Big Buddha’s tropical paradise

Island hopping, scuba-diving, kayaking and elephant trekking are among the many activities to be found on Thailand’s Koh Samui

By Crystal Hsu  /  Staff reporter, in Koh Samui, Thailand

Thu, Jul 11, 2019 - Page 13

Koh Samui, Thailand’s second largest island after Phuket, has attracted an increasing number of Asian holidaymakers, including visitors from Taiwan who are seeking to escape from the hustle and bustle of the modern world.

The trend corresponds with Thailand’s bid to grow tourist numbers by 5 percent to 40.2 million this year, which would generate 2.21 trillion baht of travel spending, the nation’s Tourism Authority said on July 2.

The target represents a downgrade from the 8 percent increase it projected in January and came after a record 38.27 million tourists last year, up 7.5 percent from 2017.

Tourism is the economic lifeblood for the second largest economy in Southeast Asia, driving 20 percent of GDP with foreign tourists contributing 12 percent.

With an area of 228.7 km2 and a hotel occupancy rate of 73 percent, Koh Samui and smaller islands nearby have much to offer tourists, recreationally and culturally.

Tsao Wen-sheng (曹文生), 36, an engineer from Taichung’s Ying Lyu Technology Co (鷹律科技), and three colleagues picked Koh Samui as their destination, attracted by its scenic beauty and assorted water sports.

“We went on a cruise, island hopping, scuba-diving and kayaking,” Tsao said on his flight from Samui to Bangkok where they would stay for another three days.

While on Koh Samui, Tsao and colleagues also went elephant trekking and visited the landmark Big Buddha and Na Muang Waterfall.

As of May, 16.72 million tourists had visited Thailand, an increase of 1.58 percent from the same period last year, Thai government data showed.

Travelers from China remain by far the largest tourist source market despite an 8.55 percent decline attributable to a fatal boat accident in Phuket last summer and an ongoing slowdown in the Chinese economy, Thai media said.

Meanwhile, visitors from Hong Kong and Japan picked up with tourists from Taiwan gaining 6.05 percent to 56,268.

Tsao gave his thumbs-up to Koh Samui, saying the trip is refreshing and inspirational.

A local restaurant waitress nicknamed Wewh said over 80 percent of Thai people are Buddhists, accounting for the salient presence of Buddhist temples on the island.

KOH SAMUI’S ATTRACTIONS

Must-go tourist attractions include Guan Yu Shrine, dedicated to Chinese deity Guan Yu (關羽) whose ardent followers include New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi (侯友宜) and former Hon Hai Precision Industry Co (鴻海) chairman Terry Gou (郭台銘).

Wewh said that most of Koh Samui’s 62,500 residents work in the tourism industry, which requires long working hours, but they are generally happy.

The secret lies in the fact that “Thai people don’t mourn the past, worry about the future, but live in the present moment,” she said.

Thailand ranks a top pick among Taiwanese vacationers, supported by its visa waiver program, said Miki Lai (賴怡君), a travel agent in Taipei.

Thai authorities have since November last year made visas on arrival free of charge for visitors from 20 countries, including Taiwan, for a limited period, a scheme that has been extended a few times until the end of October.

A 50-year-old Hsinchu resident surnamed Huang (黃) flew to Koh Samui with his wife and seven other friends to relax and have fun.

Huang said Koh Samui resembles Taiwan’s Penghu County in geographic size and temperature, making it popular for people fond of water activities.

During their five-day vacation, Huang and friends signed up for jungle biking and boat trips to smaller islands, which also featured a tour of Chaweng Night Market, Thai massages and local cuisines.

Thai massages cost 250 to 300 baht an hour — cheaper than similar treats in Taiwan, Huang’s wife said.

Apart from visa waivers, Thailand recently announced plans to pour funds into expanding airport capacity and connecting major terminals with high-speed railways with an aim to raise foreign tourist numbers more than 60 percent by 2029, according to a Bloomberg report.

Isabella Zheng (曾嫣然), a native from China’s Sichuan Province and a college student in the US, flew to Koh Samui to meet her girlfriends from elsewhere to kick off their summer vacation.

Zheng and friends, all in their early 20s, aimed to visit Instagramable dining venues such as Tarua Seafood Restaurant on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea and sumptuous tent-shaped Dara Serene Restaurant located on the beach.

“While appreciating natural scenery, we are looking for different and memorable experiences,” Zheng said on the flight from Bangkok to Samui.

Zheng said she and her friends didn’t have a budget but would allow their whims to guide their spending.

Newly opened Avani Hotels & Resorts in southern Samui is wooing Asian guests like Zheng who have made a big contribution to Thai tourism revenue. Thai authorities are looking at a 9.5 percent gain in tourism revenue this year and a 10 percent growth next year.

European guests account for 70 percent of Avani’s clientele and Asian visitors the remaining 30 percent.

The breakdown is reversing for some facilities on Koh Samui, and Avani would like to jump on the bandwagon, said Cindy Delhomel, the resort’s French manager.

“The goal is achievable as Avani, a life-style brand with 25 properties in 15 countries, has a strong presence in Thailand,” Delhomel said.

A Hong Kong housewife surnamed Chan (陳), who stayed at Avani with six family members and friends, said they just wanted to relax during their weeklong vacation.

“We don’t have a to-do list, which gives room for more possibilities,” Chan said, adding Koh Samui is 3.5 hours away by airplane, rather convenient for Hong Kong holidaygoers.

Chan and family visited the Sunday Lamai Street Market one day earlier and planned to go kayaking or swim in their villa’s private pool.

It takes 6.5 hours to fly from Taiwan to Samui including a transfer in Bangkok.

The flight is a bit long but worthwhile once visitors set eyes on the island’s untouched beaches, coconut trees and lush jungles, Lai said.

The island offers both a quiet hideaway and vibrant night life including boxing fights to suit tourists with different tastes, Lai said.

Crystal Hsu stayed at the Avani+Samui courtesy of Avani Hotels & Resorts.