Among the Gulf islands, book passage with Seatran, which has been riding the waves for 30 years
It’s not so much fear of flying over open water that puts bums on the seats of ferryboats to get from Surat Thani to Koh Samui and back. It’s all about the bloody convenience and, well sure, the vastly cheaper fare.
Seatran Ferry, which has been in business for 30 years – not counting a brief hiatus that ended in 2002 – gets its passengers from Donsak Pier in Surat Thani to Nathon Pier on Samui Island in 120 minutes. Its boats are chugging back and forth every day from 5am to 7.30pm.
Up to 600 people and 80 vehicles can fit on the ferry. Passengers pay Bt150 each and another Bt400 to Bt470 if they have a vehicle, the rate varying with vehicle size.
Note that you cannot take your car to Samui on a plane – unless you’re very rich or very well connected.
“Ferryboat services are being used more and more by Thai and foreign tourists,” says Seatran general manager Benjawan Tanphaibul.
“There’s a rumour about a new concessionaire who’s going to jump-start the business, but it isn’t easy because of the huge investment and high maintenance costs involved.
“Sustaining our business requires continual improvements in service, with many fine experiences, as well as maintenance. We have our own shipyard with inspections and maintenance checks every two years,” she says.
One of the “fine experiences” Benjawan refers to is an auspicious pre-cruise van drive to Wat Donsak, home to the world’s largest statue of revered monk Luang Phor Thuat (1582-1682).
On boarding the ferry, passengers tend to spread out according to personal preference. Some take up positions at the stern to enjoy the views of the Gulf and the islands. Others grab a seat indoors to read or chat or take a nap. I was in a group holding “frequent traveller” cards and we had our own private space.
Boredom doesn’t seem to be a factor on the journey, not with a coffeeshop, a well-stocked mini-mart and a place to get your feet massaged for 45 minutes for Bt300.
“Our passengers can feel safe because we have all the basic equipment, such as lifejackets and life rafts,” says Benjawan. “We’re registered as a ‘coastal ship’ so we don’t need to have dinghies. It’s only a 34-kilometre crossing, so rescue vessels could reach us quickly if there were an emergency.”
On arrival on Koh Samui, we ride another van up into the hills, to the Fair House Beach Resort & Hotel. There’s a stop along the way at Lad Koh Viewpoint, between Chaweng and Lamai beaches. It offers a wonderful vista, making you appreciate the island’s incredible natural beauty.
A walk down to the beach and a hop across rocks being attacked by tumultuous waves affords more great photos. We make plans to return the next day and catch what promises to be a stunning sunrise.
Waking early the next morning, we’re ready for another ferry ride, this one on the high-speed, 200-passenger Seatran Discovery from Samui’s Bangrak Pier to Koh Phangan. The ride, naturally popular with revellers headed to the monthly full-moon parties on Rin Beach, takes 30 minutes and costs Bt350.
From there you can get to Koh Tao on yet another ferry, but that trip takes up to three hours.
Koh Phangan has another attraction that surely tops a rave party. Than Sadet Waterfall National Park is so named – it means “he visited” – because the visitor was King Rama V, who came in 1889 to see the waterfall. He was impressed enough to have the royal monogram inscribed prominently on a rock, where it still can be seen.
And then there’s the Yang Na Yai tree with a circumference of 14.6 metres a height of 53.5 metres. A sign erected by the Department of Rural Roads in 2013 puts the tree’s age at about 400 years.
Our jaws were still slack when we reached Mae Haad Beach in time for low tide, when it’s possible to walk over to little Koh Ma on sand that’s “ocean floor” the rest of the day.
Apart from the “separated sea”, visitors come for the beautiful white sand of the beach itself, the sunsets viewed over Koh Ma and some of the best snorkelling and diving on Koh Phangan.
Foreigners swimming in the clear waters off the beach could be seen from the Koh Raham Restaurant & Beach Bar perched on a small rocky outcrop, a nice spot for a coffee break.
Back on Samui, time was rewardingly spent at the Phra Yai Market near Nathon Pier and the Bophut Fisherman’s Village, a walking street packed with tourists struggling to decide what to buy and where to eat. There’s a lot on offer.
At Hinta Hinyai you hear the story of an elderly couple killed in a storm during a sea journey. There’s a shrine to Guan Yu, the Chinese god of war who espoused not just bravery and courage but also honesty, loyalty, gratitude and ethical behaviour.
And at the restaurant Wang Sarai there is a to-die-for dish among the Hainanese treats called moo kho, which got its name from a technique in food preservation but now, happily, is another memory to be preserved.
Off on a sea cruise
There are three ways to book passage on the Seatran Ferry. Get a membership card so you can use the Call Centre (077 950 559). Otherwise, visit the Seatran Ferry Office or go online to www.SeatranFerry.com.