Anyone who has ever travelled around the islands of southern Thailand is likely to have come away with a favourite. Depending on what people were looking for, Ko Lanta, Phuket, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao are regularly raved about. A couple of mainland beaches in Krabi, Ton Sai and Railay, seem loved too.
During my most recent trip to the region, I was looking for familiarity. That meant returning to an island that hardly ever makes it to the top of anyone’s list.
It’s too developed. There’s a Burger King. There’s a Tesco, for crying out loud. It isn’t what it was back when it was a tropical paradise before I was even born.
Is what people say.
And I can see their point. Decrepit huts on a deserted beach is the dream, isn’t it? Sometimes, though, familiarity and feeling at home wins.
I’ve spent more time on Ko Samui than any other Thai island. When I had a week to kill/enjoy before heading back to the UK for a while, I looked at my options.
Ko Samui won.
A lap of Ko Samui
Most of the time I’ve ever spent on Ko Samui has been at Maenam, a town and beach on the north coast. Quieter than Chaweng and Lamai, Samui’s east coast hotbeds of tourism, Maenam is my island go-to.
So I went to. I finished up some writing at a beach cafe. I did some daytime drinking at similar places. And I thought about what I could photograph.
Maenam was great for the writing and drinking. For the photography, not so much. So I wondered where else I could go for that.
Chaweng and Lamai, obviously.
I’ll need a scooter. I’ll rent one. For the day. Chaweng and Lamai won’t take all day. May as well see where else I can go too, then.
I looked at a map on the pub wall.
Why not just everywhere?
The next morning I woke up with a hand-drawn map and a plan. Leaving Maenam as early as possible, which never happens, I’d head clockwise around the island, stopping at a few places to shoot some photographs.
Tourist sights, towns, roads, people and beaches. Without trying to end up with travel brochure pictures, I’d see what a lap of Ko Samui would look like.
The deck chair was on Maenam beach, just before I set off. You can tell it’s early because nobody is sitting in it. The next stop, not far along the road, was Bophut.
Also known as the Fisherman’s Village, although I’ve never seen any fishermen there, it’s more upscale than the places I usually go to. Expensive seafood restaurants and tailors are ideal for those who want expensive seafood or a new suit, but I didn’t.
I never do.
Along a street bedecked with Chinese lanterns, I found an entrance to the beach.
Although every business on the street has been put there to bring in a tourist or two, the beach seemingly hasn’t. Narrow, gravelly, and a pale imitation of the Thai beaches you probably have in mind, it’s little wonder there was hardly anybody there.
For the purpose of my day though, a couple of things caught my eye.
The old pier, rusting and falling apart, might to some be considered a blight. I liked it. I also liked the local lady, panning for something with a plastic basket and cooking pot.
I’m going to guess she was after some sort of shellfish.
Leaving Bophut and heading east again, through Bangrak, I arrived at my next stop: Wat Phra Yai. Known better as the site of Ko Samui’s Big Buddha.
Sitting on its own little island and accessible via a causeway, it offers exactly what you’d expect; decent if could-be-better views of the coastline, souvenir and snack shops, and plenty of people.
As I was using my 55mm lens, full shots of the Buddha itself were out. I didn’t mind. It’s pretty much always the way for me, and I prefer the challenge of trying to make another type of shot work.
What do you include? What can you leave out? Are you really going to present a shot of the Big Buddha without even showing its face?
There you go.
Okay, so there are a couple more in the bonus images at the bottom of the post that do show the face, should anyone really want to know if he’s a good looking chap or not. I could have put one of them here instead, but I think the headless one is the strongest of the three.
I’m not one for posting multiple shots of the same subject without good reason. I think it cheapens the article, making it look slapdash and like the author cannot be bothered to go through and choose his best images.
I’m also trying to learn how to better leave things out of my photographs. I just think the one above works without the Buddha’s face. It’s not needed, as that picture isn’t really about the Buddha.
Considering Ko Samui’s Big Buddha dates back to 1972, the site around it is in a state of remarkable unfinishedness. Unless of course these little guys were put there to protect the paint from any bad spirits who may be on their way to the toilet.
To be frank, though, I doubt it.
After a quick stop-off at the nearby Wat Plai Laem to check out the huge 18-arm Guanyin statue, I continued on my mission to complete a lap of Ko Samui.
In the northwest corner sits Cheong Mon, another town with its own beach and plenty of hotels, bars, restaurants, and tourists. I rode up and around the loop road, noticed a few places I recognised from previous times on Ko Samui, and continued south to my next planned stop.
Chaweng and Lamai
As Ko Samui’s main tourist and party centre, the east coast town Chaweng isn’t a place I’ve ever actually stayed. I’ve been there a fair few times, but a fair few hours was always enough.
Arriving with the aim of photographing it by day, I wondered what I’d be coming away with this time. I wanted shots that told a bit of a story. That weren’t just bars and the beach. Parking the scooter and walking in, the first thing that caught my eye was a banner that couldn’t have been more Chaweng if it tried.
Confident that I wouldn’t win even I did enter, I walked on into the town.
The streets of Chaweng were pretty quiet in the sunlight. I suppose most people are either on the beach or still in bed. It’s that kind of town. Benidorm. Lanzarote. Cancun. I imagine anyway, as I’ve never actually been to any of those.
The signs were all around, though. Nothing says fun in the sun quite like snorkels, paddle ball sets and cowboy hats. And nothing says drunken holidaymakers quite like smashed up street furniture.
I walked on, looking for more Chaweng staples.
Any tourist centre in Thailand is highly likely to have a boxing arena, and so it is in Ko Samui’s main town. Any place whatsoever in Thailand, tourists or not, is highly likely to have some sort of street food vendors. Despite the pricey resturants all around, so it was on Chaweng’s high street.
The quiet streets of Chaweng weren’t really lending themselves to street photography. There just wasn’t enough happening. Regardless, I continued until I reached a hotel with a beach bar I’d been to before.
The last couple of times I’d been there it had been, for want of a better term, bangin’. Buckets of alcohol in the afternoon sun; music that I would never be able to tell you the genre of, never mind any of the tracks; and a Thai DJ who sounded like he’d learnt English by watching Guy Ritchie films, you slag.
This time, it was a bit more serene. Like a completely different place.
I’d wanted to capture a daytime party. Beer and bodies. Rum and revellers. Drinks and DJ.
What I found was an unphotographable family resort.
Walking away and along the sand, I looked for something that I could shoot. Fruit sellers. They won’t mind.
Back into town. Still not sure if the beach bar has been cleaned up or if I was in the wrong place. No matter. On the scooter. Down the coast to Lamai.
Quieter than its bigger brother to the north, Lamai is still a place people can easily spend anything from two hours to two weeks in. However, while the stretch of Chaweng beach I’d found was less hedonistic than I’d been hoping, Lamai by day was even less exciting.
Riding through the town, there didn’t seem any need to get off the scooter and look for photographs. Instead, I headed straight to the beach.
Grey clouds. Wind incoming. Middle-aged people on sunbeds. Bob Marley. I found a coconut to photograph.
Feeling reassured as to why I stay at Maenam more often than not, I left the beach took a little walk around town before getting back on the scooter.
Like Chaweng, there doesn’t seem much to do in Lamai town during the day. Bars and restaurants are empty or closed. Shops sell the same souvenirs found all over the island. In some cases, all over the country.
Sleep off the hangover or go to the beach. Sleep off the hangover on the beach. Take a trip around the island. Come back when the town is ready to show what it’s got. Starting around 9pm or so.
Ko Samui’s west side
When arriving on Ko Samui from Donsak Pier on the mainland, you’ll probably land at Nathon Pier, in the northwest of the island. From there, you can take a local red truck taxi – or songthaew – to wherever you’re staying. Likely one of Maenam, Bophut, Bangrak, Cheong Mon, Chaweng or Lamai.
Bisecting Ko Samui diagonally with a line from Nathon in the northwest to Lamai in the southeast cuts the island into two distinct halves for me. Every one of the places mentioned above sits in the top right segment; a half of the island where I’d spent almost every minute I’d ever been on Samui.
While I’d heard stories of deserted beaches and actual fishing villages in the bottom left half, I’d never actually been there.
One major reason I’d wanted to do a lap of Ko Samui on a scooter was to go and see what I’d been missing. Indeed, with the freedom to explore the whole island on a scooter, the day wasn’t all about the photography.
Leaving Lamai and heading south, following a sign for the Tiger Zoo to find the southern loop road, I was soon away from much of Ko Samui’s traffic and on the quietest stretches of tarmac I’d seen all day.
Riding a scooter in Thailand is never a chore, but my lap of Ko Samui was one of the best days I’d spent doing so. Not quite as good as Chiang Mai to Pai, of course, but it’s unfair to make a direct comparison.
The lap of Ko Samui wasn’t about a destination.
It was about freedom and exploration in a place I’d spent so long before. It was about riding in the sea air like I’d never done before. It was about finding southern sights that I’d never even read about before.
Yes, the day did include the heavily visited Chaweng and Lamai, but I couldn’t shoot a lap of Ko Samui without them.
There are always the incidental things you notice along the way too. An orchard of giant palm trees. Petrol for sale in the traditional Thai way – sitting in whiskey bottles in direct sunlight.
Both seemed completely as natural, and at the same time unnatural, as the other.
The south road continued, and I coasted along with very few cares in the world. My main gripe was wishing it was closer to the shoreline. I think that sums up the extent of my worries that day.
There were small tracks that led beachwards, but having already taken one and finding it led only to a dead end with Samui Kayak waiting for me, time was too short to keep trying any others.
Eventually, without leaving the main road, the sea became closer. I pulled in, bought a drink from a shop run by a man older than I will probably ever be, and wandered onto the beach.
So gravelly it hurt to walk on and with the dirtiest sea I have ever seen in Thailand, it quickly became one of my favourite spots of the entire day. Purely because it was so unbelievably tranquil.
No voices. No engine noise. Just the waves lapping the beach and wooden fishing boats gently rising and falling on the water.
I hung around for half an hour, taking a few shots and listening to the silence. I could easily have stayed longer. I could easily have had more drinks on the beach had I not been on the scooter. I didn’t really want to leave when I did, but the afternoon was passing and I wanted to finish the lap before nightfall.
A little research later told me the beach was at Thong Krut. A real fisherman’s village on the south coast of Ko Samui. I found this by looking up the pub that was right on the west-facing beach.
Called The Hideaway, on any other day it would have been perfect for sunset.
Back on the road north to Nathon, the sun was actually beginning to set in earnest. As any photographer will know, the light at this time of day is often the best there is.
As I rode my scooter up Ko Samui’s west coast, basking in the golden glow, sea to my left and with a huge smile on my face, I had to agree.
At Nathon, I stopped and walked over to the ferry pier.
I wasn’t the only one making the most of the setting sun, as a fair few locals were using the pier’s length as a makeshift running track. Walking along to its end, and not looking forward to doing so when it was time to leave Samui, I turned back towards the island to see how I could use the light.
An older gentleman, walking among the runners, obliged.
My lap of Ko Samui was almost over. Happy with the shots I’d got, all that was left was to ride back along the north coast to Maenam.
The final stretch was to be easy. Nothing to stop and shoot. I’m done for the day. Not even going to get a typical beach sunset picture. Not even to finish off this post with.
I was tired. All I wanted was to get back, return the scooter, and drop into a beach bar in Maenam.
The plan was going well too, until I reached the headland at the very northwest tip of Ko Samui and saw something in my mirrors.
Making me stop again.
Like it was one of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen.
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