By: Shamus Sillar
Koh Samui isn’t just a drop in the ocean. Measuring 20km from top to bottom and 15km across, it’s a sizeable chunk of real estate. So there’s plenty to see, with everything from tumbling waterfalls and a giant Buddha statue to a pair of genital-shaped rocks that never fails to get the tourists atwitter (and tweeting).
Of course, most people come to the island with the express intention of seeing next to nothing of Samui. And fair enough, too. This is a holiday, right?
Admittedly I also found the gravitational pull of the poolside lounge chairs to be stronger than that of most planets. When I did drag myself away, here are some of the things I found.
1. Spectacled Monks
Nine out of ten of Samui’s 50,000 inhabitants are Buddhist; this means loads of temples. I visited one, Wat Kiri Wongkaram, renowned for its mummified monk, a remarkably well-preserved chap who has been seated in a glass box since 1966, when he died at the age of 87.
The temple was an easy 15-minute walk from where I was staying, the newly opened and very impressive InterContinental Samui Baan Taling Ngam Resort (whose name, meaning “home on a beautiful cliff”, sounds appropriately like a meditation mantra).
Later, back at the resort, I told another guest about my temple visit.
“What did you think of his sunglasses?” she asked.
“Who, the monk? He wasn’t wearing any sunglasses,” I replied.
“Yes, he must have been. He’s famous for them!”
I didn’t know what to say. Could I really have stood deferentially in front of an embalmed religious figure as little as half an hour ago and not noticed a pair of Ray-Bans?
It turns out there are two mummified monks on Samui. The most celebrated of the duo is Loung Pordaeng whose body is displayed at a different wat; and he does indeed wear dark shades (to hide signs of decomposition). The monk I saw, named Loung Por Ruam, goes without.
Enough about eyewear. These temples are friendly places, and there’s often plenty of interesting cultural activity to observe. It’s a nice touch to offer some flowers or food to the monks; you might gain a few merit points for your life at the same time.
2. Spectacled Langurs
Speaking of spectacles (eyewear again, I know), I was fortunate enough on my trip to come into contact with a spectacled langur, or dusky leaf monkey. It’s obvious where the name comes from – these little guys look like they’ve just done some serious time in the tanning salon wearing nothing but goggles. What I didn’t realise, until a tour guide told me, is how lucky I was to see one of these monkeys at such close range. Apparently they’re extremely shy.
Five seconds after I’d taken my photo, this particular black-and-white creature jumped onto the beach and sprinted directly towards me like a Spanish bull. If this is shy, I thought to myself, I’d hate to see aggressive. Only in the final seconds did he divert from his path, before leaping into the branches of another tree in the dunes.
At least it got my heart rate going, something that doesn’t happen too often on Samui.
3. Lakes and Caves
My monkey sighting came during a six-hour visit to the Angthong National Park. The sea around Ko Samui’s beaches isn’t exactly postcard-blue – in fact, it’s often a bit murky and the shallows can be rocky. A day trip to Angthong, an archipelago of 42 islands lying 25km northwest of Samui, solves the problem, offering pristine waters and great snorkelling and diving.
And if it’s bluey-green water you like, Angthong is also home to much-photographed Emerald Lake (Thale Nai). You can’t swim in the lake, but there are platforms set up with great views of its intense hues.
A word of warning though: you won’t be looking at the lake alone. People swarm to Angthong every day, including legions of full-moon partygoers from Samui’s neighbour, Ko Pha Ngan. To escape the crowds, I took the less-frequented trek up to the caves on Angthong’s biggest island, Ko Wua Talap (“Sleeping Cow”). You don’t have to be a geologist to marvel at the towering white stalactites and stalagmites within.
There are plenty of options for getting to Angthong, but one of the best has to be the private tour organised by the aforementioned InterContinental. In 45 minutes, a speedboat zips you to the park where, aside from exploring the lakes and caves, you get to enjoy a lunch of barbecued lobster and other luxuries on your own piece of private beach.
4. Village Life
Spend any time on Samui and you’ll soon tire of the sound of scooters. Admittedly, the island’s size makes hiring a motorbike a no-brainer for anyone who wants to explore. But if you’re based in the soporific southwest quarter like I was, can I suggest a bicycle instead?
I borrowed one of the resort’s mountain bikes early one morning and explored the small villages nearby. I saw farmers and buffalos ploughing the fields, quirky corner stores manned by grandparents and inquisitive kids, secluded beaches with bobbing long-tail boats and, surprisingly, a handful of cosmopolitan restaurants and bars located seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
One of these, The Five Islands, is set right on the beach with a great view of – you guessed it – five islands, a handful of limestone outcrops that are famous for the harvesting of that dubious delicacy known as birds’ nest. Birds’ nest is worth a lot of money, particularly when exported to China, and the raw ingredient (the saliva nests of swifts) is protected by armed Sea Gypsies. I’d recommend you visit the islands on a tour rather than casually paddling out there alone in a kayak.
5. Mojito Makers
If a visit to a mummified monk is an exercise in contemplating Buddhist concepts of impermanence, then Friday night at Fisherman’s Village is mostly about partying like there’s no tomorrow. This increasingly popular restaurant strip off Bophut in the island’s north is still considered a respite from rowdy Chaweng. Hopefully it remains the quieter cousin, because the vibe at the moment is just right.
Fisherman’s Village becomes a pedestrian-only market from around 4pm on Friday afternoon. After browsing the craft and souvenir stalls, order a cheap-as-chips mojito (S$2) from one of the temporary bars and watch as the street vendor muddles the icy concoction of rum, lime, sugar and mint in 30 seconds flat. Next, hit the beach, walk along the timber boat pier (popular with smooching couples), grab a restaurant table just two metres from the shoreline, or light a sky lantern and let it loose into the night.
The best place for a drink on Samui, however, has to be the InterContinental’s Air Bar. You’ll be paying a bit more than two dollars for your drink, but you’ll be rewarded with incredible views and a perfect alfresco vibe. If you’re lucky, a storm will roll in and give you a front-row seat to nature’s awesome power. (If you’re even luckier, the storm will disappear promptly, allowing you to continue working your way through Air Bar’s menu of molecular cocktails.)
We flew Bangkok Airways direct from Singapore to Ko Samui. Flying time is one hour and 45 minutes. The schedule is perfectly suited to a long weekend: you can leave Singapore at 8.10pm on Thursday (arriving Samui at 8.55pm) and return on the 4.35pm flight on Sunday (arriving Singapore at 7.20pm).