Thailand’s Southern Isles: the good, the bad, and the unkosher

 

 

Click photo to download. Caption: Lipa Noi Beach on the Ko Samui island of Thailand. Credit: Manfred Werner via Wikimedia Commons.

By Orit Arfa/JNS.org

Among Thailand’s most sought-after tourism destinations are the tropical islands—Ko Samui, Koh Pha Ngan, and Ko Tao. Israeli regulars to Thailand will offer several reasons for why they keep coming back: the beautiful beaches; luxury resorts that can go for $50/night; cheap, professional massages on every corner ($12/hour on average); and the smiles of the Thai people.

An hour and a half flight from the capital of Bangkok, Ko Samui is the largest of the trio and forms the crux of Israeli tourism. Walk down the bustling, main thoroughfare of Chaweng, the island’s popular tourist hub, and you’ll be accosted with “shalom” if you look the least bit Israeli, especially by restaurateurs, coconut vendors, and masseuses (the “kosher” kind). How bad could that be? But choose restaurants wisely. If you keep “kosher style,” you must tell servers you are deathly allergic to oyster, shrimp, or prawns, as the slippery creatures seem to be the national spice. For safe fish and sushi, try the chic Tai by Red Snapper or the Western-style Wine Collection located right near the handy-dandy Starbucks and a plush mall.

You can expect a Thai server to answer “yes” to anything you say, which is why is one reason why several Israeli ex-pats have made successful businesses on the island. Hummus bars and Israeli cafes, like Basilicom, dot the crowded street, and branches of Israeli tourism operators, like IsraTours and LaMetayel, can give you real, straight answers. Use these operators if you want to book nature tours that are the island’s specialty: outings in 4-by-4s to elephant and crocodile shows, waterfalls, and Buddhist temples. But the adventurer’s mystique has faded ever since Thailand became an Israeli hotspot decades ago. The Thai tourism machine is well-oiled, and according to veteran tourists, increasingly expensive. But that doesn’t mean the Thai crocodile trainers will be afraid to stick their head inside a crocodile’s mouth—you won’t see that at Sea World!

Click photo to download. Caption: A cart selling "the famous Israeli falafel" in Ko Samui, Thailand. Credit: Orit Arfa.

Chaweng is the place for wild nightlife. Several bar compounds advertise beers for about $3.50—not exactly competitive prices when compared to beer guzzling European capitals. “Ladyboys” (Thai drag queens) riding on scooters are also a common site, a proud declaration, perhaps, of Thailand’s developed sex tourism industry. On some nights, you could hear Mizrachi music blasting from a truck advertising Koko Bar—but steer clear. It’s loud and seedy. While Thailand is steeped in Buddhism, as one tour guide put it, according to the national religion everything goes—as long as you’re a good person. 

Those in search of Jewish spirituality should opt for Chabad’s Friday night services, about five minutes away from “hookers row,” a grimy street lined with unkosher massage parlors and Thai prostitutes who are known to call Israelis “kamtzan” (miser) if they refuse their aggressive advances. But Chabad is the cure. A mixture of post-army trekkers, partiers, honeymooners, and businessman unite with the tribe for beautiful song and divrei Torah provided by Rabbi Mendy’s outgoing, wholesome daughters. 

If you want to go easy on the sleazy, try the quieter Ko Samui beaches, like Lamai Beach, home to brand-name and specialty five-star resorts. 

But Koh Phan Ngan, about an hour ferry ride away, is the honeymooner’s paradise—as long as you avoid the electronic “Full Moon” raves. Here, you won’t even need to step out onto the streets. Just book a luxury resort, like the incredible, luscious, and alarmingly affordable Santhiya Resort and Spa, where Thai employees literally bow to you at every turn, making you feel like Buddha. The wood-carved furniture of the rooms, the eucalyptus smelling spa, and the garden pool overlooking the ocean make it the place to spend time with that one person with whom you don’t mind being stuck on a deserted island. 

Click photo to download. Caption: Israeli tourist Lani Matsil at a safari in Thailand. Credit: Orit Arfa.

For the yuppy who wants more of a Western vibe, take the ferry to Ko Tao. Nary a Thai local could be seen walking the streets—just the occasional ladyboy who seems be there more for decoration purposes. Parties on the shore, like at Lotus Beach Bar, sometimes look like they’re a scene from an MTV spring break party, with scantily clad, drunk women playing limbo with flaming poles. But it’s like the ingathering of the singles—in part because Ko Tao is dedicated to a specific activity: diving. At Ko Tao, stick to a seaside resort since the walk inland is hilly, unless you’d like to rent a scooter for a few bucks a day. Note: On all islands, beware of pickpocketing—stolen phones and wallets are not uncommon.

Almost all tourists spend a few days in Bangkok. Israelis love to shop for those Rolex, Ralph Lauren, and Armani knock-offs. The MBK knock-off souk is overrated, so try instead the hippy-haven Kaho San Road. Bangkok’s mall-culture is first class; there seems to be a mega-mall on every corner of the main artery, Sukhumvit. Use the tuk-tuk to get around and feel the city, and make sure you try the Thai street food (but remember the allergy trick). Day tours of the Buddhist temples or a nearby safari could be booked at most hotels for about $50; just bear in mind the tour guide may be more of an escort since English is not their forte. 

For the ultimate Israeli and Jewish welcome, see the famous Cabaret show, in which Thai transvestites put on an elaborate, surreal, blue and white, semi-professional rendition of “Hava Nagila.” It’s an apt tribute to the entire Thailand-Jewish-Israeli experience.  

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Posted on December 10, 2015 and filed under Features, Travel, World.