Samui Wining & Dining
A look at how a small coconut island slowly turned into one of the world’s leading holiday destinations.

A look at how a small coconut island slowly turned into one of the world’s leading holiday destinations.Now here’s the thing. In the year 1900, there were just seven million people in all of Thailand. And it’s a pretty shrewd guess that maybe only 100 of these had ever heard of Koh Samui. Well – except for the folks who actually lived here, that is! You have to be aware that Thailand was an autocracy right the way up until 1932, with a tiny ruling class and a great many peasants. Although it’s probable that even the privileged few that were aristocrats didn’t know either. But it’s certain that the King did. Plus a few of his inner circle. Because, as it happened, he came here quite a lot.


HRH King Chulalongkorn, more usually referred to as ‘Rama V’ was, and still is, Thailand’s most beloved historical monarch. Following the social reforms begun by his father, he travelled extensively outside Thailand (then Siam) – a thoughtful and diplomatic ambassador for his nation. Keep it in mind that those were the days of steamships and that trips were both lengthy and exhausting. And so it was that Rama V, and his royal entourage, started to take small breaks – a week or so on Koh Pha- Ngan – prior to returning to his state duties. In all he stayed there on 14 occasions. And although it’s not well documented, he is known to have visited Samui a number of times, too.


Thailand’s record of history is a lot patchier than many Western nations. Therefore, there is very little in the way of documented evidence that relates to Samui before this time. There’s one isolated and puzzling artefact, a 900 year-old bronze drum discovered on Samui in 1977, which has led historians to speculate that there might have been settlements here for the previous 1,500 years. But other than this one solitary enigmatic relic, the only evidence that Samui even existed prior to Rama V are the maps and journals of European seafarers. Plus, of course, the surviving records of a great many Chinese pirates!


Looking at the global map, you’ll notice that, directly south of the enormous landmass of China, there’s the Philippines, Malaysia, Borneo and Indonesia, with the Gulf of Thailand tucked in over to the west. And this was the Chinese route to the south, via the sheltered coastline of eastern Thailand. This is why there is such a strong Chinese influence all along the southern part of this coast, A look at how a small coconut island slowly turned into one of the world’s leading holiday destinations.particularly on the accommodating shores of Samui.


At which point you can doze a bit while we fast-forward several hundred years through the Age of Discovery, zip respectfully past Rama V, and come to rest at the eve of World War 2. Although Thailand wasn’t directly involved in this war, it was an ally of the Japanese. And, cutting a long story short, this event left a great deal of motorised engineering equipment in its wake. All of this was added to 20 years later, as American forces established air bases across the nation. The point being? For the first time, there was heavy equipment on the mainland of Thailand, and this was just the job for sorting out Samui!


Before the 1970s, Samui consisted of a couple of dozen big extended families, each of them based in their own sheltered coves around the island. There was no road. People moved from one place to another by boat. But, slowly over the period of a decade, the heavy equipment brought from the mainland ploughed a broad dirt track all around, using dynamite to blast away the several rock outcrops that previously had been insurmountable. And, in 1973, the final concrete sections completed the venture.


By the ’70s, the ‘road to Kathmandu’ had become an established hippie trail, but one that was wearing a bit thin. Travellers now ventured further abroad, discovering the unspoiled joys of Samui on the way to setting up communes in Bali. And with the gradual trickle of these strange foreigners, came the islander’s response; build more little huts for them to rent! A look at how a small coconut island slowly turned into one of the world’s leading holiday destinations.Regular scheduled ferries began to replace the hassles of having to find an obliging fisherman to take you across. Cars and trucks grew in number. And, steadily but surely, right up until the late ’80s, the number of Samui’s little family-owned huts by the sea increased, as did the restaurant and shops which appeared to supplement these and cash-in on the increasing popularity of the island. Now, for the first time, Samui was attracting investors from the mainland.


Everything culminated in 1989, with a turning point in the island’s fortunes; the completion of Samui’s airport. Almost overnight, this prompted further investment and speculation, leading to a crop of 4- and 5-star resorts being built. Suddenly the price of beachfront land began to rise, as more and more little family-owned resorts sold out to developers. Chaweng prospered rapidly, being close to the new airport. But, in turn, this led to new investors turning towards Lamai, as the price of land in Chaweng became prohibitive.


By the time Samui was heading towards the tail end of the 20th century, it was firmly on the international map. And yet it remained astonishingly rustic! In 1998, there was only one international ATM cash machine on the entire island, and that was in Nathon. There was only one 7-11; also in Nathon. And just one bakery – yes, in Nathon! Although the ringroad was concrete, both Chaweng and Lamai still had only dirt roads: pitted and dusty in summer, and flooded mud flats when it rained. Big motorbikes were such a rarity that people stopped and stared. And, in those days, there were few families to be seen vacationing here, rather the nightlife and bar-scene flourished, and the vast majority of visitors were young Westerners.


And then, in the mid-2000s, came the international name brands of the 5-star hotels. Families began to dominate. People came here to marry. And, finally, coming up to date, the doors were opened for the Russian speaking nations, alongside a flood of Koreans, and now China is on the move, too. Weighing it all up – that’s pretty good history for a little coconut island!


 Rob De Wet


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