An Island of Joy in the South China Sea

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Koh Samui is one of the most beautiful bay islands in Thailand. Traditionally, the island has been a haven for fishermen hiding from the stormy waters of the South China Sea.

Malay pirates from the Straits of Malacca used the place to hide booty stolen from wealth-laden ships belonging to Chinese merchants. Fearing the Chinese, some local farmers had fled to the mountains.

Today, descendants of perhaps the same fishermen and pirates have turned the village into a bustling tourist destination. Boasting an endless carpet of white sand beaches and houses with triangular wooden roofs, it was only a matter of time before the whole world flocked to Koh Samui.

Koh Samui airport is one of the most beautiful in the world, with low roofs and airy cross ventilation. There is a nice shopping arcade that makes you want to miss a flight or two. Since the airport opened in 1989, more and more travelers have been flocking to the island.

Besides the paradisiacal landscape, what is most striking in Koh Samui is the diversity of its population. Each cultural and religious community has contributed over the centuries to enriching life on the island. The place is a living melting pot of a heterogeneous group of humanity.

Abdur Rahim at the kiosk selling some of the best pancakes in the world is from Myanmar, while Pandey Ji at Kohinoor, the Indian restaurant on Koh Samui is from Gorakhpur. The manager of a Thai massage parlor turned out to be French and most of the masseurs were Buddhists.

Meeting people from different parts of the world in Koh Samui is a gift of historical reality. The island’s past is as colorful as its present.

The end of the ancient Malay maritime period was followed by the expansion of the Vedic Hindu Empire which was part of the Kingdom of Srivijaya and founded by Mahayana Buddhist migrants from India.

The Kingdom of Srivijaya had united much of Southeast Asia from around the 7th century, until the region’s Hindu Brahmin and Buddhist culture 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. Besides the magnificent Theravada Buddhist temples, there is the majestic Masjid Nurulihsan where it is possible to obtain copies of the Quran translated into the Thai language.

The southeast end of the island is where the Muslim community lives. Most of them are fishermen and probably descendants of the South Sea Gypsies or the Orang Laut of old.

This community of sea pirates were once the lords of the southern seas. When the Portuguese colonized the area in 1511, pirates protected the Malaysian Sultan of Malacca from European colonizers.

Some of the pirates married members of the royal family and converted to Islam, eventually settling mainly in Malaysia. Some intermingled with mainland Thai locals before settling in Koh Samui.

International trade made Koh Samui even more cosmopolitan after the British, Dutch, Portuguese and other colonial powers opened up sea routes through the Strait of Malacca, the Gulf of Siam and the South China Sea. In the 1850s, the first seafaring Chinese traders came ashore to raise 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 of people in China, including in Hainan. Those who could, fled to Koh Samui to settle there, also taking advantage of the location as perfect access to trading posts in the southern region.

Hainan chicken, served with steamed rice, is the most delicious on the menu in most restaurants today! A good plate of Hainan chicken makes locals thank the Chinese for coming to Koh Samui years ago.

The first tourist

One of the first tourists to Koh Samui in the early 1950s was an American spy. Darrell G Berrigan was an intelligence officer during World War II, posing as a merchant in the silk trade. After the war ended, he remained as The New York Times correspondent.

He founded The world of Bangkok in 1957 and traveled to Koh Samui in 1952 on a coconut boat. After a week of sailing on her arrival on the remote island, she was considered a “museum piece” by fishermen seeing a stranger for the first time in their lives.

Berrigan was sadly murdered in Bangkok in 1965. He wrote extensively on Koh Samui and it was perhaps Berrigan’s writings that helped put Koh Samui on Thailand’s tourist map as a favorite destination. The mortal remains of the first American visitor to Koh Samui have been buried on the island, according to his last wishes.

All photographs Mehru Jaffer

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