How to Live Like a Local in the Most Touristy City in Thailand
1. Stay for a Decent Amount of Time
Koh Samui is one of the bigger islands in the east bay of Southern Thailand. This place is very special to me, not because I fell in love with it instantly, or because of the weather, or temples, or anything like that. I love Koh Samui because I got to know the people there, Thai and western, and I got to know all the ins and outs of the Chaweng area.
Yes, this area is extremely touristy. When you look at it, it's nothing special. It's commercialized and there are overpriced tourist scams. You think, this isn't Thailand. And yes, it's not like Northern Thailand, and it isn't much like other parts of Thailand. I'm also not saying Koh Samui is the "best" place in Thailand.
What drew me to Koh Samui was the hostel I worked for. It's hard to describe the kind of family that the eight of us working there became. I only worked there for about six weeks, and in that short amount of time it became my home, with my family. Living in a hostel is like having all your coworkers as roommates, plus a flow of guests in and out every day. The guests we really got along with would extend their stays, and we'd all have a lot of fun. You don't get sick of seeing the same people every day at "home" and "work." This unique type of living situation is a catalyst for friendship.
My best experiences traveling have been places where I've stayed for a week or longer. When you just see the tourist sites in a place, you don't really get to know the city at all. Think of what you do back home. You're not going to see monuments and museums every day, you're going to the places you like the most. A local restaurant, cafe, bar, park or beach, etc.
And even in one of the most touristy cities, Koh Samui, I was able to feel like I had a true Thai experience, because I stayed for over a month and got to know Chaweng.
2. Know Your Neighbors and Eat the Food They Eat
Sakhon Kitchen was the open air restaurant no more than a minute away from our hostel. Not only was the food here good and cheap, the cooks were so friendly and nice. I didn't learn much Thai, but most of what I did know was from them. Every time any of my coworkers or I walked by, we'd get friendly waves and smiles.
Don't be afraid of the street food in Thailand. Some of it can be dodgy, but I've never gotten sick (although I don't eat meat, so that rules out a lot of what could be dodgy) in SE Asia. A lot of people get sick when they first get to Thailand because they aren't used to the spices, and maybe the type of bacteria there (I'm not too sure of the exact reason), but that's not because it's cooked outside, it's because they're just not used to the food.
Our hostel was across from a few different street food markets, and I all the food I had from them was as good as what I'd get in a restaurant. We were also next to one of the few outdoor local restaurants that was open all night, so sometimes we'd stumble in at 3 am and grab some cheap pad Thai or papaya salad to bring back to the lobby and eat while talking to guests as they'd filter in from a night out.
My point is, our hostel wasn't on the main street, and I was glad. The food around us wasn't overpriced like some (or most) of the places on Walking Street. If you go where the Thai people go, you won't feel like you're falling into tourist traps, and if you're friendly with them they'll treat you like a neighbor, rather than a foreigner.
Koh Samui, Thailand
3. Go to the Night Markets
Skip your fancy Western style dinner you might have at home and try a local night market instead.
We went to a couple different night markets in Samui. Now these were definitely touristy, and we could tell right away based on the price differences between here and the places next to the hostel. Not by much, though. These outdoor stalls were definitely a better experience than going to the westernized sit down restaurants with AC and comfy chairs, and the different options for food made them good places to take groups. We took the hostel guests out to one of these markets every night, so the people working at the markets were usually pretty happy with us filling several of their tables, and we were friendly with all the servers and cooks.
4. Don't Be Afraid of the Red Light District
A lot of people are totally unaware that Koh Samui even has a Red Light District. Others are completely put off by the fact that probably over half the prostitutes there are transgender. I always hate to hear people discriminate against transgender people. Thailand supposedly has the most amount of transgender people in the world, and people always ask why, but I find it pretty easy to understand. The general vibe I get from Thailand is that the people there are really accepting of LGBT individuals in comparison to pretty much every other country in the world. The US and UK are quite progressive as far as LGBTQIA goes in some regions, but there is so much hate and judgement, which is a huge deterrent to people openly coming out as anything that isn't "straight."
We would go to Samui's red light almost every night, not to pick up ladies, but to hang out at one of our favorite bars. Prostitution is so normal and widely accepted as normal in Koh Samui, as oppose to many, many other places.
Our friend, Nat, owns a restaurant, bar, and massage parlor, all in the red light. Her restaurant has great Thai and western food, and the bar has free pool. This was our favorite place to go before 12. There was always a dog there that would hang out with us, we were friends with the kids who came around to sell flowers, we'd put on our own music, and all the guests ended up loving it. The prostitutes who worked there were our friends.
Now the whole idea of the red light isn't to just go and get cheap drinks, but because we knew all the workers at "Nut's" they didn't care that we weren't there for massages and to pick up girls. We filled the bar while other bars on the street had a couple people or no one at all. Most importantly, we had a lot of fun.
5. Acquiring Weed
There must be a hundred articles listing the dos and don'ts about Thailand. I'm not trying to bestow my wisdom upon all you readers, I'm just trying to throw some things out there that you probably didn't consider.
Okay, so about weed (and drugs). Everyone always says no matter what, don't do any drugs in Thailand. And yeah, this is pretty sound advise, but most of the people I've met who live in Thailand smoke weed. So the better advise would probably be, don't be an idiot, don't buy drugs on the street. Meet some locals who you can actually trust, and don't buy drugs from anyone offering them.
There's a bar in Samui that even sells weed legally. They sell mushroom shakes too, but those I haven't tried. This is a chilled out reggae bar, and we love the bartenders there too. There are all kinds of weird rules in Thailand that you wouldn't see in a western country, so some bars get special rules. The other clubs that go beyond the laws of the city are run by the mafia.
6. Find Where the Thais Go in Clubs and Make Friends With the Bartenders
You won't get the most amazing music at the clubs in Thailand, especially if you're comparing them to the ones in Europe or the UK, but you can get a true taste of the Thai EDM at some places. At Sound Club, there's a little room in the back where all the Thai people go, and it's open until the wee hours of the morning.
Make sure you don't go home with a Thai girl, as she might be a prostitute and tell you you owe her money in the morning (this happened to one of our guests, it was hilarious). Or, if you don't mind paying, then sure, go home with a Thai girl.
Don't ignore the bartenders just because their English isn't the best. It's always nice to have a conversation with them, especially if you plan on returning to the bar in the future. We'd always go to the Ice Bar on Saturdays to play beer pong, and the bartenders there were a lot of fun to joke around with. Again, it's always nice to see friendly faces.
7. Find a Cheap or Free Taxi After a Late Night
Everyone will say this, but I'll just reiterate. Don't get ripped off by a taxi. Motorbike taxis are cheaper, so if you're just with one other person or you're alone, you might as well take one of these. And of course ask for the price before you hop on.
What you won't read on the internet is if you're a girl, you can probably get a motorbike taxi for free. Yeah, this goes against my feminist nature, but I have just about no money, and if I don't get a free taxi I just walk, so they're not losing any money by giving me a ride. Don't go up to a group of drivers waiting together, just walk along your route, and then when you see just one or two drivers, and they ask if you need a taxi, you can persuade them to take you for free if it's close enough.
This probably sounds sleazy of me, but gas for motorbikes costs almost nothing, and in truth it's probably a fifteen minute round trip for them when they'd probably just be sitting, waiting anyways. I didn't get paid when I worked at the hostel (I only got free accommodation), so I had to save all the money I could.
8. Go to Local Muay Thai
So everyone wants to see some Muay Thai when they're in Thailand. If you go to a big arena with some big shot fighters, you won't be let down, but if you're on a budget then you probably don't want to be spending 1,000-2,000 baht on a night (around 30-60 USD).
Well, you ever wonder where and when the amateurs practice? Or where the local people go to see a fight? There are probably dozens of local fighting rings throughout Thailand that we all just don't know about.
In Samui, we'd head to Lamai to go to a local Muay Thai spot. There were dozens or outside bars around the boxing ring, and to watch you'd just have to buy a drink (for about $3). A few hundred locals would come around to watch, and there'd be fights between kids as young as ten, up to about 18. There'd also be a balloon popping game for kids at the end, so yes, you could bring your family here and there'd be something for everyone.
9. Rent a Motorbike or Scooter
If you want to do things outside the vicinity of where you're staying, definitely rent a motorbike or scooter. With a bike you can see all the random streets and alleys you wouldn't normally go through, and you can make stops you wouldn't normally make in a taxi. And it's cheaper than a taxi.
You'll read and hear stories about passport scams and whatnot, so just simply ask a local who you trust, or a hostel or hotel worker where a good place to get one would be. I can never reiterate too much that the best thing to do, when you're questioning anything in a foreign city, is ask locals for advice. We rent our bikes for about 150 baht a day (about 4.75 USD).
Be smart when you're on the roads. I've seen dozens of westerners with gnarly scrapes and bruises from accidents. Also wear a helmet, because yes, it's smart and safer, but also because you can get a fine for not wearing one.