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Family Ties

Our writer finds that active bonding and luxury surroundings on Koh Samui provide an agreeable contrast to previous mother-son trips.

“Well, as long as it’s not Montseny Part 2,” says my mum with a look that is two parts amusement and one part dread. 

She’s joking, but the tone of her reply when I tell her that I’ve booked us into Napasai, a Belmond Hotel, Koh Samui for some active luxury bonding during her vacation in Thailand carries at least a hint of trepidation.

Napasai, a Belmond Hotel, Koh Samui

From epic multi-day walks in the Scottish Highlands to motorbike journeys on remote islands in Vietnam, we’ve had some memorable expeditions together over the last 40 or so years. Most have been relatively bare bones due in part to our (shared through blood and accident of birth) inherent Caledonian thriftiness.

My mum especially is accustomed to living modestly. On her regular visits to Southeast Asia – where I have now lived for a decade — she eschews expensive spas and upscale bars and restaurants in favor of street-food joints and downhome spots for massage. “I just like to live within my means,” is a refrain I’ve heard frequently as she demurs invitations to join my partner and I at the latest on-trend hotspots.  

Even cash-savvy Scots appreciate some pampering now and then though. So, with the pollution smog of Bangkok making escape and clean air an imperative, I took the executive decision to whisk us off to Samui. for a trip that would combine our joint love of active adventure with plenty of opulence. Just for a change. 

The plan was to tick off a list of activities ranging from a Muay Thai sampler to wild swimming underneath a waterfall. All the while enjoying the perks of one of Koh Samui’s most attractive resorts. It seemed like a perfect way to evolve our vacation pattern beyond the utilitarian and earn myself some elusive “good son” brownie points in the process.

Mum’s initial misgivings are, however, based on grim experience, specifically our most recent attempt to spend an extended period in such close vicinity: an ill-fated hiking trip in the coastal ranges of Catalonia.

A little village in the wooded foothills of the mountains, Montseny had seemed like the perfect base for our purposes. Late September, it turned out, was not the ideal time to be there. The rustic tabernas in the town kept irregular off-season hours – if they were open at all. Our cozy digs, meanwhile, turned out to be all too bijou, the paper-thin walls amplifying the slightest snore or bathroom sound.

Adding to the ennui was the presence in the village of marauding stray dogs, one of which added injury to insult by taking a chunk out of my hiking trousers during a beer break at a lonely hilltop bar where I’d gone solo to bemoan my lot in life one evening.   

These factors combined to engender strained inter-family relations that no amount of fresh mountain air could salvage. Therefore, it is no surprise that we are keen to avoid a re-run.

Thankfully for us both, this lavish sequel in the Gulf of Thailand turns out to be blissfully devoid of negative vibes.

Much of this is down to the resort itself: a secluded haven at Mae Nam Bay in the north of Koh Samui.

The location offers box-seat views of both sunrise and sundown as well as killer panoramas over the ocean towards the mountains of neighboring Koh Phangan.

Mae Nam Beach

This though is a five-star stunner with plenty of substance. Two on-site restaurants – Lai Thai and the oceanfront Beach – provide serious culinary chops.

Traditional Thai architecture inspired the sloping tile roofs and airy interiors of the villas and the common areas. While the mindful use of natural wood, hand-crafted furniture and subtle sea-inspired color schemes throughout the resort evoke an atmosphere that is understated rather than overblown.    

Mum, not unexpectedly, is overwhelmed. “This is really ours? We don’t have to share it with anyone else?” she asks disbelievingly as we make ourselves comfortable.

In fact, we could have taken the entirety of our stay to acclimatize to the surroundings of the villa. Unfortunately, someone (me) decided it would be a good idea to at least make a stab at some of the active pursuits on offer at and around the resort. We reluctantly leave our respective perches and make our way down to the beach where instructor Bo is waiting, stand up paddle board under his arm, to get us out on the water. 

Oceanfront Pool Residence

Thankfully, the resort knows its strengths lie more in pampering than in priming. And laid-back, smiley Bo is hardly an exacting taskmaster. A degree of klutziness and dissymmetry are family traits, but mum soon gets the knack of staying upright. Not before a gentle piece of guidance on paddle-stroke from Bo. “So handle it like an Amazonian fisherman handles his pole?” she asks cryptically. Neither Bo or I know what she means, but the result is positive and she glides across the azure water towards the setting sun. 

Next morning following breakfast things stray from languorous to relatively strenuous as we skip back over to the mainland for a hike through the jungle to Hin Lad waterfall.

No longer the archetypal backpacker idyll, Samui is now one of Thailand’s most visited destinations. But the nation’s second-largest island after Phuket retains numerous pockets of back-to-nature bliss. And it is these lesser-frequented reaches of the island that Dutch guide Femke Bartelse acquaints adventure-seekers with through her company, Hiking on Samui.

Hin Lad waterfall

We plot our way up the rocky path, stopping periodically to snap shots of chameleonic lizards and primeval-looking plants and trees. At the end of the trail, waterfalls tumble into a series of deep emerald pools.

There’s no jacuzzi here. But the natural foaming tub where the stream hits the pool proves an adequate surrogate. As we dry off in the sun, Femke whets our appetites for a more prolonged exploration of the island.

“Development has certainly changed Samui. And not always for the better. Fortunately, it’s concentrated in just a few areas,” she tells us. “The island is big enough that visitors can do everything from day hikes to multi-day camping expeditions through the central mountain ranges.”

It sounds very tempting, but it’s one for future reference. With sundown approaching, it’s time to motor it back up the island to our resort. Little over an hour later, we have taken up positions at Beach reinforced with choice nibbles and glasses of Riesling.

As the last of the light drains from the day, bathing the sky in kaleidoscopic washes of pink, red and orange, mum gives our experience the stamp of endorsement. “This was a really good idea wasn’t it?” 

A family vacation would be incomplete without a hiccup or two. And there are a couple of, shall we say, Montseny moments – notably when I miss a step when turning out the gazebo lights and nearly snap my leg in the void next to the infinity pool.

There’s time for one last activity before we go and it’s one we’ve both been savoring: Muay Thai.

I’ve been taking lessons in the martial art in Bangkok and find it a fine stress reliever. Mum has always wanted to give it a go. The session starts brightly as she circles the trainer on the balls of her feet.

Her movements mislay their bounce, and her jabs lose their fizz. “It’s not that I don’t like it,” she says apologetically, removing her gloves and sidling towards the exit. “But it’s my final morning here and, no offence, I really want to go back to the pool.”