Samui History & Culture

King as young

Samui History: A look at how Koh Samui evolved into the tourism hub as we know it today. Have you ever wondered what Koh Samui was like 100, 50 or even 20 years ago? You may be reading this while reclining on a sun-lounger at your 5-star resort, sipping a cocktail, after arriving via the quaint airport that resembles a hotel lobby. Imagine how your tropical holiday would have been different before the airport was built, before the ring-road let you travel right around the island in an hour, and before the electricity cable from the mainland was built allowing us to wallow in air-conditioned rooms, and keep in touch with the world via WiFi.

Historians generally believe that Samui was first inhabited around 1,500 years ago by fishermen from the Malay Peninsula and traders from the southern coast of China. Ancient Chinese maps, dating back to 1687, show the co-ordinates we now know as Koh Samui, as ‘Pulo Cornam’. There are two schools of thought as to where the name ‘Samui’ originates from. ‘Samui’ may be derived from the name of a native tree, Mui, or may have evolved from the Chinese word ‘saboey’ which means ‘safe haven’ which it was to the Chinese traders who moored at its shores.

Little was known about the island until the first boat transportation service to Samui was launched in the mid 1800s. Back then, it took a full day of sailing to cover the 35km voyage from Surat Thani on the mainland vastly different to the easy one-hour flight from the capital now.

So when did the Samui as we know it, evolve? A few decades ago, the island was an isolated community, with little contact to the mainland. But in 1967, Khun Dilok Suthiklom, leader of the island at that time, decided to ask the government for help in developing Ko Samui’s infrastructure.

Koh Samui history

Two main obstacles were the high hill between Nathon and Mae Nam, and the rocky and mountainous area between Chaweng and Lamai which had to be blasted to in order to construct the road. Vegetation and rocks had to be cleared. Dynamite and heavy construction vehicles were needed, and these had to come from the mainland. The result was a narrow track around the island. Before concrete was laid along this track, it was not unusual to see passengers exiting the cars to help push the vehicles up steep inclines.

Construction of the ring-road was constantly interrupted by heavy downpours during the rainy season. Finally the concrete was poured in 1973 to complete the 52km stretch that made its way around the island. Initially, the road was only two meters in width, but over the years it was widened to accommodate more traffic, to form the (mostly) tarred ring-road that we know today.

Nowadays, we can hardly imagine a time when the only way to go from one place to another on Koh Samui was on foot or by boat. Prior to the ring-road being built, a journey from the east to west coast meant a 15 kilometer trek across the island’s mountainous jungle. Watching sunrise in Lamai, and nipping across to watch sunset along Lipa Noi beach in a day, was just not a reality.

Coconut workers

In the early 1970s, word started spreading among the hippie backpacking community of a beautiful unspoilt hideaway in the gulf of Thailand. This was the start of tourism to Samui. Back then, the only accommodation was in the form of a few wooden beach shacks with no electricity, and little more than a hammock to swing in for entertainment.

John ‘Squall’, owner of Tradewinds Cottages on Chaweng Beach, was one of those first backpackers to reach Samui’s shores, and decided to make it home. A keen sailor, he was also a pioneer in discovering the island’s waters and collection of neighbouring islands that make up the marine park. John speaks of days when Chaweng beach road was only a dirt track and the area from the beach road to where Tesco is now was merely a swampland with no buildings whatsoever. With no Tesco or Big C around, getting provisions was touch and go, and meant buying whatever could be locally produced. John remembers when a Swedish chap by the name of Bill owned the only real supermarket, aptly named Bill’s Supermarket, located in Chaweng. Bill would do regular trips to Bangkok, bringing butter and bacon back in ice chests – a highly sought after commodity to sell to the island’s few resorts and restaurants.

Samui Holiday’s very own managing director, Henrik Bjork, who has been living on Samui for around 17 years, reminisces about a few entrepreneurs trading here 12-15 years ago. These guys would drive trucks up to Chiang Mai to bring fruit and vegetables back to the island, as the best produce is grown up north. They made a good living selling to expats, locals and the fledgling hospitality industry. Unfortunately they got greedy, and ended up in trouble for bringing back more than just veggies. I’ll leave that up to your imagination says Henrik.

Koh samui history

During the 1980s, on realising the island’s true tourism potential, the Thai Government started pouring resources into Samui. Word of our tropical paradise continued to spread and more and more tourists flocked to the shores of Kho Samui – at first only via ferry, but then in droves when the airport was built by Bangkok Air in 1989. Unfortunately, as with most tourism booms, the infrastructure did not increase at the same pace as the visitors arriving to the island. John ‘Squall’ says there was never a flooding problem before the island’s busiest areas were so built up, even though Chaweng sits mostly on swampland. The water’s natural runoff paths became blocked by large hotels, without adequate drainage being allowed.

There will always be those for and those against development. But, there is no arguing that progress cannot be halted – it can however be controlled. We are seeing better building regulations aimed at keeping Samui aesthetically pleasing. Now law states that roofs must be pitched Thai-style, and height restrictions have been set in place (12 meters, not higher than the closest coconut palm, in fact). Huge budgets are being spent on improving the roads and drainage; all good news.

We may not see Koh Samui as the hidden paradise it was four decades ago, privy only to a few travelers in on the secret. We can however learn from the mistakes made by the early developers and let Samui evolve gracefully, protecting her natural beauty, preserving the heritage of her Thai, Chinese and Malay founders, and making sure that it keeps its identity and doesn’t become just another beach holiday location which it isn’t.