Ko Samui is a picturesque island located in the Gulf of Thailand. And even though Samui does receive its fair share of tourists, it’s not over run by them like in the ping pong show capital of Phucket or in Ko Phangan, the island famous for its full moon parties. Ko Samui is still local enough to give you a true glimpse into Thai island life and my time here was nothing short of idyllic. I lived here for a month while taking a course to get certified to teach English as a second language. My daily routine consisted of doing morning laps in the crystal clear ocean followed by my morning classes. I would then spend my afternoons exploring the island, discovering hidden beaches, swimming at waterfalls and playing with elephants. I can easily say that my time spent on the island was one of the happiest times in my life. Check out the list below to see all the unique things I discovered while calling this sweet island home.
- Spend an afternoon at the Jungle Club, no membership needed!
The Jungle Club is a French/Thai family owned resort that sits atop a hillside coconut plantation with panoramic views of the Bay of Chaweng and the Gulf of Siam. Sounds expensive huh? Well it probably is, but I wouldn’t know since I never actually stayed here. However, I still took advantage of the resort’s impressive views, infinity pool and relaxing bungalows almost on a daily basis by simply ordering food and drinks from the resort’s restaurant (which is actually reasonably priced). As long as you’re a paying customer you’re free to use the resort’s amenities. I would linger at the resort for hours ordering coffee after coffee while studying for my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification course, taking breaks here and there to take a quick dip or relax in a hammock. The steep drive up the tiny mountain road leading to the resort is well worth the trip as it remains one of the island’s best kept secrets.
- Take a day trip to the sight that inspired “The Beach”
Ang Thong National Marine Park is located in the Gulf of Thailand and is an easy day trip from Koh Smaui by boat. This marine park consists of 42 jagged islands that jut out of crystal clear water and are covered with thick jungles, hidden lagoons and sea caves. In addition to being the highlight of my time spent on Samui, this gorgeous natural phenomenon was also the inspiration behind Alex Garland’s cult classic novel, “The Beach.” There are many tour operators in Koh Samui that offer day trips to Ang thong and most include lunch and excursions such as snorkeling, kayaking and cave exploring.
- Frolic in a waterfall
Koh Samui has several waterfalls but the most scenic would be the Namuang waterfalls, divided into Namuang 1 and Namuang 2. Namuang 1 is a beautiful 18m high waterfall that is easily accessible by a short walk into the jungle from the nearby parking area. The fall is known for its swimming hole in which you’ll see both tourists and locals cooling off and jumping off the rocks into the water. Namuang 2 is a little trickier to get to as you have to trek a little further into the jungle to access it, but this picturesque 80m fall is worth it. Beware that the paths leading up to these falls are slippery so use caution.
- Play with elephants
Between Namuang 1 & 2 is the Namuang Safari Park which offers elephant rides as well as monkey shows that you can enjoy for a fee. However, if you check out the waterfalls close to closing (around sunset) you may luck out like I did and get the opportunity to ride an elephant free of charge! One of the elephant care takers was walking an elephant back to its stables for the night and he not only stopped to let me pet it, he let me hop on bare backed, no saddle and take it for a ride.
- Check out nature’s perverted side
Hin Ta and Hin Yai (grandfather and grandmother) rocks are definitely a sight to see. Located on the coastline between Lamai and Hua Thanon, these natural rock formations suggest a natural anatomy that’s undeniable. They make for some great photo ops if you just use your imagination.
- Explore the Islands Temples
With Buddhism being the dominate religion on Koh Samui, the island is full of amazing temples. Here are the top 3 you can’t miss.
- Hang out with a dead guy
The island’s famous mummified monk can be found at Wat Khunaram and is definitely something you need to see with your own eyes. The monk Luong Pordaeng died in 1973 in a seated meditative position and ever since his body has been on display in an upright glass case at the temple. Remarkably, after 30 years in the humid Thai weather, the monk’s body shows little signs of decay beyond the eyes, (as the monk rocks a pair of shades since his eyes have started to literally rot out of his head). This temple offers a unique insight into Buddhist and Thai culture, as death is not something to be feared but rather something to embrace as it’s an opportunity to be reborn in a better place, one step closer to nirvana.
- Linger in a local Thai market
Asian markets are a far cry from the cushy grocery stores of the west. The smells are horrific and the items for sales resemble a pet store more than they do a food market. Nonetheless, it’s a great experience and a wonderful way to immerse yourself in local culture. My favorite daytime market on the island is the Bang Rak fish market. Ko Samui also hosts several night time markets that Southeast Asia is known for. These night markets are a great place to buy handmade goods and crafts as well as try some of the most delicious street food you’ll probably ever have.
- Pay respect to Pi-tani
Thais are very superstitious and strongly believe in ghosts, so much so that it’s not uncommon to see “spirit houses” lining the road. These shrines honor various ghosts popular in Thai folklore and the intention is to honor the ghosts in hopes that they don’t harm you. You pay your respects by honking 3 times as you pass one on the road. A popular spirit house on Koh Samui is located near the lookout point between Chaweng Noi and Lamai. This shrine is dedicated to Pi-tani, the spirit that lives in the trees.
- Have dinner on the sand in Chaweng Beach
Chaweng Beach is one of Koh Samui’s most beautiful beaches as its position on the northeastern side of the island makes for gorgeous sunsets. I highly recommend checking out this beach for a sunset dinner and chose from one of the many restaurants that offers oceanside dining with the tables located directly in the sand!
- Stroll through Buddha’s Secret Garden
So this garden isn’t so secret anymore as it’s becoming more and more of a popular destination among both tourists and locals. However, the view alone from this mountain top garden sanctuary is worth checking it out. The secret Buddha garden was built by a 4th generation Samui native and contains numerous sculptures depicting various Buddhist scriptures. It’s located off the air force road that goes towards the center of the island.
- Relax in a café in the fisherman’s village
This quaint little village is full of great little shops, restaurants and cafes and is host to one of the best night markets. I highly recommend taking shelter from the hot Thai sun by relaxing in a beachside café with a cold beer or iced coffee
- Discover hidden beaches
Being on a tropical Thai island it goes without saying that the majority of your time should be spent on the beach swimming in the turquoise waters and laying out on the fine white sands. And despite the fact that Samui has a slew of popular beach destinations including Chaweng, Lamai, Bophut and Maenam you can still find unspoiled hidden coves without a tourists in sight if you just do a little exploring. The best way to do this is by hoping on a bike, either a motorbike or a bicycle. Ko Samui has tons of options for motorbike rentals and if you just ask around, you’ll find the few shops that rent out mountain bikes, which is the option I chose. Trust me, with Samui’s hilly topography you’ll definitely get a workout in and your thighs will thank you.
- Join a fight club
Ko Samui has established itself as one of Thailand’s most popular destinations for Muy Thai training. People travel from all over the world to train here as many gyms offer travel and accommodation packages that combine with an intense training program ranging from one week to several months. These gyms are open to everyone from novices to advanced. Joining a Muy Thai camp is a great way to get in shape on your travels and a good excuse to strut your stuff on a tropical beach. Although I personally didn’t participate in a training camp, I know people who did and loved it.
- Join the locals and watch a bird-singing competition
You want what you can’t have. This saying rings true in Thailand as Thais tend to have an obsession with gambling even though it’s illegal in the form of poker, casinos, etc. So what’s the loophole? Bet on birds. The southern Thai tradition of bird-singing competitions is still practiced on Samui. These competitions, which are held every Tuesday and Thursday at 11:00am, are not advertised to tourists and remain local and authentic. If you’re feeling adventurous you can find these competitions by going down “ghost road,” the road that links Bang Rak to Chaweng. At these competitions you’ll see Thai men carrying bamboo bird cages covered with brightly covered fabrics containing their prized possession – a red-whistered bulbul, an exotic and rare bird from the area. When the competition starts, the covers are removed and cages are hung on metal hooks. Birds are judged by how well they sing, variation of tune and stamina. The judges literally count how many times they chirp in the 20 second time slot. The winner walks away with a cash prize as friendly betting goes on between the competitors and spectators.