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Clustered along the main kilometre-long drag from Nadan pier to Haad Sai Kaew, Ko Samet's tiny, not-so-charming village is a good place to find cheap rooms, meals, motorbikes and massages. There's even a bonafide local temple; wake up at dawn and you might catch a glimpse of ocher-robed monks making their daily alms round.
Most of the locals are transplants from all over eastern and northeastern Thailand who followed the promise of tourism money all the way to Samet. Some sell souvenirs, fruit and noodle soup from street carts, dwelling in shanty shacks that line the side streets. Others have opened small guesthouses, laundromats or restaurants that cater to budget travellers. If you happen to walk by in the evening when locals sometimes gather around cheap bottles of whiskey and a stereo pumping Isaan country music, don't be surprised if you're invited in for a drink and dance -- who said Thai islands lack "authentic" cultural experiences?
Backpackers and long-stayers may find that the village has everything they're looking for: inexpensive rooms with creature comforts, quality food, 7-elevens, fun bars and an eclectic mix of characters. For roughly the same price as a grotty fan bungalow with cold water on one of the beaches, you can settle into a modern air-conditioned room with TV, hot water and fridge in the village. Haad Sai Kaew is only a five- to ten-minute stroll even from the village's western reaches, and all of the beaches can be reached by rental motorbikes and ATVs that cost less here than elsewhere.
The other advantage of staying here is that you may very well avoid paying the 200 baht national park fee that's automatically collected from anyone who stays at the eastern beaches, which entails walking or being taxied past the national park gate with luggage in tow. Stay here and it's fairly easy to glide through in your swim suit unnoticed.
Most people turn left after emerging from the Nadan ferry dock on Ko Samet. Those who turn right get to see one of the island's quieter beaches, Ao Noi Na, which benefits from being relatively secluded yet close enough to the action for a change of pace. Even if you don't stay here, it's worth taking a stroll down the northern road to experience a different side of Samet.
The view from here is of Ban Phe and the mainland rather than out to sea. For some, this takes away from the thrill of being on an island. Others may find the view of distant blue peaks rather romantic.
Though ghosts of the 1980s still linger at one long-abandoned bungalow joint, the north coast is experiencing a resurgence. Ageing guesthouses rub shoulders with stylish new resorts featuring no shortage of the polished concrete that modern Thais seem to adore.
The northern coastal road's eastern side is dotted with modest local homes where we saw lots of burning garbage and carelessly discarded litter which is a great shame and we imagine wouldn't be too difficult to clean up and put a stop to. On the upside, it does get cleaner and quieter the further west you go, until you finally reach the road's end at Mooban Talay, which is arguably Samet's most romantic resort. The small beach here is decent, though it doesn't compare to some of the east coast bays.
A handful of Ao Noi Na's upscale resorts tend to attract well-heeled Thais on weekends, and some of them seemed surprised that a foreigner was inquiring about rooms. As with Ao Phrao, visit on a weekday and you could have a resort all to yourself.