In the ‘80s, when the electricity grid, air-conditioning and nightclubs were a pie in the Koh Samui sky, I was still a fledgling and too young to venture out into the great unknown.
In those days, palm-fringed beaches, coconut groves and dense, mountainous rainforest had already been on Thailand’s second-largest island before posh spas and luxurious resorts sprang up like mushrooms. The Covid days, however, turned everything upside down.
The Raja ferry ride from Koh Phangan to Koh Samui was a bargain. That was nothing unusual; Raja ferry is the cheapest tour operator on this route. But this time, Raja was bound for a blissfully uncrowded setting I hadn’t come across in Koh Samui before.
It was February, 2021 when the journey to a lost paradise began…
Checking in at Koh Phangan’s Thong Sala Pier
The waiting hall was eerily quiet when I arrived; no laughter of happy tourists, no ticket sellers shouting offers, nothing. Just a near-empty waiting hall and few dogs lying in the shade.
I couldn’t find any food stalls – probably due to the pandemic and the lack of travelers – so I stocked up on drinks and snacks at the nearby 7-ELEVEN and then walked to Raja ferry’s check-in counter. Just two minutes after I’d produced my voucher, Raja’s friendly employee handed me my ticket and said, “Pier 2.”
Ambling along the pier with the ticket in my hand, I glanced back at the island’s near-deserted Thong Sala Beach with its light-colored sand and mountainous backdrop and enjoyed the view of choppy emerald-tinted waters. There was strong wind and high tide, but that didn’t perturb a fisher who cast his line in the shade of some casuarinas.
Waiting for the right ferry
Seeing that some people were boarding the rusty old ship at 10:54 am, I wanted to follow suit, but a Raja ferry guy asked, “Where you go?” This was pier 2 and it was nearly 11 am, the scheduled departure time, but the guy said, “Wait here,” and ordered me to wait in the roofed waiting area.
Cars were driving over the ramp, boarding the ship, making rattling sounds. I was shocked when I saw them pull up the ramp at 11 am and shot the Raja guys a puzzled look. “Samui?” I asked.
They smiled and pointed to pier 1. So much for pier 2, I thought to myself. But then, the boat at pier 1 moved to pier 2, so pier 2 was correct, eventually.
And then, a Raja guy shouted, “Samui, Samui!” Engines started, cars were driving over the ramp, people were trudging, lugging large suitcases. “Hello, hello!” the staff yelled, implying that this wasn’t the right time to be lazy. An employee tore off half of my ticket, and I was good to go, too.
Enjoying the scenic ferry ride
There aren’t many toilets on the ship and they’re not easy to find. They’re hidden at the end of the corridor or near the snack shop (there are two types of Raja ferries). The pleather chairs inside the cabin are so-so comfy and didn’t appeal to me as there were too many people for my taste. Not all of them were wearing facemasks anyway.
I climbed the stairs and took a seat on one of the couches on the top floor as they provided me with panoramic views of the ocean and the islets rolling past.
There are also plenty of chairs outside, some of which you’ll find in the corridor. But even if you make yourself comfortable outside, it may be hot because the “radiators” that are connected to the AC are always blowing out heat from the interior. Even so, Raja’s AC often leaves a lot to be desired.
The engines were revving up with a slight delay at 11:20 am, making rattling sounds, billowing black clouds of diesel exhaust. Only seconds later, the slow and cheap ferry put out. People had stocked up on snacks and drinks at the onboard shop.
Sprite cans were opened, “click,” and I, once again, took in the scenery of a green island with a palm-fringed coast and a mountainous backdrop, blue and turquoise waters, and moored longtail boats bobbing up and down in the choppy waters. Kite surfers were having fun, and fair-weather clouds rounded off the picture of a fairy-tale setting.
As the doors were open, I smelled the stench of diesel and heard the sounds of waves smashing against the windows below as though crashing into rocks. I took it in stride, and while the boat was gently rocking from side to side, I focused on jungle-swathed limestone islets jutting out of dark-blue seas.
Travelers were apparently tired. A Thai man wearing long jeans and a shirt was lying on a sofa, snoring peacefully, and a foreign woman clad in rags and sandals was taking a nap on another couch. The boy lounging on another long, comfortable seat, however, was listening to radio, and sun worshippers were shooting the breeze in the open-air deck, their hair fluttering in the gusty winds.
Arriving in Koh Samui
Before long, the air in the “living-room-area” became hot and stuffy, despite the open doors. There was no working AC at all, quite obviously to cut costs. To get some relief from the heat, I joined the tan lovers outside and was blinking in the sun. As we got closer to Koh Samui at 12:30 pm, I studied this mountainous island and its coastline, wondering whether the luminous clouds were bringing heavy rainfall.
Almost precisely 90 minutes after the ferry had left Koh Phangan, I caught sight of Koh Samui’s Lipa Noi Pier and looked forward to discovering a blissfully quiet Koh Samui many a westerner had yet to stumble across.