By Mike Smith
I had been to Thailand many times before but had yet to visit Koh Samui. I put that right after friends said that they loved the place so much they had bought a house there and invited me to stay.
They loved the people, beaches, the spicy food, phallic rock formations, culture and the strange mummified monks. It was a short direct 1.5 hour flight away by Bangkok Airway.
Getting my Bearings
Flying from Singapore to Koh Samui I breezed through immigration at the new airport after riding an open carriage from the plane. It was hot and humid as expected. My friends met me and briefed me on the island as we drove to Mae Nam on the north coast.
Koh Samui is the third largest island in Thailand at 280 square kilometers (108 square miles). It has a population of 40,000, but over a million visitors a year. Most of the population and activity is dotted around the coast and the island only takes a few hours to drive round.
The interior is tropical jungle and hills covered by millions of well established coconut trees. Most visitors are beach lovers, bar and party hoppers or sun worshippers and rarely leave the main resorts of Chaweng and Lamai.
In true Samui style, on the way from the airport, we dropped in at their beach local for a cold beer and a snack of hot spicy tom yam kung soup.
Listening to the waves gently lapping, catching up on gossip and watching a lovely sunset – I thought maybe I was in paradise and could understand them buying a place here.
We drove down a narrow country lane to a gated community and their palace of a house complete with a 10-meter (30-foot) pool. I wasn’t going to slum it – but I was warned to look out for snakes and scorpions as cobras were regularly spotted in the garden!
The next morning as we drove back towards the main road I saw we had passed wooden huts, coffee shops, water buffalo and calf, coconut trees and ubiquitous stray dogs on the two-kilometer(1.2-mile) road from the beach.
Wat Kiri Wongkaram
I was eager to explore and they had yet to fully explore Samui so we drove anticlockwise round the island turning randomly down side streets and stopping regularly for cold drinks, snacks and to take photos of the fishing villages.
Passing through a gateway of two giant stone elephants we parked at Wat Kiri Wongkaram a rather run down, deserted temple in need of restoration but full of rustic charm.
The old wall by the entrance featured a small Buddha nicely framed by boarded windows and I started clicking away on the camera.
We searched for the mummified monk but found instead a strange demon-looking creature hanging from the steps – for protection or to scare away farang tourists?
It was certainly weird, but an old lady sitting nearby quietly led us to an even more unusual sight. We came face to face with the well preserved mummified body of the monk Loung Por Raum sitting in a glass cage since passing away 30 years ago.
The old lady offered incense in respect to the mummy, smiled at us and walked away.
We ambled 100 meters (328 feet) further down the road to Five Islands Beach to watch, from the shade of coconut trees, women waist deep in the clear blue water, fishing with primitive rods.
Laem Sor Chedi
Continuing to the south of the island we followed a small track towards Laem Sor Chedi.
Luckily we missed a turn and to our delight chanced upon a rubber tree plantation and a small cottage industry processing the rubber.
A couple pressed the excess liquid out of latex sheets with what looked like an old clothes wringer.
Water buffalos lay in the fields with cattle egrets nearby creating a perfect rural scene.
The Laem Sor Chedi looks a lovely golden color from a distance and sits right at the water’s edge. Close up it is not quite so attractive. It is covered with thousands of small yellow tiles.
Wandering around the random buildings in the complex we spotted a monk’s boat in a huge glass cage, explored a temple-sized boat-shaped shrine and dodged numerous dogs and chickens.
What followed next was bizarre. A dog chased a cockerel in ever increasing circles for several minutes with the cockerel flying a short distance just as the dog got near.
It finally flew 50m (164 feet) away but five minutes later we were shocked to see the dog stroll past us with the cockerel in its mouth tightly held at the neck.
Big swarms of mosquitoes made us leave and drive up a very steep winding track to the nearby Khao Chedi at the top of a hill. The views of Laem Sor Chedi and the boat shrine and thousands of coconut trees were fantastic.
Buddhist temples – mummified monks, dogs catching chickens – very different!
Our final point of call for the day on our “temple tour” was Wat Kunaram. There was very little to see except the body of Koh Samui’s most famous mummified monk Loung Pordaeng. He sits, 25 years after his death, wearing sun glasses and his orange robe in a specially built glass case and display room.
Dropping the car at the house we walked the two kilometers (1.2 miles) to the beach for a sundowner and dinner – Thai fishcakes, spicy papaya salad and grilled chicken plus a few beers of course.
Walking back in the pitch dark by flashlight, looking out for cobras and using a battery powered dog zapper (high-frequency sound) to put off the roaming barking dogs we reflected on a pleasant day.
Muslim Fishing Village – The island’s freshest fish and wost exciting market!
After the luxury of being chauffeured the first day I was determined to travel like the locals on the second. Walking the two kilometers (1.2 miles) to the main road I flagged down a songtaew (two rows of seats at the back of a van).
I paid a few baht and headed half way round the island to Ha Thanon better known simply as the Muslim fishing village.
The largest of the two Muslim communities and having the only mosque, it’s an interesting place to visit.
It’s a quiet and initially not very welcoming place but after buying fruit in the market, where I chose from a magnificent range including bananas, mangoes, pineapples, coconuts, durian and rambutans and drinking hot tea in a coffee shop I was soon treated like an old friend.
Wandering through the narrow lanes of the village I passed the mosque with song birds “taken for a walk” in their cages hung on railings outside.
Rows and rows of freshly caught fish were laid out on metal tables for drying. Many colorful fishing boats were in the harbor having brought home their catch after a night’s work.
Ducks and chickens pecked for scraps on the beach under the stilt houses.
A lovely gentleman with grey beard and traditional sarong willingly posed on his veranda framed by his cage bird and balcony.
A group of children, with a colorful fishing boat as background kept smiling and demanding I take pictures of them, which I happily did.
Phallic Rocks – Michaelangelo couldn’t carve any better!
A few minutes songtaew ride from the Muslim village took me to Hin Ta and Hin Ya the infamous grandfather and grandmother rocks shaped by nature into massive sculptures of male and female genitals.
Michaelangelo couldn’t have done a better job as grandfather stood tall and proud and grandmother laid back. It was the first location I’d actually seen a fair number of tourists. The light wasn’t great though so I decided to return the next day.
Big Buddha – And I mean Big!
I took my first and only taxi of the trip to get to the big Buddha officially known as Wat Phra Yai. Taxis in Koh Samui will not use meters so be prepared to bargain hard and pay a relatively high price – they’d get far more tourist business using meters!
The trip to Koh Fan, a bridge linked island, was well worthwhile as the Big Buddha is a must-see attraction. It’s 12 meters tall (40 feet) and sits up high as it dominates the area all around. Against a clear blue sky it appears to float.
A number of souvenir stalls, a robotic sculpture-making place, weird statues in the sea and a general temple environment add to the atmosphere.
I climbed the steps with devotees and tourists to get up close and had a great view over the ocean. A very pleasant spot!
On the road back “home” I had to stop to watch a man quickly climb coconut trees. He didn’t need any rope or support he just used his hands and feet as he scampered up the trees, knife in pocket to trim them when he got to the top. Fabulous!
He was such a lovely man and seemed genuinely happy someone took an interest in his work and he spent ages looking at the photos in my digital camera. I’m not sure he meets health and safety regulations though!
More excellent cold beer and spicy food on the beach at dinner time – I’m getting into a routine!
After a noodle breakfast, I returned to the phallic rocks and got my pictures. Taking the path around the back of grandmother I descended past the nudists on the rocks (getting power from grandmother and grandfather?) to Lamai Beach where I got my best coffee of the trip.
The beach was surprisingly narrow, maybe 20 meters (65 feet) as the tide was well in.
Paddling in the warm sea I made my way along the beach which was initially deserted but became more populated as I strolled north.
Backpackers, families, and singles mingled as they sunbathed on beach towels or on lovely loungers.
Low rise resorts, restaurants and coffee shops lined the beach along with spas and massage.
A Massage by the Sea
Taking a massage facing the sea I watched the hawkers selling everything from corn, pineapple, necklaces, silk in a most friendly and unimposing manner. The Bikini bar was a good spot for lunch, great food and at a nice height for people watching.
Lamai has a lovely charming feel to it perhaps because it is somewhat down market and not over developed. 50 meters (164 feet) away from and parallel to the beach was a good selection of shops, restaurants internet cafes and bars so I caught up with email and bought tee shirts for the family back home.
A short songtaew ride north took me to Chaweng Beach, the longest and one of the most beautiful beaches on the island.
Lined with coconut trees, it’s the most crowded and main hang out for sun worshippers and party revelers. It’s more sophisticated and developed than Lamai but for me, it held less appeal.
However, for those wanting more to do it’s the place to be. Options included diving, jet skiing, paragliding eating and party going.
Hawkers are everywhere but again low key – they do take no for an answer and smile anyway.
Just inland the shopping is also more varied with souvenir, antiques and art shops doing reasonable business.
I stayed at the beach to drink and dine as the sun set.
Other Alternatives – Butterfly park and waterfalls
I explored a little more the next couple of days but was somewhat disappointed with the butterfly park and waterfalls so returned regularly to Lamai to relax and to see yet another mummified monk at the Lamai Temple.
All too soon my trip was over. I really enjoyed Koh Samui. It is a tropical island with friendly people, good food, great beaches and a rural interior that is not yet overdeveloped.
I’ll be back to explore the marine reserve and maybe watch some of the shows next time.
Find unique Koh Samui accommodations and interesting tours in Koh Samui.
Mike Smith is a freelance photographer-writer & permanent resident of Singapore. Born in the UK, he left in 1986 on a two-year contract with a chemical company & just never made the move back. You can see more of his photographs at AsiaPhotoStock.com.