Samui offers ‘other-than-the-beach’ holiday experience

Lying 35 kilometres off the coast of Surat Thani, Ko Samui – Thailand’s second largest island after Phuket – is one of Asia’s and indeed the world’s favourite resort islands, going by the various readers’ choice awards and other international accolades bestowed upon it over the years. The most recent of these came in the Condé Nast Traveller UK magazine’s 2018 Readers’ Travel Awards announced in September, in which Samui was voted the 9th best island in the world.

It’s hard to argue that Samui’s main draw aren’t its beaches, of which there are a number spread around the island’s coastline. The different beaches offer different vibes, from the bustling Chaweng and Lamai Beaches to the more peaceful and laidback Bophut, Mae Nam and Choeng Mon Beaches, to name some. It’s this diversity in beaches that helps give Samui a broader appeal.

Samui offers other than the beach holiday experience

Maenam Beach

And so does a choice of activities to do and sights to see around the island, should the time come for a day or two’s break from the warm, inviting sands and welcoming waters of the beach scene. For those seeking a touch of tropical adventure, there are safari tours by jeep or truck that head up into the island’s mountainous and forested interior, zipline trails that soar through jungle and park scenery, 4-wheel ATV bike trips through scenic off-road terrain and, offshore, snorkelling, island-hopping tours and sea-kayaking.

For those who appreciate great views, the jeep/truck safari tours offer just these from high up in the island’s interior. There’s also an outdoor cooking class on one tour which takes place some 615 metres above sea level to a 360 degree panoramic backdrop of Samui and the Gulf of Thailand stretching off to the horizon. Chances are the Tom Kha Kai and Som Tam dishes prepared, cooked and eaten here are among the best one ever tries.

Notable among the sights on Samui – natural and manmade – are the numerous Buddhist temples and even a couple of Chinese temples, and the Hin Lat and Na Mueang Waterfalls that are set against jungle backdrops.

Samui offers other than the beach holiday experience

The 12-metre Buddha statue at the Big Buddha temple

Samui offers other than the beach holiday experience
The Guan Yu statue at a Chinese temple on Ko Samui

Probably the best known of all the temples is the Big Buddha temple (known locally as Wat Phra Yai) on the small rocky island of Ko Fan off Samui’s northeastern corner and which is reached by a causeway. The temple’s golden, 12-metre Buddha statue that sits in the Mara posture can be seen from several kilometres away and is a prominent local landmark, so much so the beach there is commonly referred to as Big Buddha Beach.

One attraction that’s been inspiring chuckles and titters among tourists for years are the Grandpa and Grandma Rocks, situated on the island’s southeastern coastline a couple of kilometres south of Lamai Beach. These two rock formations – known locally as Hin-Ta Hin-Yai – are famous for bearing a resemblance to the male and female genitalia. While the rocks amuse the tourists, they are revered by the locals who believe they can bring luck and fertility. There’s a local folklore legend attached to the rocks, which a signboard near them details.

Samui offers other than the beach holiday experience

The Grandpa rock formation, known locally as Hin-Ta

Samui offers other than the beach holiday experience
The Grandma rock formation, known locally as Hin-Yai

Samui offers other than the beach holiday experience
A scenic coastline between the Grandpa and Grandma Rocks and Lamai Beach

A more unusual of sights on Samui is the Mummified Monk at Wat Khunaram, about six kilometres west of Lamai Beach. The monk Luangpho Daeng died in 1973 and his body has since been on display in a glass case, until this day showing little sign of decay except for the disintegration of the eyes which have been covered with sunglasses. Shortly before his death, he is said to have told his followers if his body was to decompose, he should be cremated but if not, then he wanted to be put on display as a visual reminder of the Buddha’s teachings. The life and death of Luangpho Daeng is, for Thais, an inspiration to follow the Buddhist precepts.

Less than a kilometre from the Grandpa and Grandma Rocks is a newer attraction called WeGreen, aimed at the green-minded and comprising of a small cultural-themed park, a veggie farm and restaurant. In the grassed park area, there are several educational stations where staff display traditional cooking practices, sweet and dessert making, a traditional children’s game and the like.

Visitors can watch and try their hand at traditional coconut peeling using a tool called the Siem and at making grated coconut with a traditional grater. They can watch the making of – and of course, taste – the delicious local sweet Kalamare, scrumptious Samui-fried noodles and local dessert Khanom Ko.

Samui offers other than the beach holiday experience

WeGreen’s organic veggie farm

WeGreen’s organic veggie farm was inspired by the owner’s belief that clean and high quality ingredients provide the best nutrition, and the produce grown there is done so with a blend of native wisdom and modern technology. Not surprisingly the onsite restaurant features a menu in which the focus is on fresh and healthy cuisine, the selection of ‘alternative-fusion-food’ dishes and drinks being quite impressive.

These and other sights and sounds to be found around Samui are enough to fill up the odd day or two not spent sunning and frolicking on the beach or by the hotel pool. And being roughly 25 km from top to bottom and a little under the same at its widest point, the island is large enough in size to allow for some decent exploration from attraction to attraction but not too big to deter casual ‘what’s-on-offer-other-than-the-beach’ explorers.

Getting There

Samui can be reached by air and sea, with flights and ferry boat services available daily. Bangkok Airways operates the airport on Samui and flies there from Bangkok and back again multiple times a day, from morning to evening. It also has services to Samui from regional points like Singapore, Guangzhou, Kunming, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, and domestic flights from Phuket, Krabi, Chiang Mai and U-Tapao (Pattaya). Another option is to fly to Surat Thani on the mainland and then take a 90-minute bus ride to the ferry pier from where a 90-minute boat ride is then taken to Samui. Ferries from the mainland to Samui depart regularly throughout the day. It is possible to book transfers to Samui from Bangkok and Surat Thani that include the land and ferry travel.

Checking In

The extensive accommodation scene on Samui caters to different tastes and budgets and is spread throughout the various beaches. There are spectacular five-star hotels offering opulence and luxury, family resorts tailored to parents and kids on holiday, beach resorts that nestle the coastline, lovely boutique hideaways perfectly suited for couples on a romantic getaway and properties that are more budget-oriented yet typically still offer a great location and decent comfort.

Architecture in Isan – French Heritage on the Mekong River

Thailand’s Northeast region, or Isan, showcases a rich French architectural heritage well worth the time of any traveller to the region.

The redevelopment at the end of the 19th century and in the early years of the 20th century of towns along the Mekong River by French engineers did not go unnoticed on the Thai side.

Most of the official structures built during the time of King Rama V the Great and King Rama VI were designed in the European style, often imitating the French design and construction. European architecture was en vogue in the Kingdom but along the Mekong River, it was also a sign of development and modernity for Siamese provincial towns.

Some of these structures survived today and are well worth a look for any visitor to the region. In Nong Khai, the former Provincial Hall was built in 1897. It served as a residence for the Governor from 1929, when a new structure was built. The mansion is set in a park and has been turned into the Nong Khai Provincial museum since 2006. It is a grand style mansion with typical French embellishments including shutters and high windows. Around the former Provincial Hall, there are also a few old wooden houses with picturesque European influences.

On the way to Sakon Nakhon, travellers should have a look around Udon Thani International Airport. Along Pho Si Road, stands one of Thailand’s most beautiful European-style buildings. The majestic structure with its arcades and large pediment has an Italian feel. The building used to be a school before being turned into a museum. It displays exhibits from Udon Thani’s history, archaeology, natural science, geology, folk history plus arts and culture.

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Sakon Nakhon lies 160 kilometres from Udon Thani on the Mekong River tourism trail. Tha Rae village is one of the best preserved European-style provincial centres in Thailand. It is close to the border of Nakhon Phanom province and 20 kilometres away from Sakon Nakhon town. The village was created around 1884 by a group of some 150 Roman Catholic Vietnamese immigrants fleeing persecution in the then French Indochina.

They help build a huge church, St. Michael the Archangel Cathedral to serve a community that numbers over 10,000 parishioners. It is surrounded by houses built in typical French Indochinese style with arcades, balconies and windows typical of Southern France.

Every year during December, Ban Tha Rae turns into the Mekong region’s most pictorial Christmas village, with residents decorating their homes with stars and Christmas trees.

Nearby Nakhon Phanom province has the largest number of European-style buildings. The city located on the Mekong River has been a centre of trade for many years.

Nakhon Phanom’s strategic location has turned the city into an attractive settlement for many ethnicities including waves of Vietnamese immigrants.

Their most visible legacy can be found in the Nakhon Phanom city centre. Streets are aligned with a range of old houses in the Indochinese style, offering Old World charm with their arcades, balconies and stucco. They stand around the Vietnam Memorial Clock Tower built in 1960. These days, the old town is revitalised with a lively night market and many bars and trendy restaurants housed in the many repurposed older houses.

Like in Nong Khai, the surrounding neighbourhood has many official structures bearing a distinctive European or French style.

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The Governor’s residence, today a museum, is also worth visiting as it tells about the development of Nakhon Phanom. The former city hall, today the Queen Sirikit Library, was built in the style of an Italian mansion. Other European-style structures were built during the reign of King Rama V the Great and include the Sunthorn Wichit School with its classical arcades, villas for public servants along Sunthorn Wichit Road as well as St Anna’s Church (1926) that were also inspired by art deco style en vogue across French Indochina until the late 1950s.

Last but not least, do not miss Ban Na Chok Village, home for a dozen years of Vietnamese revolutionary hero and the first President of then North Vietnam Ho Chi Minh. His small wooden house and garden can be visited, as it is now a memorial and museum to the father of modern Vietnam. It is five kilometres away from Nakhon Phanom city centre.

About the Author
This is the final article of the five-part story on European architectural heritage in Thailand written by Luc Citrinot, a freelance journalist and consultant in tourism and air transport with over 20 years’ experience. The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT). Therefore, TAT is not responsible for the accuracy or reliability of information written by this writer.

Phuket and Khao Lak surf spots offer visitors uncrowded, friendly waves and warm azure waters

Phuket is home to the occasional point break with reefs, but it’s mainly made up of beach breaks that offer fairly uncrowded, mellow waves, and the warm azure tropical waters of the Andaman Sea. Most of Phuket’s West coast beaches are surfed during the monsoon season. The best spots that can handle a storm swell and produce clean surf include Kata Beach, Kalim Beach, Kamala Beach, Surin Beach and Nai Han Beach.

Anyone can have a blast surfing here!

Surfing in Phuket might not seem as impressive as in Bali, Tahiti’s Teahupoo, or the Mentawais, but there are many good waves to be had. There is also the reality of flat lake-like conditions outside the short swell season during which the mushy, onshore conditions are inconsistent, windblown and rainy. At least, there are fewer tourists for surfers to share the beaches with.

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The safest bet for the aspiring wave rider is southwest facing Kata Beach. It is considered by many as Phuket’s most popular spot because the waves are punchy, fast and often bigger, especially at the south and near the Kata Beach Resort. Which means when the surf is good, Kata is comparatively crowded by Phuket standards. Having said that, there is no shortage of take-off points along the 1.5-kilometre-long beach depending on sandbar positions, so there are usually enough good waves to go around.  There is also an annual Quicksilver contest. But best to avoid after heavy rains, as it gets polluted.

It is one of the relatively few places to rent boards or to receive surfing lessons in Phuket. Board rentals are abundant, but rates are seasonal. There is also the Phuket Surf House across from Kata Beach. Flowboarding can be a good tune up for veteran surfers, and a challenging training ground for ‘groms’.

Nearby Nai Han Beach handles a six-foot swell that can deliver up to eight-foot sets. It features a sharp peak breaking over shifting sandbars after storms, especially when the river mouth is clear to the Nai Han Lake. This delivers steep drops and short, fast lefts with barrels galore for goofy footers. Right sends surfers towards the rocks on the south end of Nai Han, and it is not advisable for beginners. At the north end are beach peaks and a right reef break in the corner, in front of a huge cliff hugging resort.

Also, a word to the wise: big waves at Nai Han means strong rip tides. So, tourists are advised to stay near local Thai and foreign resident surfers at Nai Han to correctly position themselves properly in the line-up.

In Northern Phuket, Kamala Beach’s sandbanks are stabilised by the reefs and attract less crowds than Kata. Waves break quite far outside and slow with bigger swells while inside there is a small surfable, but inconsistent point/reef break. Nearby Kalim offers a respite if the surf is too big elsewhere. Kalim is considered by many as one of the better breaks on Phuket, where a right-hand reef break unfolds over shallow coral offering a 50 to 100-metre-long ride that gets very shallow at the end, especially at low tide. Even when it sometimes gets crowded, it usually remains very friendly in the line-up.

In Phang Nga,  Khao Lak’s Pakarang Cape is one of the few mainland destinations in Thailand to have good surf after New Year, often well into January and February.

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This year Thailand’s fast growing local surfing communities will gather for six events in one series with the exciting launch of the Phuket Surf Series 2018+ Khao Lak. Five events are already being held in Phuket with the six in series scheduled later this year in Khao Lak, Phang Nga province from now until the end of October 2018. This will further reinforce the tourism image of Phuket province as a sports destination and generate surf-related tourism revenue for the country.

Surfing in Phuket and Khao Lak are not only about the waves; it is a lifestyle and culture all to itself. Surfers worldwide identify and meet to celebrate the sport and the friendship it brings at a grassroots level. This is very true of a growing surge in surf culture in Phuket, with more Thais in the water than ever before, with locals learning to love and appreciate the ocean lifestyle and all that Thailand’s beautiful sun kissed shores have to offer.

European architectural influence and French flair on the Gulf of Thailand

Thailand’s three provinces Samut Prakan, Chanthaburi and Trat share a common history with France. After the 1893 Paknam crisis, French troops occupied Chanthaburi and Trat provinces. The ensuing 14-year occupation proved very influential in the old ‘Chanthaboon’ district where buildings feature European-style windows, arcades, and wooden balconies similar to those built across French Indochina.

Paknam, Samut Prakan

The Phra Chulachomklao Fort stands tall in Phra Samut Chedi district, Samut Prakan. Built between 1884 and 1893 by King Chulalongkorn the Great in the European style, the Fort has since been modernised and is now a museum. Located just under a monument dedicated to the King dressed in a navy commander’s uniform, the museum contains an exhibition about the Paknam incident and Franco-Siamese War of 1893.  The King Rama V Fortress Historical Park opposite the museum displays the information of the war and the development of the Royal Thai Navy.

Chanthaburi

Chanthaburi’s old ‘Chanthaboon’ district still shows French architectural influences. At least a dozen of these historic houses survived modernisation. Many are now hip coffee shops, art galleries, restaurants and boutique hotels. The nearby Baan Phokabarn houses an information centre and small museum with old images depicting this bygone era.

The impressive Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, started during the brief French occupation, is over the river from the Chanthaboon riverside community. It was finished two years after France withdrew from the province and is one of the largest Catholic churches in Thailand. While the outside façade is rather austere with its dark greyish-brown colour, it contrasts with the exuberant gothic interior style. Its vaulted ceiling, wall paintings in trompe-l’oeil and stained glass were all manufactured in France. The church is an important hub for Chanthaboon’s Vietnamese Catholic community who emigrated there during the French colonial period.

Suan Ban Kaeo Palace in Ta Chang district is another important example of the European style from the early 20th century. The royal residence of Queen Rambhai Barni, a palace comprised of a cluster of wooden pavilions (chalets), was constructed in a typical European style.

An ancient French prison is open to visitors at the opposite of the elegant palace. Khuk Khi Kai prison, just before Laem Sing Beach, was built to hold Thais who rebelled against the French occupation in Chanthaburi. A seven-metre high, square-shaped prison was built with bricks each measuring 4.40 metres per side. The walls were perforated for ventilation, but the porous roof housed a chicken coop, where the poultry dropped excrement on prisoners as a sort of torture.

Trat

Thailand’s easternmost province also offers French-related heritage further along the coast of the Gulf of Thailand, starting in the city centre. The historical town (Bang Phra district) also exhibits a collection of 100-year-old wooden houses; some built during the French occupation. The former house of the French Governor in Trat (Resident Kampot), located on Luk Mueang Road, is renovated. It is a rather simple two-storey white building that is painted and contrasts with the more elaborate former Trat City Hall, today the Trat Museum.

The beautifully restored Trat Museum’s shape and architecture, with its large wooden pediment and pillars, takes its inspiration from European houses in Southern Thailand. Here, visitors can enjoy an excellent overview to Trat history. It evocates a memorable naval battle between Thailand and France in 1941. Inside the museum are pictures and documents remembering the battle between Thai and French naval forces, conducted by French warships in support of a land offensive against Thai troops on the Cambodian border.

French influence is mostly visible today in the number of tourists who spend their days along the Gulf of Thailand, or in transit on their way to nearby Cambodia. It is happily a much more peaceful cohabitation than 100 years ago!

About the Author
This is the fourth of the five-part story on European architectural heritage in Thailand written by Luc Citrinot, a freelance journalist and consultant in tourism and air transport with over 20 years’ experience. The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT). Therefore, TAT is not responsible for the accuracy or reliability of information written by this writer.

Disclaimer
Historical information contained in this article is based on Thai history books and French colonial history books. This article intends to offer perspectives on European architectural influence and French flairs on the Golf of Thailand for the benefit of travellers in search for historical attractions, and so it should not be considered as an historical fact of any kind.

Phuket Food Culture Poised for Global Stardom

Phuket Night Scene
Phuket town at night is usually filled with locals and tourists enjoying local and international delicacies

One of the best things about Phuket is its food culture. For visitors who think they know Southern Thai cuisine by sampling Thai classics and street food snacks at the beach, it is time to be schooled local style: fresh seafood, strong fiery spices, pungent fermented flavours, farm-to-table crunchy vegetables, and slow-cooked stewed meats.

Perhaps the least well-known and understood of Thailand’s regional cuisine, Southern Thai food is characterised by its spice and sharpness. Its curries and flavour profiles are the most powerful, which combines the lit heat of various chillies with piquant sour notes of tamarind.

Just like the North, Southern Thai cuisine has been heavily influenced by the culinary preferences of its neighbours, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia. Cultural influences are reflected in preparation, taste and presentation. Phuket’s cuisine and local food (so-called ‘Baba Peranakan’ food) is the combination of many cultural food habits, whether they be Chinese, Malay or Thai. Some Phuket local food tastes sweet; such as, Chinese Hakka cuisine, but it can also be highly spiced like in either Thai or Malay cuisine.

A large Muslim populace and tasty halal food, along with a plethora of fishing fleets, influence Southern Thai cuisine. It is based heavily around seafood, meats and the use of lots of lemongrass, tamarind and kaffir lime leaf for flavouring. Staples include Kaeng Tai Pla (fermented fish curry), Kaeng Som Pla (hot and sour fish soup), and Kua Kling (dry fried meat curry).  Massaman, a stewed curry of meat and potatoes, is another important signature dish.

Phuket’s food culture is woven into the tapestry of traditional local daily life, which is based around hearty meals shared with the family. One day-in-the-life of a Phuket foodie might go something like this:

Breakfast

The most important meal of the day, breakfast is a time when Phuket residents wake up and smell the coffee, literally. Strong, bitter beans produce a fragrant brew strong enough to wake the dead. Phuket’s people are known to drink dark roast old-school coffee, water-filtered black coffee traditionally brewed through a steep metal pot with a ‘sock’ filter, served with sweetened condensed milk or with pure fresh milk. This time-honoured morning ritual is usually accompanied by one of three dishes that showcase Phuket’s culinary diversity:

* Dim Sum (influenced by Chinese immigrants) includes steamed dumplings, fish, bean curd, Bak Kut Teh (pork spare rib soup), and Misua noodles.

Dim Sum breakfast at Kookhawn restaurant

Dim Sum breakfast at Kookhawn restaurant

* Roti topped with fried egg and served with avariety of curry flavours (chicken, beef and fish) (Malay influenced).

* Khanom Chin (fermented rice noodles) served with various traditional curry sauces (Thai and Phuket) including Kaeng Tai Pla (fermented fish curry), crab, chicken and fish.

Lunch

A Phuket lunch is a time to get one’s noodle fix for a midday energy boost. Chinese and Malay flavours again entice the palate with local favourites Mi Hokkien (Chinese Malay noodle fare) and Phuket-style Mi Hoon rice vermicelli noodles. A traditional Phuket lunch is never complete without tucking into the island’s local dessert favourite O-Aew (shaved ice with sweet toppings and jelly).

High Tea

This very local twist on the British tradition shares only the time of day. Before a hearty dinner, residents warm up on Mi Hun Ba Chang (rice vermicelli noodles) with pork spare rib soup, one of Phuket’s most iconic dishes. This is served with pork satay and spring rolls, or just the noodles.

Dinner

This the biggest and most important meal of the day where family members eat together and share their stories about Phuket and the world. Not unlike any other cities in Southern Thailand, Phuket’s locals tend to prefer strong flavoured dishes for the evening meal, either very spicy, very sour or very sweet. Many of the dishes oozes the deep yellow colour and strong scent of turmeric. Its unique flavour is used to tame strong fish flavours and other seafood that the province is famed for.

Favourite dishes include Pla Sai Thot Kamin (deep fried fish with fresh turmeric), Mu Hong (stewed pork belly with herbs), Nap Chup Yam (chilli paste), Nam Phrik Kung Siap (shrimp chilli paste), Mi Hun Kaeng Pu (rice noodles with curried crab), Loba (deep fried stewed-pig’s head) and Yam Pak Kut (spicy fern salad).

ried stink bean with shrimp paste and minced pork

Fried stink bean with shrimp paste and minced pork or shrimp is another local delicacies of Southern Thailand, including Phuket

It goes without saying that foodies searching for good Thai food in Phuket don’t have to look far. And recognition about Phuket’s food culture is about to go international with possible accolades expected in the upcoming Michelin Guide Bangkok, Phuket and Phang Nga 2019 edition that is expected to  be released at the end of this year, in the same bilingual Thai and English format as the first Michelin Guide Bangkok 2018, in both print and digital versions.

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