There are not many occasions that require us to leave our little Malaysian island of Penang. We do take off by choice from time to time but not by dire necessity. This was different.
Every August and September a varying amount of ‘slash and burn' fires are set on the island of Sumatra to clear land for planting. These illegal fires are set in soggy forested ground that are largely peat and that bio mass of leaves and twigs can be as much as 20 metres deep. Depending on wind direction it can be very smoky in Singapore and Southern Malaysia but August/September of 2015 was the worst ever recorded. With over 1,500 smouldering fires observed the pollution index or PSI, jumped from “Unhealthy“ 100 to “Unsafe" 200 at which point schools and activities are closed.
But, it got worse.
In early September Singapore’s PSI peaked at 471, the worst ever recorded. By way of contrast, a bad day in terribly polluted Beijing is anything over 300 (they have hit over 500).
Here in Penang, just over one hours flight time north, we hit a PSI of 315. I recall playing golf that day and, even at that much lower level than Singapore, we never saw a ball land off the tees. It was terrible. Since no relief or change of wind direction was in sight, we decided, like many others, to get out of town fast. Our criteria was about as simple as you can get: no smog, nice beach and direct flight. No smog mean’t going north to Thailand or Vietnam. But, the Thai coastal areas like Phuket were under haze too. We then discovered the island of Koh Samui on the other side of the country in the Gulf of Thailand was completely haze free and offered a direct flight from Penang. Done.
With the massive Chinese holiday of ‘Golden Week' coming up, accommodations on Koh Samui’s preferred North shore were scarce. While we struck out at our first few choices we did get into The Belmond Napasai on Maenam Beach. Belmond being a high quality group we booked it and once again courtesy of Tablet hotels got an upgrade to a small villa just off the beach. Perfect for us.
Koh Samui has a heavy expat population and as a consequence, benefits from very high end medical facilities that are branches of the very good Bangkok medical tourism hospitals. It is also unusual in that it’s an island being actively managed by the Thai government. They don’t want another Phuket or Pattaya here but rather a higher end clientele of tourists, owners and renters. So, it’s expensive by Thai standards, although high end Phuket is every bit as costly in my opinion. We took a day to chill and explore the property and then rented a car and driver to take us on a circle tour of the island. The South/East shore is choc a bloc hotels, bars and junky shops and the famous beaches Chaweng and Lamai. Very touristy, terribly busy compared to the tranquility of Maenam and Bophut beaches on the North Shore. We made a good choice.
As you head up the west side development largely ends until you hit the tip and the Four Seasons Resort and Villas. As usual in South Asia it is a jewel and stopping for lunch overlooking all the villas with their enormous terraces and pools is a good way to enjoy the place without spending $1,500 bucks a day. From there, cruising the quite lovely beaches 30 minutes back to our hotel was a treat. Our Singapore friends Alan and Howard both have villas on the islands North shore. Howard was away but we had cocktails with Alan and wife Elena at their villa then heading to their favourite French restaurant for dinner. It was very good as is the food on most of the island. The next night, our last, was spent at a large beach complex called ‘Fisherman’s Village’. No fishermen around here anymore but it is a quite sophisticated development of beach restaurants and shops connected by a long boardwalk. On the beach young guys light brightly coloured paper lanterns called ‘Kom Loi' that soar up 500-600 feet or more before they flame out. The best kite launching place also fronted one of the best liked restaurants and so we choose ‘Nirvana’ as having Thai food on a Thai beach seemed a good ending. But, it wasn’t the end.
Walking back on the boardwalk to the cab stand we spied a bar called Coco Tam’s. Strung with hammocks and rope chairs we stopped to look and, once inside, found dozens of candle lit low tables and big, soft cushions on the beach. At one end was a giant screen playing classic movies and the sound system at our end played classic rock music. We settled in just in time for the fire show. About a dozen young Thai guys and girls put on a one hour show on the surf line trying to outdo each other with fire sticks. And, did they ever?! I think of all the busker fire guys I’ve seen all over the world and these kids beat them all. A fitting end to our five days in Koh Samui.
And, we didn’t think about the haze we left even once.