Only a few years ago, it was almost impossible to do this. The interior of Samui was filled with tracks, none of which had been properly mapped. They were frequently dangerous, and since only local people knew where they went, few people bothered with them. They were basically for agricultural access; most didn’t even go anywhere and you could follow some for miles and miles, thinking all the while that you’d arrive somewhere, only for them to stop dead.
Only one very basic track really made it across the entire island; it went from Maenam to Lamai. If your driving skills were superb, then you could get the whole distance. It started off deceptively easy, a broad track that led across flat land for some five kilometres. Then the going got tough; there were suddenly steep hills. By that time, most drivers wouldn’t want to turn back. It couldn’t be that hard. Could it? They’d usually find that the word ‘hard’ soon didn’t apply. More appropriate was the word ‘frightening’. Portions of the road were extremely steep and some of the steep portions contained ruts. Not just any ruts. These were crevasses and gullies that had been carved by torrential rains. If you jumped down into one, possibly to retrieve some part of your car that had been jolted off, you’d find it might be a metre or two deep.
But all that has changed. Over the years, the track was turned into a road, bit by bit, with teams starting both at the Lamai and Maenam sides and working inland. At first it was just a couple of kilometres that were completed, but in fits and starts everything was finally done. Now the road is finally concreted from end to end. It’s still quite obscure, but recently signs were placed on the ring-road indicating that there’s a short cut.
This is actually a bit misleading. It’s the same distance whether you drive from Maenam to Lamai via the ring-road or go over the mountains. It also takes equally long no matter which way you drive. But the ring-road isn’t half as scenic.
To access the mountain road, start from either Lamai or Maenam. Large, oblong white signs point the way. In Maenam, between the post office and the police station, you’ll see a turning into Soi 1 that marks the beginning of the drive. If you’re starting from Lamai, turn into the lane that leads to Tamarind Springs. (From Lamai there’s a further possibility: turn off towards the hills at the 7-Eleven on the hill that leads up from the main temple in Lamai, and then follow the small lane.)
Let’s imagine for the purposes of this article that you’re starting at Lamai and you’ve turned off towards Tamarind Springs. Now simply follow the lane as it meanders through low-density housing and then on through verdant fields, marked by very tall coconut palm trees. You might see the odd buffalo, but you’ll come across very little traffic. Cars are definitely a rarity, and more so the later on in the day you head along the road.
Eventually, you’ll come to another signpost that states ‘short cuts to Maenam’; it indicates that you should turn right. The turning is just a few metres further on and you’ll need to slow right down as it’s a sharp turn. The new lane starts to rise, though almost imperceptibly. You’ll pass a small restaurant on your left where you can have a drink or a meal. It’ll be your last chance for quite some way. Shortly after, on your right, you’ll see something quite unexpected – a book shop. It’s called Geko Gift Shop (sic) and has a variety of reading matter, all second-hand. It must be one of the world’s most isolated book stores. It looks out onto unspoiled scenery and is a good place to relax, if you need to. You’ll also be able to have a drink here.
Now get ready. It’s onwards and upwards – literally. The road is almost flat for just a short distance before there’s a seemingly innocent yet tight bend to the left which conceals the start of a savage two-kilometre climb that takes you up, up, up. It has everything the adrenalin-seeker could ask for: blind bends and sheer drops down into the valley below. If you’re the driver, don’t admire the view – don’t take your eyes off the road. The view is indeed stunning, but you don’t want it to be literally so as you plunge off the road.
As you reach the top of what is basically a high-altitude pass between two mountains, the view’s obscured as trees and greenery line both sides of the road. This is one of the highest accessible points on Samui and the temperature suddenly drops a few degrees as you pass through a manicured orchard before the road starts to go down.
Turn right at the sign-posted junction and you’ll drop down to a watershed. It’s not a good place to park even for a moment, but your passengers will be able to glimpse both the southern and northern coasts simultaneously. (If you’re the driver, then don’t even think about looking.) The road now passes Treetop Tour Cable Ride before coming to a view point.
Here, you can park your car and take some great photographs. You’ve come up one valley, and now another leads down to the sea. On the slope to the west you’ll see rainforest that must have been growing here for millions of years. You’ll also find a small sala, a shrine and just a few steps away, a solitary toilet bowl that has neither enclosing walls nor plumbing nor privacy of any kind. It seems to be for decoration only, though what decoration the view here needs is beyond anyone’s imagination.
Take a breather at the view point. The next bit is, well, treacherous. The road starts to slope steeply downwards and then comes a bend with a warning sign. Take heed: you’ll find the slope now plunges even more steeply downwards. Low gear and brakes are needed. There’s also a blind bend. And look out for cars coming upwards and motorbikes that have stalled on the gradient.
Once you’ve come down off this slope there’s some flat ground, marked by a small bar and restaurant, and then a slight rise with a treacherous bend to the left. Now there’s a gentle downhill slope and … flat land all the way to Maenam. You’ll pass a small mosque on your left, a shrine to a buffalo on your right and then the island’s only paintball field, before finally emerging onto the ring-road, more or less in the heart of Maenam.
The road over the Samui mountains is definitely a very picturesque drive, matched only in beauty by the southern loop of road that takes you from Wat Samut Tararam, close to Nathon, along the coast to Ban Hua Thanon. The mountain road’s highly recommended – providing you have the right vehicle and plenty of mountain driving experience!