Let’s see how much you understand about Koh Samui – you’re here on holiday after all! The following are four popular international holiday destinations. Which is the odd-one out: Phuket, Koh Samui, Pattaya or Casablanca? Puzzled? Good. It’s a trick question. But only partly so. Because two of these places have developed with care and thought and planning, and two of them haven’t. Two of these places began with dozens of little coastal fishing villages, then became popular and suddenly there were grids of streets, planned areas of connected construction and post office areas with developments, buildings and numbers growing logically. And the other two just . . . happened.
Yes, it does matter! Because once you’ve gained an insight into the thinking that underlies a place, then lots of odd little things begin to make sense. Both Samui and Casablanca just happened to have beautiful, unspoiled stretches of pure white palm-fringed beaches that stretched for miles. The other thing they share is they’ve both got just one main road. Plus the fact that anyone could build anything they wanted without needing much in the way of permission. But, then, Samui exploded into a 20-year frenzy of unregulated development which made some things very strange indeed – unlike Casablanca.
Take, for example, the simple concept of public transport. A local government buys a load of buses and they run backwards and forwards between towns and villages, with passengers paying money to go from one place to another. What could be easier? Phuket is a big tourist destination, and it has lots of public buses all running around on a timetabled schedule. Pattaya is even better – here the little covered trucks (known as ‘songthaews’) pay a licence fee to the local government, and they charge passengers just 10 baht to go anywhere they want that’s on their route. Get on. Get off five minutes or 30 minutes later; it’s still 10 baht. As far as getting around Samui goes? Well, this is where things get strange.
Samui has one small public bus. Yes, just one. It’s a mini-coach with 22 seats, and it just goes round and round the island. It has no markings on it, and very few people can say truthfully that they have ever seen it. I have been living here for 19 years, and I have noticed it on three occasions. In fact, I’m not even sure it continues to run, but have been assured that it still does. This is the point at which the intelligent reader will be prompted to ask “. . . what’s this all about, then?” And this is the point that I offer a blanket explanation for a great many facets connected with getting around Samui, and reply mysteriously “politics”. And that’s all you’re going to get.
Samui has its ‘songthaews’ too. But knowing how to use them is an untaught skill all of its own. It’s a kind of Zen thing. You can’t ask where it’s going; you have to know. You’re on holiday here. You’ve been told about these songthaews. And so you wait for one to appear, heading roughly in the direction you want to go. You wave and it stops. But as soon as you open your mouth to speak to the driver, the fare you have to pay increases by 300%. Because if you have to ask, then you’re a tourist and therefore fair game. So the way to do it is not to even ask. Just climb into the back and keep a very sharp eye on where it’s going. (And then when you get off offer 50 or 60 baht – the driver will soon let you know if you are wrong!) But if you are a total stranger without a map or a handheld GPS device, then this is probably not the most relaxing way to get around. So stick with something less worrying. (Plus the fact that after dark all prices have to be negotiated anyway.)
So there are taxis. I’m going to say nothing about these, other that they charge rates that are 400% higher than everywhere else in Thailand. That is why there are more taxis on Samui than anywhere else. Oddly they haven’t yet been able to figure out that no matter how many taxis are here, the number of tourists remain the same, and that charging even higher fares to make up for this doesn’t work so well.
In passing, however, we have to mention the motorbike taxis. These are exactly what they sound like. In this case you’ll have to ask for a fare to where ever you want to go. In the last few years these guys have also jumped on the bandwagon, and the 20-minute ride that used to cost 50 baht now is well into triple figures. As with everything else, try to avoid taking one from a busy venue like close to the airport or the immigration offices. Just walking to the road outside drops the fare from 300 baht to well under half of that.
And then there’s renting. Think carefully and very hard about doing this. Samui is nothing in the least like anywhere you have driven before. Despite what it looks like there are no rules or laws, no speed limit, no correct side of the road to drive and most locals appear to have a death wish which, only too often, becomes fulfilled. It might seem a sunny-summery-holiday thing to do to cruise around on a little motorbike, but if you have never ridden one before, Samui is absolutely not the place to start.
I’ve kept the most rational compromise of all these things until last. It’s Samui’s own variation of the international ‘Uber’ concept – an online GPS trackable taxi call-and-pick-up service. It’s more expensive than Uber on the mainland. But it’s cheaper than a normal Samui taxi cab. Plus you can scan it online and watch for it arriving. The name is Navigo, and it’s just the thing for getting around Samui!
Rob De Wet