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 year 2020, however, turned everything upside down and provided me with the chance of finding that lost paradise without crisscrossing Koh Samui.
I was in Phuket in the fall of 2020, and to save on travel costs, I bought a combined bus and ferry ticket that was a lot cheaper than a flight. Also, booking a land-based trip made me feel more relaxed in terms of possibly ending up with a canceled ticket and waiting for the refund.
It was October 2020 when I set off and looked forward to a blissfully uncrowded setting I hadn’t come across in Koh Samui before. Well, the trip from Phuket to Koh Samui alone is a story in itself. Let me tell you the tale.
Getting to Phuket’s bus terminal 2
The weather god “Petrus” wasn’t on my side when I rode my rented scooter from Phuket’s Rawai area to Phuket town early in the morning. It was pouring cats, dogs, rats and firecrackers as I struggled to see through the driving rain. But arriving at Phuket’s “Surin traffic circle” with its clock tower that’s built in traditional Sino-Portuguese style was a deliverance.
The Chinese “Mantra of Great Compassion” that emanated from loudspeakers on the occasion of Phuket’s annual vegetarian festival – known for its extreme firecrackers and fire-walking celebrations – provided some comfort and had a soothing effect.
Som, the owner of Som Motorbike Rental, was so kind to give me a lift to Phuket’s Bus Terminal 2, and after a 10-minute ride on his motorbike, soaking wet, I arrived at the bus station where some friendly guys were waiting at the entrance. “Where you go?” asked one of them.
Under normal circumstances, there would’ve been temperature checks and people who were not wearing a mask wouldn’t have been allowed inside. This time though, 7:30 am was an unearthly hour and it was freezing cold at what felt like 15 degrees Celsius, the dreary weather must’ve dragged people’s spirits down. Nobody bothered to perform these checks.
I tipped Som, wished him well and made a beeline for Panthip, the tour operator, which was on the right after the entrance at the end of the corridor.
Stocking up on snacks
“Go to platform number 2,” said the friendly woman that had just handed me my ticket and pointed at the gate.
There weren’t any queues and the bus terminal was as quiet as a closed airport hall. There weren’t any food stalls, but outside of the bus station were some restaurants, though closed at this time. One kiosk was open and sold everything from snacks to cold drinks and coffee. Besides, there was one restroom that didn’t smell particularly nice, but I grinned and bore it and imagined a bed of roses, which paid.
Heading for Surat Thani
There was no restroom on the bus. The so-so-comfy cloth seats were reclinable and the overhead was big enough for backpacks. The AC wasn’t Siberian cold, but the rainy weather had made me shiver. I swiftly changed clothes and bundling up in a fluffy hoodie felt as good as pulling the blanket over your head in an alpine chalet.
There were only four people on the bus at the moment, all Thai but me, and one of my fellow-travelers was kind enough to sit right in front of me and go for a complete recline. He was utterly surprised that I was taking my leave the moment he made himself at home and shot me a bewildered look.
Taking a seat at the back of the bus seemed like a great idea because it came with plenty of legroom, but I soon found that it was raining inside. And at the back row, the AC left a lot to be desired.
Even so, I stayed put as I loved a little privacy and being able to stretch my legs whenever I wanted.
The driver turned the ignition timely at 8:01 am, a minute after the scheduled departure time, and the bus hummed tiredly as if weather-weary. 20 seconds later, the guy stopped for some reason. He calculated the passengers, then waited a bit longer and left at 8:11 am. There were 16 passengers now, and I was still the only farang (westerner).
On the way to the 700m-long Sarasin bridge that links Phuket to the mainland, I loved the sight of a Chinese-style temple adorned with dragons and some emperor with a conspicuously long zen master beard and a moustache.
A sight for sore eyes was also the traffic circle in the north of Phuket that apparently tells a story. It features elephant sculptures, two human statues and a miniature building with a Sino-Portuguese design.
Once we’d passed the first jungle-draped limestone rocks that were engulfed in clouds and the morning mist, the bus stopped at some bus terminal in Phang-Nga at 10:20 am.
A vendor came inside to drum up business. She was like, “20-minute stop kaaa.” It turned out to be a short 13-minute break, but that was long enough for people to relieve themselves and buy some nibbly-dibblies.
More and more Thais got on the bus along the way, and at noon, it was almost full. I was now glad to be sitting in the back of the coach and watched the scenery roll past. There were rubber and palm tree plantations as far as the eyes can see, and occasionally, we passed little hamlets or street markets selling wooden artifacts. Approaching Suratthani, the first people got off the bus at 12:20 pm.
We arrived at Panthip’s office at 12:40 pm, where friendly uniformed ladies welcomed travelers and pointed at the seats to wait for the shuttle to Donsak’s Seatran ferry pier. Since I didn’t feel like hanging around in their office for an hour, I went to have lunch.
The desperate tuk-tuk drivers were a pain at first as I had no intention of doing a tour around the city. However, as soon as I’d wolfed down my meal, it started pelting down. It dawned on me now that I’d forgotten the umbrella on the bus and was more than happy to pay 20 baht for the tuk-tuk ride to Panthip’s office.
The official departure time was 1:30 pm, but their staff was so kind to wait for the previous driver to bring back my umbrella and delayed the journey by ten minutes.
The last leg of the journey
Ironically, the seats were comfier on the short ride from Suratthani to Don Sak, more spacious in the bargain, and the AC was pleasantly cool.
The sights were nothing to write home about, though. Other than rubber and palm trees, there wasn’t much to see in the rainy weather. We arrived at Seatran Pier at 2:40 pm, and I was pleased to find that the ferry was scheduled for 3 pm. I barely had time to buy an iced coffee and was glad I didn’t have to change the little slip into another ferry ticket.
Boarding the ship, I looked behind and was amazed by the mountainous backdrop of Suratthani’s karst region.
The ferry left at 3 pm on the dot and arrived just 90 minutes later. Setting foot on this popular island, I looked forward to discovering a blissfully quiet Koh Samui many a westerner had yet to stumble across.