Coconuts play a big part of life on Samui. Find out how to enjoy them best.
What’s the first thing you think about when mentally picturing a tropical island? Most will answer with a beach scene complete with white sand and coconut palms. Well in that case, Samui fits the picture, particularly with the coconut palms.
Even though the palm tree has become synonymous as a symbol of Samui, it was only fairly recently that the coconut became the largest export from the island. Although there were always coconuts, over the years, Samui farmers gradually turned the island into a substantial coconut plantation.
As the island’s industry grew, so did the local farmers’ income, as they were able to negotiate a good price for their crops. Their increased wealth didn’t go unnoticed by people from the mainland and so Samui’s native farmers were joined by people from other areas of Thailand who also wanted to benefit from the island’s growing economy. The legacy of the islands early coconut farmers is still apparent today as Samui proudly boasts more varieties of coconuts than anywhere else in the world. A few years ago, the island’s coconut farmers suffered a knock as hundreds of trees started to lose their fronds and die off. After much research, it was discovered that a non-indigenous beetle was the culprit, brought in from South Africa accidentally when resort owners ordered plants from there. The only solution was to cut down the affected trees and kill the beetles. The agricultural department worked hard at reviving the industry that suffered a 20% drop in production from the beetle infection. They looked at how tourism could help, and visitors were invited to donate 300 baht to plant a new palm and have their name on a tree. You can still see patches of tall trunks with no frond heads attached, but the industry seems to have survived the setback.
Until recently, coconut production was Samui’s main industry, and is now second only to tourism. Every month, Samui supplies Bangkok with over two million coconuts. These are harvested from the approximately three million trees that grow on the island, each of which produces around 70 coconuts per year. That’s a lot of nuts!
The coconut tree and its products play a big part of island life and there’s more to this tree than just swinging in a hammock between two sturdy palms. And on that note, best to check that there are not coconuts directly above your head when stringing up your hammock. A blow from a falling nut can kill. Apparently, 150 people worldwide suffer this fate annually. Although Samui is one of Thailand’s tourist hot spots, what makes it different to the larger island of Phuket is the fact that there is a written rule that no building may be taller than the nearest coconut palm. Now while the palms can grow quite tall, this law still keeps the skyscrapers away. And although you may see four-storey hotels, most resorts remain the bungalow or villa type.
Coconut harvesting monkeys, specifically pig-tailed Macaques, are trained on the mainland, in a special school in Surat Thani. The school is family run, and has been in operation since 1957. Their training methods are humane and trainers develop a strong bond with their scholars. Farmers enroll their monkeys in a 3-5 month course, which includes training on how to twist and bite a coconut loose, how to tell a ripe from an unripe nut, as well as how to load a pickup. These monkeys are generally well looked after by their owners, as they generate a good income and are therefore a valuable asset. A well-trained monkey can harvest 1000 coconuts a day, whereas a human with a long stick and loop can probably only do about 100. These monkeys are smart, another reason why they are generally well cared for. In fact, local and international newspapers reported an incident in March 2009, when a coconut-picking monkey killed his owner by throwing a well-aimed coconut at his head, killing him instantly. Witnesses say the man didn’t treat the monkey well, and was not appreciative of his efforts to retrieve the prized fruit. Let that be a lesson learnt!
So how can you enjoy your freshly monkey-harvested young coconut, or maprao, as it is called in Thai? There’s nothing more refreshing, or no better hangover cure than an ice-cold maprao, lid cut open, and soft white flesh to scoop out after drinking the coconut water. A coconut is sterile on opening and is full of electrolytes. In fact, it is so pure that it was used in WW2 and the Vietnam War as emergency plasma replacement when none was available.
Coconut milk, made from crushing the flesh and juice, is used at the base for all Thai curries, as well as some soups, blending well with spices and the heat of chillies. And coconut is used for substance and flavour in most Thai sweets and desserts, including the strange gelatinous candy known as ‘garamear’ that is sold at Grandfather and Grandmother Rocks (sometimes known as the rude rocks) and at the ferry terminals. Rich, creamy, homemade coconut ice cream is available from a vendor at the viewpoint between Chaweng and Lamai as well as at the walking street markets. It’s served in half a coconut. Have it plain, or add a topping, including a few unusual varieties, all for an affordable 40 baht.
Many resorts use palm fronds to roof their salas, beach bars and even bungalows, and palms provide shade and relief from the tropical heat, but don’t forget those falling coconuts as you laze under a tree with a book! Most resorts de-fruit their trees to avoid such accidents, and thus keep the monkeys in business too. Coconut wood is hard and is often used in building. The fibres and husks are used for ropes, mattress stuffing and also as fire starters. The shells are used for ornaments and utensils, meaning that no part of a tree is ever wasted. Coconut-wood salad servers would usually be well-received as a gift or souvenir.
Cold-pressed virgin coconut oil is sold at Big Buddha, the rude rocks and markets, for around 100 baht for 100ml. Ever wondered why most Thai women have such beautiful skin and hair? Well, they use coconut oil as a hair mask as well as a skin moisturiser. It’s excellent for treating scar tissue and blemishes, and good for mosquito bites too. Try some on salads and in cooking. It’s good for the immune system, good for cancer prevention, and also heart disease and other degenerative conditions.
Driving around Samui, particularly the less-developed south and west coasts, and you’ll see towering piles of coconuts ready for processing. If you pass a pickup piled high with nuts, look to see if there’s a monkey sitting on top of the pile. Leave the island on the car ferries, and many of the vehicles you’ll see waiting in the queues are pickups with coconuts ready to deliver to the mainland.
It is easy to see why the coconut is known as ‘the tree of life’ as it has so many uses, providing for the most basic needs of both food and shelter. And to top it, it’s not often that someone so healthy can be delicious too!
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