Yin and yang - a tale of two tropical beaches

Updated: 2014-03-16 08:11

By Matt Hodges(China Daily)

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For those who have more than a few days to kill in Thailand, Ko Samet offers luscious white sands and ranks as the most picturesque island near the capital. For close coastal retreats, Hua Hin, where King Bhumibol Adulyadej has a summer home, is also within a three-hour drive. Buses and boats to both destinations are cheap.

However, they don't compare to the islands further south. Chinese tend to head southwest of the peninsula on group tours to Phuket and Ko Phi Phi in the Andaman Sea, but their itineraries will probably diversify as their numbers grow.

After a few days in Bangkok, we decided to cut east of the geographical tadpole's tail to stay at another "five-star" palace in Ko Samui, the Nora Buri Resort and Spa in Bophut. In line with China's yin and yang philosophy, we then switched down a few gears and rented stilted huts at the Barcelona resort on Ko Phangan's postcard-perfect Haad Yuan beach. The latter came with free geckos.

Bangkok Airways has a monopoly on flights to Samui (we paid $180 for each one-way ticket), but you can get there cheaper by flying to Surat Thani then taking a bus and boat. Alternatively, the overnight train from Bangkok to Surat Thani is a fun experience for under $30.

These two tropical paradises are far more popular with European and Australian backpackers than shopaholic Northeast Asians, and now is a good time to go for sun-worshippers as there is little rain in early March.

We got a free upgrade to a homey hillside villa with a private pool and views to die for at the Nora Buri, as their occupancy rates were unaffected by the general lull elsewhere. Part of the concierge service includes chauffeured buggy rides from the lobby to your room, and vice versa. Zipping past the hotel's split-level pool (one of two) to a decent breakfast buffet made for an adrenalized start to the day.

The only drawback is that, while the hotel is located conveniently close to the airport, it's about a 15-minute drive from Chaweng Beach, the commercial heart of the island with a throbbing nightlife. But this element of separation can be also a blessing if you've been there, drained the red-bull bucket and don't fancy the idea of cirrhosis of the liver.

The view from our hillside hut on Haad Yuan was equally impressive because we were so closely sandwiched between the jungle and the ocean. A thick forest canopy rose up behind the hut, and I could almost launch seashells from my veranda hammock into the sea.

My friend and I soon made ourselves at home in the rustic huts. The two women complained about the aging fans and cold-water showers, and threatened a return to Samui. Having escaped the protests in Bangkok, we had found ourselves a camp divided.

Nonetheless, there is something for everyone in the three islands that form a string east of the peninsula, including Ko Tao.

You can barbecue your body on Samui's Chaweng Beach, with its hung-over revelers, novice surfers and deep ocean plunge. If you are lucky, the local fishermen at Haad Yuan will take you with them at sunset. At other times, you can lounge on its silky sand or relax in wooden bars built over huge sloping boulders. This picture-postcard setting was until recently only accessible by water taxi from Haad Rin, site of the legendary Full-Moon Parties.

Time permitting, you can move on to Ko Tao and test your luck with a few dives. This is one of those special places where it is possible, at the right time of year, to glimpse whale sharks.

By the time I got back to Bangkok a few days later, Yingluck had fled to an undisclosed location in the provinces. That weekend, three people, including two kids, were killed in a violent incident near a shopping center in the downtown area.

I was shocked at reading the news. I hadn't felt unsafe for a second, except for one dicey episode while swimming in choppy seas by the unforgiving rocks of Haad Yuan.

Moreover, the Bangkok Post - one of Thailand's two major English-language papers - reported that hundreds of farmers would be blocking the streets to the airport that Sunday afternoon. I imagined myself being stranded there for days on end. As it turned out, they failed to show.

(China Daily 03/16/2014 page10)