A couple of decades ago, Thailand's third-largest offshore island woke up and found itself famous. Briefly forming part of the 16th-century maritime trade network established by the Chinese Ming-Dynasty admiral Cheng Ho, Koh Samui had subsequently disappeared from the world map and slumbered in peaceful obscurity until modern times. The local fishermen even routed the Japanese forces who tried to capture the island during World War II. But then the waves of world-travelling flower children padded down the hight-flying trail through Kathmandu, Goa and Bali. Arriving here, they bedded down in thatched huts beneath the palm tress and wandered the beaches in sarongs, silver anklets and in search of self-identification. Until the recent completion of the flowerbed airstrip, however, the time consuming overland trek via Surat Thani and the two hour sea crossing from Ban Don or Don Sak deterred all but these hardy back packers.
Now the Bangkok connection has been established, and the wild and woolly travelers have moved on to pastures new. With new luxury resorts sprouting up along its shores, the palm clad isle off the 'elephant's trunk' is rapidly switching into a higher powered suntan circuit. The guests are as international as ever, but the drop out gear of yore has given way to sporting-chic fashions you might also find in the Caribbean or on the Cote d'Azur. Tourism has become big business, and all the attendant beach-fun paraphernalia has been brought in, from scuba to parasailing. So far, however, Koh Samui and the 80-odd neighboring islands within the archipelago have mercifully avoided the rabid development which has overtaken Pattaya and more recently Phuket. Until the basting begins in earnest, you can still find peace here amidst some of the loveliest and most varied island scenery in the Gulf of Thailand: jungle clad mountains, cascading waterfalls, crystal seas and a ring of shimmering beaches.
The tranquil villages nestle in quiet bays or between the coconut plantations whose rich, cloying scent seems so fill the air. The latter were hitherto the mainstay of the island's economy, and trained monkeys now entertain visitors by scaling the trees to harvest the ripe nuts. Nathon's market is a cornucopia of exotic curries, noodles, lurid-looking sweets and tropical fruits. A tour of the island by jeep affords glimpses of the Na Muang Falls and the huge seated Buddha overlooking the Hin Ngu temple. And when that and the beach hopping routine palls, you can take a slow boat to explore. Koh Phangan, Koh Tao and the other islands. Angthong National Marine Park is a maritime Guilin of limestone crags and blue lagoons. And if you fall in love - which is easy enough to do on Koh Samui - you can rent or even buy a hillside bungalow at Baan Taling Ngam, the newest Mandarin Oriental luxury resort with the lovelist sunsets on the island.
* Koh Samui
* Hotel & Dining in Koh Samui