Mind the elephant
While renting a private holiday villa in destinations like Phuket or Koh Samui, you may decide the best way to explore the island, head off on a shopping excursions or dine out at a restaurant is to hire a car. Touring the islands' highways and beach roads in a rented vehicle is a great way to go beyond the beaten track, as long as you're prepared to adapt to the local road rules.
"What's that?" my wife asked as we slowed right down behind an old truck and began to climb a steep hill that separated two of Koh Samui's west coast beaches, "Is there an elephant in that truck?"
Indeed there was, and our proximity to it, although fascinating, was something of a concern. The beast seemed quite relaxed, but one mis-guided step backwards and the weighty pachyderm could have easily crashed through the flimsy rope that surrounded it and fallen, sizeable bottom first, onto the hood of our hire car.
Such large mammalian sightings are far from commonplace, even on Thai islands, but on a holiday drive around Koh Samui or Phuket you are almost guaranteed to encounter at least one unusual roadside moment that will make you wish your passenger had a camera at the ready. An entire family squashed onto a single motorbike is a common jaw dropping sight, or a pick-up truck laden with so much cargo — cardboard, plastic bottles, coconuts or even people — that it seems to defy the laws of physics.
Then of course there are the views. The meandering coastal roads on island's in Thailand climb and dip from bay to bay offering regular glimpses of the glistening waves and palm framed beaches with forested peaks towering over the views like lush sentinels. Reaching the crest of a hill and descending into the waiting vista makes for a particularly thrilling part of any island drive and in some places you may also find yourself whizzing along right by the shore, which is especially memorable if you time the excursion to coincide with a legendary Thai sunset.
Of course, it's important not to let all these visual wonders distract you from the serious business of driving, especially on steep inclines and sharp bends, which is why it is fortunate the local governments and astute businesses folk on these islands have made sure there a plenty of opportunities to stop and enjoy the seascapes. Purpose built viewpoints have been constructed at some of the best spots around the islands and tenacious builders have also put up bars, restaurants and hotels that cling to the side of the cliffs, inviting their guests to sit right in the view rather than simply enjoy it from the car.
Roads are very much a part of everyday local life in Thailand, from the famous street stalls in the main tourist areas of Bangkok to the fresh markets and eateries of every size and description that occupy corners and line the lanes in most of the nation's towns and villages. This means you'll never go hungry, even on a long drive, and as you traverse the island it can be fun to stop off and savour some of the local street side fruit or delicacies to boost your energy while you explore new areas.
Although modern petrol station have sprung up even on smaller island like Koh Samui, a very practical roadside amenity is the local petrol stand. Enterprising villages fill old whisky bottles with gasoline to refuel passing motorbikes, charging a little more than pump prices for the convenience of an easy stop. This is particularly useful if you run low during a island tour as you can top up with a fuel litres and ask the way to the nearest larger refilling station.
A word of caution
Driving in Thailand comes with its own special set of challenges and this is even more true on holiday islands where the enforcement of road rules can be relaxed at best and not everyone behind the wheel has passed or even taken a full driving test. Add to the that the fact that scooters are a constant hazard as they weave in and out of the traffic at will, many of them driven by tourists with little or no experience on a two wheeled machine, and the need for caution becomes very real.
On Phuket, a six lane bypass runs through the centre of the island, which can get jammed during peak hours, but which also makes longer trips reasonably swift. Plans are even in place for an underpass. By contrast, Koh Samui has only a modest island ring road, and although it has recently been widened and asphalted, it is still far from a major thoroughfare and it can therefore be quite a test to circumnavigate the island.
Despite the challenges, however, a gentle (and careful) drive around either of these stunning islands offers a rare road trip experience and will certainly give you a few mammoth tales to take home that will beat the standard moans and groans about traffic jams roadworks from your neighbours and colleagues at work.
Of course, if you don't feel like driving, you can easily hire someone else to do the work while you lose yourself in the view.