Samui Wining & Dining
The island that history took by surprise.

The island that history took by surprise.For most of its existence, Koh Samui has been completely obscure, a green and silent world of jungles and high hills fringed by coasts with calm waters, visited by hardly anyone. Very little is known of its early history; it’s only been in the last 150 years that any records were kept.


A small population settled here sometime before that, but life was uneasy; they feared pirates who came from both the south and the east, and attacked ships in the South China Sea. Many islanders kept to Samui’s interior and lived off crops that they cultivated in the highlands and hinterlands. However, in the south of the island, at Ban Hua Thanon, the descendants of sea gypsies who had come up from Malaya, lived from fishing, and their community thrived – and still does today.


Then, in the mid-19th century, China underwent massive unrest with the Opium War and various rebellions. A group of Hainanese traders decided to take a chance and simply put their belongings in their boats and set sail for Suratthani. They intended their stay to be a permanent one, or at least very long term; some had dismantled their Hainanese houses, packed them into their ships and rebuilt them in the new location. Some chose Samui as their home, and set up in Nathon, building shophouses and a temple. Children were taught in the temple, and links were kept up with the mainland; perhaps they thought they’d return one day. But the little group that had come to Nathon, initially just 20 people, decided to stay on, becoming permanent residents.


Nathon remained the focus of island life – today it’s still the administrative capital and home to the government hospital – and boats from the mainland arrived here. This was the only link to the mainland, and it wasn’t the most comfortable way to travel. Passengers arrived in the tiny port after a night at sea, and then went on foot the rest of the way to their destinations or were taken by smaller boats; the island had a very poor infrastructure when it came to getting around.


If it was a beautiful place, Samui was one that was still more or less totally unknown. Word-of-mouth publicity from its few visitors had to reach critical mass before Samui’s fame was assured. Gradually, though, Samui was becoming better known. But contrary to what most people think, the first ever westerners to come to Samui weren’t backpackers, and they came long before the 1970’s.The island that history took by surprise.


“It was some time before World War II,” the former head of Koh Samui Hospital, Khun Suwit Nantapanich recounts. “I think it was about 1935, though I can’t be sure.” This was when the first people who could even remotely be termed tourists arrived. For him, it was an unforgettable moment; they arrived in a style that has never since been rivalled. Khun Suwit was on the beach in Nathon at the time, when he saw a seaplane swooping in low. It landed close by. “I saw a group of people get out. I had never seen skin as white as theirs. They walked along the shore for a while and then left again – I never knew who they were or why they’d come. But they were the first western visitors.”


For a long time after that, not much happened in the way of tourism until the early 70s. Then gradually, a few foreigners came to visit, and some, like the Hainanese before them, decided to settle on Samui. Notable amongst them was Juan Martinez, a Roman Catholic priest, who set up St Joseph’s School,The island that history took by surprise. which is still here today. As equally enthralled as the holidaymakers were, they praised Samui for its beauty and friendliness. Everyone did. Juan said, even after years of being here, “When I arrived, it was like a second lease of life began for me. I felt I had been born again - literally.” These first residents stayed, enjoying the pleasant spot they found themselves in.


Samui life was as simple as it was idyllic. And that was precisely the charm. Families would farm the hills and rely on fruit and vegetables for sustenance, while others went off in boats to bring back plentiful catches from local waters. Often they’d barbecue a fish or two, right on the shore.


It was a peaceful time, yet slightly more modern than some would have us believe. For example, in Bophut on the beach road, neighbours would bring their chairs out in the evening and gather round a single TV set and watch whatever was showing. Generators provided electricity and nights were dark, but definitely not uncivilized.


Plans were already underway to improve life for the islanders. One of the big problems of living on Samui was simply getting around. Roads were poor, and in any case there were some huge obstacles: a set of hills between Nathon and Maenam, and another between Chaweng and Lamai. What people wanted was a road that would circle the island. In 1967, local leaders spoke to the government. Funds were arranged and road-building began in earnest. At times you could hear the ka-boom of dynamiting as gaps were blasted through the enormous rocks and boulders that hampered progress. Finally, in 1973, The island that history took by surprise.what is today’s ringroad was finally finished. You could drive all around the island, a strange feeling for those who previously had to take a boat to circumnavigate it. And to get from Maenam to Lamai and vice versa, it was no longer necessary to take the rough track over the mountains.


Meanwhile, tourism was on the increase. Word got round of the idyllic island, and more and more people started taking the night boat to Samui. People began building simple huts on the beach, and the new arrivals put up there. It was a blissful, early time with days dictated by swimming and lazing in hammocks. Holidaymakers appreciated the relaxed nature of Samui, though some were to cause outrage (as they still do today, alas). Just south of Nathon, mayhem was caused when an entire group of holidaymakers thought it’d be a fine thing to go around naked. Despite language barriers, local people made it very clear that this wasn’t going to be tolerated. Such poor behaviour wasn’t so common though, at least not then.


The next big development came in 1989, and really put Samui on the map – an airport for the island. It meant that travel from Bangkok would be fast, efficient and easy. Prior to that, it meant a bus or rail journey, usually done overnight, before taking the ferry across to Nathon. The island started to buzz with all kinds of tourist-related development, and steadily more and more people came to hear of it. Over the next decades, that trend has steadily persisted. Hotels, restaurants and bars have all mushroomed and today the island is famous.


Opinion is divided whether Samui is better than before. Some Thais refer to Samui as ‘Koh Farang’ – island of foreigners. Not exactly complimentary, it suggests that Samui has lost its Thainess, something that many locals (and foreign residents) would agree with. Ecological concerns abide and need to be dealt with.


The case of Samui can be seen as part of a bigger, global picture. Of millions enjoying more leisure, planes that take them across continents to exotic destinations where they can unwind in hand-picked locales. The hunt is ever on for new regions to put on the tourist map and they will experience the same kind of progress that Samui has: a heady, relatively sudden transformation that will rush them in a few decades from simplicity to fame – with all that that entails.


Dimitri Waring


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