Koh Samui is the second biggest island in Thailand after Phuket, and it is perhaps the best known among the islands we have chosen to visit on our journey to the southern Thai beaches.
Pictures of the island appear often in travel sections of newspapers and magazines.
They depict azure waters, coconut trees and the tempting edges of infinity pools in luxury resorts.
Samui has some of the globally most expensive resorts, with rooms costing over $1000 per night.
It features health Spas offering juice fasts, weight loss programs and detoxes for every budget.
There are also plenty of accommodation choices around the island for reasonable and even very cheap rates.
There are two islands neighboring Koh Samui.
The bigger one, which we can see across from our hotel room that overlooks the Gulf Of Thailand, is called Koh Pha Ngan, better known for its nickname, “Full Moon Party Island.”
They not only organize a rave party every full moon; there are also parties for the new moon and half moon.
The moon parties take place on Hat Rin Beach (other spelling: Haad Rin).
Koh Tao Island is located a bit farther north and it is famous for its good snorkeling and diving.
Rave parties are not really my thing…
Judging from the young people who took the plane to Koh Samui with us, who seemed pushy and half drunk and tended to moan a lot, I did not think that it would be fun to visit the full moon party island at all…
The busiest part of Koh Samui is around Chaweng Beach.
Maybe Chaweng beach used to be beautiful in the old days, but nowadays it is dirty with styrofoam and plastic, glass bottles, old shoes, jet skis and loud music coming from the dense concentration of beach bars.
If you think that this tourist area has upscale shops and glitzy places, you would be disappointed.
Rows upon rows of scooters line the roads and most of the shops sell cheap clothing and souvenirs.
Restaurants attempt to attract clients every evening by spreading out raw seafood on ice at the entrances to their places.
They mean to tempt the tourists by displaying how large the prawns and lobster are, but the display attracts flies all evening and often the seafood is frozen again, if not sold that same night.
We are staying in a quiet area away from that tourist hub, in the northwestern part of the island known as Bang Po.
Our hotel “Code,” is a small chic boutique hotel.
It is run by a British couple who did an excellent job designing this modern haven.
Every room is a spacious modern apartment with very tasteful furniture.
In order to move around the island, you need to rent a scooter or a small car.
The traffic on the island is heavy and the roads are full of potholes, so we opted for a small car.
Our hotel’s receptionist was happy to organize a car for us at a competitive price.
She did not ask for any proof that we have a driving license, she simply held an imaginary steering wheel in her hands, and with a smile asked me if we knew how to drive…
When I said yes, of course, and showed her Jules’ IDP (international driving permit), she thanked me and put it in her drawer as a deposit.
I asked her what to do if a policeman stops us and wishes to see our IDP……
She laughed at the possibility, said that Koh Samui is a very relaxed place and that no policeman will stop us…..
But… just in case…..she said, if a policeman does stop us, we should call the hotel on the mobile phone which the hotel provides all guests upon check in.
In comparison to other Thai islands along the Andaman Sea, the beaches of Koh Samui are not perfect.
At night time, security guards patrol the beaches, making sure that snoopers or thieves do not enter the resorts.
In casual cafés, there are sometimes large guestbooks in which travelers and backpackers write advice and suggestions to other travelers.
In one such book I read that some young people who visited the neighboring Full Moon Party Island of Pha Ngan, reported being robbed at the Moon party while they were dancing or high on mushroom shakes.
Many lost their money, iPads, laptop computers or mobile phones.
To me, the soul of Koh Samui does not seem to be in the busy beaches, but rather farther along the island, away from the tourist spots.
It is a large and diverse island with many Buddhist temples called “Wats,” and there are charming paths along the remote coastline where you can see small fishing villages, or deep in the interior jungle, where you can hike alongside a Rocky river to stunning waterfalls.
Here are the highlights of what we’ve enjoyed most in our days exploring the island:
– THE BIG BUDDHA AT WAT PHRA YAI.
Located in Bophut area, along the northern coast, this Buddhist Wat is beautifully built with dragon stairs leading to the golden Buddha on the top.
It is comprised of many beautiful buildings with Thai curved roofs, inlaid with glass tiles and sculptures.
Around the area there are small shops where we bought herbal teas made from Thai flowers.
– WAT HIN LAD AND HIN LAD WATERFALL
Vendors selling Durian chips and banana chips line the road approaching this Wat.
Durian fruit normally emits a strong rotten smell which many find too offensive, but it is said to have a sweet taste, beloved by many around Asia.
In many hotels you will get a fine if you bring a durian to eat in your room.
Up in the interior of Samui, they grow Durians with fruit so heavy and so large, that they brace each tree with ropes to prevent them from breaking.
Durian chips have no smell and this salty chip tastes absolutely delicious.
The banana chips are sold either as slightly sweet or as a salty chip.
Wat Hin Lad is situated on the banks of a beautiful river with large rocky boulders.
It features the Buddha sitting in a meditation position with a many headed serpent shading him from the scorching sun.
A handful of eateries offering fresh simple food are spread around the grounds.
These are not vegetarian restaurants and most have no menu.
I was able to pantomime by pointing to the fresh ingredients and asking them to avoid the glass jar filled with dried shrimps, and we ate a nice but very spicy papaya salad.
To get to the waterfall, we hiked through a tropical jungle with huge trees.
It was full of butterflies and birds, and we saw the largest palm tree I have ever seen.
Each palm frond was about 35-40 feet long and very wide.
Lovely big boulders lined the gushing river.
The waterfall was very impressive with a few calm pools in which to swim.
The hike took us about 2 hours both ways and we saw almost no other tourists.
– BAN SAKET MARKET (along route 4169)
This local market is hardly visited by tourists.
It has stalls selling fresh herbs, round tiny eggplants and all sorts of spices, pickles, meat, fish and goodies.
There are a variety of vendors selling cooked food.
Grilled fish, curries, noodles and rice dishes were sold for a few pennies, fresh and tied in plastic bags.
From a sweet girl we bought handmade coconut ice cream topped with with sweet pineapple and pumpkin.
Down an alley in this market, we saw how Thai people make and buy fresh coconut milk, which they use in many of their dishes.
They do not buy it canned or packaged in a carton; it all starts with husking and cracking the coconuts to extract the meat.
They measure the chunks of coconut meat on a scale.
One kilo of coconut meat cost about $2
The meat is then fed into a powerful shredding machine.
The shredded coconut meat is put into a thick cloth bag, with an added two cups of water.
The bag is placed into a stainless steel machine which presses it and forces the coconut milk to drip out the tap at the bottom of the machine.
The man pours the milk into a plastic bag and with a rubber band he seals the bag perfectly.
The whole process takes him but a few moments, and the fresh coconut milk tasted like no other coconut milk I have ever tasted.
In the market we bought some sweet yellow mangos, which Is the kind of mango they use in the famous dessert of mango and sticky rice.
We ate some roasted tiny sweet potatoes and sweet corn on the cob.
– WAT KIRI WONGKARAM (with its mummified monk)
Wat Kiri Wongkaram is a beautiful local Buddhist temple along Taling Ngam, which is located in the lower Southwestern part of Koh Samui.
This Wat displays the mummified body of a head monk who used to live and meditate there.
He lived a simple life devoted to his spiritual enlightenment, meditating and eating only one meal per day.
This Temple has some amazing buildings, offering a great example of Thai architecture.
– WAT KHUNARAM (with a mummified monk)
Perhaps the more popular Wat to visit by tourists among the Wats who honor their head monks by displaying them mummified.
Tourists stop here during their jungle safaris to the nearby waterfalls.
But they only stay for a few minutes, and this beautiful Wat is worth a longer visit to admire the mummified monk wearing black sunglasses, who devoted his life to the spiritual search for the inner light.
-WAT SILA NGU
An impressive Buddhist Wat on a busy road from Lamai Beach to Chaweng Beach.
One building is entirely carved from red stone.
It features a large seaside pagoda and a cobra staircase leading to the sea.
Many beautiful small stupas commemorate the lives of monks who used to live there.
– NIGHT FOOD MARKET IN NATHON
We drove along the Western coast from the South to the North, passing by the little villages leading into Nathon, where we visited a night food market.
Nathon is a small town along the western coast.
Night food markets are very popular all around Thailand, and Samui has a big and vibrant one in Chaweng beach, but this one is a local affair with very few tourists.
Electricity came and went, and each time it came back on again everybody sighed in relief, and the buzzing of blenders mixing fresh fruit juices and the dim light from single light bulbs filled the air.
We tasted a delicious array of roasted mushrooms, grilled to order on skewers with a lemon herbal dipping sauce.
Perhaps the most exotic thing we tasted was a Purple and blue shake, freshly made from fresh lime mixed with Dok Anchan – the Butterfly Pea Flower (botanical name – Clitoria ternatea).
We asked for it unsweetened and it tasted lemony and refreshing.
To read more about this flower, which is often used for tea and desserts, visit this website:
– MAGIC GARDEN (or Heaven’s Garden)
A peaceful garden up in Samui’s interior.
The garden is a labor of love and the vision of one man named Nim Thongsuk. He began to build the garden in 1976 when he was 77 years old.
Today, many Buddhist rock sculptures and statuettes, along with small rock buildings, line the riverbed with a small waterfall surrounded with tropical plants.
-PAGODA LAEM SOR
Sited right on the water’s edge in the southern tip of Samui, this large golden pagoda is a beautiful reminder that life in a body on this earth can be paralleled to a sea voyage.
In a glass building by the sea sits a large wooden sailing boat with a sculpture of a mummified monk.
He is surrounded with small models of hundreds of sailing vessels, facing the vast sea…. Perhaps reflecting on his voyage….
This temple was hard to find, located on a steep hill covered with mangos, bananas and coconut trees.
It features a beautiful stupa surrounded with Buddhas, each guardian symbolizing an attribute of character that we need to cultivate in order to reach enlightenment.
There was a reclining golden Buddha and a saffron clad monk was brushing the fallen leaves with a handmade broom.
Smiling monks sat overlooking the sea with a set of binoculars.
The place offers a peaceful setting and beautiful views of the southern coast and nearby southern islands.
– HUA THANON MUSLIM FISHING VILLAGE
If you wish to see the way village life on Samui used to be before the arrival of luxury resorts and the popularity of tourism, head for the seaside Muslim village of Hua Thanon.
A single small sign points to the local Masjid, called Masjid Nurulihasan.
It is a large local mosque with green minarets rising into the sky.
There are only a few small narrow streets.
We find it hard to find a place to park our tiny car.
A local appeared and directed us to park in someone’s garden,
saying it is OK.
Everybody is smiling at us,
seemingly happy to see us take interest in their little village.
Children with faces smeared with a white paste, believed to protect them from the sun,
run and play in the streets.
Colorful laundry lines the streets
The wooden and corrugated iron houses are humble, but feel homey…
Inside each house someone is mending their fishing nets
Or arranging their buoys on a string
A cat sleeps on the roof
Fish and tiny calamari are drying on trays along the streets.
Veiled women sell grilled chicken, hot dogs or fish cakes.
One smiling woman, eating rice, invites us to eat at her place
A group of veiled women holding babies and elderly grandmothers,
Sit and eat a large Durian, its creamy flesh left on the table for the flies.
Many Long wooden boats line the shore.
Every household seems to own one.
It is nearly sunset and the men unload their catch and head home for supper.