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Under the Knife in Koh Samui

by James Sturz

Some people travel to Thailand for plastic surgery. James Sturz decided to try operating on innocent melons instead. His results were not improvements on the originals.

KOH SAMUI, Thailand – So many people travel to Thailand to undergo the knife, Lubosh Barta, the affable resort manager at the Four Seasons Koh Samui, told me last summer, that the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok has a special section for reissuing passports, since nothing causes confusion at emigration quite like sex reassignment. 

It was a sunny day at the resort's outdoor Pla Pla restaurant, with the surf licking the shore, crabs scuttling madly, and just a hint of dengue in the air. My wife and I dug into rock lobster pad thai and spicy green papaya salads and wondered how we were going to spend our days. We'd just arrived from the Himalayas and were lukewarm about much more physical exertion. Now Lubosh pointed to the beach and remarked that a game of pétanque with painted coconuts was an option. It had been raining in Koh Samui just days before, and Bangkok still hadn't started flooding. As Lubosh raised his hand, he seemed to flick the last clouds away.

James in pool


His smiling recommendations notwithstanding, I thought it best to steer clear of anything smacking of outright sedation, although presenting our gowned bodies to the practitioners in the spa was eerily close. Thus eating became an central facet of our stay, since 1) it didn't require much energy, and provided more, 2) it showed off the island's culture (to wit, the barman at the neighboring Haad Bang Po restaurant was a Thai Rasta), and 3) we were in Thailand, so the food was good! The Himalayas have other things to their credit, like snow leopards and yak, and should not risk the bad karma of being greedy.

Koh Samui dinner

Thai crab

But the thing about eating in Thailand is it still involved the swish and slice of sharpened blades, so I couldn't forget Lubosh's introductory remarks. Did we know, for example, that when you leave Bangkok's Bumrungrad Hospital you get a parting DVD of your operation, so you can watch it with popcorn once you're back home? (N.B. If you check out the photos in Bumrungrad's online fact sheet, you'll see that orchids on the beds is something else the Four Seasons and the hospital have in common.)

Which is how we how finally relented from doing as little as we could and signed up for a kitchen class. Did we learn how to make gaeng hang lay moo, aka northern dry-spiced curry with pork? No. How about pia nueng ma-now, aka steamed whole sea bass with spicy garlic, lime sauce and herbs? Also no. Frankly, not even a Thai iced coffee, which we could have figured out for ourselves. Still, each time we returned to our room after a hectic day of grueling non-effort (and I'd be loath to omit that at this particular Four Seasons they're all private villas with outdoor pools), I'd linger on our deck to admire the comely watermelon which had greeted us there since our arrival, so exactingly carved with the letters that spelled out a welcome, S-A-W-A-S-D-E-E, until the characters turned spongy and the crane flies started feasting. And feasting. There was a repulsive oddness to their stilt-like legs and protuberant bellies that made it hard to look away.

Sawadee before

Crane flies

Sawadee after

And so my wife and I enrolled in a fruit-carving class that included vegetables, too. The Thais call the noble art kae sa luk, and no Thai banquet is ready unless there's an edible centerpiece fit for a king. (The tradition started in the 13th century in the Phra Ruang dynasty and stuck, as gooey fruits do.) Thus, after breakfast, we sat before a young woman named Paeng who'd dutifully trained alongside her father, and who handed us honeydew melon, tomato, spring onion, cucumber, damascened knife, surgical gloves, and a nine-page illustrated booklet, and trusted us not to make a total mess.

fruit carving

Fruit carving at the hands of the master. Click through the slide show at the top of the page to see how it's not supposed to be done.

If memory serves me, there was also an unexplained carrot.

On the positive side, I didn't draw any blood. Also on the positive side, neither did anyone else. But I felt as hapless as a preschooler and as ape-fingered as a chimp. Paeng smiled kindly. My dexterous wife chuckled. Soon my tomato was pulp. My melon flower looked like a broken gear. I twisted spring-onion shoots like ribbons around wrapping paper, never sure of the appropriateness of the gift. My cucumber was supposed to become a leaf, but it looked more like a slushy green giant walnut.

bad melon 

Which brings me back to Lubosh, who we saw one final time before leaving.

"Did you enjoy your stay?" The managers always ask that. "Are you ready to start carving when you get home?"

I thought for a second and figured I'd best leave the knife-work to Siam. On the emigration line at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi International Airport, I kept my eyes out for travelers sporting brand-new passports – and possibly limping a little. Maybe one day my hand would be surer. No doubt I'd return to Thailand again. But until that day, I'd treat all objects bound for my mouth with earnestness and respect and with the ardor of one who understands that shape and naturalness are not the true test. You can't appreciate succulence until it passes your lips and swirls against your tongue.


Four Seasons Koh Samui
219 Moo 5, Angthong 
Koh Samui, Surat Thani 84140 

James, Fathom's contributing koan editor, is author of the novel Sasso. His travel journalism, short fiction, and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, Outside, Afar, Men's Journal, Travel + Leisure, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and the anthology Italy: The Best Travel Writing from the New York Times. He travels for the jet lag. And the pretzels. And other stuff.


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