At one end of Lamai Beach, a modestly dressed woman cleans fish before arranging them on racks to dry in the sun. If she pauses to glance down the mile-long stretch of white sand she will see a naked woman emerge from the sea, toss aside her mask and snorkel, and recline into a hammock slung between two palm trees.
The first woman -- a native of the Thai island of Ko Samui -- has been processing fish on the beach for as long as she can remember. Simple economics dictate that for her, travel abroad will never be more than a dream. The second woman, a traveler from America, is convinced she has discovered heaven. She wishes she could stay on the island forever. Although their destinies lie poles apart, the women represent two life styles that coexist comfortably on one of the most beautiful islands in the world.
Ko Samui is the largest island in the western reaches of the Gulf of Thailand. The same swaying palms that shade dozing tourists are the backbone of the island's economy -- revenue from the 24 million coconuts exported each year provides the primary income of its 30,000 permanent residents. Many, however, are leaving the security of the palms to reap a more lucrative harvest from the mounting hordes of visitors.
Evidence of Ko Samui's growing popularity among travelers from the Americas, Europe, Britain and Australasia is found in the crammed pages of paste restante (general delivery) books at the main post office. Its idyllic palm-lined beaches are becoming temporary homes for more and more healthy-looking sun-worshipers who are deemed overdressed if they appear in more than a G-string.
Articulate entrepreneurs -- many of whom have immigrated from the mainland -- go out of their way to provide everything imaginable for the free-spending foreigners. Income disparities between the tourists and their hosts are so great that both parties believe they are living in the land of the endless bargain.
Visitors content to soak up the sun and play in the surf can do so very cheaply. Comfortable seaside bungalows, complete with mosquito nets and baths, cost less than $39 U.S.) per night double. Delicious Thai dishes and iced frit shakes are also ridiculously cheap.
Glossy postcards generally flatter their subjects, although the opposite is true of those trying to depict Ko Samui. Few still photographs could capture the atmosphere of peaceful retreat that oozes daily from the surroundings and is worn on the faces of the island's converts. Heaven's Ko Samui branch -- from the endless beaches to the Thai food to the friendly hospitality -- has to be experienced to be believed. The only drawback is the inflated price of beer.
Isolation from the main tourist routes ensures the island is not overcrowded, although the calm threatened by the scheduled October opening of the first airport. Some will welcome this new means of transportation. The ferries that ply the waters between Ko Samui and the mainland have developed an unfortunate habit of sinking.
Eyewitnesses to a recent ferry accident, in which two boats collided and capsized, said one of the skippers was asleep at the wheel. All passengers were rescued, much to the relief of the Tourist Authority of Thailand. But things did not go so smoothly in 1976, when a ferry bound for the island hit a submerged sandbar and 25 people drowned.
Others fear that a new airport will attract a more affluent class of tourist, closely followed by upscale hotel chains. They fear property values will soar, pricing the island heaven beyond their reach.
Perhaps one day naked sunbathers will be replaced by pale socialities sipping martinis behind tinted windows on an air-conditioned sixth floor. But at the end of the beach, Thai women still will be cleaning fish and arranging them on racks to dry in the sun.
Geoff Mein is a free-lance writer.