Bangkok - Visit South Africa. It’s a world in one country. True. However, December makes travelling to the coast and many regional locations become a little friendlier to the dollar and euro currencies. Domestic airfare prices border on those of international flights. So I save my own local explorations for the off-season and head abroad in December. Thailand to be exact. The cost of flights, transfers and hotels came in at half of what it would cost to visit one of South Africa’s more popular tourist getaways. (It shall remain nameless for the purposes of this article but it has a large flat mountain as a backdrop.)
This being my fifth trip to Thailand, I skipped Bangkok, which, according to the news was in the midst of chaotic and violent protests. I would never have guessed this, passing through Savarnabhumi International, which was packed with tourists. A model of efficiency, transiting passengers are ushered through a shorter line, bags are sent to your final point and a bonus for our Green Biltong Book (aka SA passport) is no visa requirements.
Having settled on Kho Samui, for my fifth visit, I was soon winging my way across the Gulf of Thailand to the country’s third largest island and by far the less populated in terms of tourists and those dreaded nationalities who set their alarms at 5am to reserve a beach stretcher.
One of my favourite airports in the world has to be Samui: a series of thatched bungalows, trams to transport passengers, complimentary beverages and snacks and, if you have to be glued to your smartphone, free wireless. The only downside, though an excellent airline, Bangkok Airways airfares would make our national carrier blush.
Samui has a ring road around the coastal belt of approximately 50km, winding roads along powder-white beaches and brochure-inspiring turquoise calm seas. From the coastal belt, the island rises almost to a cone – 200m above sea level.
Herein lies the beauty. The tourists who set their bodies to bake like a basted turkey, miss so much of an island that has so much on offer. Thick, damp and lush jungles that offer mostly free hikes and trails. Crisscrossing the paths is like being in a world from out of the Lord of the Rings. Crystal-clear cascades pouring over granite intrusions, breathtaking waterfalls to admire, meditate on or just simply cool off under. To my surprise, when you think you are miles from anything, little street food restaurants could be found tucked in the dense foliage. Some of the best cuisine I’ve eaten in Thailand, prepared fresh from vegetables plucked from adjoining gardens, giving a new take on organic cuisine. One particular lunch with a bottle of water and beer set me back about R35.
I avoided the tourist traps of elephant rides and caged monkeys and crocodiles. Like many South Africans I met, we found this to be something we are not used to experiencing or even seeing. Walks aplenty, my post-breakfast routine would be a good 10km walk into the jungles, where many people still live in stilted wooden cabins among the towering palm and rubber trees. Visitors are never frowned upon and don’t be surprised if you are invited to share tea or a meal.
Service in Thailand is always with a smile, a welcome and a genuine keenness to help, not to try to extort tips. That said, be prepared for expensive taxi rides. I avoided them and walked everywhere I needed to go. Of course, for about R100 you could rent a scooter, but judging by my connecting flight and the 15 passengers in plaster casts, it would be safer to assume the bipedal mode of transport. Don’t criticise South African driving till you try to negotiate a Thai road and it’s fast-paced, optional indicator driving.
I had chosen Lamai Beach for my December trip , kilometres of soft sand and granite boulders dot the clear blue water fringed with palms and beach restaurants, where you dine with your toes lapping in the sea. Lamai is a quiet town with an equally quiet beach. Eat in the main road at street-side diners and less than R50 fills your face including a good, ice cold Chang beer.
If you’re lazing on the beach, braaied mielies from vendors cost well under R10. A Thai cooking course is fun and locally famous chef Poo – yes that’s her name – has released a booked called Cooking with Poo. She is one of many who offer courses across Thailand and if you stop at a street vendor they’re happy to have you watch and even help.
Bear in mind that December is the end of monsoon season. I experienced a few odd downpours but the temperatures stayed in the early 30s, not to mention the humidity factor.
The cost of the hotel I chose, a small intimate beach hotel, was about R450 a night including breakfast. You can find cheaper and equally good establishments but I learnt without an air conditioner you will probably be mummified by morning.
Having travelled Thailand extensively, roadside stalls offer virtually the same in every area. What I found in Bangkok, I could find in Samui – and often at a cheaper rate. If you’re more of a nightlife person, choose Chaweng, where prices are a little higher, though the beach is good. It is crowded at times but a block back from the beach you’ll find everything your heart desires – I mean everything and anything: I wouldn’t be exposing Granny and young children to some of the “offerings”.
Primarily I came to hike and dive. Being the tail end of monsoon season, the deeper waters were rough. The high-speed boats which take about 20 divers, headed off to a popular sight called Sail Rock, about two hours into the gulf with not a hint of land in sight. At least half the divers spent the journey hanging overboard begging for mercy as they fed the fish their recently digested meals.
Massive swells made the water entry tricky and the first few metres of descent very murky. The sighting of Zambezi sharks just gave me that little edge to get down as fast as possible. Once below 5m the ocean was as clear as glass. There were thousands of tuna, eel, sandsharks and untouched iridescent corals. The diving was spectacular and very affordable, with everything catered for, from equipment to lunch, snacks and drinks.
The advantage of Samui is the proximity to the beautiful islands of Kho Tao and Phangang (host to the famous full-moon party). You can catch ferries at reasonable prices to these not-to-be-missed pieces of the gulf or even take day tours. I would highly recommend a dhow trip, which drops anchor among the remotest coves, where you can jump overboard into the pristine water to swim and snorkel, with a smorgasbord of Thai food always waiting to welcome you back on board. Day trips in Thailand are very well priced, always include meals and often work out at much the same price as taking a taxi.
Airfares to Thailand fluctuate and I have found the best way, often also the cheapest, is to fly direct with Thai Airways, definitely on my A-list for service and comfort. Having tried flying via, let’s just say an oil rich country last year, I saved R800, got stuck in the capital for a day as the plane developed (as described to us) “a slight fire on the wing”. I stayed firmly put and was denied exit from the airport. I arrived in Samui three days after leaving Joburg and my suitcase, which loves travelling on its own, went to Japan. Book early, go direct. The internet does have bargains and I have used both agent and internet. An agent gives you the advantage of help when you need it but be prepared to pay more. The internet, if you spend enough time researching, yields great results and low rates.
Whether you are a beach hugger, hiker, walker, shopper, diver or snorkeler, Thailand removes stress in a matter of hours. Courteous, friendly people grace this beautiful land. Start saving and searching now and a rand-friendly overseas trip awaits you that will forever capture your heart and soul. - Glenn Lewington, Saturday Star