Leonardo DiCaprio may have discovered the Thai islands, but Ko Samui still drips with a mellow, unspoiled Age of Aquarius feeling. Located halfway between Bali and Nepal, Ko Samui became a staple on the hippie backpacking circuit in the 1970s. An ideal place to kick back after trekking in Nepal, the island encouraged proto-slackers to bag rays, soak their dreads in coral-studded waters, inhale the tropical good vibes, and flush the hashish from their systems with spicy Thai food.
Today, Ko Samui still looks precisely like your mind’s-eye view of a tropical paradise. Beyond its palm-edged, crescent-shaped beaches lie warm turquoise waters interrupted by 80 smaller islands, many of them unoccupied. Even the airport is intoxicatingly tropical. Baggage is handled beneath a palm-thatched roof without walls, and the runways are lined with bougainvillea. Call it Flower Power.
When my wife and I visited Ko Samui, we quickly installed ourselves in Maenam, a low-key town on the island’s north coast. The main attraction is the beach-an idyllic spit of sugar-white sand. Beyond that, Maenam is a quiet village of single-story businesses and homes, a few hotels, a post office, a dive center, a laundromat, a natural history museum, a shop called Books and Beer, and a restaurant called Cat Oven that we never worked up the nerve to try.
For the first several days in Maenam, in fact, we did nothing but bask lizardlike on the sand, struggling with such wrenching decisions as whether to indulge in an hour-long massage ($6) or perhaps just signal a strolling vendor for another cold drink.
But on Ko Samui, sublime outdoor experiences are as hard to come by as 80-degree days (and there are more than 330 of those per year). So when sun worshiping got old, we ventured inland to the island’s rugged mountains, home to macaques, leopard cats, monitor lizards, and pythons. In the highlands, you can visit well-known cascades like the dramatic 250-foot-high Na Muang Two. You can bathe in your own private falls (hike or mountain-bike up the unnamed dirt roads and listen for the sound of thundering water). You can explore the Na Tian Butterfly Garden, where intensely colored native lepidoptera flutter by like hallucinations. Or you can drive a Jeep to the high country and look down on the Big Buddha, a 40-foot-high gold-leaf statue that reigns over a tiny peninsula.
The Beach, the movie that brought Leo to the Thai islands, showcased another must-see local attraction: Ang Thong National Marine Park. The thing to do at Ang Thong, a lush group of 41 small islands strewn over the Gulf of Thailand, is to spend as much time as possible in the water. We swam, snorkeled, and paddled from island to island in a tandem sea kayak amid legions of sea otters, mackerel, and dolphins. The seafood is plentiful here, and the huge succulent oysters and king prawns make for tasty dinners.
Nighttime in Maenam brings new sensual pleasures. This being a former hippie haven, there are, of course, parties. Really good parties. The Reggae Pub in Chaweng (the island’s most populous town) is an outdoor nightclub located on an island in a lagoon. Cross a long, rickety wooden bridge and Marley, Tosh, Cliff, and company suddenly pound out of 20-foot speakers. Or catch a boat to Ko Tao or Ko Pha Ngan, small islands that host all-night full-moon bacchanals where members of the globe’s party tribes boogie together on the sand.
Unfortunately, my wife and I missed the full moon. But it didn’t matter. Lots of our nights in Maenam were like our last one. The indigo sky glimmered with stars. Warm waves lapped the shore. The tropical air wrapped itself around us like a big, warm hug. The evening demanded photographic documentation. I held the camera at arm’s length and shot back toward us because we hadn’t figured out how to work the self-timer. Oh, we had the instructions with us somewhere. We were just too lazy to bother.