Lying in the warm, blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand, and fringed by dozens of islands like Koh Phangan and Koh Tao, little Koh Samui is many things. Just 25 km long, Samui’s terrain is a mix of white powder beaches, secluded coves, and hilly jungle interior, attracting an array of sun worshippers, divers and trekkers.
At first glance, there’s many sides to Samui. One is its golf course façade, another is its young party vibe, while another is its atmospheric street food and temples, and its diving and famous marine park.
Originally populated by Malay fishermen and Chinese traders, alongside local Thais from the mainland, Samui’s rich cultural melting pot is historically divided into seven distinct districts or tambon, with the hidden side of Koh Samui comprising fishing villages, coconut groves and sugarcane plantations.
HUA THANON: The Slower Side of Samui
Located in Maret tambon, on the southern corner of the island, Hua Thanon is one of Samui’s last traditional fishing villages. Marked out by its distinctive fleet of colourful Kohlae (fishing boats), Hua Thanon is made up mainly of Malay fishermen and Buddhist colonies, and with its stilted houses, is a throwback to old Samui.
Hua Thanon is the least touristy corner of the island. Known for its fish market, which has rows of shacks carrying the day’s catch and vegetable vendors, it’s a peek into the slow, laid-back side of the island. Much of the catch then makes it to the famous, affordable seafood restaurants that fringe Hua Thanon’s stretch of pristine beaches.
Juxtaposed to the party side of Samui’s bustling Chaweng Beach are the island’s many holy places, like Wat Sila Ngu – a temple located on the edge of Hua Thanon. Said to contain a relic of Lord Buddha, the temple is dedicated to snakes, embellished with golden snake motifs, and ‘guarded’ by two giant golden cobra statues overlooking the bay.
Wat Khun Aram
Further south of Hua Thanon is Wat Khun Aram, a temple widely visited for one of the two “mummified” monks found in Koh Samui; Loung Pordaeng, often referred to as the ‘Meditating Monk’ who died in the 1980s while meditating and is now kept in a glass casket for devotees to see.
One of the last untouched parts of Koh Samui, Taling Ngam on the island’s west coast is a mix of turquoise seas and palm tree-lined beaches backed by dense jungle. Comprising coconut farms and clustered villages, Taling Ngam is best-known for bull fighting and its famous mummified monk. The water buffalo, or khwai, is common across the island. While on the mainland they are used to plow rice paddies, on Samui (which has no paddy fields), they’re kept mainly for bullfighting. Especially popular in Taling Ngam, you’ll even see locals taking their prize bulls for a swim at the beach.
Unlike its western counterparts, Samui’s bullfighting doesn’t involve humans or blood. Two male bulls are squared off against each other, and butt horns and push each other, until the loser gives up and runs off – exactly what would normally happen in the wild; on Samui, champion bulls can change hands for large sums.
Often held before any major celebration like New Year’s Day or the Songkran Festival (Thailand’s New Year’s Day which falls April 13 to April 15), the bulls’ horns are painted in gold to mark the festival.
WAT KIRI WONGKARAM
Home to Samui’s first mummified monk, Loung Por Ruam, the Wat Kiri Wongkaram temple is a strikingly beautiful, intricately designed complex. Similar to Wat Khun Aram, he’s extremely well preserved – and considered miraculous, given the minimal decay over the decades. Not remotely morbid, the temple’s a peaceful spot, with free English tours around the grounds.
It’s an ideal jumping-off point to Ko Si Ko Ha (Four Islands-Five Islands), an island with a list of natural attractions from hidden beaches, caves and rocky cliffs with stunted trees to a plethora of wildlife that includes the prized swiftlets that dole out the sought-after bird’s nest delicacy. This island, which can be accessed by hopping on a longboat stationed at Taling Ngam, is the go-to spot for adventure seekers looking to get some kayaking, parasailing, etc.
It’s probably impossible to visit Samui without seeing Chaweng Beach, and while it’s not everyones cup of tea, it makes for a bustling night out. The island’s longest stretch of sand, there’s dozens of bars, clubs and restaurants running parallel to the beach around the middle-section of the strip (aka Chaweng Central).
Stretching for 7km long, North Chaweng is decidedly quieter, while the most scenic section is Chaweng Noi, in the south, with Samui’s mountains in the background.
Most of Samui’s dive operators are based on Chaweng, from where trips out to Ang Thong and Koh Tao are fixed.
“ANG THONG” NATIONAL MARINE PARK
Lying 40km west of Koh Samui in the Gulf of Thailand, the Ang Thong National Marine Park is a cluster of 42 islands comprising rich mix of marine habitat and untouched tropical rainforest, lagoons, mangroves and sea caves.
Characterised by dozens of limestone pinnacles, Ang Thong is an ideal location to explore by charter boat or sea kayak, which gives access to its many remote beaches and coves.
Snorkelling is also popular, as the park boasts hundreds of marine species, while larger islands like Koh Wua Talap and Koh Samsao are home to dozens of types of birds and mammals.
Just north of Koh Wua Talah (and the Park HQ), is one of Ang Thong’s most famous spots: the Emerald Lagoon on Koh Mae Ko.
Rising up on towering limestone cliffs, Ko Mae Ko, or “Mother Island”, is best-known as the atmospheric backdrop for The Beach. The island’s saltwater lagoon connects to a hidden swim-thru cave that leads out to sea. Not surprisingly, there’s spelunking and sea kayaking available, as well as treks to the summit for a bird’s eye view of the surrounding islands.
Local operators in Samui run day-trips to Ang Thong, and overnights are possible at one of five park-run bungalows or camping on Wua Talap island. The park offers return-only boats back to Samui (500tbh/person). Park entrance is 200tbh/person/day, with the best time from February to April, while the park’s almost impossible to reach during monsoon (November-December).
Ko Samui’s best visited between June to October, with direct flights on Bangkok Airways. For full fares and schedules, visit www.bangkokair.com.