An unusual meld of the extremely buzzy and the laid-back, Nathon is Samui’s capital and chief port. Guide books make scant and sometimes scathing reference to it – “no need to stay overnight here unless you’re taking an early morning ferry” – and so on. Many therefore just don’t bother to visit. Which is sad, as it channels the old Samui that’s so rapidly disappearing behind signs, billboards and developments. Nathon was one of the first places to sprout buildings, all made of wood, when people first started living on the island. It’s not known when the first settlers came, but it was Nathon that became the focal point of the island, and finally its administrative capital. Chinese settlers from Hainan also started living here, around the end of the 19th century, and built a very fine temple here.
Nathon gradually grew bigger over the years, more so once tourists started arriving. The first to come stayed in houses in town before Chaweng took over as the main place to stay. These days the two towns could hardly be more different. But Nathon is definitely worth seeing. Head in along the ring-road and you’ll soon find yourself in the one-way system, with traffic heading through the town along the main street and round back along the seafront. Its shape seems to have been modelled on a baggage carousel system, with traffic slowly circulating round and round. Nathon’s small, so park anywhere you find space (try the port if all else fails) and simply walk.
The aforementioned Chinese temple is set back a little from the main street and is definitely the town’s cultural highlight. Bring your camera as it’s very traditional and filled with colour, with plenty of mythical beings and symbols. Once inside, you’ll find some small shrines filled with Chinese gods and goddesses. don’t expect to understand anything that goes on here; there are no explanations in English or any other language, but it’s a beguiling place to visit, and you’ll be glad that you came.
Head back to the main street afterwards, where you’ll probably want to explore the shops; they sell the cheapest t-shirts on the island, and there are thousands of them. The rather dilapidated shops turn out to be a major draw because of this. You can also find cut-price bags and rucksacks. Head over to Middle Street, as it’s commonly called, to see the remaining wooden Chinese shop houses that the Hainanese settlers built. They’re slowly disappearing, but in some you can still see the interiors, filled with old furniture and even older photos of long-departed family.
Just south of the town – you’ll need transport – are the impressive Hin Lad waterfalls, featuring pools scattered along a two kilometre hike on a rough path into the hills (not for the faint-hearted), as well as a temple by the same name which is set in an overgrown jungly garden. If walking in the hills here, don’t forget how fast tropical sunsets can be – you don’t want to be heading back in the dark. Instead, aim to be on the seafront by then as sunsets are usually quite amazing in Nathon and along the west coast. Sit on the seawall and watch how the jagged masses of the Angthong islands, just out to sea, become silhouettes once the sun dips below the horizon.
If you’re spending any more than a few hours in Nathon and its environs, you’ll need food and drink of some kind. In daylight hours, head for any of the eateries; all serve dependable Thai food along with some western dishes. Roungthong Bakery (there are two branches in town) is particularly recommended.
If you come at the end of the day, head for the night market at the port, where you can eat for well under 100 baht. Food carts head there at the end of the afternoon and prepare all manner of Thai food, which you can eat at the ramshackle tables. The market is a convivial meet-up place for the townsfolk, who all seem to congregate here, while the rest of the town closes up very early. In fact, once it’s evening, the market is one of the relatively few places for people to go.
Nathon is definitely not to be missed out on your itinerary. It’s not so much that there’s plenty to do here. Rather, it’s the town itself that should be visited; it’s the sheer atmosphere of the place that beckons. It’s quite different from anywhere else on the island. In fact, unless you’re really familiar with Thai ports or have travelled extensively you’ll find yourself in a new and unusual kind of place you’ve possibly have never come across before. A unique experience!