Koh Samui lies 35 kilometres off Suratthani, the provincial capital, and about 700 kilometres south of Bangkok. It is the 3rd largest island in Thailand and was discovered several hundred years ago by
fishermen and sea traders whilst sailing through the Gulf of Thailand. Samui, with its many sheltered bays, offered a welcome sanctuary from the tropical storms. Early Chinese and Malay settlers marveled at the island’s beauty and abundance, and there are those that believe the name is derived from the word “saboey”, which means “safe haven” in the Chinese tongue. “Koh” is the Thai word for “island”. Maps of the island date as far back as the 17th century but there is very little documented history because most of the knowledge was passed down through the generations by word of mouth. The island’s hinterland consists of forested hills of limestone and granite whilst the shoreline is made up of countless beaches and bays.
Samui is 21 kilometres at its widest point and 25 at its longest with one major road, which circumvents the island. Until 1940, there were no roads or vehicles on Koh Samui. People moved around the island on foot or followed the coastline by boat. For example, to go from Maenam to Lamai, it took several hours of walking through the mountainous jungle, and going there and back in the same day was impossible.
The first communities that developed here survived mainly by the sea, then later by the planting of crops, which flourished in the warm tropical climate. Tropical fruit became an important export industry and even today Samui is known throughout Thailand for succulent fruits such as “lang saad”, a small round fruit similar to a lychee, and the infamous durian with its pungent yellow flesh.
Although the palm tree has become the symbol of Samui, it was not until relatively recently that coconuts became the most prolific fruit on the island. Over the years farmers slowly turned the island into a huge coconut and rubber plantation and, with the crops fetching a good price, Thai people from the mainland began to arrive hoping to benefit from the island’s economy. Samui boasts more varieties of coconut than anywhere else in the world, although sadly an infestation of beetles now threatens many of these majestic tropical trees. Coconuts are mainly collected and processed for the production of copra.
In the early days it could take 7 or 8 hours to reach Samui by boat from Suratthani so many of those that came to the island decided to stay and build a home, living alongside their foreign neighbours in what was to become a strong and independent community. Although Buddhism established itself as the principle religion, a small Muslim population also flourished and local spirits are still worshipped today in a tolerant blend of beliefs that adds to the island’s unique cultural appeal.
Agriculture remained the main source of income for Samui people throughout the next 20 years until the first foreign travellers began to arrive in the early 70s.Young, adventurous backpackers from Europe then established Samui as a favourite location and before long the local people were providing basic accommodation, food and services to their newfound visitors. Samui became something of a hippie paradise during the 70s and 80s, the laid-back lifestyle and natural surroundings attracting those in search of a real escape.
Bungalows sprang up all over the island, and slowly the infrastructure began to develop with a more regular ferry service from the mainland and then finally an airport.
Bangkok Airways is privately owned by Dr Prasert Prasarttong-Osoth and he opened the first Samui airport in April 1989. Bangkok Airways now offers direct flights between the island and Phuket, Hong Kong and Singapore. The airline made its first foray into jet aircraft in 2000, when it started adding Boeing 717s to its fleet. Up until then, Bangkok Airways had flown propeller-driven aircraft, primarily the ATR-72. The new Samui airport was officially opened in July 2008.
The last 10 years have brought the biggest changes in the entire history of the island. However, even due to many building projects, the island manages to retain much of its charm as quaint local villages and coconut plantations are still very much in evidence.
Thailand is a proud nation of people with a long history and well-established, complex hierarchal structure of status. Starting with the Royal family and percolating down, everyone in Thailand knows and respects their place in society. A polite Thai (which is most of them) will usually
immediately identify whether another is of a higher status than they (usually deemed by age or wealth) and initiate the “wai” – a submissive and graceful bringing together of hands to the chest or beneath the nose (to show ultimate respect). Even on a social level they will refer to their elders as “pii” (older sibling). In fact social grace is paramount and the formal suffix “kha” (female) and “khrup” (male) is added to the end of all sentences when addressing strangers, employers/employees or elders.
There are many other habits of etiquette - the most important being to avoid “loss of face” by losing your temper. The feet are considered dirty and should not be pointed directly at people or raised; shoes are usually never worn indoors and the head is sanctified, so touching someone on the head should be avoided, unless they are an intimate friend. Contrary to popular impression, Thais are quite conservative and expect visitors to dress appropriately in formal public places. They are also discreet about showing affection, especially in public.
While Westerners tend to pick up subtleness in tone of voice to indicate someone’s mood, Thais read your body language and approach. Emphasis is usually placed on passiveness and although they are used to foreigners being abrupt, it pays to smile constantly and go gently. Eye contact is a common and important method of placing strangers at ease and there is good reason why Thailand is known as “the land of smiles”. The Thais are incredibly patient and forgiving in an imperfect society and are happy to accept things as they are. The best you can do as a foreigner is to offer a soft laugh in testing situations and say “mai pen rai” (never mind) – a frequently used saying.
For most Thai people, even in the modern era, acting appropriately to maintain or improve your status is extremely important and this goes some way towards explaining their desire for material gain and wealth. Above all, they adore their King and greatly respect the Royal family; indeed his Highness King Bhumibol (Rama IX) of the current Chakri dynasty (and the world’s longest reigning monarch) was 83 in December 2009 and is hugely respected for his compassionate servitude to the entire nation, along with Queen Sirikit.
As is the case in many parts of Thailand, Samui’s temples offer some of the best site seeing and photographic opportunities on the island. The “wat” is an integral part of Thai life and, as well as being the centre for religious ceremonies and worship, these ornate locations also host local council meetings and act as venues for fun fairs and concerts. A visit to the temple provides an interesting insight into local life, particularly the temple fairs which pass from village to village throughout the year. The temple fair is probably the only place where you can buy a new pair of flip flops, watch a Kung Fu film, have your fortune told and indulge in a bag of deep-fried grasshoppers all in one evening.
(1) Wat Baan Plai Laem
Another temple, which is very close to Big Buddha, is the newly constructed and ornate temple of Baan Plai Laem. It was designed by a Thai artist, the outside of which features a huge multi-limbed statue of the Goddess Shiva, while the inside walls are decorated with pictorial representations from the life of the Lord Buddha. The elaborate entry doors are made from 2 giant slabs of hardwood and are again carved with images from the life of the Buddha. Thai artist, Jarit Phumdonming, spent more than 3 years adding the finer details to the temple’s external walls and has produced a kaleidoscope of colour and design. The tradition of temple art dates back centuries and Wat Baan Plai Laem provides a good example of the influences and styles that are still important in modern Thai religious architecture. There is also a small lake filled with catfish and, for a small charge, food can be purchased with which to feed them.
(2) Wat Phra Yai
The number one sightseeing attraction on Samui is perhaps Wat Phra Yai where the famous golden Buddha statue graces the headland separating Baan Plai Laem from Big Buddha beach. The 15 metre smiling deity dominates the temple grounds and offers some excellent photo opportunities, particularly at sunset. The temple was built in 1972 and the upper platform is lined with huge prayer bells. In Thai “phra” means “monk” and “yai” means “big”.
(3) Go Karting
Samui Go-Kart track is located on the main road in Bophut. There are 3 types of karts you can choose from: The Fun Kart is suitable for all ages; The Pro Kart is for those who prefer a bit more speed and the speed kart is the ultimate adrenalin fix which is recommended for more experienced drivers. Helmets are provided. Tel: 077 425 097.
(4) Nathon (pronounced NaaTon)
This is the island’s main administrative centre and Samui’s only official town. All government offices, banks as well as the main ferry pier are located in Nathon making it the most important place for communication with the Thai mainland. Shopping is less expensive there but also less varied. Best viewed in the morning, Nathon’s wet market is typically local selling fresh fruit, vegetables, seafood as well as a large selection of Thai spices and cooking ingredients. Nathon, over the years, has not changed like other places and still has a number oforiginal teak shop houses lining the quiet middle roads, which display the more traditional Chinese influence.
(5) Hin Lad Waterfall
Popular with Thai visitors, these high falls cascade down the hillside just south of Nathon. The climb to the top is quite steep and takes around 40 minutes but once there you are treated to a truly tropical experience with roaming jungle scenery and the spectacular power of the falls. Can disappoint during the dry season due to lack to rain. There is an interesting forest temple at the base of the falls accessed by a small bridge.
(6) The Magic Garden
The Magic Garden is not a temple but feels like one. It is located high in the hills above Baan Saket in the southwest of Samui up a winding road that leads from the main road through a military zone to one of Samui’s most attractive and bizarre sights. In a small valley, a 77-year-old Buddhist devotee, Khun Nim Thong-suk, began creating figures from his dreams and was still working on the garden when he died a few years ago at the age of 91. Uncle Nim’s statues are a sight to behold as are the views from this spectacular mountain location.
(7) Na Muang Waterfalls
Although Samui has several waterfalls, the two Na Muang waterfalls are probably the islands most stunning. The name Na Muang (meaning purple in Thai) refers to the massive purple rocks that create the waterfalls. Rocks and tree roots form a natural staircase that leads to the base of Na Muang 1. A large natural swimming pool sits under the waterfall, although beware of the hidden rocks when diving and swimming. The water is always icy cold, so it's perfect for a hot day. A gentle walk 10 minutes further up the mountain leads you to Samui's most beautiful waterfall, Na Muang 2. Na Muang waterfalls are easily accessible from the main ring road between Nathon and Lamai and are well signposted. Elephant trekking is also available at the Nu Muang waterfalls.
(8) Snake Farm
Phangka, a little village near Thong Krut Bay, became the home of The Phangka Snake Farm in December 2005. Snake charmers from NE Thailand handle some of the most deadliest snakes, including spitting King Cobras. There are about 163 different types of snake in Thailand, 85 of which venomous. The show is staged in a circular arena and the snake handlers stand in a central pit. A steep wall and moat, filled with crocodiles, keeps spectators separate from the snakes. There are two shows daily at 11:00 and 14:00 hours.
(9) Samui Rum Distillery
Magic Alambic rum is made on Samui using the finest fruits and sugar cane in the old French tradition. The rum is distilled for a year in stainless steel vats, and then diluted to 40 degrees and sold as a high quality spirit. Visitors can learn about the process from the owners, watch the rum being made and then enjoy a spot of rum tasting at the on-site garden bar. Tel. 077 419 023.
(10) Wat Khunaram
Wat Khunaram is Samui’s famous shrine to the mummified monk, known when alive as Lung Padaeng. This highly respected monk was carefully preserved when he died in 1973 and today sits mediating inside a glass case. You can see nearby the ancient numerology sticks, which are used to read your fortune.
(11) Wat Samret, Hua Thanon
Set back between the temple and the school is a building which houses over 80 different Buddha figures. This little hidden gem is off the usual tourist trail. The keyholder will allow you to gain entry.
(12) Butterfly Garden
The Butterfly Garden, built into the hillside, is a good destination particularly for children. In this tranquil surrounding you can watch these stunning butterflies filling the garden with colour. There are at least 520 butterfly species in Thailand and many of them are represented here along with butterflies native to Malaysia and Indonesia, crickets, tarantulas, spiders and other arachnids. For bug enthusiasts, there is also an insect museum featuring rare insects and a bee house, where you can observe the activities of these honey collectors.
The Samui Aquarium is an exciting place for all, especially children. There are coral fish, cat fish, leopard and black tip sharks, turtles and many other types of beautiful sea life, some of which you can hand feed. The tanks also contain many varieties of rocks and multicolored corals amid natural surroundings. There is also a chance to see the bird show. Samui Aquarium opens daily from 09.00 until 18.00.
(14) Hua Thanon (pronounced Wat Anon)
The Muslim fishing village of Hua Thanon still retains a quaint, old-Samui feel, with rickety teakwood houses lining the road as well as a handful of good seafood restaurants. The main attraction however lies in the ancient cultures of the local fishermen. Intricately painted wooden boats are used to this day to catch and deliver fish directly to the local markets. The beach is a working environment but a stroll through its market captures a glimpse into the lives of one of the island’s original communities. There is also a very old Chinese temple situated on the main road.
(15) Muslim village
In the island of kho-samui the third largest of Thailand, Ha Thanon better known as "the Muslim Village" is the beacon for fishermen living in a time warp. The village is accessible by a path linked to the main road.The fishermen in the village still build their boats by hands, using traditional colors and natural painting, repairing the nets under palms trees by hands in the calmest environment. Respect for life is the rule in the village, the only one, hosting a mosque in the island
(16) Hin Ta and Hin Yai
These two strange rock formations are known as Grandfather and Grandmother Rock and are situated a few kilometres south west of Lamai. These two ancient stones have been slowly moulded by sea, wind and rain into representations of male and female genitalia. Their formation and shape have been personified into a local tale describing their existence on the island. The story is that of two doomed lovers who drowned themselves at sea because of their family’s disapproval of their relationship. In Thai “hin” means “rock”, “ta” means “grandfather” and “yai” means “grandmother”.
(17) Beverley Hills View Point
From the view point you can see the Gulf of Siam spread out before you and the 7 km Chaweng Beach. The first land you would come across over the horizon is The Philippines. You will notice many spirit houses along the side of the road and how the drivers “honk” their horns when they pass. It is for good luck!
(18) Muay Thai Kickboxing
Muay Thai is Thailand’s favourite sport. This is a martial art like no other and a proud heritage of a nation. Muay Thai was not always as good natured as it is today. Once, it was quite aggressive and even violent with no safety gear for the fighters and only lengths of cords to wrap around their fists in decoration. Rules, along the lines of international boxing regulations, are now adhered to. Chaweng has two Thai boxing stadiums, which hold regular Muay Thai bouts, some of which feature foreign as well as Thai fighters. You can visit either the Chaweng Stadium, or the newer Phatchabuncha Stadium near Laem Din market. Fights are held on most nights of the week and start at 21.00 and last for 3 hours. If you only want to catch the main event then arrive around 22.00.
(19)Wat Khao Hua Jook
Wat Kao Hua Jook can be seen from the window of your plane at some point in the landing or taxiing into the airport terminal. It looks like a big golden bell atop a lush green hill. Not a hugely popular temple for tourists, as it is not sign posted, and unless you are in or on a vehicle the 90 metre walk straight up hill can be a bit too much on a hot Samui day. We'd recommend a visit even if you do have to do it on foot, it's worth it for the superb 360 degree views from the coastline to interior. The major scoop is getting the bird's eye view of Samui International Airport. There's not too many places in the world where you are virtually above the entire runway and can witness the full take off and landing of planes. The temple is a lovely peaceful place, with lots of seated areas to sit and enjoy watching the planes coming in and going out with a nice cup of freshly ground coffee. That's right, some of the best coffee you'll find on Samui. One of the best times to visit is sunset, spectacular!
(20) Crazy Golf
Is open from 11.00 until 24.00 daily and is located on Chaweng Beach Road. Tel: 081 892 1416.
(21) Football Golf
Football Golf is a challenging activity, which is great for family and friends because it gets you all playing together. Using bigger holes and footballs instead of golf balls, it's quite simply a funny version of golf that not only promises you a unique experience but also the perfect opportunity to take a break from the beach. The course has been designed so that any level or ability can play competitively and have fun at the same time.
(22) Mini Golf
This 18 hole course in located in Choeng Mon and is open from 09.00 – 18.30. Tel: 081 787 9148