It’s the Fourth of July, America’s independence day, and we’re spending it relaxing on a gulf island in central Thailand. Later in the day, we’ll make our way back to Bangkok to catch a late flight back to Vientiane.
One of Lori’s work conferences brought us across the border this time, but we’ve managed to bookend that with an extra week split between Bangkok and Koh Samet. After nine months of living in Laos, we’ve finally managed to visit the beaches in Thailand. Koh Samet lies about five hours east of Bangkok, making it the closest major beach island to the capital. Suffice it to say, it’s been nice getting to finally visit Thailand for something other than a medical emergency.
Yesterday, our last full day on the island, we continued our search for the perfect beach, which fell on the heels of a fun day of cove-hopping down the eastern shore to Ao Thian. Our plan for this particular day, however, was to take a songteau from Ao Tubtim (where we’re staying) down to Ao Wai, a beach we’ve only heard good things about but that is a bit out of walking distance. Could it end up being the perfect beach? We’ll see.
Before hitting the road south, we enjoyed a leisurely morning having breakfast along the beach with both feet in the sand before putting Noe down for a nice long nap back at the bungalow.
Getting to Ao Wai from Tubtim was easy. We simply hopped on a songteau waiting outside of the resort and were off. Getting back was a different story, but we’ll get to that.
Lori and I have been putting together a running criteria over the past decade for our idea of the perfect beach. First off, it must be stated that we aren’t [yet] surfers, so our idea of the perfect beach differs significantly from our friends who are. Ideally, our perfect beach would meet all of the below:
Our [Ever-Evolving] Criteria for the Perfect Beach
Tropical climate — call us crazy, but we like to be hot at the beach.
Warm surface temp — doesn’t have to be bathtub warm, but something close is preferable.
Pristine, fine sand — trash is the biggest beach bummer…right up there with skunked beer.
Crystal clear water — again, this is our criteria for the perfect beach, but certainly not a requirement for fun beach time. Something to see while snorkeling (tropical fish, etc.) are an added bonus.
Still water/ low surf — little, lapping waves are relaxing. A beach with big, skull-crushing, washing machine waves, however, is probably not going to make our top ten.
Small tide differential — nothing like having the water a mile out most of the afternoon, only to have it return at high tide as an angry stew of trash, kelp and brown muck.
Tree-lined — palm trees are always nice, but we’ll take anything native that casts a bit of shade on a hot day — we like to be hot, but we prefer not to bake in the tropical sun for hours on end (particularly with baby in tow).
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Small crowds — I’ve been on plenty of deserted tropical beaches and I’d gladly give up being the only one for a smattering of other beachgoers widely distributed across the area if it means access to a few services and amenities.
A few services and amenities — our least favorite beaches are the built up kind a la Waikiki, but it’s nice to have a nearby beach bar and snack shack for grabbing a cold one and a bite to eat without leaving the beach.
Alcohol allowed — again, we’re talking perfect beach. There are plenty of amazing beaches that we’ve visited that don’t allow alcohol, but we’ve also been to dozens that do. As long as the latter exists, they’ll generally top our list — not just for the sake of being able to consume alcohol, but also because it generally means a more relaxed, laid back vibe, in general.
Beach shower — I love me a good rinse after a long day at the beach. Obviously, having a beach-front bungalow takes care of this. In every other case, a nearby freshwater source (even a garden hose, tap, or spring) is a much welcome amenity.
No motorsports — For some people, going to the beach is all about adrenaline. Not us. When we’re at the beach, we want to relax, meditate, commune with the sea, etc. Speedboats, jet skis, ferries and motor gliders impede achieving these objectives.
Comfortable vibe — No touts, no “beach boys,” no dune buggies, not too many regulations, no sharks, no lethal jelly fish, no security issues. Just a relaxed, friendly tropical beach vibe where no one is in a hurry to do anything but relax.
Affordable — Sure, anyone with a few million to burn could easily tick all the boxes here. But what about the rest of us? We’re only concerned here with what mere mortals can reasonably access and afford.
With that out of the way, let’s get back to Ao Wai. Does today’s beach meet our criteria? It’s worth mentioning that in the dozens and dozens of beaches we’ve visited, many have come close, but none have managed to tick every box. They don’t call it the perfect beach for nothing! So what about Ao Wai?
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Well, dang. Ao Wai is about as perfect as they come. I doubt Lori and I are going to find anything better than this little gem of a strand.
Tropical climate, warm, clear water? Check. Clean, comfortable vibe? Check. Services and amenities? Check (there’s one mid-range resort on this beach, with a public bar and a restaurant).
Snorkeling? Check! (some of the best snorkeling on the island around the rocky headlands flanking the beach).
Freshwater source for rinsing? Check. (well, we used a garden hose between two bungalows…not exactly ideal, but mission accomplished).
No motorsports. Check! (public ferries don’t service this beach and we didn’t see a private speedboat the entire time).
Crowds? In the high season, we have no idea. But in early July, nada. Just a handful of other visitors on the far end of the beach. I’d suspect, however, that even in high season, Ao Wai remains pretty chill considering it’s location in the more isolated southern part of the island.
So, what’s missing?
Well, accessibility. If we were staying here, we’d feel pretty cut off from the amenities on the rest of the island. But if the beach was more accessible, it would also be busier. I’ll take relative isolation over crowds any day.
A small beach bar would be nice, as would a beachside shower, but hey, now we’re getting into the nitty gritty. Again, this beach is about as perfect as they come.
Noe obviously approves.
Okay, Noe — this is the beach standard by which all others will be judged over your entire lifetime. Probably best that you likely won’t have any memory of it, I suppose.
In addition to making sandcastles, watching Noe scurry around like a hermit crab, and “swimming” with him in the warm waters of the Gulf of Thailand, I managed to get a couple of snorkeling forays in as well.
The outer edges of Ao Wai are rocky and perfectly suited for spotting all sorts of marine life. Conditions weren’t ideal on this particular day, but good enough to justify bringing my mask and snorkel all the way from Laos. Visibility was pretty good up front, but quickly deteriorated as a storm came in, so I was happy I got my snorkeling in early.
Lori and I have spent enough time on beaches in the tropics to know that conditions are highly changeable and unpredictable — one moment it can be hot, sunny and perfectly calm, while the next can be anything but. For this reason, if the sun’s out on arrival, I always try and snap the majority of my pics up front, as there’s no telling what the weather will do. That’s exactly what I did today and am grateful for it, as about 90 minutes after we arrived, the wind kicked up and storm clouds rolled in, blotting out the sun and muting the neon aqua-marine hues.
We spent another hour or so enjoying this little slice of paradise before starting our journey back.
When we were dropped off on the main road, we were reassured by the presence of a couple of waiting songteaus. “That makes things easy!” we thought. So, we were a bit surprised to return to the taxi stand to find it completely vacant. No worries, we’ll just catch the next songteau that passes by.
30 minutes rolled by and not a single songteau. With a storm brewing, things were not looking good to say the least. In hindsight, we should have just hoofed it back down to the beach and arranged a songteau through the resort. At the time, we knew that that would cost about twice as much as catching something on the road. So instead of going back to the resort, we started to walk north along the main road with the knowledge that the price would go down the closer we got to our resort.
It’s only about a two mile walk from Ao Wai to Ao Tubtim, but a hilly one at that. The road goes from just above sea level to around 200 feet three times along those two miles. Combine that with the afternoon heat and humidity (and packing a one-year-old) and it can be pretty brutal.
Thirty minutes into our journey back, we finally spotted a songteau traveling south. Fortunately, the songteau was not on a call and flipped a U-y to pick us up. The upside of all this (besides getting a killer hamstring workout in) was we only had to pay a fraction of what we would have from Ao Wai, but in hindsight, we gladly would have paid full price.
We spent our final evening on Koh Samet having a low key dinner on the beach and turning in early, but not before finally catching a fire dancer.
Getting from Koh Samet to Suvarnabhumi Airport
The next day, the return ferry ride back to Ban Phe was grey and uneventful. We were flying out of Suvarnabhumi and weren’t quite sure how the rest of the connection between Ban Phe and the airport would pan out. It was hard to find reliable information ahead of time for making the trip in the least amount of time with the fewest connections as possible. We initially thought we’d have to take a bus or minibus all the way back to Ekamai (Bangkok Eastern Bus Terminal), passing the airport along the way — then get a taxi or take the BTS SkyTrain eastward again to the airport.
Fortunately, we were able to catch a minibus at the Ban Phe pier direct to Suvarnabhumi for a little over twice the amount of the public bus (US$15 total for the two of us, including our luggage). Transit time was around three hours, saving us around two hours of additional travel time — pretty significant by any measure, but particularly traveling with a one-year-old.
We got to the airport with plenty of time to spare before our flight — both a blessing and a curse with Noe. Per the usual, our flight was delayed, so we went about the task of keeping Noe on an even keel, so to speak, as the evening turned into night.
Once airborne, we faced further delay. We found ourselves circling the skies north of Bangkok for thirty minutes waiting for a thunder storm to move through the Vientiane area. After nearly 12 hours in transit, our prop plane finally touched down on storm-soaked Vientiane. One final 20-minute cab ride later, we were happy to be home after eleven fun and eventful days down south in Thailand.