Saturday, 16 July 2011
Rattling around the world on your own has its own charms. But it cannot match the joys of a family holiday, especially an extended vacation taken, perforce, in the summer to coincide with the long school holidays. Ordinarily, much planning (or to be exact, endless hours of googling) goes into these annual jaunts. This year, events conspired to make this a virtually last-minute dash to the airport as we caught our flight to Thailand whose chief attraction, it seemed to us then, was its visa-on-arrival facility. We were proved wrong as many other delights vied for our attention.
Having visited Bangkok before and being none-too-taken by its steamy-seamy pleasure-spots, I was hoping for a spot of serenity by the sea. We found it in Koh Samui, one of three islands off the coast of the long banana-shaped peninsula that is Thailand. Having chanced upon this island paradise by happy serendipity, we were doubly blessed to find not one but two exotic hotels: like apples and oranges they were different and pleasurable in their own ways. In fact, those heading for Thailand to indulge in little more than a binge of retail therapy in Bangkok would do well to read on.
Part of the Surat Thani Province, the island (the 'koh' in its name means island) is situated in the Gulf of Thailand and blessed with not merely the most stunning of beaches but temperate climate all through the year. While there are ferries and ships aplenty, the best and quickest way from the mainland is to hop on to a Bangkok Airways plane. The tiny airport, looking like a high-end resort, augured well for the sybaritic holiday we had in mind. Some quick and clever googling found us two unbelievable deals; unable to decide on either one, we booked both, one after the other: the Anantara to be followed by The Passage. June-July being the 'off' season in this part of the world, which sees an avalanche of tourists in winter, the spas and resorts are jostling to out-do each other in providing uber-luxurious packages at fairly affordable prices. And, while the rack rates are horrifying, the internet is awash with sites offering drop-dead gorgeous rates for the pricier of Koh Samui's many luxury hotels. From the airport, we make our way to the Anantara, an enchanting recreation of an eastern kingdom.
Redolent with the scent of frangipani, its high-ceilinged foyer, lotus-filled ponds, teakwood lounges and many winding pathways disappearing into a lush, seemingly impenetrable garden make us catch our breath. Later, the plunge pool attached to our suite makes us gasp with delight as do the several other big and small swimming pools dotted about the property. Myriad shades of blue and green merge and mingle as the infinity pools stretch to the horizon and embrace the sea. For the energetic, the placid waters of the Gulf of Thailand offer many water sports; for the congenitally lazy, the sun-warmed open-air Jacuzzi offers an excellent way of having all one's city-bred tensions kneaded away by jets of gushing warm water. Or else, one can divide one's time between watching the ragged fronds of swaying palm trees while rocking gently on a hammock and looking up at incredibly blue skies, and getting pounded and pummelled by expert hands at the elegant spa. The Anantara boasts one of the finest spas on the island and the hotel itself is a member of the exclusive Small Luxury Hotels group.
Infested by honeymooners though Samui is, there is plenty for a family to do. The Anantara has a well-stocked library and DVD collection, a fitness centre and kids club. Again, for the energetic sorts, the hotel also packs a hectic schedule of Thai cookery classes, Thai boxing, cocktail mixing, and fruit carving. Moreover, the Indian general manager hailing from Jamshedpur, Manish Jha, offers many intelligent insights into life on the island and how best to make the most of Samui's many delights. Since a ring road connects all the major beaches on the island, it is easy to hire a car or cadge a ride on a shared taxi to take in the major attractions: go-carting, a visit to the butterfly farm or aquarium, or one of the waterfalls or temples, or even a buffalo fight! The fishing village of Bo Phut is walking distance from the Anantara and its Friday-night party is open to all. Different beaches on the island take turns on different days of the week to host a street market. So, on any given day, you can take your pick from the many beaches - the busier Cheweng and Lamai or, the quieter Maenam and Bang Po - and enjoy a stroll by the sea followed by a walk in these open-air markets where local produce spills out to form a brilliant patchwork of the new and the exotic. Vendors selling spicy boiled corn and chicken sausages, crab dumplings, fried calamari, mounds of gleaming fruit, cubes of coconut jelly, dried pineapple rings... the temptations are overwhelming. In fact, what-to-eat-next becomes something of a favourite pastime.
While spicy Thai cuisine soon became our staple diet, we did occasionally stray into Italian and German territories. A large expatriate community of long-term foreign residents has set up beer gardens, cafes, bakeries and restaurants, thus enlarging the already impressive repertoire of eating options on Koh Samui. Thailand's Muslims, who constitute less than 5% of the population, make their presence felt in the ubiquitous Massaman curry spiked with red-hot chilies and thickened with crushed peanuts. Together with sticky Thai rice, it makes for a substantial and filling meal.
Our next port of call is The Passage. In contrast to the Anantara's olde world grandeur, this is modern, bright and airy. Tucked away in a coconut grove beside the beach, it is well and truly far from the madding crowd and lends an altogether new meaning to the expression 'solitary splendour'. For the next week we proceed to do little more than loll about in the pool, sit on the beach or lie on a hammock! The ingenious creations of cordon bleu chef and India buff, Johnny, seduce our palate with fresh sea food and an endless array of local fruits and vegetables. The passage of the day is marked by food and more food, interspersed with naps in the sun and massages; for the children happy hours mean endless rounds of fruit smoothies and giant platters of chips! At low tide, one can walk in ankle-deep waters that stretch for miles or lie on the many sand bars that appear when the waters recede, only to get submerged when the waters rise. At high tide, the sea laps virtually at our doorstep, lulling us to sleep with its gentle, rhythmic patting of the shore. Located as it is on the north-eastern tip of the island, The Passage offers stunning views of the fabled Samui sunsets.
Just as the days begin to fall into a pattern of indolent restfulness and leisurely unhurriedness, it is time to fly back home. We come away with an enduring memory of watching the sun go down in a resplendent show of colours over the darkening sea, and feeling humbled by the immensity of the spectacle before us.
(This article was first published in The Friday Times, Lahore, 15 July, 2011.)