I had spent four days in Bangkok, which was three days too many. Bangkok is one of the loudest, dirtiest, and most annoying places one can imagine, so I started asking around at the hostels and backpacker joints about where to go for some peace and quiet. Phuket came up a lot, but when I saw that name in the windows of travel agents, I knew it wouldn't be peaceful, quiet, or cheap.
Then somebody told me about Koh Samui. I think she said, "You can still find some quiet places there," adding, "If you want to get really lost and sleep on the beach or something, keep going to Kho Pha Ngan."
I hopped on a bus that was so air-conditioned they handed out blankets. It was 80 degrees at night, and we were bundled up like babies in the spring. The bus dropped us off for a ferry trip that was highlighted by an Aussie telling how on the first day of his year-long, round-the-world adventure he had his wallet stolen by a Thai prostitute. "Idiot tax," he said.
When the ferry hit the dock at Koh Samui, we were set upon by a swarm of bungalow hustlers. The analogy that came to mind was of a dead animal washing ashore and being attacked by waves of ants, each assigned to bring a chunk back home. I had been in Asia for several weeks, so I was adept at moving through these crowds. But there was one guy who caught my eye: He was sitting to the side with a clipboard, watching with a bemused look on his face.
I went over to him and asked if he was from a bungalow. He said yes. Engaging in a little reverse-bargaining, I asked if it was a party place with music and lots of people and plenty of places to eat and motorcycles to rent and something going on all the time. He said no, it's very quiet, on a beach all by itself with nothing around. I hopped in his van without another word.
I spent the next week or so in the kind of paradise state we all dream of when we plan a trip to a remote beach. I paid a few dollars a night for a little cabin among the coconut trees. Every morning I would start with a swim in the warm, clear ocean. Then I would have fresh fruit for breakfast. Then I would knock a coconut out of a tree, split it open, and munch it on the beach. Then another swim. Then maybe a book. Or a nap. Then lunch. Then definitely a nap. Sometimes for our meals we would walk out to the road, where an elderly woman had a stand set up. For about $1.50 she'd give you a pile of rice and a choice of several curries. Once we walked down the beach to a fishing village and bought 10 pounds of prawns from the people who had just caught them. The kitchen staff cooked them in exchange for having some with us.
You can still live that way in a lot of places on this earth, but, near as I can tell, you can't do it on Koh Samui. This morning I was looking at www.kohsamui.org, and I couldn't even find the place where I stayed. I saw names like Beverly Hills Resort, Ziggy Stardust Resort, Malibu Beach Bungalows, and the White House Hotel. I see they now have an airport, an aquarium, a crocodile farm, a snake farm with shows, and a monkey theater.
I was told by someone recently that now Kho Pha Ngan is "the place to go" for peace and quiet. But the thing is ... if somebody sitting in a coffee shop in the U.S. tells you about a place in Thailand that's supposed to be peaceful and quiet, it's already too late for that place. Besides, I looked it up on the Web -- and anyway, if you can find a place on the Web, it's too late for that place too. Kho Pha Ngan has a "Full Moon Party" every month where as many as 10,000 people groove to DJs. Need I say more?
So if you're looking for advice, here it is: If it's peace and quiet in a secluded area that you're after, pick a part of the world that you'd like to visit and get yourself a Lonely Planet guide. Read for a place that's called "remote" or "undiscovered" or "off the beaten path." Then go to that place, find some backpackers, and ask them where to go.
If you want to dance at a nightclub and watch the monkey show, I hear Koh Samui is good for that.