Saturday September 29, 2012
Living it up in Ko Samui
Review by ANDREW SIA
A former backpacker lives it up in luxury at Thailand’s Ko Samui.
I HAD heard stories that Ko Samui in Thailand had become “over commercialised” since I last went there as a backpacker over 20 years ago. Indeed, after disembarking from my Bangkok Airways flight from Kuala Lumpur, I encounter lots of hubbub around Chaweng beach near the island’s airport.
Within 45 minutes, our group of journalists arrive at the more rustic and tranquil south-western corner of the island called Baan Taling Ngam, and ascend a tunnel of greenery up a hill. There, I am a tad disappointed with the underwhelming entrance to the Intercontinental Samui.
That’s until I walk into the lobby and am blown away by the spectacular vistas of two seas – one of the Gulf of Siam, the other of coconut plantations. The resort drapes over a few hills, and it’s a fascinating walk down from the lobby through a mini maze to my room, and thence through a remarkable walkway (which includes a suspension bridge) through forests before arriving at the beach.
There, I have the option of chilling out at the poolside bar, working out at the gym overlooking the sea, sampling European food at the Flames restaurant, or even getting into the water itself.
Being spoilt for choice seems to be the theme here. For instance, there are seven infinity pools to choose from, with different vistas to match – beach, hilltop panorama, coconut plantations or tropical forest. The pools even come in different colours, including a shocking red one!
This place began life 19 years ago as the island’s first five-star resort, the Mandarin Oriental, before it became Le Meridien, then the Baan Taling Ngam Resort and finally, after an extensive makeover last year, the Intercontinental Samui.
There’s a good reason that so many top hotel chains have chosen this site – it is simply magnificent. Many of the rooms have incredible vistas across to the Five Islands nearby. Unlike the frenetic development of Chaweng beach (near the airport), this part of Ko Samui is still green, just as I remember the island from the good old backpacker days. And it’s still a good idea to cycle around here to enjoy all that greenery.
The Air Bar next to the lobby is a stunning location with a 360° view to catch breathtaking sunsets over the sea. With expert mixologists concocting creative cocktails, nibble on some tapas and sushi dishes while the resident DJ works some chill beats on the decks. Ah, this must surely be the ultimate sundowner!
With all these plus points in its favour, it’s not surprising that this place has been included in the bestselling book, 1,000 Places To See Before You Die.
The settings for the two-storey villas are as diverse as those for the seven infinity pools. One can, of course, choose a beachside location but I prefer something in the hills – that way, you enjoy the best of both worlds, being surrounded by luxuriant greenery while gazing at the sea vistas below.
In fact, it is this latter setting that was chosen for the resort’s new Baan Thai Spa. Styled as a traditional Siamese home made of teak, it is a haven of relaxation with glorious ocean views and offers a range of luxurious Thai, Western and Ayurvedic pampering.
Parents who want to enjoy some “couple time” alone can send their children to the day-care at the Planet Trekkers Kids’ Club where staff will introduce them to activities such as nail-painting, hair-braiding or traditional Thai games.
I love the sumptuous breakfast spread (yummy muesli yogurt and honey off the comb!) at the signature open kitchen of Amber Restaurant. What about lunch and dinner? I had feared that the food would be too westernised but find that the Thai dishes at Amber are still richly flavoured in herbs even if they hold back on the tongue-burning chillies.
This is also the place where I learn how to make my first tom yam at the in-house cooking school. The exotic culinary journey starts with a visit to the local morning market to pick up fresh ingredients.
Apart from cooking classes, guests with energy to burn can do some sailing on the Hobie Cat catamarans, stand-up paddleboarding, windsurfing, kayaking, beach volleyball, mini beach soccer, tennis or even take up basic Thai boxing classes. However, the snorkelling here is a bit of a letdown since the water lacks clarity.
A must-do day excursion is to Angthong National Marine Park, about 45 minutes by the resort’s own speedboat. Here, our media group is transported into an aquamarine paradise of 42 islands, big and small and graced by dramatic limestone massifs, hidden coves and tropical rainforests. I have one of the best lunches of this trip when the staff cook up a tremendous barbecue of seafood and meat on a deserted beach of white sand.
Koh Mae, or Mother Island, reminds me of magical Pulau Dayang Bunting near our own Pulau Langkawi as I walk over limestone crags to visit its inland lagoon. For other outings, Ko Samui also has an array of temples, a 15m-high Buddha statue, waterfalls, beaches and shops to explore. The resort brings our media group to visit a nearby rum distillery and to Bo Phut village to enjoy the “walking street” market of handicrafts, food and knick-knacks.
What a contrast it has been for me since the last time I visited two decades ago as a penny-pinching backpacker. It’s great to have such a luxurious return!