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Koh Samui, Thailand's Upscale Transformation

Floating lounge area right beyond the lobby at W Retreat.

Photo: Andrea Fazzari

Some look in the Caribbean. Some search the South Pacific. Others are convinced they’ll find it in the Maldives. Some believe it’s off the coast of Brazil. Or perhaps the Seychelles—could it be hiding in the Seychelles?

Me, I’ve focused my search on that cerulean-and-green expanse between Indonesia and Indochina, where mangosteens thrive and bamboo is the building material of choice. I’ve combed the coastlines of the Andaman, Java, and South China Seas, hunting for that elusive tropical paradise. Eighteen years ago, for one brief moment, I actually thought I’d found it.

It was the dawn of the Glow Stick Era: late 1993. I was blazing my way across ThailandChiang Mai to Chiang Rai, Bangkok to the beach. The question was: which beach? There were so many options, each with its own profile. Kayakers went to Ao Phang Nga, snorkelers to Koh Phi Phi. (Koh means island.) Hat Phra Nang was for cliff-divers; Koh Chang drew the nature freaks. Phuket was firmly in the hands of keg-standing lunkheads. Then there was Koh Pha Ngan. If you wanted to skip a rope that was on fire or just freestyle at a Full Moon Party, Pha Ngan was your place.

Alas, the moon was already on the wane as I rode down from Bangkok to the coast—and besides, I was too old to skip rope. So I wound up on a boat to Koh Samui.

Koh Samui had no profile, no real personality to speak of. But it was by all accounts extremely pretty, with a jungle-draped interior fringed by long, sandy beaches. From the ferry it appeared as a dollop of brilliant green, frosted with creamy white, afloat in a bowl of sapphire blue. I found a family-run guesthouse on Chaweng Beach and stayed for a week, hardly straying from the path between my bungalow and the sand.

It was no hotbed of culture—but then, most travelers would have already had their dose of that up north. Koh Samui was their beautiful reward: a relatively blank slate, defined as much by what it lacked (glow sticks; lunkheads) as by what it had (killer snorkeling; boat trips to a nearby marine park). Who needed flaming jump ropes? Who needed “personality”? Samui was easy as a summer’s day. It already drew plenty of tourists—yet on Chaweng Beach in 1993, the incoming tide still seemed like a trickle.

The earliest modern-day visitors had arrived just a quarter-century before, in the late sixties—“the First Backpackers,” everyone calls them, as if they were talking about the Pilgrims or Lewis & Clark. Given the landscape they encountered, the comparison wasn’t so far off: Koh Samui back then was still remarkably primitive. Roads were rough, where they ran at all. The island’s main trade was in coconuts. There were no proper hotels; those early vagabond explorers simply flopped down in hammocks on the beach.

As word spread and more travelers arrived, hammocks were replaced by two-buck guesthouses, which in turn gave way to ten-dollar mini-hotels. A tiny airport finally opened in 1989, and soon mini-hotels made room for maxi-resorts. Despite occasional tensions between locals and tourists—like when some German nudists were chased off a beach by a stick-wielding Thai mob—Samui proved, on the whole, an accommodating host.

In 1993, Koh Samui had about 560,000 annual visitors. Today that figure has nearly doubled: almost a million people a year, packed onto an island only 13 miles wide. Scores of hotels now cover the landscape, with increasing numbers on the luxury end. Samui’s top-tier resorts—the Banyan Tree, the W Retreat, and the Four Seasons—rank among the finest in Southeast Asia. InterContinental, Le Méridien, and Park Hyatt will soon join the crowd.

The island’s evolution might be termed unlikely if it didn’t seem, in hindsight, entirely obvious, maybe even preordained. From day one, Samui was blessed with great bones and a sunny disposition. That it would be plucked from obscurity—like some future supermodel from a remote rural village—was, perhaps, inevitable. What was not obvious was how dramatic its transformation would be.

These days the average visitor stays only three nights on Koh Samui, and will spend most of his time on the grounds of his resort, lounging at the pool or on the beach, eating mangoes, indulging in the occasional massage, and otherwise not doing very much at all. Fortunately, Samui has some outstanding new places at which to do (or not do) just that.

The Banyan Tree, opened in July 2010, occupies a secluded peninsula on the island’s southeastern coast, between Chaweng and Lamai Beach. Its 88 villas are scattered along steep, terraced hillsides that tumble down to a private cove; the highest sit 23 stories above the water. Buggies zip guests up and down vertiginous paths to the beach, the spa, and the resort’s three restaurants (don’t even consider walking home from breakfast). Each villa has its own generously sized infinity pool—lapping at your bedroom door—with views over the lush terrain, the small beach, and the water beyond. There’s much to love about the Banyan Tree: like waking to a Gulf of Thailand dawn and walking 10 paces from your bed straight into the pool. Or the easy confidence of your butler—one for each villa—who arranges everything from a half-caf latte to a diving excursion. Or the way the gardeners momentarily stop grooming banana plants or scything back undergrowth and instead smile broadly as you pass. And, not least, the superb spa—where my indefatigable therapist Ms. Wan fixed me a chilled lemongrass tea, then went at my back like a sheet of packing bubbles. Best Thai massage I’ve had in years.

But the real surprise was the W Retreat–Koh Samui, on the island’s northern coast. I had not been, up to now, a W fan; I found their cheekiness too programmed and their branding overinsistent. (Why slap a logo on every surface, from the throw pillows to the apples?) Name-dropping aside, the W Retreat won me over. The setting is terrific—on an arrow-shaped headland with a beach along both sides, one facing sunrise and the other sunset; across the bay rises the hazy purple outline of Koh Pha Ngan. One wonders how this breezy plot wasn’t snapped up years ago. The suites—particularly the Ocean Front Haven villas, just off the beach—are airy and spacious and cleverly laid out, with intuitive tech that actually works, a living area that’s actually livable, and an expansive plunge pool. Freestanding stone tubs and outdoor showers are a plus, as are fire-engine-red Illy espresso makers. The bright, mod, youthful vibe carries through to the public areas, where funky amoeba chairs and an outsize Connect 4 game play right into the W target demo. After dark the whole property is lit in glow-stick hues of lime green and raspberry, and although I’m typically skeptical of any hotel that thinks it’s a nightclub, the W’s lobby- and beach-bar scenes stayed on the right side of lively, and the music was not bad at all.

Both properties show a marked shift in style. Until very recently, Thai resorts made nods to indigenous architecture and design: witness the Four Seasons, built only five years ago, with its pitched roofs, sala pavilions, and frangipani-shrouded prayer houses, the embodiment of hotel-as-temple. Samui’s newer breed—the Banyan Tree and the W, as well as the Conrad, Hansar, and Gurich (formerly Langham Place) resorts—embrace the more secular, urbane-contemporary aesthetic of Singapore and Hong Kong. Their design draws not from the past but from some idealized, pan-Asian future, where there’s nary a Buddhist reliquary nor a bolt of Thai silk in sight. What they lack in local character they make up for in comfort. No wonder few guests go anywhere else.

But if people don’t leave the premises, are the hotels truly bringing their guests to Samui, and bringing Samui to their guests? Resorts here are increasingly removed from island life, secreted in private jungles and coves like tropical Brigadoons. The result is that there are now two Koh Samuis: the private and the public, the luxe and the local. And it’s not clear how—or even if—they fit together.

A more ambitious visitor might venture beyond his hotel gates to see what homegrown charms Samui has to offer. He could take in a kickboxing match or browse the stalls at a night market. He might check out Baan Hua Thanon, a.k.a. “the Muslim Village,” with its traditional wooden storefronts and racks of fish drying picturesquely in the sun. He could visit Nathon’s mid-19th-century Buddhist temple, then wander among the nearby Chinese shop-houses, where cobblers sell shoes made of lizard, stingray, or cobra skin.

More likely, he’ll wind up on Chaweng, Samui’s most popular beach, where I’d stayed in 1993. Were he to stroll no farther inland than the tide, he might imagine Chaweng to be quite lovely indeed. But if he strayed past the sand he’d see what unbridled tourist development can do to a place, and why any right-minded person would flee from here as quickly as possible. Chaweng Beach Road is an exhaust-choked corridor of tacky souvenir shops and cut-rate tailors. (Should you wish, a store called Chaweng Armani will fashion you a $250 tuxedo overnight.) After dark the strip gives over to rowdy pubs, thumping discos, and go-go bars—a wretched hive of scum and villainy where “lady boxing” is the primary cultural entertainment. If there be paradise on earth, it isn’t this, it isn’t this.

“If I could, I’d bring every guest in here by private boat,” said the general manager of one luxury resort, located not far from Chaweng. “The road from the airport to our hotel is just so ugly—people are disappointed before they even check in.”

Such is the flip side of Samui’s success. Where once only hippie backpackers roamed, now come British lager louts, Brazilian ravers, Russian horndogs, Korean honeymooners, Australian retirees, Swedish families, Indian moguls, Taiwanese spa junkies, and Israeli scuba freaks. They come from all corners of the earth, from all age groups and social milieus. The problem is that each tribal set arrives with its own wish list, and its own competing notion of what a tropical paradise should be. Paradise for this guy might mean DJ’s and bottle service; paradise for that guy is anywhere those things aren’t. On her side of paradise: detox smoothies and qigong by the pool. On his side: Jäger shots at a bar made out of ice. This side: fresh dragonfruit and a pillow menu. That side: rolling yourself down a hill inside a giant plastic ball. Some people think paradise requires monkeys—but maybe you don’t like monkeys. Maybe you once got chased by a coconut-tossing macaque.

For me paradise has to involve good food, by which I mean genuine local cooking, not fussy conceptual cuisine. I’ve spent a lot of time on the beaches of Southeast Asia, where too many restaurants dish out fancy ingredients on plates that resemble Dale Chihuly installations. I’ve endured enough foie-gras satay, Wagyu-papaya salads, and langoustines served in martini glasses to know that you seldom leave such places feeling good about your meal or your soul.

Alas, Samui does a brisk business in Wagyu and foie gras, and has more than its share of “creative-contemporary” restaurants. (One is actually named Orgasmic.) Meanwhile, authentic southern Thai food is frustratingly hard to come by. But I did find a gem of a place on Bang Po Beach, on Samui’s northeastern coast.

Bang Po Seafood is a family-run shack with tables in the sand, a sweet and gracious staff, and an extensive menu of (and I quote) “seasonal local food,” which here means a spicy mango salad laced with sea urchin; tiny baby octopus stir-fried with fish sauce, garlic, ginger, and chiles; and a turmeric-dusted red snapper, deep-fried to golden crispy goodness. Every table also gets unlimited helpings of khoei jii, a most ingenious local snack, made by pressing shrimp paste, crabmeat, coconut, garlic, shallots, and chili into a thick, savory-sweet spread, smearing it inside a dried coconut husk, then roasting said husk over a flame. It comes with a crudité plate of sliced cucumbers and long beans with which to scrape up the paste. Seriously? Most delicious thing I ate on the island.

From my table I watched Thai families stroll along the tranquil beach while brightly colored long-tail boats sputtered across the water like buzzing insects. A few hundred yards offshore, fishermen walked along a dormant reef, waist-deep, hunting for squid. This, at last, was the Samui I’d been dreaming of, the one I’d remembered from 1993. If only places like Bang Po Beach were still the norm.

The more changes I encountered on Samui, the more I kept thinking of another island in the Gulf of Thailand, similar in geography, size, and physical beauty, but poised at the opposite end of the continuum, its career just beginning instead of halfway along. Phu Quoc, Vietnam—275 miles northeast of Koh Samui—was a rustic frontier land, with 35,000 acres of primeval forest ringed by a few modest villages and lovely stretches of sand. On the beach, stray cows outnumbered sunbathers. Phu Quoc’s market town was comically sleepy—you expected a tumbleweed to roll across the intersection. There was a small airport, but the majority of visitors—backpackers, mostly—came to Phu Quoc by ferry.

Any of this sound familiar?

That somnolent Neverland inspired a lot of feelings, not least the urge to protect it. Phu Quoc was like that fledgling band you were lucky enough to catch in some half-empty club, still a bit sloppy but bursting with promise. (Koh Samui in 2011 was the same band playing a sold-out hockey arena, the crowd shouting along to songs that once only you knew.)

But hold up. Step back. Let’s not project some antediluvian fantasy onto an island that didn’t even have reliable electricity. Phu Quoc had one decent hotel, but no great resorts. It still doesn’t. Restaurants were scarce, as was refrigeration. Yes, the island was unspoiled, but it was also sort of uninteresting; beyond the market and a handful of fish-sauce distilleries, Phu Quoc had few sights and attractions, such that you could drive for miles along the coast and actually start to feel, well, bored, for lack of anything else to do, see, eat, buy, indulge in, or avoid. And those roads were atrocious: dusty red tracks of pothole-riddled laterite. I recall a bone-rattling ride from the airport to my hotel—in a stifling, sweat-reeking relic of a van, my eyes and lungs filling up with road dust—and remember thinking to myself, This is gonna be a long week.

Flash-forward five years, and I’m whisked to the Banyan Tree Samui in a sparkling air-con Mercedes, chilly as a eucalyptus-scented towel, with gamelan music pinging out of the MP3 player—a veritable spa on wheels. Few, honestly, could argue with that. So what was it about Koh Samui now that vexed me, even in the cosseting arms of a five-star resort? Why did it no longer feel like the paradise I remembered from 18 years ago—when Phu Quoc, for all its limitations, sort of did?

The difference, I think, has to do with the “blank slate” I described earlier. Like Phu Quoc today, Koh Samui in 1993 had been more or less an empty canvas, in terms of both its tourist profile and its indigenous life. It was never, as I said, a bastion of culture. Nor did most travelers need it to be. Indeed, that empty canvas was sort of refreshing, like a deserted beach. Yet as more and more visitors washed ashore, Samui’s blank slate made it all the more susceptible to outside influence. In contrast to, say, Bali—whose vibrant local traditions have always defined the traveler’s experience, rather than vice versa—Samui made few demands, culturally speaking, and allowed visitors to define it as their own.

This is the issue with a tropical paradise: we need a there there. Today’s traveler wants a convincing reason to fly 24 hours to the other side of the planet—and sand and surf alone aren’t it. Paradise can’t float untethered in a nameless sea; it has to feel concrete, genuine, rooted in a culture and a locale. The New Samui has a great many things—arguably too many—but a strong sense of place is not one of them. On the New Samui you can sip South African Chardonnay to the beat of a samba remix while Japanese couples peruse the English menu and order smoked-salmon pizza, and SkyNews shows the weekend forecast for Minneapolis. You can do a lot of things on Samui, having a perfectly good time, and rarely be reminded you’re in Thailand.

As the East Coast fills up with ever more sprawling hotels and villa developments, some locals and expats are fleeing for Samui’s rugged southwestern shore. Here it’s a whole different island: slower-paced, more traditional—in a word, more Thai. The fishing village of Baan Taling Ngam has even acquired a burgeoning little bohemian community, who gather at the Five Islands Gallery & Café, tucked inside an 80-year-old wooden house.

Not surprisingly, developers have followed them here. Nikki Beach, a Miami-style club-resort, has arrived just up the coast, and a Conrad hotel is opening this fall. InterContinental will soon relaunch the opulent Baan Taling Ngam resort (formerly run by Le Royal Méridien). By the time the 90-villa Park Hyatt sets up here in a few years, the “Virgin Coast” may look an awful lot like the other side of the island.

Until then, it’s a fine place to escape the crowds. I spent a peaceful afternoon at the Five Islands Café, sipping strong coffee and sampling house-made ice creams, then drove up the coast to watch the sunset from a near-deserted beach. I lingered late into the evening, savoring the calm. Squid boats began to appear on the darkening horizon, their bow lights glittering like stars. On the hillside behind me, a dog barked, then all went quiet again—until, from somewhere up the shore, came another, noisier sound: the pulsing electro-beat of the Black-Eyed Peas. Even here, it seemed, the world was rushing in.

So I gathered up my flip-flops and walked back to my car, thinking it unlikely that a so-called island paradise could exist in this age, what with the thousand rival factions descending on each contender, all clamoring for a piece.

But who knows? Maybe I was wrong.

Maybe it was still out there somewhere—perhaps not so far from where I stood.

Maybe in Koh Lanta.

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