Thailand’s Koh Samui

As one of Asia’s premier tourist destinations, Thailand evokes magic. With a culture so singular and dissimilar from those of other Southeast Asian countries, even the most inexperienced traveler, by the most cursory glance, can easily identify its distinctiveness.

Thailand’s attributes are legion: temples, beaches, spas, jungle retreats, food, festivals and adventure travel come foremost to mind. But there’s more, much more, to the stirring kingdom—and visitors will best experience its delights by venturing along less-traveled paths where its magnetism never fails to enthrall.

where serenity prevails Consider Koh Samui, a green jewel rising from the blue waters of the Andaman Sea.

This is where serenity and sensuality, two of the prime values in what the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) calls “Thainess,” have come to roost.

Still, most Westerners would be hard pressed to recognize Koh Samui as one of Thailand’s most alluring locales, let alone pinpoint it on a map. Indeed, the majority of would-be visitors seem to be mired in aiming their travel sights on three well-known Thai spots: Phuket, the island province of overcrowded beaches, high-rise condos and resorts that often give it the ambiance of Miami’s South Beach; Chiang Mai, famous for its swinging nightlife and hectic pace; and Pattaya, notorious for its breakneck overdevelopment and an often grating and assertive sex industry.

But those eager for a taste of a more mellow Thailand will discover in Koh Samui a place where one can sit in the surf undisturbed. Its laid-back lifestyle is more fitting to its being a tropical haven dotted with boutique hotels and spas. This is a fascinating destination that will endear travelers to everything Thailand represents. Inland, there are waterfalls, great hiking paths and elephant rides. Oceanside, great stretches of beaches and exhilarating coral reefs await eager explorers.

Koh Samui, just a tad east of Phuket, weighs in at about 100 sq. miles. It’s Thailand’s third largest island on the eastern shore and at one time in the not-too distant past it was a backpacker’s dream, with five dollar a night beachfront inns and palm-thatched restaurants. Koh Samui didn’t even register a miniscule blip on the radar of high-end tourism destinations.

In a mere two decades, however, the island has transformed itself into one of Thailand’s, if not Asia’s, great destinations and—although a favorite Southeast Asian retreat for Europeans—Americans are just beginning to make their presence felt. Luxury resorts are flourishing, while excellent restaurants and a budding nightlife are making a significant contribution to luring visitors.

According to TAT, about 310,454 U.S. travelers arrived in Thailand during the first quarter of last year, an increase of almost 2 percent over the same period in 2009. Oddly, Koh Samui, a tropical haven trimmed with rainforests where elephants provide a peculiar method of transportation, received only a fraction.

That is soon to change as the island’s natural attractions, vast coconut plantations, and semi-rural “Thainess”—ringed by coral reefs and white sandy beaches—will inevitably begin to draw more visitors.

The island is also gaining a formidable reputation as a honeymoon destination. Samui (as locals call it) is full of natural, secluded romantic resorts where over pampering visitors seems second nature to attentive staff.

While more laid-back and less-developed than other Thailand destinations, Koh Samui—as of April—listed 16,609 rooms, a figure that prompted local hoteliers to grumble about the lack of flights to the island. Presently, Bangkok Airways, a carrier that lives up to its reputation as a “boutique airline,” brings about 90 percent of all travelers to the island.

The mellow atmosphere and quieter lifestyle of Koh Samui is evident from the minute one lands in the open-air, spacious airport. There is little of the hustle and dizzy, neon flash of more popular places like Pattaya, and one begins to realize how this destination differs when one considers that its most memorable landmark is the “Big Buddha,” a 45-ft.-tall golden statue built in 1972 as the focal point of the Phra Yai Temple complex.

The statue rests on a high platform easily accessible by a staircase with dragons serving as rails from where a picturesque panorama of Koh Samui unfolds.

Local tradition holds that new visitors make Phra Yai their first stop to light josh sticks and pray for a memorable visit. The flood of tourists has inevitably led to the temple being surrounded by shops, art galleries, perfumeries, and boutiques, but surprisingly, that doesn’t take away from the appeal and religious significance of the site.