An Island of Joy in the South China Sea
Koh Samui is one of the most stunning islands in the bay of Thailand. Traditionally the island has been a refuge of fishermen hiding from the stormy waters of the South China Sea.
Malay pirates from the Strait of Malacca used the place to hide the loot stolen from ships laden with riches belonging to Chinese merchants. Fearful of the Chinese, some local farmers had fled away into the mountains.
Now the descendants of perhaps the same fishermen, and pirates, have transformed the village into a bustling tourist destination. Gifted with an endless carpet of white sand beaches and homes with triangular roof tops in wood, it was just a matter of time before the whole world made its way to Koh Samui.
The Koh Samui airport is one of the prettiest in the world, with low roofs, and breezy cross ventilation. There is a lovely shopping arcade that tempts one to miss a flight or two. Ever since the airport opened in 1989 more and more travellers have flocked to the island.
Apart from the heavenly landscape, what is most striking about Koh Samui is the diversity of its population. Each cultural and religious community has contributed over centuries to enrich life on the island. The place is a vivacious melting pot of a heterogenous group of humanity.
Abdur Rahim at the kiosk selling some of the best pancakes in the world is originally from Myanmar, while Pandey Ji at Kohinoor, Koh Samui's Indian restaurant is from Gorakhpur. The manager of a Thai massage salon turned out to be French, and most of the masseurs were Buddhists.
The meeting of people from different parts of the world in Koh Samui is a gift of historical reality. The island's past is as colourful as its present.
The end of the ancient Malay sea faring period was followed by the expansion of the Vedic Hindu empire that was part of the Srivijaya Kingdom, and founded by Mahayana Buddhist migrants from India.
The Srivijaya kingdom had united a large part of southeast Asia from around the 7th Century, till the Hindu Brahmin and Buddhist culture of the region gave way to Islam. The Muslim way of life remains influential in southern Thailand to this day.
In Koh Samui there are halal facilities and excellent halal restaurants serving Thai cuisine. Along with magnificent Theravada Buddhist temples there is the majestic Masjid Nurulihsan where it is possible to get copies of the Koran translated in the Thai language.
The south east end of the island is where the Muslim community lives. Most of them are fishermen and probably descendants of the southern sea gypsies or the Orang Laut of yore.
This community of sea pirates were once lords of the southern seas. When the Portuguese colonised the area in 1511, the pirates protected the Malaysian Sultan of Malacca against the European colonisers.
Some of the pirates married members of the royal family and converted to Islam, eventually settling down mostly in Malaysia. Some mingled with mainland people of Thailand before making a home in Koh Samui.
International trade had made Koh Samui even more cosmopolitan after British, Dutch, Portuguese and other colonial powers opened sea routes through the Straits of Malacca, the Gulf of Siam and the South China Sea. In the 1850's the first seafaring Chinese traders came ashore to put up a shrine to the sea goddess, begging her for protection when they returned to Hainan Island.
The peasant revolts of the 19th Century had killed millions in China, including in Hainan. Those who could, fled to Koh Samui to settle there, also taking advantage of the place as a perfect access to the trading posts in the southern region.
Top of the menu at most eating places today is the Hainan chicken served with steamed rice that is most yummy! A good plate of Hainan chicken makes locals thank the Chinese for coming over to Koh Samui years ago.
The First Tourist
One of the first tourists in Koh Samui in the early 1950's was an American spy. Darrell G Berrigan was an intelligence officer during World War II, pretending to be a trader in the silk trade. Once the war was over he stayed on as The New York Times correspondent.
He founded The Bangkok World in 1957 and travelled to Koh Samui in 1952 on a coconut boat. After a week of sailing when he arrived on the remote island he was considered a 'museum piece' by the fishermen who were seeing a foreigner for the first time in their life.
Berrigan was sadly murdered in Bangkok in 1965. He wrote at length about Koh Samui and perhaps it is the writings of Berrigan that helped to put Koh Samui on the tourist map of Thailand as a favourite destination. The mortal remains of Koh Samui's first American visitor were laid to rest on the island, according to his last wish.
All Photographs Mehru Jaffer