Samui was discovered several hundred years ago as a haven for fishermen and sea traders sailing through the Gulf of Thailand to shelter from storms. Early Chinese and Malay settlers marvelled at the island’s beauty and abundance and there are those that believe the name is derived from word Saboey, which means ‘safe haven’ in the Chinese tongue. Maps of the island date as far back as the 17th century, but there is very little documented history of Samui because most of the knowledge was passed down through the generations by word of mouth.
Coconut harvesting was Samui’s economic mainstay for centuries. The first communities that emerged survived mainly from the sea, after which they planted crops that flourished in the warm, tropical climate. Fruit became an important export industry, and even today Samui is known throughout Thailand for succulent fruits. The lang san, a small round fruit similar to a lychee, is particularly noteworthy, not to mention the infamous durian, with its pungent yellow flesh and acquired taste.
Although the palm tree has come to be known as the symbol of Koh Samui, it wasn’t until relatively recently that coconuts became the most prolific fruit on the island. Over the years farmers slowly turned the island into a huge coconut and rubber plantation, and, with the crops fetching a good price, Thai people from the mainland began to arrive in numbers to benefit from the island’s economy. Samui now boasts more varieties of coconut palm than anywhere else in the world, although sadly an infestation of beetles now threatens many of these majestic, tropical trees.
In the early days it could take seven or eight hours to reach Koh Samui by boat from Surat Thani, so many of those that came to the island decided to stay and build a home, living alongside their foreign neighbours in what was to become a strong, independent community. Although Buddhism established itself as the principle religion, a small Muslim populace also flourished. Local spirits are still worshipped today in a tolerant blend of beliefs that adds to the island’s unique cultural appeal.
The earliest tourists were backpackers in the 1980s when accommodation was more humble. Agriculture remained the main source of income for Samui people throughout the next 20 years until the first foreign travellers began to arrive in the early 1970s. Young, adventurous backpackers from Europe then established Samui as a favourite location, and before long the local people were providing basic accommodation, food and services to their newfound friends and customers.
Samui became something of a hippy paradise during the ‘70s and ‘80s – the laid-back lifestyle and natural surroundings attracting those in search of a real escape. Bungalows sprang up all over the island, and slowly the infrastructure began to develop, along with a regular ferry service from the mainland and then, finally, an airport.
The last decade has brought the biggest changes in the entire history of the island. When Thai and International investors began arriving to build five-star resorts, Koh Samui was quickly transformed from a sleepy fisherman’s island into a full-scale tourist destination. Once an airport was built (financed and owned privately by Bangkok Airways), Samui’s future as a jetsetter’s island was sealed and five-star resorts and luxury properties are now both the norm.
The range of facilities and services continually expands and already includes everything from international chain stores to wireless broadband internet. Yet despite the fast pace of development, the island manages to retain much of its tropical charm. Quaint, local villages and coconut plantations are still very much in evidence, especially in the south of the island, and most people continue to live by ‘island time’. This may not be the virgin paradise it once was, but Samui is still a great place to escape the bustle and stress of the modern world.