Samui Wining & Dining

Is it still possible to stay here cheaply, or are Samui’s backpackers a dying breed?


Nothing ever stays the same. Everything changes. People come and people move on. Even the landscape gets chopped and nibbled at. And, when it comes to new developments, why, then, the more folks that come to Samui, the more things the Samui-folk build for them! People who return for another holiday just one year later are amazed at how much has changed. So you can imagine what a ten-year gap must be like . . .

It’s interesting to hear what people think: mostly there’s mutters and grumbles. The theme’s always the same and something along the lines of Samui being ‘spoilt’ now. But these are people who are comparing the island to the way it was a decade or more ago. Whereas folks coming here today for the first time enthuse about how lovely it all is; rustic and unspoilt. Which only seems to add weight to the adage that ‘you can please some of the folks some of the time’ . . .

        Be that as it may, in amongst these different perceptions, some things still hold true. At some point in the past Samui

was ‘undiscovered’ and, in that sense, unspoilt. When it started to become known to travellers from the West, those who ventured here initially were adventurers, seeking peace, solitude and the complete opposite to the ‘rat race’ that they’d turned their backs on. They had no need of electricity or running water – and the internet was still a couple of decades away.

          It’s also true to say that, 20 years on from this point, and not so long after the island had gained its airport, Samui was a cheap place to stay. Well, so was the rest of Thailand, too, in comparison with Europe or America. But a hot and sweaty hotel room in Bangkok doesn’t compare with a tropical island paradise. At this time Phuket was the place for Western royalty and other such glitterati to come, and the prices there reflected that.

          And so Samui enjoyed a leisurely period of transition. It had electricity, water and a whole spectrum of accommodation from beach huts to 4-and 5-star resorts. There were a hundred local families who had gradually knocked up thatched beach bars and little wooden huts on their land by the beach. The entire seven-kilometre stretch of Chaweng Beach Road was mainly made up of gaps (where you could see the sea and walk to it), interspersed with dozens of patches of little family-owned beach resorts, one or two shops and restaurants, a nest of ‘beer bars’ here and there (Soi Green Mango had yet to come, although the Green Mango Disco existed in Laem Din) and there were one or two nice big posh resorts walled off from the commoners outside. In the late 90s, the internet became available at a few places in Chaweng and Lamai (at 10 baht per minute!), but broadband had yet to appear.

          In short, this was the height of the backpacker period. Samui hadn’t really caught on as an international holiday destination with overseas tour operators in the same way as Phuket had – but it was now easy to get to. Beach huts abounded; some even had a fan and a hot water shower. And if you were prepared to be adventurous, you could stay comfortably for as long as you wanted for the standard measure of 100 baht a night; more or (sometimes) less, depending on the (lack of) facilities.

          But nothing ever stays the same. Samui is no longer the cheap and cheerful getaway that it once was. And, with increasingly more 5-star international hotel chains on the island, what’s left for the backpackers? Well, actually quite a lot! Because, along with everything else, the backpackers have changed, too. Now there’s a whole new breed. I’ve heard of them referred to as ‘gap-packers’. They are mostly young, enthusiastic students who are on a year’s break before going/returning to university. Their backpacks are expensive custom-made jobs with security cages and combination locks. Their essential travel companions are a couple of loaded credit cards (one for emergency use only) and an iPhone or a netbook; often both. Their first requirement of a place to stay is that it has Wi-Fi. And they plan their next set of travel steps via the sort of social networking that you do with beer, and the other sort that you do online.

          Meanwhile, back at the beach . . . the game plan has changed completely. All those little mom’n’pop coconut beach huts have just about vanished; bought up 3 or 4 sets at a time adjacent to each other by the big boys.

          So going back to the original question. Is it still possible to stay here cheaply? Well yes, it can still be done. Although now the new rate, the target, is 300 baht a day. You can still stay here for ten American dollars or seven Euros – around a ‘fiver’ if you hail from the Sceptred Isle. But the cost is not the only thing that’s changed.

          The very few ‘old’ bungalow resorts that have maintained their integrity have not maintained their prices. Most of them have upgraded and repaired those old huts. But it’s really hard to find somewhere that isn’t expecting more than 1,500 baht a night for one of these that’s on the beach. And, alas, that old and legendary bastion of travellers everywhere, Lonely Planet, has now jumped onto the online bandwagon of internet-booking-commissions.

          Look up ‘Samui’ and you’ll get 162 listings under ‘hotels’ (including every one of the 5-star chains) and only nine listings under ‘hostels’.

          I’ve discovered six or seven places that are worthy of note, although copyright permissions mean that I can’t list them here. But Google ‘hostel’ and ‘guest house’ and you’ll get a more realistic result, ranging from dormitories to really nice twin rooms. Another good way of doing things is to get here first and pay daily while you ask around. Just driving around the ring-road with your eyes open will reveal several small stone bungalow ‘clumps’ signposted on the uphill side of the road. But there are also a couple of things to be aware of.

          First of all reckon to add VAT and a service charge to quoted prices – most places don’t include this so as to appear to keep prices low. Second, check whether the quoted prices are per room or per person. And, finally, even though you’re only going to sleep and wash in it, a wooden bungalow that’s more than a few years old smells. This is the tropics! If you don’t want your bed linen, clothes and hair to smell vaguely of mushrooms and mozzie spray, then abandon the romantic ideal in favour of a nice, simple concrete room or bungalow instead. You can still stay on Samui for 300 baht a day, but now you’ll need to work at it!


 Rob De Wet


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