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Photography by Channarong Janphong

Perhaps you have friends or family who have visited Thailand and told you of their experiences. If Samui will be your introduction to the Kingdom, bear in mind there are some similarities and some differences between islanders and city folk. To compare residents of Bangkok with those of Samui would be like comparing big city dwellers from any country in the world with those in the villages.

Samui is home to about 40,000 full-time inhabitants. Like the surrounding islands, it was first settled by ethnic Malay fishermen from the mainland, as well as immigrants from Southern China; at a time when the surrounding waters teemed with fish. Maps dating as far back as 1687 have the island identified as "Pulo Cornam," from the Malay. Little written history of the island exists, and most of the knowledge we have has been passed down through generations. There are two theories as to how the island was named. The first suggests that the name of a commonly-found tree called "mui" was lengthened at some point. The second, and probably more likely notion, is that "Saboey" which is a Chinese word for safe haven (certainly an apt description of the island's largely protected waters) was adopted by Chinese fishermen, and later become the name we use today.

Vestiges of the once thriving fishing communities can still be seen in villages such as Nathon and Maenam. Lucrative coconut and rubber farming industries also developed, and harvesting of these crops still takes place in the hills of the island's interior. Samui is home to more varieties of coconut palms than any other place on earth.

Until not much more than a decade ago, folks on Samui had scarcely seen foreigners. With the influx of tourists an industry sprung up, and thousands of jobs were created. Foreign currency flowed in, benefiting many. These former fishermen and farmers now suddenly competed to fulfill Western tastes and demands. But the well-known patient and adaptable nature of Thais, and the new opportunities that tourism represented, made it easy for them to accept the oddities of their new visitors with mostly good grace. Their entrepreneurial spirit helped compensate for their limited knowledge of other cultures, and many have succeeded remarkably well.

Most Thais are Buddhist, though a small percentage of the population is Muslim. You may wonder about the role religion plays here. In fact, the philosophy of Buddhist thought is more significant in the life of the average Thai than is the dogma of the religion. Most people don't allow themselves to get too worked up over the problems and minor inconveniences of this life, after all, it is only a passage into another one! Consider this, and the island's benign climate, its history of bountiful harvests from the land and sea, and the almost complete absence of the kind of strife that has devastated so many of the world's peoples, and it becomes easier to understand the "take life as it comes" approach which continues to astonish and perplex visitors.

If You're Staying Awhile

Thais are extraordinarily tolerant, and will not expect you to know the "Thai way" of doing things. They will overlook almost all your cultural faux pas. However if you would like to acclimate yourself as much as possible, there are many fairly simple adjustments you can make that are likely to surprise and in some cases delight people.

P.H.C.N.T. Tourism Association of Koh Samui.