Until recently, coconut production was Ko Samui’s main industry, and is now second only to tourism. Every month, Samui supplies Bangkok with over 2 million coconuts. These are harvested from the approximately 3 million trees that grow on the island, each of which produces around 70 coconuts per year.
The coconut tree and its products play a big part of island life and just the image of a coconut palm conjures up thoughts of tropical holidays and palm-fringed beaches. 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. This keeps the skyscrapers away, and although you may see four storey hotels, most resorts remain the bungalow 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. Training includes 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, and they generate a good income. 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.
So how can you enjoy your freshly monkey-harvested young coconut, or maprao as it is called in Thai? There is 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.
Coconut is used for substance and flavour for most Thai sweets and desserts, including the strange gelatinous candy known as garamear that is sold at Grandfather and Grandmother Rocks and at the ferry terminals. Rich, creamy, homemade coconut ice cream is available from a vendor at the viewpoint between Chaweng and Lamai. Have it plain, or add a topping, including a few unusual varieties, all for an affordable 40B, and served in half a coconut.
Many resorts use palm fronds to roof their salas, beach bars and even bungalows, and palms provide shade in the tropical heat, but beware of 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.
Cold-pressed virgin coconut oil is sold at Big Buddha, the rude rocks and markets. Ever wondered why most Thai women have such beautiful skin and hair? They use coconut oil as a hair mask, as well as a skin moisturiser. It is excellent for treating scar tissue and blemishes. Try some on salads and in cooking. It is good for the immune system, good for cancer prevention, heart disease and other degenerative conditions.
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. It’s not often that someone so healthy can also be delicious!