Monday, November 19, 2018

A Wonderful Family Holiday to Koh Samui, Thailand

I just had to do a travel post since it had been pretty long since the last one. Not to mention, I had lots of pictures that I wanted to put to good use!

We usually plan something around the twins birthday. Last year we did a fun staycation at a water park integrated resort in Singapore, the year before that, a memorable holiday with my parents at Club Med Cherating beach Malaysia and the first year was celebrated with a themed-birthday party in India attended by close friends and family. 

This year, to mark their fourth birthday, we were leaning towards going to Siem Reap in Cambodia with a group of friends but changed our plan to a beach holiday in Thailand keeping in mind the interest of the kids and what they would enjoy more. 

We love Thailand so any opportunity to visit the country is welcomed. Having already been to Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket, we were toying with Krabi or Koh Samui for our holiday destination. Since Koh Samui had the reputation of being the less crowded and more peaceful destination for families, we went with the latter. 

First things first - If you have been to Koh Samui, you would be aware that the airfare from Singapore is pretty expensive considering the short flight. We flew Silk Air and had to fork out quite a bit for the airfare for the four of us. The airport at Koh Samui is privately owned and run by Bangkok Airways so be aware that airport taxes contribute a huge chunk to the final ticket price.

For the accommodation, you will be spoilt for choices as with most Thai destinations, there are no dearth of options which cater to all kinds of preferences and budgets. We made our choice based on the beach we wanted to stay closest to. I had read that Choeng Mon beach was a good choice for families with young children. We always stay at either resorts or hotels when we travel overseas so this time we thought we would try something different and booked a two bedroom condominium that was walking distance to our beach of choice. We figured a "home away from home" experience while on holiday is a good thing when you have kids in the picture 😊

Image source: Images of Thailand
I'd say November is not the best time to visit Koh Samui but since we had planned to celebrate a specific occasion, we couldn't do anything about it. November is a bit of a gamble as the threat of rain is a very real concern. The upside is that the island is fairly uncrowded during low season. Samui's weather patterns differs from the rest of Thailand. In April through September, when most of the country has its monsoon, Samui stays fairly dry, but from October to December, it is wet in Samui and drier elsewhere. The driest season is from January to March so take note of that if you are planning a visit. 

Travelling with my offsprings is always an anxiety-inducing experience for me as the two can be likened to active volcanoes that can bring up the contents of their stomach without any prior notice. Even the car journey to the airport frequently ends in a vomit-fest so an uneventful journey is something I fervently pray for (but seldom occurs in reality). 

After a 40 min car journey, followed by a 1.5 hour flight (which did indeed include the use of airsickness bags and lots of wet wipes 😒) we touched down at Koh Samui. 

Samui International Airport is heralded as one of the coolest and best-looking airports in Thailand. The airport does have a delightfully rustic feel. The two terminals are open-sided, feature beautifully landscaped tropical gardens, charming shops and structures made of bamboo-and-thatch which gives it a resort-like appearance and intensifies the holiday vibe. The visa on arrival did take a while but we eventually made our way out and found the driver who was waiting to take us to the condo. 

The property was a short distance away from the airport. We found the apartment to be fully furnished with free Wi-Fi, air conditioning, televisions in the living room and both bedrooms with cable TV (more than 300 channels!) and plenty of large beach towels. It also had a spacious balcony overlooking the pool. 

I was pleased to note that the sparkling clean kitchen had everything I would need to rustle up a decent meal if needed. There was a fridge, microwave, kettle, toaster, in-built over, electric stove, dish drying rack, sink and drawers and cupboards stocked with cutlery, pots and pans.

The communal areas featured a small kids pool, a medium-sized main swimming pool, a laundromat, a gym, convenience store and bar/cafe. 

The kids were thrilled with the accommodation and naively assumed that we had moved to a new place! They were very vocal in their appreciation of their "new room" and "new house" 😂

There was a local Thai restaurant located right next to the condo so we went there to have an early lunch. The matronly lady who ran the place was warm and hospitable. She made helpful menu recommendations and customized the order to suit our picky kids taste buds. Much to my relief, the kids polished off their Thai-style egg-fried rice with great gusto! There was a baby and a dog in the restaurant (which are two of their most favourite of living creatures) so they kept themselves occupied while we could enjoy a drink along with a delicious lunch. 

After a hot bath in the tub, the kids settled down for their afternoon nap. I took the opportunity to explore the area and pick up a few kitchen essentials. I walked down to the beach to check it out and then walked a considerable distance along the main road darting into random convenience stores and buying a few essentials like bread, eggs, milk, yoghurt, baked beans, cooking oil, fruits and vegetables. A lot of the labels were in Thai so I just went by the pictures on them! I had the good sense to bring along a couple of seasonings and spice mixes from Singapore so I was reasonably happy with my haul. 

There is beauty everywhere you turn in Thailand. By the time I returned to the apartment, I'd witnessed more than a dozen smiling faces of locals cheerily calling out "Sawadeeka", a serene beach, colorful statues (including one of hindu deity Ganapati), a few lovely shrines and thriving water lilies in still pots. 

That evening, we set off to the beach but had to return mid-way as it started to rain. I was filled with dread at the thought that this would continue for the next few days ruining our experience but as luck would have it, that was the only time it rained during our entire holiday! We stayed put at the apartment which was quite pleasant considering the kids were heavily occupied coloring and watching cartoons and animated movies while we chilled out and ordered-in Greek food (and introduced me to Skordalia which I loved!). 

The next day began in a leisurely fashion. Although I did sorely miss the prospect of a lavish breakfast buffet that I am so used to while on holiday, the fact that we were not restricted by time to do anything was strangely liberating. I put together a simple breakfast for the family and we set off to explore Choeng Mon beach. The weather was cloudy but there was no rain. 

Choeng Mon is a short beach that did turn out to be good for families with small children. The water wasn't too deep and the waves were gentle. I was glad to see the beach was secluded and quiet. We only encountered one other family with two young boys. There were no beach hawkers in sight. The kids went mad with excitement and we left them to their own devices. They spent their time going in for countless dips in the water, playing with their bucket, spades and shovels and gathering the shells we sourced for them. The only aspect of the beach I didn't like is that it wasn't as clean as I would have liked it to be. But seeing how much fun the kids were having, I ignored this aspect. 

From Choeng Mon, we hailed a taxi to the most popular and commercialized Chaweng beach which happened to be a short distance away. Although it is known to be the busiest, it is also one of the prettiest, with a long 7 km stretch of white powdery sand and crystal blue water. 

I personally found Chaweng to be much more scenic and cleaner than Choeng Mon. The beach was definitely had more people than Choeng Mon but no where near what I would call crowded (probably because it was low season). There were a few beach hawkers selling colorful floats but they didn't really bother us. The weather was sublime and the kids spent the rest of the morning here. The waves here were stronger than the previous beach so we had to keep a closer watch on them. 

After walking almost the entire length of Chaweng beach (note that there are numerous places offering Thai massage dotting the beach), we walked across to town and were looking for a place to buy some more groceries and have lunch. Fortunately, we chanced upon the perfect place without even knowing it! Not many islands in Thailand can boast their own massive and posh shopping center, but Koh Samui is one that can. Hosting a number of well-known stores and restaurants on its premises, Central Festival is the number one place on the island to indulge in a spot of retail therapy. Western favorites such as Adidas and Uniqlo join Thai heavyweights such as Jim Thompson, giving visitors a range of styles to choose from and providing an air of authenticity to an afternoon of shopping. We were delighted to find a well stocked supermarket where I was able to pick up a lot more tropical fruits and vegetables. For lunch we went to the adjacent food court and had another round of lip smacking Thai food. The food was so good that we actually packed dinner from there as well!

We were all pretty tired and got back to the apartment and crashed out. In the evening, I took the kids to the pool which was blissfully empty. The water was a comfortable temperature and the depth just right so while the kids were busy playing with their pool toys, I got to do several laps and burn off some of those calories from lunch! We were having such a good time that I lost track of how much time we spent there. It was once once it started getting dark that we headed back indoors.

The next morning, I was able to (sort of) match the fancy breakfast that any decent resort/hotel would provide. We had fried eggs, toast, baked beans, garlic mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, herb roasted potatoes, yoghurt parfait, fresh tropical fruits, coffee (for us) and strawberry milk (for the kids).

We had taken taxis wherever ever we needed to go the previous day so we decided that for more freedom and convenience we would rent a car which the condo management promptly arranged for us. The girls were thrilled by the acquisition and remarked how much they liked their "new car". I'd say renting a car for a full day is not only a better but even a cheaper option to taking taxis. You can even make arrangements to pick up and drop off the car at the airport or some other location. Driving is easy on the island as long as you are not in a hurry. Having a car gives you easy access to almost all areas of the island.

One of Koh Samui’s most attractive temples is the Wat Plai Laem. This extremely colorful, fairly new temple was completed in 2004. I was struck by the beauty of this temple and its surroundings. This place is a photographer's delight! A must-visit place in Samui in my opinion.

It's main statue is not of Gautama Buddha but of Guanyin, the "goddess" of compassion and mercy. The statue is in Chinese style, with 18 arms, and though open-air located within an elaborate ubusot is on a platform-pavilion surrounded by the temple lake. The temple's design, though modern, incorporates elements of Chinese and Thai traditions and was in part designed by distinguished Thai artist, Jarit Phumdonming.

Another very eye-catching statue is that of the fat, laughing Chinese Buddha. In Chinese culture, a fat Buddha represents wealth and prosperity. This very impressive statue is 30 meters high and painted in expressive colors like red, white and gold.

In addition to the main statues, there are smaller shrines dedicated to Ganesha, Vishnu, Shiva and Sakka.

The ubosot building is set in the center of a man made lake. The ubosot is the main prayer room and is also the place where ordinations take place. In the ubosot you will find a seated Buddha image and beautiful mural paintings telling scenes from the life on the Buddha. There are several more abundantly decorated buildings in the temple complex, as well as several Buddha statues and images.

The two giant statues as well as the ubosot are surrounded by the waters of the lake full of big fish. The fish appeared anxious to be fed and for 10 Baht you can buy some food to feed them, a fun activity for children. As you can see, my little ones were more fixated on chasing the pigeons 😄

As with all Thai temples, visitors should be aware that they need to dress appropriately, meaning no short sleeved shirts, no bare shoulders, short pants or beach wear.

Wat Plai Laem was situated very close to our condo. From here we drove to Big Buddha Temple which was also a short drive away.

Big Buddha temple sits majestically on a small rocky island off Koh Samui’s north-eastern corner. Known locally as Wat Phra Yai, its golden, 12-metre seated Buddha statue was built in 1972 and remains one of the island’s most popular attractions. Set on Koh Faan, Big Buddha temple is reached by a causeway that connects it to the main island. The Big Buddha can be seen at a distance of several kilometres and is often the first landmark people see when arriving to Samui by air. The Big Buddha sits in the Mara posture, with the left hand’s palm up resting on the lap and the right hand facing down, the fingers hanging over the knee and grazing the ground. It depicts a time during Buddha’s journey to enlightenment where he successfully subdued the temptations and dangers thrust at him by the devil-figure Mara by meditating and remaining calm. The pose is a symbol of steadfastness, purity and enlightenment.

The dress code here also is strictly enforced. I happened to be wearing a sleeveless dress but I had brought something with me to cover my shoulders.

As with Wat Plai Laem, I found this temple a wonderful and tranquil place to visit. The panoramic views from the top of the temple were breathtaking.

Around the Big Buddha there are plenty of tourist-oriented little shops selling souvenirs. Be sure to bargain!

Next up on our agenda was Lamai Beach which is the second most popular and busiest part of Koh Samui. Located about half an hour from Chaweng, the beach is definitely commercial but a lot quieter and supposedly has a more affordable range of accommodations. This is definitely a beautiful beach but I wouldn't say it is child-friendly. The beach plunged into sudden depth in most areas and the waves were quite forceful. I was content with my children playing in the sand when we were here.

The famous rocks that Koh Samui is known for “Hin Ta and Hin Yai rocks” are located at the very end of Lamai Beach.

We ordered yet another Thai lunch at a restaurant that had an amazing view of the beach. I was surprised at how much my kids loved Thai coconut water. Not only did they finish their own, but they finished mine as well. They also took to thai food so well surpassing my wildest expectations! 

After we got back to the apartment and recovered from the excitement of the first half of the day, the kids raced to the pool again and I imagine they were there for close to 2 hours until I had to actually physically drag them out! Thanks to the laundromat within the condo building, we were able to finish a gigantic load of (mostly residual sand covered) laundry and pack our bags with fresh smelling clean clothes.

For dinner that night we explored the surrounding area of our condo and going by the reviews, chose another local Thai restaurant. We had a lovely relaxed dinner while the staff at the restaurant and some patrons as well, interacted with the kids and kept them entertained throughout!

The next day we had another elaborate breakfast (courtesy: me!) and we started getting ready to head back to Singapore. The kids were upset and emphatically stated how much they loved Thailand insisting that we should stay back. That to me speaks volumes on how much they enjoyed their holiday and justified the whole purpose of coming 😊

I realized that this post would be incomplete if I didn't talk about THE FOOD! All of us have ordered Thai food at restaurants and probably cook a few dishes at home, but that does not even get near the genuine and authentic delicacies of the traditional, local cuisine. It all tastes much better, smells stronger and when it is served in a place like Koh Samui, it is just perfect. I ticked most of the items that I wanted to relish - green papaya salad, spring rolls, coconut soup, fried rice, green curry, pad thai, fried banana with honey and Thai coconut water. All I can say is YUM!

We still had the car so were able to drive to the airport and leave it there (the keys were handed over to a pre-designated person). We said goodbye to Koh Samui with a heavy heart. It was a laid-back, relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable family holiday and I hope Koh samui retains its quaint charm and natural beauty for years to come.

Two places I would have liked to visit in Samui are Crystal Bay/Tongtakian, a small beach between Chaweng and Lamai and Taling Ngam Bay/Virgin Bay in the Southwest of the island. I also would have loved more than anything to go on a day trip to nearby Ang Thong National Park, an archipelago of 42 islands full of pristine beaches, limestone cliffs and palm trees but decided against it keeping the comfort of the kids in mind. Maybe I should plan a future trip just for that!

As a destination, I wouldn't liken Koh Samui to paradise on earth. I did feel like the beaches of Phuket have clearer water compared to Koh Samui. Also, like I mentioned earlier, I found one of the beaches quite dirty. I also got the feeling that Koh Samui was generally more expensive compared to the other parts of Thailand. But with the imposing temples, viewpoints offering  stunning views and numerous tranquil beaches, we enjoyed a good mix of cultural exposure and the island's natural beauty. Samui didn't feel like a crowded tourist trap (like Phuket) and we were blessed to have such good weather so I would recommend it as a destination to put on your travel list provided you do a little bit of research in advance. Also, as I have observed in the past, Thai people are incredibly friendly and with this trip I realized that they adore children. Wherever we went locals would greet the kids, talk and play with them (it helped that our kids are friendly too!).

Koh Samui encapsulates everything idyllic about a holiday in Thailand - Thai hospitality, Buddhist culture, affordable spa treatments, retail therapy, delectable local cuisine and picturesque beaches.

Tips to keep in mind when travelling with kids to Koh Samui
  • Sunscreen (SPF 50) is a must. Slather it on the kids liberally before heading out to the beach
  • Remember to keep mosquito repellent. It comes in handy especially in the evenings.
  • It is a good idea to keep a small first aid kit, some snacks, a pack of wet wipes and a small bottle of hand sanitizer in your handbag
  • Always keep an extra set of clothes for the kids
  • Keep some extra bags for wet and sandy clothes. You don't want them getting mixed with the dry/clean stuff
  • Beach and pool toys are very helpful. I packed a whole set from Singapore. Come to think of it, we carried a bunch of the girls favourite toys. It kept them occupied and out of trouble! 
  • Local food is easily customizable so request for a particular dish to be made less spicy 
  • Renting a car for the day in Samui is more convenient and a cheaper option compared to taking multiple taxis. And it is pretty easy to navigate the island.
  • Bottled water is cheap! Buy lots of it and stay hydrated
  • Make sure you carry an umbrella. You never know when it may rain in Samui
  • For kids especially, the best footwear on the island are crocs. Trust me on this. Don't even bother with anything else! 

Have you been to Koh Samui? How was your experience? Leave a comment to let me know


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