So, Koh Samui. We've been living in southeast Asia for almost eleven years, and traveling in the region since 1994. In all that time we had not once stepped foot on Samui (or any of its neighboring islands). That changed last month, when we spent a week there for a couple of assignments.
Honestly? I don't love Samui. I can't name any one reason why we stayed away, but as soon as we left the island's airport I understood why some travelers do. Koh Samui is one big argument against uncontrolled tourism-driven development. It is tragically, despairingly ugly.
I felt this way when I landed on Malaysia's Langkawi island for the first time four years ago. I was on assignment there, too, and my heart sank as I steered my rust-bucket of a rental car away from the airport and towards the west coast. Ugly, ugly. How would I ever conjur a truthful travel story out of a place that, at first glance, appeared to have no redeeming qualities?
But over the course of five days on Langkawi I grew to like it, even to love it a little, and that travel piece was one of the easiest I've ever written. That didn't happen for me on Koh Samui, in spite of a fair bit of excellent food, wonderful company (Samui Thais may be the friendliest Thais anywhere) and some nights in lovely digs. Since that first trip to Langkawi I've gone back and taken Dave along -- we've flown in on assignment and also under our own steam, to relax here and eat here. Samui? I'd happily eat there again -- in fact I'd return just to eat. But not on my own nickel. (A major beef: the island is ridiculously expensive in comparison to the rest of Thailand. Looking for value for money? Samui is not where to find it.)
So am I arguing against Samui as a destination? Yes I am -- as a destination for me. But that doesn't mean that others don't, and won't, enjoy it.
One of my niggles about Samui is that it is so resort-ified. I hate being cooped up in a resort, and I especially hate having to make a Herculean effort to leave a resort to get something decent to eat. Vacations should be easy. But if you're a resort person and you have nothing on your agenda but relaxing and eating, then maybe making what I consider to be The Big Effort to get yourself to a good meal -- hiring a taxi and paying an outrageous sum to do so, or hiring a rental car and paying an outrageous sum to do so, or renting a motor bike and risking life and limb on overcrowded roads -- won't seem such a big effort to you.
There is some really, truly wonderful food on Samui. (There is also some -- lots and lots, actually -- really awful food on Samui.) And, as I've argued before, truly wonderful food can be a saving grace of even the most otherwise disappointing destinations. If you're planning a sojourn on Samui it would be a shame to miss out on what deliciousness the island has to offer.
So, without further ado:
If you eat at one local restaurant on the island make it this one. Samui has a cuisine all its own, rooted in two plentiful ingredients -- seafood and coconuts -- and Takho Bangpo serves up some fine examples. On our second night on the island a chef on Samui took us on a bit of a food crawl; Takho Bangpo was the second-to-last stop in a string of many. (This Thailand-based food blogger had also recommended this restaurant before we left). Our meal was so good that Dave and I returned a few days later for another, bigger meal. And had we had time before we left the island, we would have returned again.
The restaurant is a family-owned open-air affair situated right on the beach. Tables are steps from the water. The atmosphere is wonderfully relaxed; this is the place to arrive a bit before sunset, dig your toes into the sand and kick back with a beer while ordering this and that a little bit at a time, so that your meal unfolds leisurely over a few hours.
Every meal begins with a complimetary appetizer: shrimp paste mixed with grated coconut meat, garlic and chilies that's smeared on a coconut shell and grilled over charcoal. The dip is pungently fishy, sweet and salty and goes brilliantly with fresh leaves and veggies served alongside.
The menu has a Local Dishes section -- range around there when you order. Some of the staff speak English, so feel free to ask for recommendations. You never know what might be in season --- like bplaa likun, anchovy-like fish that the kitchen fries to a fantastic crackly crisp. Dunked in lime soured gingery chili sauce, they make a wonderful beer snack. Also ask after bai ngiah, a delicious dark green leaf cooked with egg. (See the opening photo for these two dishes.)
Another appetite rouser: sliced sour green mango served with a hae koh-like sweetened shrimp paste with chunks of dried shrimp (another island-produced ingredient) and plenty of chilies. Lovers of dishes like Penang-style rojak and Filipino green mango with bagoong will especially enjoy this tart-sweet-spicy-salty flavor bomb of a combination.
Another special-to-Samui ingredient is waay, small octopus that are eaten fresh in season and dried every season. September is not waay fishing season, but our chef friend told us that at certain times of the year the ocean view from Takho Bangpo's tables includes hundreds of waay strung to dry on lines suspended above the sea. Tom waay is a soup-stew of dried or fresh waay simmered with lemon grass in coconut milk. The coconut milk on Samui is incredibly creamy -- this was a filling but fantastic dish.
Our Spanish chef friend doesn't eat mussels on Samui -- they can't compare to what he gets at home, he says. We understand. But live in a fresh mussel desert, and so when Dave and I returned to Takho we ordered the local green lipped mussels simply steamed with basil and garlic. Lovely, lovely -- though maybe not to you if you are a regular eater of mussels in, say, Tasmania, northern California, or France.
Other notable dishes at Takho: bpuu phat kari, big chunks of shelled crab meat cooked with onions and Chinese chives in a light, light coconut-free curry sauce; sataw -- also known as petai or "stink beans" -- stir-fried with prawns and just a hint of coconut cream; and butterflied raw prawns on a bed of slivered fresh cabbage, thin slices of bitter melon and whole chilies. The latter dish, the raw prawns, are served with the same tart-gingery dipping sauce as the deep-fried tiny fish. Our chef friend showed us how to eat them: in a spoon, lay a bit of cabbage, then a slice of bitter melon, then a prawn and, if you dare, a chili. Dribble on a bit of dipping sauce and pop the whole thing in your mouth. Bitter, sour, crunchy, soft, the super-fresh raw prawn playing off the ginger and lime -- wonderful.
In Bang Po, on the sea side of the road, amongst a string of eateries and a little bit east of a cafe/bar called 4 Monkeys (also recommended, for a beer at sunset on its rear deck). Look for the faded portrait of the restaurant's founder above the door. Walk in, proceed past the kitchen and exit at the tables on the beach.
Our Takho Bangpo guide Alex is Head Chef at the Four Seasons. Resort restaurants aren't our usual hangouts, but we would gladly return again and again to Pla Pla restaurant for Alex's tuna burger. We are Americans, so perhaps burgers hold a special place in our hearts. This thick patty of coarsely hand-chopped fresh white tuna cooked medium-rare (still pink in the middle), smeared with a sort of mayo-tartar sauce and a sweet-spicy sambal-like caramelized onion-tomato-chili sauce on an absolutely *perfect* -- in texture, in flavor, in density -- bun filled a void that's existed in my soul since I ate my last proper hamburger a few years ago.
It is a seriously delicious sandwich, easily one of our best bites that week. That the hefty "fries" alongside are also spot-on is a bonus.
This is tricky, because I don't have an address, or even a street name, for this tiny family-owned shop selling homemade kanom (sweets) from about 5:30 am until they run out, usually by 9am. It's in Nathon, Samui's capital. If you're heading south from Bang Po or Laem Yai, keep your eyes out for an old-style double-story weathered timber shop house with Chinese characters on the LEFT side of the road once you hit town. (There aren't many left, so you should be able to spot it if you watch carefully.) If you stand in front of that shop the side lane kitty corner that terminates at the water is the street you want. The shop will be on your left side, and you'll know it because the kanom are displayed on tables right out front.
This is the place for coconut sticky rice -- yellow, black or white -- sai gong (with sweetened ground dried shrimp, here zesty with a healthy dose of black pepper), or with sankaya (egg and coconut milk custard), or mango or thick shreds of coconut meat that have been cooked with palm sugar. It's also the place for other sweet deliciousness, like these steamed double-layer dumplings of coconut and palm sugar encased in chewy palm sugar-flavored glutinous rice, which itself is encased in a soft shell of coconut cream,
or these dumplings of coconut-scented sticky rice wrapped around a variety of banana that goes pink and soft when steamed and tastes like a cross between a banana, pineapple and strawberry.
Finally, a couple spots for which we have no photos, but that deserve mention nonetheless:
Opened by, well, Samui sisters not too long ago, this friendly restaurant on the south side of the island serves Thai home cooking and a few western specialties. The emphasis is on natural foods and superior ingredients and presentations are cleaned up in comparison to your average Thai restaurant. But the sister in the kitchen doesn't dumb down flavors, and if you ask for it spicy you will get it spicy. Flavors are intense here; everything tastes fresh and as if it were made with care. It is, because everything's made to order. There's a menu and daily specials on a blackboard.
We enjoyed a fish laab with a riot of fresh, fresh herbs and lots of crispy fried garlic, a turmeric, galangal and lemongrass chicken soup with an incredibly depth of flavor, and a southern Thai-specific wild green stir-fried with garlic. There were other dishes, but alas I was a bit peaked that night and took no notes. I do know that that soup got me back on my feet, and Dave was raving about his meal for days. I wish that we'd had an opportunity to return.
Just go. The restaurant is on the south side of the island, just about where route 4170 meets 4173, on the same side of the road (but opposite corner to) the 7-Eleven. 11am-9pm, off day is Wednesday. And the phone number is 66-864/708-631.
Haad Bang Pho
Our second night food crawl ended at this restaurant about 5 minutes south by car from Takho Bang Po. Like Takho, it's open-air and casual, tables on the sand, with a friendly staff headed by an impressively dreadlocked Thai dude.
We ordered raw shrimp dressed with garlic and fish sauce and chilies and "cooked" in lime juice (superb), bplaa kapong ng manaow -- black snapper (I think) steamed with lime (excellent) and green curry with chicken which, though a bit sweet for my taste, was rich and fragrant with lemongrass. There was also gai nam prik pao, chicken stir-fried in sweet-hot chili paste which, while very good, paled in comparison to all of the lovely seafood we ate that night.