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Visit to the Thai Island of Koh Samui

WE ARE DRIVING UP, UP, AND UP A MOUNTAIN ROAD. The jeep is new but underpowered, the landscape lush. Coconut palms crowd the muddy rutted track. Thirty feet above us, orchids grow from the palms' ridged trunks. We pass beneath a tent of vines hanging from trees whose names I do not know. The light is unfamiliar, too: jungle green.

We round a bend and find ourselves under the brilliant equatorial sky. The road climbs so steeply that Somnuk Somsuk, our guide, shifts down to first. The jeep slips, and the two children seated in back yelp in terror.

"Mai pen rai," says Somnuk, who is gracious and handsome in the way of southern Thai islanders. "No problem."

Somnuk's family recently worked with other landowners to bulldoze this road out of jungle on the tallest mountain on Koh Samui. Samui ("koh" is Thai for island) is similarly emerging from obscurity. About 400 miles south of Bangkok in the Gulf of Thailand, it has become a popular destination for Europeans, drawn by spectacular beaches and quiet lagoons with a wild green mountain backdrop.

Two years ago, when I first met Somnuk, we drove to his land from Nathon, Samui's market town on the west side of the island where the mainland ferries dock. Today we started from Mae Nam, Somnuk's home village on Samui's north shore.

Though Samui is Thailand's third-largest island, a single road circles it, and only the coast is inhabited. Samui reminds me of Kauai: the green interior is mostly impassable. Someday there may be golf courses and condos, but for now there are only coconut palms, long the mainstay of Samui's economy, and the occasional rubber plantation where blackened tap cups hang from the tree trunks.

We round another bend and arrive at the view that was imprinted on my memory two years ago. "Here," I say. "Thi ni."

Over the children's protests, Somnuk pulls to the side of the road. My seven-year-old daughter and ten-year-old son refuse to leave the jeep, but Somnuk and I climb out to see the north coast spread out 1,000 feet below: a curve of white sand, turquoise water, the black shadow of a reef. Offshore, receding to the pale horizon, lie some of the 80 mostly uninhabited islets that surround Samui. The Big Buddha, a golden colossus at the northeast corner of the island, glints in the sun. Directly below us, just outside Mae Nam, I can see the Santiburi Dusit Resort, still under construction the last time I gazed down from this height.

"Suai mak," I say, showing off my Thai. "Very beautiful."

Somnuk smiles. He is proud of his island, proud of this mountain. Returning to the jeep, we continue our pilgrimage to the garden of the mighty durian.

The most exotic of all tropical fruits, durians grow on trees and can weigh as much as 25 pounds. You need gloves to handle the armored outer covering, a small machete to cut into it. The segments of creamy fruit, separated by inedible fibrous walls, smell so strong that durians are expressly forbidden on public conveyances and in most hotels in Asia. Imagine an open sewer, rotting raspberries.

Yet the durian's flesh -- a rich custard you suck off the central pit -- is highly prized. Even on Samui, now that there are tourists, a large durian costs $15; in Bangkok or Singapore they fetch twice that. In my mind the taste, the very notion of durian, evokes Thailand and Southeast Asia.

"Are we almost there?" my son asks hopefully.

Somnuk smiles and points up. "My land," he reminds us, "is on top of the mountain."

WHEN I FIRST HEARD OF SAMUI, IN 1985, it was a whisper on the lips of budget travelers in Southeast Asia: if you could reach Surathani, a provincial port on the Gulf of Thailand, you were a five-hour ferry ride from paradise. Two-dollar bungalows, untrod beaches, friendly islanders, and, if you were so inclined, all the magic mushrooms you could eat. Just go before they build an airport.

The airport opened in 1989. Bangkok Airways now operates several daily flights to Koh Samui from Bangkok and one from Phuket. The east-coast beaches, Chaweng and Lamai, were developed first, and are now lined with medium-priced resorts and bungalows. There are also many restaurants, open-air bars, scuba-diving shops, tailors who can produce a silk suit in 24 hours, and two discos open long past midnight.

The well-known Mandarin Oriental group opened a luxury resort called Baan Taling Ngam on Koh Samui's west coast in November 1993. I didn't see it on my last visit, but I did see the northeast resorts on Mae Nam Beach and Choeng Mon Beach. My favorite is the Imperial Boat House on Choeng Mon. Thirty-four teak rice barges were towed down the Gulf of Thailand from Bangkok, hauled up onto dry land, and rebuilt as two-story luxury suites. In each, a winding staircase joins a living room, bar, and porch upstairs with a sitting room, bath, and bedroom downstairs. Potted orchids tumble from the bows of most boats. The bedroom is especially lovely, and roomy enough for a family on a rainy day -- or a romantic couple at any time.

Two years ago in early January we caught the tail end of the annual monsoons. This time, however, we've come in late January, and the weather is hot and sunny. We've spent our time bobbing in inner tubes in the gentle surf, taking long walks on the fine white sand, and generally enjoying Choeng Mon beach life. At low tide we can walk to a small island opposite the mouth of the bay. Vendors hawk good-quality silk-screened T-shirts. There are small restaurants shaded by coconut palms. Women offer to corn-row and bead tourists' hair.

And the massages -- oh, those massages. Thai therapeutic massage employs centuries-old techniques taught at Wat Po in Bangkok and at other centers around the country. On Choeng Mon, for approximately $6 an hour, I luxuriated under the skilled coconut-oiled hands of a blind man named Mr. Noy, and of 16-year-old Maria, who moved to Samui with her family five years ago from Bangkok.

If I were so inclined, I could bemoan the changes, the loss of what Samui was before the airport. But what it is now is also wonderful.

One afternoon we drove to Wat Na Pra Lan, the most important Buddhist site on Samui, just west of Mae Nam village. The central chedi, a stone monument constructed 200 years ago, is said to contain the bones of the founding monk. The place has an air of peace and timelessness. The only visitors, we watched a solitary monk whittle toys. Because it belongs to the temple, the long stretch of beach here will never be developed.

After Wat Na Pra Lan we drove to Bang Po, a quiet narrow beach with good snorkeling. Here the day took on the surreal edge that lures me, time and again, to the tropics. We came upon a small bright green snake curled on the sand, six feet from the surf. Was it menacing or frightened?The snake didn't explain itself, but it did allow us to creep close. When we looked back, a water buffalo had materialized on the beach behind us, pulling an ancient wooden cart.

That night we ate at honey seafood Barbecue, a restaurant right on the sand by the mouth of Choeng Mon Bay. We feasted on local lobster, king prawns, and whole fried fish topped with garlic, sharing our table with a couple from Colorado, the only Americans we met on Samui. The seafood was sublime, as it is at many restaurants around the island; for $30 two can dine like potentates under colored lights strung 50 feet high on a coconut palm, beneath a canopy of stars in the tropical sky.

The next day while my family swam, I talked to a fit handsome man in his late forties. Like most guests at the Boat House, he is European, but unlike most guests, he spends two months each winter on Samui at this resort. He'd just returned from Koh Pha-Ngan, the island whose rocky silhouette dominates the northern horizon of Choeng Mon Bay. Pha-Ngan is an hour away on a fast boat; the nearest inhabited island, it has become the kind of mecca for budget travelers that Samui used to be.

He hinted that he'd been on a clandestine mission to Pha-Ngan, which is rumored to have orgiastic parties under the full moon. When he said he'd found what he was looking for, I asked no questions. Off he ran to play Frisbee in the surf with his lady friend.

There's a lot of that here, pleasure-seeking of various sorts. Samui seems made for joy. Because of the European clientele, much sunbathing is done topless. Still, many of the better sights around the island can't be seen on dry land. This area has some of the best diving in Southeast Asia, especially on Koh Tao and Kho Pha-Ngan, islands to which Samui dive shops run charters. Serious scuba fans should go in April or September, when visibility approaches 70 feet. The coral is extraordinary, and friendly whale sharks sometimes show up to play.

On our quest for durian, we've finally reached the mountaintop. Somnuk prepares lunch over an open fire at his field workers' cabin. He uses coconuts and green papayas from his trees, along with food bought in Nathon. An hour later we're enjoying an amazing chicken curry made with coconut milk and papayas.

After we've eaten, Somnuk admits that his own durian trees are still too young. Trees must be at least six years old to bear fruit; Somnuk's, planted in response to Samui's changing economy, have a season or two to go. No problem, he assures us, a nearby friend not only has durians, he has monthong, Samui's choicest variety. We pile back into the jeep and start down the mountain. At the friend's plantation an elderly worker is sleeping on a shaded wooden platform beside two ripe durians. Even from 20 feet away in the open air, I can smell the fruit. Somnuk's friend, the durian king, is a young man who greets us in English; weekdays, he's a high school science teacher.

We troop down a green path past young pineapples growing out of red-tipped leaves. We go by a rambutan tree, then a jackfruit, all of our tropical favorites. And there, at the bottom of a green gully, special not only because it's a monthong but because durians aren't really in season, we see the tree: 40 feet high with a thin trunk, small green leaves, and 15 basketball-size grayish fruits hanging down.

A durian requires three or four days off the tree to become fully ripe, fully stinky. The king climbs his tree and cuts down a large specimen we'll save for later; then we return to the shaded platform and pay him $10 for a medium durian that we can eat right away. We wait, salivating, as the king splits it with a machete and pries the shell open. The segments are as long as a banana, twice as wide, slightly soft, and suitably smelly, although monthongs aren't as overpowering as other varieties. And the taste?Incredibly creamy, sensual, and rich, so rich that, at some point, I feel if I swallow another bite I will die.

Sated, we rinse off -- covered with durian goop, you don't get into any vehicle, even an open jeep -- and start down the steep rutted road, back into civilization. As we drive we wonder how we will sneak that second durian past the front desk of our hotel.

But before we reach Mae Nam, Somnuk asks if we'd like to see a waterfall. Although only an hour of daylight remains, I agree, and he turns onto an unpaved road worse than the one we've been on. We drive over an enormous culvert where large boulders abound. Somnuk keeps saying how he likes things natural, how he's glad the road is so bad. Otherwise, there would be too many tourists who don't care about things natural, so they would leave garbage.

Soon the road is so steep we have to abandon our jeep. By now my kids are denouncing their fate. But dusk is approaching and they don't want to be left behind -- there could be monkeys or snakes or who knows what?Instead they hang back, hoping I'll give up the idea. But something in the way Somnuk issued the invitation convinces me the hike will be worth it.

We walk 15, maybe 20 minutes. The trail climbs; the trees are larger, first-growth giants. We hear the distant sound of water booming onto rocks. We come up one last steep section, switchback around trees, and emerge at Ban Mae Nam waterfall.

A sheet of water cascades 50 feet down, over and onto huge boulders before collecting in a deep pool. True jungle -- wild, deep, and green -- and large trees engulf the mouth of the waterfall. It's like a scene out of "Lost Horizon," except it's real. The kids strip to their underwear. I join them for a dunk in the pool while Somnuk, Samui guide extraordinaire, looks on.

Once we've finished our swim, it's really time to head back. But first we gather garbage not our own: a Pringles can, two candy wrappers, a tourist map. Then we set off down the path to the waiting jeep, to our boat house, to the various pleasures of Koh Samui, green island in the Gulf of Thailand.

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