I last set foot on Koh Samet's white sands in 1988. Now the tiny island is filled with 5-star resorts.
Here is what I reported then. I feel like Rip van Winkle.
It was a scene straight from Agatha Christie.
A tropical island in a little known sea, cut off from the Thai mainland except for a lumbering South Seas packet that tied up to a rickety wharf once a day. A hotel with a thatched palm roof and a multinational clientele -- including the retired English colonel and his valet, a mysterious Swiss engineer, an aloof German couple, another pair effecting a windblown manner from Down East, and two Americans put on the ferry along with their marriageable daughter to recover from jetlag.
We took meals outdoors under a spreading maham tree. The bartender was convinced that its generous arbor spread to a greater extent than any other on the isle because it thrived on foreign languages wafting into the leaves. We roamed the deserted beaches—white as bleached whale bones--swam in the copper-green sea and snorkeled in the lee of the headlands.
This constituted our tiny band of castaways on Koh Samet, an obscure dot on the map in the Gulf of Siam. The major excitement came between 9 and 10 every morning when the engine of an ancient lugger—our link to the mainland—could be heard banging around the headland to deliver ice, beer and toilet paper—and occasionally another beachcomber.
"What if you miss the boat. Just stay here another day," philosophically noted the Swiss engineer, who worked 10½-hour days in a clock factory in order to put together two white-beach months on the other side of the world. Visitors come here for the long haul, not a three-day pass from the fast lane. The Germans have probed for eels and sea cucumber in the tidal pools for days, and the Down Easters with the mid-Atlantic accent that Peter Jennings made fashionable have been on the road for two months, although she still manages to look Fifth Avenue.
Koh Samet gets none of the crowd that frequents Pattaya on the mainland beaches where even the sharks fear to venture for fear of jet-ski attacks. Nor does our island have the go-go allure of Phuket, the jet-set destination on Thailand's west coast. Koh Samet has nothing but butterflies and a line of whipped cream where the sea meets the sand.
A string of rustic but comfortable bungalows hides in the palms behind the beach.
Hotel fare is as simple as the architecture: traditional Thai breakfast soup and exotic fruits in the morning, four different seafood dishes (with rice) for lunch and five different fish for dinner. The kitchen is not gourmet, but it abounds in local flavor.
While the lobbies of hotels in Honolulu and Bangkok may contain spectacular world clocks where light and shadow follow the sun across the international dateline, there's nothing in our gathering place but a simple hiking map of the island.
Time exists only to meet the packet in the morning and the generator, which goes off after dinner. Some of the cabins hang above the cove amid stands of hibiscus, bougainvillea and frangipani, but most hug the beach so that nights can be filled with the constant wash of wavelets rubbing against the sands.
The floor of the hotel lobby is made of empty beer bottles stuck tightly neck first into the sand, with only an inch or so of the bottom to walk on.
Why can't there be a Koh Samet for every case of jetlag?