Living like kings on $20 a day
While I normally enjoy reading your travel stories, your recent Mondo Weirdo story about Koh Samui really upset me. I spent perhaps the best, most relaxing, enjoyable 10 days of my life on Koh Samui. So I'd like to offer my version of the island:
I was a student in Tokyo in March 1995, when the dollar was at its weakest. After working for a few months as a bartender at Ari's Lamplight (Tokyo's best cheeseburgers), I had saved enough, and my friends and I left Tokyo on March 4 for sunny Thailand. After three days in Bangkok and an overnight bus ride (during which we were pulled over for speeding), we arrived at Surat Thani, where we caught a ferry to the island.
Upon arrival at the island, we were surrounded by representatives of various hotels and inns, which were offering rides from town to their locations, free of charge. Having nothing to lose, Joe, Nicole and I took one man up on his deal, and we sped to the other side of the island. The accommodations were not what we had in mind, so we took a short ride on a song taosinto a small town, where we chose a somewhat upscale hotel for the evening.
The next day, our Italian innkeeper helped us negotiate to rent scooters for the day so we could explore the island and find a more reasonable room. This is not to say the previous evening's room had been overly expensive: We each spent less than $10 for the night. We were looking for a more relaxed atmosphere, though, and something so close to the beach we wouldn't have to put on shoes when leaving our hotel.
We were looking for paradise -- and we found it in the Pongpetch Hotel, an extremely clean, friendly inn owned, I believe, by Germans. They had a small hotel with about 10 rooms, and a dozen or so bungalows closer to the beach. There was a covered cafe where the breeze would relax your whole body over hot coffee, toast and fruit for breakfast. There was a shower just before the water where you could wash off the tanning oil and salt before returning to your room. There were luscious trees and blooming flowers of all sorts, and at night the air was scented with the sweet and sultry smell of blossoms.
But the best part was the view. Across an azure bay was a temple built around a large golden Buddha statue. To reach the temple, one had to drive on a dike. From land, the temple and statue appeared to be floating on the water, giving this area its name: Big Buddha Beach. We were in paradise.
Everything on Koh Samui costs 100 bahts (about $4, but less for us due to the fantastic exchange rate we enjoyed at the time). Our spacious, air-conditioned room with two double beds, cable TV, a freshwater shower and just steps from the beach was 100 bahts per person, per night. During the day, we would rent scooters and circle the island in search of new beaches, waterfalls, curio shops and natural wonders such as Grandfather and Grandmother Rock. Cost: 100 bahts per day.
Meals were always delicious and light, and with a cold beer, the cost was about 100 bahts. We saw a Thai boxing match -- muay thai -- for 100 bahts. We danced the nights away at the Reggae Bar and Blues Brother Bar, where a few hundred baht got you plenty of great drinks. When we were lying on the beach, women would give massages using coconut oils. An hour would cost 100 bahts. You would lie down on a clean, lightly scented sheet and the women would pour the oil into their wrinkled but surprisingly strong hands, and they would proceed to twist you into a pretzel, chatting happily away with the other masseuses, while you would groan and moan as the kinks in your skeleton and muscles were slowly worked out. At the end of the hour, the women would pick up and walk to the next beach and do the same for a new group of tourists.
We were college students living like kings on just about $20 a day, and we never wanted to leave. The scenery would stop you in midconversation and captivate you for a while. The food, while often spicy, was delicious, fresh and healthy. The beer was cold and strong, and could be enjoyed at any hour of the day. But most of all, the people of Koh Samui -- and there is a term they use to distance themselves from the more uptight, hustling city dwellers -- were among the warmest, gentlest people to be found anywhere. A beautiful smile could cross any language barrier, and seemed to be on everyone's faces all the time. I can do nothing better than say "Kap khum kap" (thank you very much). I can't think of a better tropical getaway, and I encourage everyone to give Koh Samui a try. You will not be disappointed.
-- Vincent Fike
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At the risk of turning this into the all-Koh Samui Hour, allow me to recount my own tale of travel and intrigue on the road:
Last spring I flew into Bangkok for what was to be two weeks of hi-jinks and hilarity. Faith, a dear friend from high school, met me at the airport, and we headed back to the hotel, where I slipped into a comalike slumber after 26 hours of nonstop travel. Sadly, however, the Faith I knew from high school was no more. Gone was the plucky, wily traveler with a fondness for margaritas. Years of living in Japan had transformed her into someone whose idea of a grand time was an uninterrupted nap and obsessive personal grooming. The hourly slathering of sunscreen was one thing, but the parasol was entirely another.
After three days of travel, we had a -- shall we say -- spirited argument in a hotel room in Chiang Mai, a small Thai city near Burma's border, after which we agreed to travel separately for a few days. Later, we would rendezvous at the Bangkok airport and catch a puddle jumper to Koh Samui for the rest of the week. Fine. I myself had no desire to visit the island, being more of a city girl and, ironically, tending to burn even more easily than Faith. But I thought for the sake of goodwill and reviving a long-standing friendship I would grin and bear the life of sun and sand and utter boredom at the resort Faith was so keen on.
We met at the airport as planned, and despite a lingering tension between us, I felt I had made the right decision. For the duration of the two-hour flight, we didn't speak much. That is, until the final 15 minutes, when Faith turned to me and asked in her I'm-a-weak-woman whisper, "So ... where are you going to stay tonight?"
My jaw dropped. And there was a terrible, sinking feeling in my stomach that was not attributable to drunken piloting. "Um ... I thought I was going to stay at that hotel, with you," I replied as nonchalantly as I could.
Pause. Then, that sotto voce again. "Well, I really need my privacy."
My inner American was beginning to lose her democratic temper. "What does that mean? Does it mean that we can share the room but we have to keep our distance, or does it mean that you don't want me staying with you?"
"I don't want you staying with me." A fine time to tell me. Moments later the plane landed on Koh Samui, and one person's tropical paradise became another person's nightmare: I was stuck without a place to stay on an island where I'd rather not be.
I ended up staying two days on Koh Samui before heading back to Bangkok. The limo driver who brought Faith to her resort up the beach took pity on me and, with the help of his sister-in-law the travel agent, found me a rattan shack near the beach that I could afford. The two German men next to me hosted different prostitutes each night, and in case you're wondering, rattan does not afford much privacy.
The other wildlife gave me a hard time as well. One night a hefty gecko clung impassively to the wall. I planned to smash it to death with the heel of my shoe before I realized that, unlike your typical housefly, it might put up more of a struggle. And then there were the stray dogs, packs of them, following me around and nipping at my ankles, like the kids in school who seemed friendly but you weren't quite sure.
And, of course, I did time on the beach, doing nothing. It wasn't as hideously boring as I'd imagined it would be. I left two days later, burned to a deep crisp. And I haven't spoken to Faith since.
-- Margaret Weigel