Sunday, October 28, 2007

Domestic bliss.

In Conde Nast Traveller’s most recent UK edition, Thailand is voted a very close second to Australia as the readers’ favourite worldwide destination.

I admit that I have been guilty for a while now of overlooking the appeal of the Kingdom’s travel opportunities in favour of those of the Indochinese region and further afield. I suppose it’s human nature to want to go somewhere… else. No matter how exotic the country you happen to be living in.

After seeing Thailand’s high score in the British magazine’s survey, however, I decided to refocus my attention on the country that I have been neglecting for so long. (The fact that my passport was full, and I couldn’t leave the country until I got a new one, made the decision to stay within Thai borders over the last long weekend that much easier.)

After a gruelling couple of weeks at work, and feeling the beginning of a nasty flu, there was only one option: the healthful sea air and blistering sunshine of a beach resort.

All reasonably upmarket accommodation options on Samet were full, on account of the upcoming extra day’s holiday. And anyway, as convenient as the three hour road trip from Bangkok to Ban Phe is, sometimes I’d rather just hop on a plane and get somewhere further, quicker. For the sake of a few thousand baht, an air traveller can be installed on the beaches of Phuket or Krabi with a cold Heineken in hand while the Samet-bound driver is still behind the wheel, stuck behind convoys of southbound Tesco delivery trucks.

Samui, then, was my destination, the early bird fares on the Bangkok Airways website being just too good to pass up. Early Friday morning saw me at the domestic terminal of Don Muang. Takeoff was at 6am. I stepped onto the tarmac of Samui Airport at 6:50am, avoided the wait at baggage claim with a well-packed carry-on bag, completed check-in at 7:10, and was gazing out at the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Thailand by 7:15, the nascent flu completely forgotten.

The ten best things about Samui, in no particular order:

1. Five Islands restaurant. Not exactly conveniently located, unless you’re staying at Le Meridien. But the half hour journey out from Chaweng is pleasant, and runs along some lovely shady inland forest roads. Five Islands is a lovely place for Thai food: airy, opening directly onto a little beach, with a gorgeous view out to sea and the islands that give the restaurant its name.

2. Hiring a motorbike, getting up early and riding around the island on the coastal road as the sun comes up over the coconut plantations. Good for working up an appetite for breakfast. (It’s about a two hour ride at a relaxed pace; but with its twists and turns, the island ring road is just right for a more competitive motoring event. I think someone should organise a Samui equivalent of the Isle of Man TT.)

3. Related to number two: finding a deserted bay on the west side of the island, laying a towel on the sand and having the whole beach to yourself for the day.

4. Eat Sense, in Chaweng. Another beautiful place to eat: sort of modern Thai in a hip Bangkok vein, with the advantage of having the sea four metres away from your table.

5. Muang Kulaypan hotel. I simply don’t understand why anyone would ever stay anywhere else on Samui. The rooms are very nice indeed, but apart from sleeping and showering, nobody is ever in them. The pool is just too exquisite to drag yourself away from, and the beach at the front of the hotel has to be the best stretch of sand anywhere on Chaweng’s main strip. On the sand under the spreading trees, listening to the regular wash of the waves and the fluttering of the theatrical row of red flags, it’s difficult to feel anything other than pure bliss. I want to be buried here when I die, if the living hotel guests don’t mind arranging their loungers around my headstone.

6. Budsaba, the restaurant attached to Muang Kulaypan. The best Thai restaurant in the world, I think; just next to the sea, each table with its own little private bamboo pavilion, where you can lie back on the ubiquitous triangular cushions as you consume your pomelo salad.

7. Samui Airport. Forget Chek Lap Kok or Dubai: this is the world’s best airport. Everything is outdoors, and you can be sitting on the lawn having a last Heineken two minutes before walking up the steps to the plane.

8. Villa Bianca: Bo Phut on the north coast is a lovely little stretch of tasteful bars, cafes and tiny hotels converted from old Chinese shophouses overlooking the straits between Samui and Phang Nga. Villa Bianca is the best of these: a superb Italian restaurant with a mesmerising view out to the neighbouring island.

9. Real estate. Samui is moving steadily up the food chain and there are some truly lovely properties being erected, but land is still cheap compared with Phuket. If I were to buy a block here, which I am seriously thinking about doing, I would stay away from the beach and the twee Thai-style designs, and build a small modernist mountain retreat in the hills lining the south west coast. The views would be spectacular, your nearest neighbour would be miles away, yet you’d only be 20 minutes from the nearest Boots.

10. Afternoons at The Cliff, a spectacularly positioned and incredibly stylish South African-run restaurant between Chaweng and Lamai. With the sun behind you, a chilled glass of Semillon Blanc in front of you, and a view over the rocks out to sea, you’ll mentally shred your return ticket into a million pieces and find yourself plotting ways to stay on the island forever.

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