If, like me, you need a few days to properly settle into a holiday, you may find yourself unnerved by Koh Samui’s Taling Ngam.
Unlike the tourist-filled north east side of the Thai island, there’s an eery stillness that can be difficult to embrace at first.
You’re surrounded by jungle-covered hills and mountains in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, in 30-degree weather – the textbook definition of paradise – and yet it’s very hard to switch off.
All you’re required to do is… nothing. Rest on a sun chair, sip a Chang beer or walk out into the ocean, lie on your back and float about.
Most travellers will head to Koh Samui’s Chaweng area for a traditional Thailand holiday with overpriced resorts, glistening white sand and clear blue waters – but Chaweng is also overcrowded, with music blasting from the beach bars and local vendors trying to sell you a trinket or fruit every 10 minutes.
In Taling Ngam, there’s little else around except for trees, a few open air cafes run by locals, a small snake farm and homes that belong to the fishermen. This is what Koh Samui used to be like, before the tourism market exploded and fishing became less important to the island’s economy.
In the daytime, rent a kayak or a paddle board and make your way to nearby mangrove forests or hire a longtail boat to go island hopping.
Koh Mudsum is a short boat ride away and has one of the best beaches I’ve ever seen – and not just because of its obvious postcard-worthy beauty.
It has an authentic castaway vibe. There’s a small bar shack, run by a handful of Thai people who live on the island, where you can buy drinks and ice cream, as well as watch huge pigs run around among the tourists with their piglets in tow.
Another nearby island is Koh Tan, with its mangrove forest walk and vast, wild jungle. The island has been privately owned by one family for seven generations, and so is largely untouched.
There’s isn’t much of a beach to lie on, but there is a small cafe by the dock that serves unbelievably fresh coconuts.
One particular highlight is the huge penis statue that salutes you on arrival. It’s a sacred symbol, painted in red, almost taller than I am at 5″5, and is meant to fend off evil, female spirits.
Nothing like a big dick to scare the ladies from visiting, I’m sure.
Koh Tan is worth a visit, but the wow factor isn’t equal to the surrounding islands (even if this one does have a giant penis on display).
Back in Taling Ngam, treat yourself to a massage at the Avani spa – it costs more than those in Chaweng Beach, but is worth every baht. My new Scottish friend (a fellow journalist) and I are so entranced by the experience, we go back the day after for another one.
In the evenings, either have a late-night beach BBQ at the resort with a private fire show or grab a taxi into Chaweng to visit the night markets – one of which is dedicated to seafood – and buy some trinkets.
Where to eat in Koh Samui
If you’re after dinner with a view, swing by the Jungle Club, an open air venue designed like a multi-level treehouse. The food is decent but really, it’s all about the location.
There are no fences though, so falling over the edge when tipsy is a very real possibility.
The Jungle Club is a tourist spot; the bartender tells me that locals hang elsewhere, further north in an area known as Fisherman’s Village.
For a nice classic Thai dish, pop into the Mud and order a pineapple chicken curry – it’s served inside the pineapple shell.
If you’re craving activity, Koh Samui has plenty to offer; elephant sanctuaries, waterfalls, the aforementioned snake farm, a huge shopping centre, treetop ziplines, the Wat Plai Laem temple and more.
The highlight of my trip was a visit to the Dog and Cat Rescue Samui Foundation, which is located just a short drive from the resort in Taling Ngam.
It’s run by volunteers, so there are rarely guides to show visitors around. Simply open the gates and let yourself into the enclosures, but prepare yourself – this isn’t a light-hearted experience (though the dogs are lovely).
Donate a few pounds or more in a collection box, or spend the day as a volunteer helping to feed, play and take care of the dogs.
You can also pop by Donna’s house. She’s an eccentric American artist who moved to Thailand with her husband many years ago, and runs an environmental initiative called Samui Bins, in conjunction with Samui Trash Hero.
Samui Trash Hero, a project that aims to encourage recycling and does a clean-up on the island every week, provides old barrels for Donna and her visitors – both locals and travellers – to decorate with sea motifs and transform into stylish bins.
These bins are then placed around the island to encourage people to stop dumping rubbish into the ocean.
Personally, I spent an inordinate amount of time of my trip floating about in my private pool.
While the extravagance was most definitely enjoyable, it wasn’t what I valued most about my trip.
Here, in Taling Ngam, I checked my emails for a few minutes every morning and opened my laptop just once in seven days, but otherwise rarely looked into any screens.
I was forced to ease into relaxation mode, which is exactly why I’ll be be back next time I need a break from reality and a few days in paradise.
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