Bay dreaming

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 January, 2011, 12:00am

Bumping along on a scooter over a muddy and potholed road, dense jungle on either side, I do my best to avoid catastrophe. Ahead, a truck appears from over the rise. As I veer to the side to let it trundle past, its curious Thai passengers smile in my direction.

Splashed with mud, I imagine myself well off the beaten track - far from tourist bungalows, restaurants and beach vendors. In fact, I'm only a five-minute ride away from a cocktail and comfortable porch chair. On Koh Samet, it's easy to find a thrill and seclusion.

When I first visited Thailand nearly 25 years ago, I remember hearing of Koh Samet, an island in the northeast of the Gulf of Thailand with little development and in easy reach of Bangkok. I never got there, going instead, as most holidaymakers do, to the country's far south, to Koh Samui, Phuket, Koh Pi Pi and Krabi.

That trend hasn't changed much over the years. Koh Samet, for all its rustic charm, has avoided overzealous expansion. As a low-key beach retreat, free from the sleaze of Pattaya, it has carved out a niche as a reasonably priced weekend getaway for both Thais and foreigners escaping the capital. Samet is worth every minute of the 31/2-hour bus ride from Bangkok, and is an easily accessible beach diversion for Hongkongers on a Lunar New Year shopping trip to the Thai capital.

Just five kilometres offshore and shaped like a lamb chop, Samet measures only seven kilometres north to south and four kilometres at its widest stretch. There's said to be pirates' treasure buried on the island from the days when Thai buccaneers plundered traders and the region's ports. For a pirate, this sparsely inhabited isle, with its many bays and inlets, would have been an ideal place to stash bounty.

Although Thais had known of the island's unspoiled beaches and forest for years, the government limited access to its shores and disallowed overnight stays. That was until 1981, when Koh Samet and its surroundings were designated a national park.

As a suntanned Swedish retiree tells me in broken English on the ferry ride over from the small mainland port of Ban Phe: 'Everywhere is good to stay on the island.' Having lived on Samet for a year, he adds: 'There are two prices for renting bungalows - one for the quick visitors and one for the long stayers.'

The half-hour ferry ride lands us in Nadan, on the north of the island, from where you can catch a songthaew (pick-up truck taxi) to the beach of your choice. I travel a short distance to nearby Hat Sai Kaew (Crystal Sand Beach) and begin to see the retiree's point. There's a charm here that makes new arrivals feel welcome.

Small shops line Hat Sai Kaew's main street. Restaurants and bungalow complexes lead off the approach to the broad white sandy beach, beyond which lies the calm, azure sea. In the opposite direction, jungle frames the view.

Thailand's most revered classical poet, Sunthorn Phu, who lived in the 19th century, knew the island's magic well - using it as a setting in his epic Phra Abhai Mani. Statues of the poem's main characters are located on a rock at Hat Sai Kaew.

Apart from Nadan, the villages of Hat Sai Kaew and Ao Wong Deuan, farther down the coast, are the only settlements of note on Koh Samet and are limited to the beachfront. The island's east coast is where almost all of its beaches lie. The rocky western shore has only one beach, Ao Prao, a sheltered white sandy bay on the northwest where you find the upmarket Ao Prao Resort, with its beautiful outdoor pool and terrace.

With just one rough road linking the island's settlements, the only transport available are the songthaew or hired scooters, the latter a more convenient option and costing just 400 baht (HK$100) a day.

Choosing where to stay depends on what kind of holiday you want. There's a range of bungalows from basic budget to Ao Prao's luxury.

Just south of Hat Sai Kaew lies Ao Phai, then the low-key Ao Phutsa and Ao Nuan, a jungle shrouded hideaway. Farther down the coast, beyond busy Ao Wong Deuan, less populated small beach coves stretch all the way to Ao Kiu Nok near the isle's southern tip, offering secluded bungalow options. Prices differ from the November-to-February peak to low season, but expect to pay from 800 baht to 1,500 baht for a comfortable one-bed bungalow with air conditioner, en suite bathroom and a sheltered porch.

Those intent on partying probably wouldn't want to stray far from Hat Sai Kaew and neighbouring Ao Phai, where a number of bars with music vie for business. The Silversand Bar, with its large dance floor and ample rectangular bar counter, is a magnet for disco revellers of all ages late into the night.

There's no shortage of places to eat on the island, with most bungalow resorts having their own restaurants and a kitchen in most bars. At night some, like Ao Phutsa's Tub Tim and Ao Wong Deuan's Sea Horse, haul out beachfront grills and offer fresh local seafood, chicken and beef.

If lapping up the sun with a book on the beach is too much relaxation, join a tour or hire a speedboat for snorkelling or scuba diving trip to the surrounding coral reefs, Most are around the adjacent islets off Samet's northwestern coast - such as Koh Kudi - and Koh Chang at its southern tip. There are several accredited diving outfits on the island with whom it's easy to arrange trips either directly or by booking through your bungalow management.

For me, the luxury of being there is about having a modest private bungalow nestled between jungle and beach, the sound of geckos and the rolling surf gently sending me to a dreamy sleep at night. And, with the morning sun, heading to the closest beachfront restaurant for a fresh fruit platter, hot tea and banana pancake. Later in the day, I partake of an ap?ritif or nightcap at the sublimely easygoing Lighthouse Bar on Ao Phutsa.

The pleasure of Koh Samet is in its pervasive unflappable lifestyle: it's impossible to contest.

Got a few days up your sleeve? Get out there with the ferries

Getting there: If you want to avoid Bangkok and head straight to Koh Samet from Suvarnabhumi airport, you can hire a taxi to take you to the port town Ban Phe for about 2,000 baht (HK$500). Otherwise, head to Bangkok's Eastern Bus Terminal, next to the Ekamai skytrain station, where you can catch a bus that will get you to Ban Phe in 31/2 hours and cost about 120 baht. Once in Ban Phe, take a ferry to Nadan from the pier, which also costs 120 baht. For a more direct journey, speedboats can be rented for 1,000 baht to take you to Samet's main beaches.

Things to do: Not very much at all, and that's the attraction. If you bore easily sitting on the beach or in a hammock on your porch reading, you can take a boat trip for some scuba diving. At the busier beaches, such as Ao Wong Deuan, you can rent jet skis or take a ride on a banana boat. Where to stay: There are so many bungalow resorts to choose from that it is best to search on the internet for precisely the kind of accommodation that suits you best. Almost all resorts have their own restaurant.

When to go: The peak season for Koh Samet is between November - after the rainy season - and the end of February before the hot season kicks in.