Come on a journey to the Siamese islands of Thailand
It seems everybody's heard of Koh Samui. It's a well known tourist magnet in the Gulf of Thailand, right?
An island with great beaches, food, markets, hotels and resorts? Yes, that's all true.
But there's a twin sister island not far from Samui.
Too far to swim, unless you're an experienced Channel swimmer, but just a short ferry ride away. It's called Koh Phangan (pronounced Ko Par Narn). And it's spectacular.
I discovered Phangan about 30 years ago. There was little development then. Backpacker lodges all around the island, some on quite remote beaches reachable only by longtail boat.
Not too accessible in a medical emergency. But it's funny how, despite this lack of access, the entire world made the annual pilgrimage to the Full Moon Festival on one tiny corner of the island. Do I remember that event? Not very well.
Phangan has changed. No longer the exclusive haunt of backpackers, its natural attractions (which are considerable) are now enhanced by a huge range of activities and the full spectrum of accommodation choices right up to 5 star level.
We now find ourselves at the stunning Santhiya Resort, a 30 minute ride from the ferry port on the other side of the island, but well worth the bumps. Here, the General Manager is on hand with musicians and staff to welcome guests… a sign of the personal service the hotel is famous for.
Perhaps the most defining feature of Santhiya is the extraordinary attention to detail in the villas as well as the public areas. The owners have their own wood carving and furniture factory, evident in small decorative touches such as individual lampshades, screens and even doorknobs. Antiques abound throughout and the overall feeling is like a family home.
The outdoor shower and bath in most villas is fun to use in this tropical climate… aircon is available if you need it in the bedrooms, but we found it useful only during daytime. The resort is particularly conscious of environmentally sustainable issues including extensive use of recycled timber (although one guest complained that a wooden railway sleeper was "too old")! Other practices include the use of herbal products, minimum use of plastic, and segmented waste disposal.
Santhiya has two dining areas: the main Chantara restaurant with quality Thai and international cuisine; and By the Sea at beach and main pool level with a bar and more informal menu.
Altogether, this resort makes a trip to Koh Phangan worthwhile. Back in Koh Samui for a few days, we've arrived at sister property Bophut Resort. Another member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, it's located on Bophut Beach just a short walk from the popular Night Market with its massive range of food stalls and craft sellers. If there's one thing you should experience in Samui apart from all the outdoor sports activities and shopping, this is it.
Bophut Resort itself is a haven of tranquillity away from the noisier parts of Samui. Its Thai-style bungalows are beautifully equipped with the most comfortable beds, inside and outside sitting areas and modern bathrooms. It's so quiet here that we're able to get plenty of rest before the long flight home via Kuala Lumpur.
Twin Islands and Twin Resorts… and they're unmistakeably Siamese!