says “numba one fellee.” All I can see are some rickety tugboats badly in need of a lick of paint!
Apparently this is indeed number one ferry, as I ascertain by hollering across to some tourists sitting inside. To get to this however, I’ve got to behave like a goat on a hillside and skip nimbly across two boats rocking dangerously in the heaving sea. With the rain almost blinding me and no one on the pier to help, I’m mentally tossing a coin to decide between trying to clamber across or turning back to go give the lazy ticket guy a mouthful, when a French guy sees my predicament and comes across the boats to help with my luggage and hoist me aboard too.
Pretty soon, we realise that this optimistically named ‘ferry’ is nothing more than a leaking wooden bucket, as the rain drips down on our heads in steady droplets. To while away the time, I start chatting to the girl sitting next to me. Karolina is Polish, studying in England. She too is headed back to Bangkok and has bought her ticket already; she tells me she will take me across to the bus station to buy a ticket, once we dock.
It’s a sight to watch us as we form a chain of adults handing across each others’ luggage and babies safely, while the Thai boat guys stand picking their teeth and watching us! I have to say this is pretty unusual behavior as the Thais are far more helpful than this.
Once ashore, Karolina is hungry so she heads to a 7Eleven to pick up something to eat. I’m following her slowly, contemplating the ground, when a voice suddenly says, “hello stranger.” It’s Kreig, sitting on the only chair outside the 7Eleven! Apparently his minivan to Cambodia is late. I’m so happy to see him again that I plonk down in his lap, totally scandalising an elderly British guy also waiting for the minivan, who quite clearly thought we were one of those whistle-up, strangers-in-the-night romances 😉 Karolina is done all too soon; I offer to wait with Kreig till his transport turns up but he’d rather I go back to Bangkok with some company than travel alone. As it turns out, it’s a good thing I didn’t wait, coz his van only arrived at 4.30 and then he had quite an adventure from the Thai-Cambodia border onwards where he took a lift with some guy, only to have him stop the car a few miles ahead where four more men materialised out of seemingly thin air and threatened him into giving them some money! This is definitely not one of the more safer border crossings to do by road.
I’m lucky there’s a seat still available on the 10.30 bus on which Karolina has her ticket too. This is really quite marvellous; for 157baht, I’m on an airconditioned bus to Bangkok, and we get a small packet of cookies and a bottle of water thrown in! I absolutely love the Thai public transport system! It feels as if we are children again on a school trip, as we tear open our cookie packets and share the different flavours between us 🙂
The bus rolls to a stop at Ekkamai in Sukhumvit about four hours later, pretty much on schedule. Karolina and I peel off to go our respective ways, after arranging to meet up later at Silom and take in the Patpong night market.
I’m quite sad to have left behind tranquil, bewitching Samet. Oh well, such is the life of the traveller. And – Phuket awaits next, with more adventures in store 🙂
Punam Mohandas asserts her right to be identified as the author of this work. Any views or opinions expressed in this review is that of the author. All copyright and pictures are the property of the author.