Jul 20, 2021 • 6M

Couchfish Day 239: It seemed like a good idea

Some dreams are best left as dreams

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Stuart McDonald
The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.
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Who hasn’t been there? You’re relaxing in a hammock under a couple of palms out front of your bamboo and thatch beachside hut. It is late afternoon, with a light sea breeze and the sun is getting ready to set. Someone just brought you an iced Chang beer and a plate of noname.

Then you think “Hell, I could run a place like this. How hard could it be?”

The sun setting from Bang Rak Beach, Ko Samui. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Let me tell you a story from years ago.

Jeff and Sarah* are late twenties Brightonites who arrived in Thailand about a year earlier. It was their first time to Southeast Asia and it took them only days to fall in love with the country. A few months later they walked along one of Ko Samui’s quieter beaches searching for a guesthouse. Towards the eastern end of the beach they found what felt like the perfect spot.

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It was a rustic take on fall-down. The type of bamboo and wood job that looks like it could blow away in the next storm. All the huts needed work. The kitchen was a disaster area.

Ko Samui is not short of pretty spots. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

But it had a great vibe. The owner, Chok, was an islander, a young, fit, English–speaking Thai guy who got around in a sarong and not much else. His disarming manner beyond welcoming. The food and drinks were cheap. The bungalows, almost free.

They moved in and two months later were still there. They felt they’d grown to know Chok and his family quite well. “Good people” they told me. Chok had inherited the land from his father, and told them he built the place himself—it looked like it, they said.

Samui’s interior also delivers. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

The thing was, he was charging so little he was barely staying afloat. His place was semi–popular, but most backpackers headed to neighbouring Ko Pha Ngan. He was rarely full—even in high season.

Jeff and Sarah had money, and they loved both the place and the vibe. They imagined the potential if some money was invested into Chok’s digs. Thailand was the first stop in what was to be a two year trip for them. They planned to later work in Australia to replenish their cash reserves, then head to South America.

Read more about Ko Samui on Couchfish:

Laying around, the three of them hatched a deal. Jeff and Sarah would lease the resort for five years. During that time they’d turn it around, turn it into a mint, and after five years, give it back to Chok and continue their travels.

Expect food from all over the country. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Understandably, Chok thought that was a great idea. It took a month or so to do all the paperwork, change visas and so on. When it was all done and signed off, they threw a small celebratory party.

I walked into their place about eight months later.

The resort was, to be kind, falling apart, but, like Jeff and Sarah, I loved the vibe and was not bothered by the rustic. The potential as a backpacker hangout was clear.

I mentioned the food right? Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Not long after the party, Chok vanished. Then the staff quit. Jeff and Sarah were from a finance industry background—they had the dosh, but not the expertise. They went through cooks quickly, often Sarah doing the cooking in between. Meanwhile, as Sarah put it, Jeff was busy learning what a hammer and nails were.

The math quickly unravelled. Despite them considering themselves residents, locals saw them as short–timers. Costs were higher than what they had been for Chok—they had to nudge up their prices. Manual labour was expensive and erratic. My grim favourite of their tales concerned the builder hired to replace the roofs. He removed them all then never returned. Petty theft from the huts and kitchen became a persistent problem.

No shortage of potential on Ko Samui. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

They said it was a steep learning curve, but, determined to make it work, they pressed on. The thing was, despite the warning klaxons from their bank manager, it was so pretty it was hard to not keep going. Next month things will improve.

When they took over the place, to the left and right sat small coconut plantations—vacant land. The area was far from Ko Samui’s most developed, but their spot was particularly natural.

Six months in, to their great surprise, Chok built a flotsam beach bar next door.

Stormy conditions ahead. Lipa Noi. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

It turned out he had inherited that land too. He used a portion of the money Jeff and Sarah had paid him to build the bar. It was a cool spot. If there was one thing Chok could do, it was to nail the beach shack vibe so many backpackers love.

He explained to Sarah and Jeff that this would be good for everyone as they could feed off each others’ business. They were not convinced, but what choice did they have? They went along with it.

Then he undercut their drink prices.

Time inches past on Mae Nam Beach. Photo: David Luekens.

Budget bungalows make their money on food and beverages rather than the huts. Their guests started buying their beers from Chok’s, so they complained to him but he wouldn’t budge. They considered asking their guests not to buy from him, but felt that was uncool. They dropped their prices to match, then Chok dropped his again.

It was a race to the bottom. Tempers frayed.

By the time I arrived around two months after the bar opening, matters were tense but civil. Despite being determined to see it through, Jeff and Sarah felt cheated. When I suggested they had been pretty naive going in, then nodded.

There’s always another island. Dawn over Ko Samui from neighbouring Ko Taen. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

“Live and learn,” they said. Of the two, Sarah was the more philosophical about the unravelling experience. Yes, they were losing money, but in their scheme of things, not a lot. They’d made some good friends and had some very happy guests. She gestured out to the beach and sea and commented on how beautiful it was. The reasons they’d fallen in love with the place, Thais and Thailand remained rock solid.

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The next time I returned to Samui a couple of years later, Jeff, Sarah, the bungalows and the bar were all gone.

The palms though, remained.

* Jeff, Sarah and Chok are not their real names—I have forgotten their names sorry!