Paradise Lost – the demise of Koh Samet

As you may know Koh Samet is a small island about 3  – 4 hours drive from Bangkok, depending up the bus driver/passengers bladders, amount of food breaks and cost of petrol – i.e. the more expensive the petrol the slower the bus tends to travel.   As you also may know the island is supposed to be a National Park and due to this status foreign adults are charged 200 baht entry fee on arrival, foreign children slightly less, Thai nationals 40 baht and so on.   Over the past 10 years I’ve had the pleasure of staying on Koh Samet many times and the island has acquired special significance to me.   Things that make visiting it a pleasure are that it has remained a laid back backpacker spot with gorgeous white sand, clean beaches, crystal clear unpolluted water, low key bars and accommodation that blends into the surrounding forest. 

Another of the island’s draws is the slightly batty or eccentric foreigners who visit on a regular basis or settle there.   For example anorexic lady with dyed orange skin who power walks the length of all the beaches and back at least 10 times a day.  On the final return trip she carries two bags of fruit which she uses as weights as she walks.  Sadly, over the years she has become thinner and thinner and eventually disappeared off the scene for a few years.  We feared for her but I am happy to report that she is back as thin and colourful as ever.  I especially like the bright pink lipstick she has added to her ensemble.   She was a firm friend of the Italian who set up a permanent squat on the island with his Thai partner.  He built a shack and put up signs on the beach in front of it asking people not to smoke, drink alcohol, litter or make excessive noise.  For a while he actually managed to preserve a pristine piece of beach from the developers and kept it clean as well.  We were all amused by him but grateful.     So after three years absence from Thailand it was a foregone conclusion that I return to the island to celebrate a significant birthday.

 We landed on the island only to find out that is has been overdeveloped, the beaches are extremely dirty and the sea polluted.  There was rubbish everywhere including bottle tops and broken glass and locals claim that the island is overrun with rats.   Traffic in the water had mushroomed so that swimmers were in danger of getting limbs chopped off by speed boats, windsurfers or jet skis.   New concrete hotels had been built right on the sand and the beach as a result was marginalised.  What was left of the sand was covered in parasols and deckchairs during the day and tacky neon lights, dining areas, and fire shows at night.

The Italian squatter had lost the plot, deforested at least an acre around his hut and used the chopped trees to expand his domain.  He’d given up cleaning the beach, the area he occupied had turned into a slum with bottles, containers and general rubbish littering the site and he had populated the beach with hundreds more wooden signs.  Now apart from not being able to smoke, drink, make no noise,  litter (a joke considering rat inducing conditions he lived in), the signs exhorted us not to light fires (because he wanted the wood for himself presumably), pitch tents or hang hammocks, make love not war, respect the laws of Buddha and not to bathe topless.   If a hapless tourist should do any of the above he or his wife would harangue and intimidate them until they left.  I felt like erecting my own set of signs on the beach in front of his shack asking him not to spit his saliva filled toothpaste onto the sand, not to chop down national park trees, to clean his rubbish dump up, not to erect permanent wooden shacks on the beach or litter the beach with catamarans/ wind surfs and not to bully or preach to the tourists and Thai nationals.

With the advent of the concrete jungle now threatening the extinction of the beach, I cite Koh Chang as an example of where this already happened, the prospect of the package tourist is raising its ugly head.  However one good thing about the new market of Russian holiday makers is that they take no shit from the Italian or his signs as they litter, smoke, drink, and sunbathe topless on the only decent piece of beach left.      

 I was extremely disappointed that this commercial free oasis has been ruined and, according to the net, so are other travellers whose blogs are very vocal about the lack service provided by the parks and recreation services.  In fact many advise travellers not to bother visiting the island at all.   Far be it for me to tell the ministers how to do their jobs but something needs to be done to stop the further degeneration of this National Park into a tacky, grubby money- spinning monstrosity. Either do the job or drop the pretence that the island is a national park and stop charging a fee that is supposed to allegedly keep the island in a natural pristine condition.    It’s a lot of money for not a lot of service.

23 thoughts on “Paradise Lost – the demise of Koh Samet

  1. This is a shame 😦 I went to Koh Samet in 2001 as a break from Tokyo where I was working at the time, and it was the perfect juxtaposition. We’d landed in Bangok and needed an escape asap and just happened across a bit to Koh Samet and hopped on. It was beautifully unspoilt with no concrete and not even a paved road beyond the harbour. We were, as foreigners, most definitely in the minority and grateful for the peace that allowed.

  2. I spent some time last month in Ko Samet. I didn’t meet the thin lady anymore but the rest of the shields from the Italian man are still on the beach and his wife is also still around the place.
    Unfortunately I must admit that it is a shame that the visitors to the place must pay 200 bhat for visiting a national park as the government does nothing for the place to be preserved from rubbish. Every food or drink shop serves everything in plastic, the plastic lands finally in water or on the beach. Sometimes the rubbish in the water drift away, sometimes not. A lot of rubbish just lies around the coast, in the woods and is never collected. Everywhere motorcycles and motorboats… I just don’t get it, why has the area a status of a national parc?
    I have never seen a national parc that was so devastated before, even compared to other national parcs in Thailand (Erawan national parc and in the south near Krabi).
    I admit that it is also a fault of us as tourists that the beautiful beaches are visited by more and more people because the flights have became so cheap in the last years. But it is a duty of the government to stop the pollution, maybe by prohibition of using one way litter or motorised vehicles.
    The beaches are still beautiful with white sand and blue sea at least near the resorts that keep the area around them clean. But the rest of the beaches and the surroundings are dirty and nobody takes care of. Besides lots of wild dogs.

    • That very sad to hear that it has got a lot worse. The charge was always a bug bear for us as they have never looked after the island. Have you been to konpanyam off ranong. Go before it too changes.

  3. Was there for a month in early eighties ( Yeah I am that old) The Island was almost deserted. I can can still see it in my mind. A grass hut with a mosquito net rented for pennies, sitting in the gentle surf sipping a beer NOBODY ELSE to disturb me. Magic days of my youth. at the time I knew it was special and that I would remember it for ever, and so I have.
    Nice to have known you Koh Samet.

  4. The Thai government is responsible for this degradation by not properly overseeing their beautiful islands and the coastal area. I can’t remember if Samet is a National Park or not but the corruption at the top has meant that most of their national parks have sold off plots to ‘friends’ or ‘government officials’ or developers. Until the government, provincial governors and police decide to protect their National Parks and their coastal regions, Thailand will continue to degrade its land. I don’t blame the Thai people, families must be fed and children educated and in the face of no job, no security and corrupt authorities, they do what they can to make a few Baht. It’s a sadness those of us who have known and loved Thailand for years have to live with. The hierarchical system of life there is also non-conducive to the people complaining about those ‘above them’, and the risk of upsetting a local bigwig is not something they undertake lightly.

  5. Is there any islands left in Thailand worth going to?? I was in Pattaya back in 1972 and there was only two small hotels. One German and one local. I stayed in the local. The whole area was peaceful, clean and quiet. Went back to Pattaya in 1981 and it was already ruined by all the things one try to get away from. Now I’m planning on going back to spend some weeks on a pristine white sandy beach with palm trees swaying lazily in a warm tropical breeze. Any suggestions??

  6. I spent a lot of time on Koh Chang in the 90’s and was equally as distraught when I returned in 2006 to find it full of hotels and swimming pools.

  7. I’m in Samet right now and the woman is still walking with melons. I agree with you that the Island seems to be exploited but you exaggerate it a bit. The pristine beach is still there, I haven’t seen the Italian guy but his wife and daughter are still taking care of the beach. No litter (and no signs) whatsoever and the water is crystal clear. Last evening three English fellows came to the beach, quite noisy and they smoked. The lady came out of the bushes and told them to butt their cigarettes and to be silent. The expression on these guys faces was priceless, but reluctantly they did what she said. In other words there is still hope. My wife and I have spent 5 lovely days on this beach and we have loved every minute.

  8. I went to Samet Island back in the early 90’s. It was pristine, just a few small beach bungalows here and there and there with some restaurants and bars dotted about. Samui was similar. You couldn’t pay me to go back. I advise South Vietnam these days.

  9. I am kind of a person that love travel much but sometimes other activities stops me.

    Its a kind of inspiring and energizing after I see your post. I will be starting my travel soon.

    Thanks. I just follow your post for more updates


  10. where’s this italian guy? what beach are you guys talking about? Ive been here twice in the last year, and apart from the neon and crap around the main beach in the north, i’ve found a number of pristine resorts further south. I agree that it is in severe danger of turning into a tourist/rubbish farm, but for the time being there is still hope for Samet!!

    • The Italian guy lives with his Thai wife about half way down the main beach. Looks very tanned and wears a head band He may have rebuilt the wooden squat by now. Yes Chris you are right there are still lovely beaches up south although they were way out of my price range as a long term backpacker 🙂

  11. Was thinking of a week to Bangkok in late November and a nearby beach. I have to wonder if it’s worth it. Can save myself 1000GBP all in. Might as well stay in London!

    TBH I think Thailand has been foct for a long time. I last went 12 years ago and while BKK was great the beach scene I didn’t really enjoy.

    It’s only the very cheap flights to BKK that have got me interested. Oh well.

  12. I grew up in Thailand and actually never made it to Koh Samet. However, I have been to numerous other beaches and have to say I totally agree with you. They always manage to ruin beautiful, natural beaches with overpopulating, tourism and buildings. There are still beautiful beaches in Thailand but you have to really hunt for them sometimes. I love Thailand, the Thai people and all the country has to offer but I do wish that they put some restrictions in place so that beautiful beaches like this could remain untouched!

  13. When I went to Samet, beginning of last year the anorexic woman was doing exactly as you described. I couldn’t understand it. I didn’t like the loud music and synthetic lights on the beach everywhere. It ruins the natural beauty. Thailand needs to step up before all their ‘spots’ are ruined for good.

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