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Turning back the hands of Thai: Memories of backpacking in (luxury) Koh Samui
It was the summer of 1998 when I first went ashore on Koh Samui in search of white sandy beaches, crystal seas and full moon parties. I was, of course, clutching my copy of Alex Garland’s The Beach.
With a dramatic storyline centred on a group of hedonistic backpackers, it was the must-read book of that year for any traveller to Thailand and was later made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
My diary of that summer reminds me how I had arrived on an overnight bus from Bangkok to the southern port of Surat Thani – a destination that will resonate with many a traveller – the mainland departure point for Koh Samui.
“We were taken to the boat jetty and filed through turnstiles onto a small, crowded, vessel,” my diary entry for June 19, 1998 reads. “We slept a little until we arrived at the port of Na Thon where a truck with bench seats took us around the island to Chaweng beach for 30 baht [68 pence in today’s money].”
A decade-and-a-half later, I’m back on Koh Samui, although I’m not quite backpacking.
This time, I take the 11-hour flight from Heathrow to Bangkok and then hop on a flight, transferring to the island’s charming airport.
Jolly little wagons – more toy train than airport transport – take you from the plane to the miniature baggage carousel. From there, it’s a 45-minute chauffeur driven ride to the five-star InterContinental Samui Baan Taling Ngam Resort.
This time around, CJ Sansom’s latest thriller Dominion is under my arm.
Perched on a cliff overlooking the beach on Koh Samui’s western coast, the InterContinental is a world away from the shoreline shack that was my home for a few days in 1998.
The contrast to the vibrancy of Chaweng is stark; the secluded beaches of Baan Taling Ngam and pools offer a haven, while Chaweng is brash, having grown from a few bars and cafes to a heaving strip of glitzy drinking dens, accommodation, restaurants, shops, stalls and moped hire depots.
Not far away are a Pizza Hut and a Tesco store but despite the evident commercialisation, Chaweng still does long, beautiful beaches.
What sets Baan Taling Ngam apart is stunning views across the Gulf of Thailand; the Air Bar is a marvellous place to sip cocktails and watch the sun set on the islands beyond.
For this very reason Koh Samui, and more specifically Baan Taling Ngam, takes its place in Patricia Schultz’s 1,000 Places To See Before You Die.
The entry says it all: “Nestled on the west coast is the Baan Taling Ngam Resort…still the island’s ritziest property (it’s privileged with great sunsets). From the terraced guest rooms and seven pools, the resort offers uncommonly lovely views of some of the small islands and jungle-clad outcroppings, scattered across the Gulf of Thailand.”
Set in 22 acres and reached by a guarded access road with only a few village restaurants in the surrounding area, the resort has recently undergone a $35m (£23.1 million) makeover, which truly maximises the panorama it trades off.
It offers an opportunity to unwind, enjoy the view, swim, snorkel and dive, sail, try kayaking and windsurfing or simply do nothing, while its Amber and Flame restaurants have menus that reflect traditional and modern Thai and European cuisine.
A new activity for 2013 is ‘tuk-tuk cooking’ with head chef Luke Macleod, who brings a definitively Thai flavour to his culinary lessons by taking guests out on a tuk-tuk vehicle to the hotel’s organic farm to pick vegetables, collect eggs and other ingredients, and then call on local farmers and the nearby fishing village. On return to the hotel, the cookery lesson begins, followed by a long (and rewarding) lunch to taste your handiwork.
The resort’s masterstroke is the Baan Thai Spa, overlooking the ocean, armed with the ambience of a perfumed Thai house and a sublime range of treatments. Taking tea is part of the ritual and the theme pervades the treatments, such as the two-hour SereniTea treatment with a body scrub, aromatherapy massage. A personalised ‘tea prescription’ from the spa’s ‘teaologist’ follows.
For those who seek fitness (apart from the seafront gym), the villas, restaurants, spa and lobby are linked by hundreds of steps winding upwards through the tropical canopy. But if the daily climb doesn’t appeal, all are linked by routes plied by golf buggies to transport guests around the resort.
Most parts of Koh Samui are accessible from here, with locations such as Chaweng or the fishing village of Bo Phut less than an hour’s drive away. You can ride elephants to the Namuang Waterfall, seek out temples and the Big Buddha at Wat Phra Yai or explore the natural wonders of Ang Thong Marine National Park.
Inevitably, Koh Samui has changed dramatically. Undeveloped as a tourist destination for many years, its tourism boom took off when the airport opened in 1989.