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Leather skin and plastic heels
One man’s paradise is another man’s hell, right? Well nowhere is this more apparent than Koh Samui, Thailand’s most famous island. After being seduced by the deserted beaches of Cambodia and sleepy rural life in Laos, we knew before we arrived that Samui would be a different beast. The island started attracting visitors in the 1970s, allegedly drawn by Samui’s white sand and crystal clear waters. Since the airport opened in 1989, and cheaper flights made SE Asia a viable tourist destination for the masses, development has gone into overdrive. The days of pristine sand and turquoise seas are long gone – all we found were average beaches and increasingly polluted waters. Touts constantly interrupt your sunbathing, jet skis buzz around the water like angry wasps, and wherever you go it’s almost impossible to escape the smell of human waste wafting past your nostrils.
The main drag behind Chaweng beach is 6km of bars, restaurants and tourist shops, selling the usual holiday clothes that seemed like such a good idea at the time (have you really ever seen anyone wearing Thai fisherman pants in England and actually making them look good?). One of the island’s most popular haunts is Tropical Murphy’s, ‘a home from home’ drinking den, that even comes complete with that authentic stale beer smell, in case you’re really missing it. The largest shopping centre on the island is… you guessed it, a Tesco, or Tesco Lotus as they like to call themselves in Asia. Making enquiries as to where we could find our favourite Thai breakfast of rice soup and Chinese donuts, the tuk tuk driver looked at us blankly and suggested we go to McDonalds instead. On hiring mopeds to explore the island and attempt to find the ‘real’ samui, we found ourselves stuck on a busy, dusty road that loops the whole island, coughing and spluttering as we dodged cement trucks rumbling past on a mission to create the island’s next 5-star resort. It seems Koh Samui has diluted its culture so much to accommodate Western palates that on the way it has completely lost its identity.
Enough of the whining, however. When with good friends you can have fun anywhere, and sometimes the only attitude that’ll do is, if you can’t beat ‘em, join em. With this in mind, we lashed on the lippy, slicked back the hair, and headed for a night on the town. Fuelled by buckets of Thai Samsungrum and Red Bull (literally a child’s seaside bucket with four straws) we ventured cautiously into the island’s main nightlife drag.
Packs of likely lads roam the streets, their bright pink bellies making a burst for freedom beneath their T-shirts; underage girls giggle shyly over Bacardi Breezers as they eye up a table of spotty, gangly adolescents across the bar; forty-something women with leather skin and plastic heels sip Sex on The Beach; rowdy groups of Brits roar at the tops of their voices, whilst their more refined European counterparts look on in disdain as they sip an espresso and chain smoke. All the while bars try and outdo each other both in destroying your ears and your liver, and sulky looking Thai ladies hang around the girly bars waiting for their next target. We chatted to a couple of Essex boys who were living in the island. By day, they work the main street behind Chaweng beach looking for gullible tourists to sign up to some dubious timeshare scheme – they had accosted us earlier in the day and failed spectacularly to convert us. “Do you guys speak English?” “Erm…yeah” “Are you aged between 30 and 65″ “No” “OK don’t worry – we’ve actually just lowered the age limit to 28. Does one of you earn more than £20,000 a year?” “No – we’re unemployed hobos bumming around SE Asia for a few months” “Ah… well, I’m sure we can get round that somehow. You like 5 star hotels, don’t you?” “Not really – we’re staying in a £5 a night dusty bungalow that smells like cat shit, and the two nights before we arrived we slept one night in a bar and one night in a train station.” After that they decided we were a lost cause, and so by the time we met them again in the evening they were more concerned with feeding us buckets.
It’s amazing how much more palatable a place seems after a large quantity of Thai rum and Red Bull – 6 times stronger than UK Red Bull and sold in medicine bottles, it’s enough to give even the most hardened caffeine addict palpitations. The night ended in frantic dancing at a mini festival to celebrate the full moon, and the morning began waking fully clothed, face down in bed with a pounding headache and a mouth that smelt only marginally better than Samui’s sewage system.
So is there anything on Koh Samui to attract the independent traveller? There are still touches of Thailand here, but you have to look hard to find them. Our now finely tuned noses sniffed their way to the best Pad Thai we’ve had in Thailand for just 30B, cooked in a grubby street cafe tucked away down an alley. A friendly local helped us order breakfast in the morning when we eventually found our rice soup place. But the more developed a place becomes, the bigger the gap between tourist and local seems to grow, and the more elusive the ‘authentic’ travelling experience becomes. It just makes you feel uncomfortable watching someone whose job it is to smooth out the sand every morning outside a 5 star resort. OK, so tourism brings jobs, but it shouldn’t take away people’s dignity.
As much as I wouldn’t go back to Samui, however, a part of me also felt like I shouldn’t be too quick to judge. As an independent traveller it’s all too easy to set yourself a peg or two above a two week holiday maker who’s come for a fortnight of hard earned sun, sea, sand and Samsung. But at the end of the day, we’re all here looking for something – whether its singing along to ‘Come on Eileen’ at the top of your voice whilst standing on a chair, or sharing a curry with your adopted Thai grandma – is one necessarily better than the other? Perhaps not. But l left Koh Samui with a sense of foreboding that it’s a worrying forecast for the rest of Thailand’s – even the world’s – tropical paradises. Thailand is changing so rapidly – as the world opens up its doors to more and more tourists, before long there’ll be a Tesco Lotus behind every beach and turquoise sea will be a thing of the past. No matter how much you put your money where your mouth is and support small local business, we can’t help but leave a trail of plastic water bottles in our wake. By the very act of visiting a place we’re creating a demand for more hotels and further development. Of course we all want to taste the excitement that foreign travel brings, and I’m not suggesting for one minute we should hang up our rucksacks and renounce one of life’s most rewarding experiences. But we shouldn’t think that as independent travellers we are always guilt free, or assume that our way of travelling doesn’t have consequences for the areas we seek out. I hope we don’t wake up in 20 years time to realise that we’ve created a mirror image of our home town in every corner of the world.