The land of a thousand beaches

The islands of southern Thailand offer a gorgeous - and cheap getaway.

thai beach 88 298 (photo credit: Meredith Price)
thai beach 88 298
(photo credit: Meredith Price)
It's 10 p.m. The central avenue of Hat Chaweng on the island of Ko Samui, Thailand is crowded with tourists from every corner of the globe, and our beach-hopping vacation has just begun. Helmetless riders piled precariously onto small mopeds weave noisily down the road, Thai vendors encourage shoppers to "have look" inside, rusty pick-up trucks with over-sized Muay Thai boxing posters broadcast a monotone recording about "seeing the real thing, the real Thai boxing event" and strolling visitors with nowhere to be take off their shoes to inspect brand-name imitations in feigned boredom. A group of scantily-clad "ladyboys" across the street seductively gather their red cabaret skirts, revealing pairs of long, skinny legs that will soon be kicking across the stage in a nightly show for the tourists. Two storefronts away from their provocative clamoring, the smoke from a recently-lit incense offering still emanates from a miniature, gilded temple. Like so many other cities in Thailand, this paradoxical world is famous for both its debauchery and devotion. The thriving sex tourism industry in town contrasts with venerated temples on the outskirts where golden Buddhas sit cross-legged in meditative poses. Less than 12 hours away from Tel Aviv, Ko Samui is the only island in the Gulf of Thailand accessible by air, which also makes it one of the most popular and crowded places in the entire archipelago. Expensive resorts and exclusive spas abound on this once sparsely-inhabited tropical paradise. The first settlers on the island came from Hainan Island, now a part of China, nearly 150 years ago to grow coconuts. It wasn't until 1971 that two tourists on a small boat accidentally happened upon this steamy Eden, thus beginning a wave of development that continues to expand with each passing year. Known for its pristine beaches, clear emerald sea and verdant hillsides, the natural beauty of the landscape puts it on par with Goa and Bali as a gorgeous getaway that includes all the creature comforts. And if you don't have the time or the patience for shopping in the capital city, rumor has it that Ko Samui's prices are the second best thing to the weekend market in Bangkok. The cadence of Hat Chaweng's energy is contagious, and as people flock to the streets for a night out on the town, it becomes clear why those in search of vacations with total relaxation and isolation often migrate from Ko Samui's beach-by-day and clubs-by-night concoction. Approximately 20 km. away from the package-tour-industry glitz is Ko Samui's rebellious little sister, the island of Ko Pha-Ngan. Most famous for its monthly Full Moon Party that raves on the beach of Hat Rin and attracts renowned dj's and zealous ravers from all over the world, the island still possesses remote shores that cater to those in search of a quiet refuge. In high season, from December to February, as many as 12,000 enthusiasts have been known to crowd the beach at once, and the closest psychiatric hospital - Suan Saranrom (Garden of Joys) in Surat Thai - takes on extra staff on party nights to handle all those who freak out on illicit substances while looking for their groove. Unless you're interested in participating in a huge beach party or watching a huge beach party (sometimes much more entertaining), where trance music blares, buckets of Thai whiskey disappear, fire sticks spin and drunkards weave through the crowd on a nightly basis, staying in the tattoo-parlor, beer-guzzling, souvenir-selling, rubbish-collecting town of Hat Rin might not be your cup of tea. Fortunately, since the vast majority of visitors to the island only come to celebrate the full moon, half-moon, black moon (and just about any other moon) at the notorious bashes on the beach, numerous bays and inlets further north remain largely unspoiled and undeveloped. The madness and commercialism of Ko Samui dissipate in the small cove of Haad Tien, just a few minutes away from Hat Rin by taxi boat, and time takes on new heights of unimportance as the sun hovers high over the water in an azure sky and long boats float lazily on an indigo sea. Tucked deeply into the lush hillside like shy children, beach bungalows peek bashfully from behind their cover of tall palms, leafy foliage and hefty boulders at The Sanctuary Retreat and Wellness Center. Difficult to reach by land and unattractive to serious partygoers because of its low-key atmosphere, Haad Tien beach is a place that many visitors to the island never reach, but those who do arrive have a hard time leaving. Inexpensive, basic bungalows with wide wooden porches overlook the water, and although seclusion means sharing your home with a few creatures, many nocturnal, the privacy is well worth it. Yoga courses and purification treatments are the latest trends in this stylish, new-age retreat, and some people come for 10-day massage classes and end up staying for months. Haad Tien is a place where days slip slowly away between the pages of a good book and sips from freshly-blended coconut lassies. Each spectacular sunset is followed by a moonrise unlike any other, and one could spend every day watching the water's clear reflection change from shades of fiery orange to soothing ivory and never see the same color twice. For massage fans, the spa offers everything from traditional Thai to Deep-tissue rub-downs. And although some people are fooled by the petite frame of many masseuses, they usually have Herculean strength. In fact, the word "massage" is actually a confusing misnomer for the traditional Thai treatment. The bending, stretching and contorting of sore muscles might relieve tension, but it can be incredibly painful. So if you were expecting a relaxing and gentle remedy for your stress, opt for the oil massage. At The Sanctuary, massages average $10 an hour, but if you ask around at neighboring places, you can find experienced masseuses for half the price. If your budget demands something cheaper than the $18 a night bungalows at The Sanctuary and you can do without the new-age, yoga-themed, vegetarian food, the rising, green hills are teeming with places further from the beach. It is customary for each Thai bungalow resort to have a restaurant, and the home-made food in the islands will light your taste buds on fire with spicy coconut curry sauces and delicate peanut mixtures. For dessert, fresh slices of mango, pineapple, banana, papaya and coconut are standard to any menu, and blended lassies to put out any lingering fires in your palate are easy to find. Many people who want to unwind find it's best to find a place you like and stay put, but if you want to go diving and you like to move around, the island of Ko Tao is just an hour's ferry ride away. If you get motion sickness and you're not in a hurry, it is highly recommended to wait until the sea is calm to make the trip. Standing at the back of the boat to feed the fish is not a fun experience, especially when half the other passengers decide to join you just as the wind picks up. The best season to spot a whale shark is from February to May, and hopes of gliding through the water with one of these gigantic, graceful animals bring thousands of divers to the area every year. Unfortunately, because the waters off the island are shallow, if rain or strong winds are in the forecast, the visibility gets so murky that it's hard to see anything but the bubbles of other divers. One of the cheapest places in the world to take diving courses, some people come here just for the certification and stay in either Ban Mae Hat or Ban Chalok, the two largest towns. These small cities are typical tourist traps with the added dimension of having more than 40 dive operations, one shop after another. But it would be a mistake to assume that diving is the only thing to do here, and because it is even further from an airport, The Lonely Planet describes it as "this century's diamond in the rough." Taxi boats leaving from Ban Mae Hat can take you on a tour around the 21-square-kilometer island in less than an hour. Once you get out of town, you begin to understand that living in a village versus taking a slight detour is equivalent to crowded and dirty or pristine and unpopulated. It's well worth the taxi to get somewhere away from the crowds, and the Moondance Bungalows are just a 10-minute walk around the corner from Ban Chalok, but feel like another planet. For those water lovers who don't dig diving, snorkel rentals are everywhere and the coral reefs severely damaged by El Nino (that's what the dive operators tell the tourists) are starting to recover. The white tips of new corals are forming, and it's easy to spot parrot and trigger fish, angelfish, sea snakes and stingrays around the shallow reefs off the coast. Kayaks are also available at most bungalows, and the salty waters are warm and clear outside the cities. This island is also perhaps the most economical. Beach bungalows with an adjoining bathroom, a sink, a mirror, a mosquito net and a great view are available for 300 baht a night, or about $8, and a delectable, three-course Thai feast costs about $5 a person. One brave Swiss traveler found a ramshackle, cliffside bungalow without electricity (most places have it for a few hours a day and then turn it off) or a bathroom for 100 baht a day, less than $3, but those accommodations are certainly not for the faint of heart as a trip to the potty in the dark means stomping first to scare away the snakes. In the more civilized huts closer to the beach, spiders, roaches and geckos won't mind your presence if you don't mind theirs. You probably won't even see them as they are all nocturnal, but you may hear them. The geckos let out a deafening call that would startle even the dead out of their sleep, but they stick to the ceiling, they do not bite, and best of all, they keep ravenous mosquitoes at bay. After a few days of whiling away the hours on sandy beaches, eating delicious food and watching the cinema in the sky from dawn to dawn, the animals will become natural fixtures, as appropriate as the sound of the ocean licking the sand. As you relax into your holiday, you will wish you could stop the clock for a few more days (and many do) no matter what tropical haven you've chosen. Time, unfortunately, does move silently along, and you will eventually have to put your shoes back on. It's 10 p.m. again, 20 days later. And this time the clock on the wall means departure instead of arrival. As on any good trip, we learned a few things along the way. For example, the word "spicy" means different things when coming from a laughing hostess or a reserved waiter, and the mood of the chef plays a large and unpredictable role. "No have" is a versatile expression that can answer both yes/no and wh-questions, such as "are there snakes in the jungle?" or "where is the nearest toilet?" The idea that you get what you pay for loses virtually all meaning the minute you step foot in this country, and whoever said that extreme laziness in hot climates does not carry long-term, physical, side-effects was wrong. As the softly-lit airport of Ko Samui fades into the distance and the island disappears from view, we wave a gloomy farewell to the bamboo huts, the thatch roofs, the deserted beaches, the jungle paths and the belching geckos, knowing that although we are leaving, a fragment of Thailand's Southern Islands goes with us.