Until the early 1980s, Koh Samet, a 6-km-long, lozenge-shaped island, just a short boat trip from the mainland, was home to a small community of fishermen and was visited by a few intrepid travellers. Even less than five years ago it was still reasonably low-key, but the massive influx of wealthy, weekending, mostly drunk Bangkok students and the arrival of mains electricity has transformed Samet. Much like other popular destinations in Thailand it has now evolved into a brash, badly planned place with terrible damage being done to the local environment and unsightly resorts and karaoke bars lining the beach. What’s even more surprising to outsiders is that Samet’s superb beaches are all part of a national park and should be protected, but the park rangers who man the entrance points to the island seem more content squeezing cash out of visitors than doing their jobs and Samet seems well on its way to ecological meltdown.
However, there is no doubt the island retains some beauty and if you can find a quiet spot to watch the sun rise or set – it’s easy to walk from the western to eastern side of the island – then it can still be an affable place. The famous 19th-century Thai romantic poet Sunthorn Phu retired to this beautiful island and, suitably inspired, proceeded to write his finest work, the epic Phra Aphaimani. The poem recounts the story of a prince, banished by his father to live with a sea-dwelling, broken- hearted giantess. Escaping to Koh Samet with the help of a mermaid, the prince kills the pursuing giant with his magic flute and marries the mermaid.
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