Without breaking stride or interrupting her animated chat with her equally pretty companion the young Thai woman reached out and patted my belly. She looked over her shoulder and smiled but kept walking. Neatly uniformed and made up, she looked like a hotel employee on her way to work. Any delusion I may have formed about my appeal to cute young Thai women was shortly thereafter dispelled when, as I wandered in for breakfast the front-of-house lady reached over the counter and did the same thing. Not sex appeal but Buddha appeal - that paunch of mine finally had some value; potential wealth and good luck for the rubber(er).
Part of the attraction of Thailand for a significant number of its tourists is the hands-on experience, from the sleazy to the innocuous and ubiquitous Thai massages. There is no shortage of massage services in Koh Samui, and it's not unusual to see an optional 'happy ending' offered at innocent looking establishments in Chaweng. Many of the ladies out-front along the backstreet look as if their services would be readily extended beyond a rub-down. This makes Koh Samui sound like a some sort of sordid sex-tourism hotspot which it's not.
While Bangkok and Patong on Phuket island may have earned their reputations over many years Koh Samui is still evolving from a cash-crop and fishing economy to one based primarily on tourism and the transformation is unmistakable. Until the late 20th century Koh Samui was an isolated self-sufficient community. It had a short interim time as a hippy destination but now there's not a lot of quiet, undeveloped parts of Thailand's second-larget island that are left. The rugged central mountains offer some seclusion for the adventurous (not us, not this time) while the southern coast retains some hints as to what it may have recently been.
The Chaweng main street is a narrow diversion off the road that circles the island. From mid-morning through to the middle of the night it's a hubbub of taxis, scooters and pedestrians competing for space. Canopied Toyota utilities drive in constant circuits advertising elephant rides, buffalo fights and Thai kick-boxing over loudspeakers - "tooniiight, tooniiight....tooniiight only". Repeated every night. Markets, bars, restaurants and retail of all types from Thai-authentic through ubiquitous tourist-tat to the inescapable multi-national brands - a visual analogy for Koh Samui's current character. The jumble of signage competes for prominence through a tangled mass of overhead power and phone lines. Despite its obvious descent into tourism exploitation it retains some character and appeal - particularly when you can escape straight into the oasis of calm and manicured greenery of the beachfront Chaweng Regent.
Chaweng Regent Beach Resort - a symbol of decadent western exploitation of poorer countries. And a wonderful getaway and de-stress tonic where any feelings of guilt can be temporarily off-set with pool-side margueritas or mojitas under a palm tree.
Why spend your money in wealthy countries? Thailand isn't that badly off anyway - it's in the top half of world rankings x GDP. And any western exploitation is offset by the locals' talents for exploiting tourist,and good on 'em.
Chaweng beach is a long, narrow strip of white sand from eroded limestone and coral. With shallow water and no waves it's not up to Aussie beach standards but it's pretty good for a stroll along the stretch of beach-front lined with hotels that range from back-packer to glitterati - the Chaweng Regent being towards the upper end; some class without being ostentatious or outrageously expensive. Priced so that it scares the bogans and backpackers away but too non-pretentious to attract the trashy, show-off rich.
Alternate between contemplative calm (Chaweng Regent) and hustle & bustle (Bo Phut).
Bo Phut beach on the north coast - lined with great eateries and, unfortunately some pommy-pub themed joints and the pissed Brits that they attract.
View north across Chaweng from the round-the-island road.
Route 4169 is two-lane tarmac that circles most of the island - with the south-western corner reached by a diversion onto 4170 and the north eastern penisular of Choeng Mon along route 4171. A lap of the island only takes a few hours of placid driving with a couple of stops thrown in. Rental cars or scooters are plentiful. Motorcycles are also readily hireable, including high-powered sports bikes that are wasted on the narrow and mostly busy roads. You'd never get past 3rd gear. Trail bikes are a good option - enough power to keep up with any traffic and a high seat to see over the top of the swarms of scooters and their short Thai pilots. A trial run on a Honda chook-chaser round Chaweng on a previous visit got me used to the local style pretty quickly - get in amongst it and go with the flow. There's few formalities but plenty of give and take. But knobby dirt bike tyres on sand drifting across the asphalt can catch out the unwary - came close to a low-side once. Might hire a helmet next time.
The south-west corner appears to have retained some of Koh Samui's original charm. Coconut plantations interspersed with towns that look like they're there because of the locals rather than the tourists. Resorts are spread much thinner and are more discretely located, but a couple of diversions down side roads and the inevitable resort would be at the end, or as in one case up a steep mountain, a villa development in amongst coconut groves and small landholdings.
An unplanned stop at a Mum & Dad roadside cafe on a beach near a fishing village seemed a long way from Chaweng, but it's only over the mountain and no doubt only a few years away from being swallowed up by tourism. When this disappears they'll build a Disneyesque theme park to take its place and the fishermen will be hired as the fake fishermen with properly themed fishermen uniforms. It's sadly inevitable - Rosie the roadside cafe Mum took our photo and posted it on her Facebook page.
Bev's imitation of Meg Ryan's famous deli scene in When Harry Met Sally was a revelation. All it took was a good, thorough foot massage to bring out Bev's until now undiscovered acting skills. Her dis-shevelled hair was staightened up, her face was fanned and she was sent down for some bare-back horse riding along the beach. And the massage place put its prices up.
Not to be outdone, Bruce sought out the best foot massage to be had, and in Thailand that is no small challenge. His strategy was to find the masseuse with the biggest hands, never mind that the owner of those hands came with additional equipment. Thailand's Ladyboys are an accepted part of life - often being considered a 3rd gender. Bruce has uncovered a 4th - an interstate trucker dressed as a woman. He protested that he'd found the ugliest 'woman' in the country, but he kept going back. Thailand accepts its Ladyboys and we have now come to terms with Bruce's homo-erotic tastes.
For a Bhuddist country, there's a bit of an obessession with Bob Marley and reggae. Bought myself a rastaman beanie and Bruce presented me with Bob Marley-themed elephant pants. But, when offered some ganja by a guy hiring scooters out the front of Chaweng eatery the thought of the inside of the Bangkok Hilton meant I'd only take the theme so far.
Golfers sometimes refer to themselves as athletes. Jumping high, running fast, swimming quickly is athletic. Wandering a paddock in noncy clothes occasionally hitting a small ball with a stick is not athletic. So, extreme golf was called for and a course high on the side of a mountain was to be the venue. After a thorough rub down by the Ladyboy trucker Bruce was up to the challenge, dropping a shot onto the edge of a high promontory and feeling all freshly masculine decided to go get it. The result was predictable. There's now a mountain in Koh Samui with a red smear down its face and they still talk about the people rushing screaming from the hotel pool when The Scab Who Walks later went for a swim.
A common scam is to charge renters of vehicles for existing damage or to insist on exhorbitant fees for replacement parts should damage arise. Chris' attack of the yobs on a jet-ski during a previous visit made him a soft target. While he was prepared to pay for legitimate repairs, the owner saw a chance to make a tidy profit. The tourist police were not interested so advice from the Australian Consulate was sought. Such advice was to pay up a fair amount and be prepared to slip out of the country. Anyway, standing up to the guy settled the matter and the whole incident caused Chris' nuts to resume their normal size.