On Thailand’s west coast, with its beautiful white beaches on the Andaman Sea, Phuket and the surrounding islands may be considered the country’s most popular resort area. But almost directly across the relatively thin sliver of land forming Thailand’s tail is a cluster of islands off the east coast that rival as getaway treasures. One of those gems, Koh Samui, the largest and most developed, sits about 1.5 hours by high-speed ferry in the Sea of Thailand.
Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival as they call it, arrived early this year. It’s a two-week holiday season that closes down most of the country. For a foreigner, it’s a good time to flee because almost nothing is open. Everyone travels to their home village, closing down restaurants, stores, and most businesses. Where I live in China has been below freezing. I considered going back to New York, but winter was delivering record snow. A warm destination was begging so I booked a flight to Bangkok with plans to return to the island that had mostly faded from memory.
A confluence of events aligned to take me back to Koh Samui after 30 years, this time with a nephew. Sam, (one of) sister M’s son, had been backpacking through Thailand and SE Asia for a couple of months during the tail end of last year. After returning home to Philadelphia the last week of 2015, he decided on a new home, one he could carry on his back, so he quit his job, purged many of his belongings, stored the rest, re-packed his hiking backpack and set out to pick up where he left off — time indefinite.
After landing in Bangkok on Feb 1, I received a text from Sam saying “hey Freddie, by sheer coincidence you wouldn’t happen to be in Bangkok would you? I arrive there in a few days.” ‘Wow, what are the chances?’ I thought, as I texted back, “I am, but I’m planning on booking an overnight train ticket for Surat Thani and a ferry to Koh Samui for the 4th evening/5th morning.” “Great,” he responds, “I’m landing on 4th morning. Can you snag an extra ticket?” All of a sudden I had a traveling partner for a few days. So did he. An added ‘unknown’ to the already unknown.
Most of the trains were full due to Chinese New Year as a segment of Chinese flood to Thailand for their holidays. The following two days were already sold out. Fortunately, when I returned to the train station the next day I found one seat left on the same train, same car, and the same section (I had bottom bunk, he had the top). “Crazy coincidence’ I kept thinking. His connecting flight from New York through Moscow to Bangkok was on-time, so we had lunch in the Sukhumvit area of Bangkok after he arrived, beat around the city a bit before we made our way in metro to the central Hua Lampong railway station for our 12-hour train ride south to Surat Thani.
Sam had taken this voyage a couple of months ago on his way to Phuket, so he recommended a place near the train station where we bought dinner packed to-go for the journey (so much better than train food). The train took off on time at 7:30 pm, we had dinner in our laps knee-to-knee, then settled in as the staff set up the sleeping bunks for the slow rocking trip south. We hit Surat Thani the next morning at 7 am, caught a one-hour bus to the ferry terminal, the ferry to Koh Samui, and another van ride to our beach.
A lot has changed since my last visit to KS. Gone are the rustic, sporadically placed bungalows where I stayed on the northern, most popular beach, eaten up by a hungry and well-fed tourism industry. Fortunately, other beaches on the island have sprouted enough authentic commercial activity to keep the island a stellar destination. We decided on Lamai Beach on the east side, from a recommendation for its balance of sufficient activity with a healthy dose of tranquility. We weren’t disappointed. The spur-of-the-moment accommodation we rented could not have been better situated, nor closer to the surf, which, during high-tide, washed over the two steps of our one-room bungalow porch.
It’s been years since I’ve seen Sam, had never spent any significant time with him, and the gap between our ages significantly exceeds his age, so I was more than a little curious how a joint trip would pan out. As it happened, I was targeting three days in Koh Samui, but we had such an enjoyable time, that we hung out for a full week, any differences in our generational gap(s) was more than made up by his maturity, good nature, and our ability to be in the moment. We talked a lot about a lot, we walked a lot, hiked across the island, motorbiked the island both clock and counter clock wise, swam a lot, and, uh, ok, drank (not) a lot, and just hung out at our surf-side bungalow. It was, in short, at least for me, a super-gratifying experience.
After a week in the tropical sun, it’s time for me to make my way back north, and then back to China to work. After dropping me off at the airport on his rented motorbike (the return trains were booked solid), Sam plans to camp a couple more days in the KS palm-tree laden hills before meeting a female friend in Surat Thani where he will continue south into Malaysia, and points beyond, or where ever his nose takes him.
I’m hoping that the stars align again to bring me back to Oh So Koh Samui before another 30 years passes. And, sending good wishes to Sam’s time-indefinite trip, that it turns out to be fulfilling, wherever it takes him.