Sooner or later, you’ve got to move. You can’t stay by the pool forever! And when the jet lag has gone, you’ve browned up a bit, and it’s time to explore, there’s quite a bit to pick through. In fact, it can get confusing – particularly if you try this on the internet. The biggest problem with the ’net is that there’s no indexing or regulation – you could be looking at stuff posted five years ago which is no longer current. Anyway, you’ll probably do what 95% of our visitors do; pop down to reception and ask what have they got. Which is no bad thing at all.
But first of all, a word of warning. This is Thailand. It’s not part of some kind of strictly regulated and monitored Euro-system, with tight laws and inspectors and internationally agreed standards and quality control. It’s a very free and easy-going nation – and that’s its joy. But it also means that you might well come across aspects of life here that will surprise your more sophisticated expectations. Many things, which are quite normal in daily Thai life, can take unwary travellers by surprise. For example, the attitude to working animals may not quite match what you’re accustomed to. You are inside an alien culture, so be prepared for this.
Having said that, the best thing you can do (and its enormity is beyond the scope of this story!) is to talk to other people. Check-out their experiences and reactions. And the slickest way to handle this is to pick out a tour operator . . . and head straight for TripAdvisor. Yes, I know; it’s not perfect. But anyone who has done this a few times becomes zippy at reading between the lines and separating the moaning spoiled brats from the genuine grievances – and likewise, the ten glowing reports all from different addresses, but all in the same style and all quite obviously all written by the same person. But the best thing? It seriously worries the dodgy tour operators. They hate bad reports because it loses them business.
And so it’s time to go! You’ve decided. You’ve done your homework and made your choice. But there are still things you need to be aware of. Firstly, never forget that Samui is a small island. If you go up around the wilds of Chiang Mai in North Thailand, you can take a jungle elephant trek for two days, camp overnight, and never see a soul. You can’t do that here. Because of this, another thing to consider is that one activity alone won’t last very long. A trip up the mountain and back down will take you an hour. So all the companies combine several sights or activities together in one tour package to make it worth your while. And that’s fair enough, too. But it means driving around, quite obviously . . . we’re not in Disneyland. However, it’s an excellent way to see the island – and that’s part of the fun.
So, having established the bare bones of, and the thinking behind these tours, what’s it all about? Where is there to go, and what is there to look at or do? Answer: probably eight or nine things, in various combinations, selected packages of which are being offered by all the companies who run these ‘jungle tours’. So what do you not get from a jungle safari? Well you don’t actually get ‘jungle’, because there isn’t really any on Samui. Instead, what has become generally referred to as ‘jungle’ is anywhere that there isn’t a road and that’s overgrown with trees and bushes. However, the thousands of trips per year made by the 4-wheel drive trucks that run these limited routes have beaten broad avenues through the undergrowth, most of which are clearly visible on Google Maps – you won’t need machetes to hack your way through the undergrowth!
Second, the word ‘safari’ is used loosely and colourfully in this context. You won’t be in the wilds for a week, need to pitch tents at dusk, keep an eye out for wild animals or have need of native bearers. Instead, you’ll be picked up from your resort and driven around, collecting others trippers. You’ll probably then all climb off together somewhere, and assemble for a pep talk about the trip. And then, depending on your tour package option, proceed to experience one or more of the following things, before being returned from whence you came.
Firstly, a short elephant walk is very ‘jungly’, so that’s usually included, taking up around 20 minutes or so. A visit to one of the pleasant waterfalls is high on the list, as is a look at some very safe crocodiles and/or snakes. Then a haul up the mountain to a viewpoint or, if you’re lucky, the wonderful so-called ‘Buddha’s Magic Garden’. Perhaps a photo opportunity with a mummified monk wearing Elvis-style sunglasses. Then the local tradition of monkeys picking coconuts. Plus, if you go for the deluxe package, probably a glimpse of the Big Buddha temple, some rocks shaped like genitals, and a short stop to look at a lot of skinny trees in neat rows that you’ll be told is a rubber plantation. Oh – and usually a ‘traditional meal’ is chucked in for good measure and authenticity.
It’s not our place to point fingers, for better or worse. But, having looked through TripAdvisor for added confirmation, a couple of names stand out from the crowd. These are people who have been here forever, have made their mistakes and long ago learned from them, and seem to get far fewer critical internet reports than others. The first is Mr Ung’s Magical Safari Tours. And these guys not only offer ‘safaris’ but run all sorts of water-based excursions, too. And the other is Living Thailand Tours, quite often referred to as ‘Baan Chang’ (‘The Elephant House’). The family who run this were the first to bring elephants to the island and treat them with more love and respect than is usually seen. Plus it’s very much their life, and they’ve even built their pleasant family house tucked away in one corner of the compound – and that speaks volumes!
And the bottom line? It’s fun! You could do it yourself just as easily. But what the heck! You’re on holiday. It’s all laid on for you and it’s a great day out. It’s an excellent way to see around the island with no chance of getting lost, you’ll get the sun, you’ll see the sights and you’ll make new friends. It’s not exactly Indiana Jones or Tomb raider stuff, but then this isn’t Hollywood, it’s little old Samui. And a holiday here isn’t a holiday, unless you’ve headed off the beaten track at least once!
Rob De Wet