It was May and I was still without a job. Almost three months had passed since my last trip to Bali and that meant only one thing – my tourist visa was about to expire so the only thing that needed to be done was plan a small vacation outside Malaysia. I chose Koh Samui in Thailand, where my friend lives, as the destination for my trip.
It’s so easy to look up a “guide to..” or “top things to do..” for Koh Samui, so I thought I would share with you what I discovered during my visit. And yes, I WILL be mentioning the architecture as even though I knew it would be beautiful, seeing it in person was, well, incredible!
Getting to Koh Samui
To travel as cheaply as possible, I decided to buy a bus ticket. A 15 hour journey was awaiting me, but the ticket only cost me 90RM ($25), that’s what I call a good deal! J The journey was without any problems and the largest part of it I slept anyway. Upon arrival, I wondered how to get to Mae Nam. Everywhere I read advised me not to get a taxi here – because of local mafia it is the most expensive way to move around the island. I stood on the main road for a moment, looking for something that resembled a bus stop and at that moment a songthaew (see photo) offered me a ride to Mae Nam for 80 Baht.
Koh Samui is not really a small island and if you’ll want to explore it, the best (and cheapest) way is to rent a scooter or motorbike. I rented a small scooter which, as I found out later, was kind of a mistake. If you want to explore the hills of Koh Samui, make sure you hire something more powerful. I had to push my mini scooter a few times. You will have to come to terms with the locals not following any driving code. Although I have a driver’s license for bikes and I hadn’t driven for about 10 years I still enjoyed it and I had almost no problems. Just always wear a helmet and try to drive safely.
You can get a map of the island in most of the hotels and also ask the locals for hidden places they recommend you to visit. Then the next thing on the list is to forget the map and just get lost. Certainly it is one of the best ways to discover the hidden treasures of Koh Samui.
1. Big Buddha
The first place I visited in Koh Samui was Big Buddha, which is located close to the airport. Big Buddha is really big! A twelve meter tall Buddha, which majestically sits and looks out across the landscape, is visible from afar. When you climb a few dozen steps, the views across the bay towards Ko Som and Ko Pha-Ngan are spectacular, making the walk up the steep staircase worthwhile.
The stairs are guarded on each side by brightly painted and mosaic clad Nagas (Thai mythical sea serpents that protected the Buddha while he slept). Once you’re at the top, you’re right at the base of the Buddha statue. You can light a candle yourself, take a look at the surroundings or enjoy the sea breeze while you gaze over the bay. There’s a walkway around the base of the statue which is hung with ornate prayer bells. You can grasp the wooden log and softly ring the bells. Buddhism believers focus only presence. Therefore they ring the bells, to bring attention from the future worries and fears from the past back to the present. When praying here, remember to kneel and face your feet away from Buddha. Also, try to never turn your back to the Buddha. The monks consider it very rude.
Before you leave this temple complex you can wander around small shops of jewellery, clothing and accessories on offer, as well as souvenirs. You can also try out your Thai bargaining skills. The vendors more or less expect you to do so, and the friendlier you are with them the better price you’ll get.
2. Wat Plai Laem
Just along the road a little further north-east is Wat Plai Laem which is my favourite. This temple complex is famous for its own huge Chinese “fat” Laughing Buddha statue, which makes me smile whenever I look at it, and the 20-metre tall statue of Guanyin, the goddess of mercy and compassion, with her nine sets of arms, each representing a sector of Buddhism.
This place is so picturesque that I had to come here twice. Once during the day, when was so hot that I was the only one there. Second time, I came during the sunset. Some amazing photos were created during this time, because the sun rays were still lightening the statues but everything else was already dark.
3. Secret Buddha Garden
Once upon a time, there was a humble farmer who imagined mythical beings when he looked at the rocks and hillsides of a small valley and he started carving the rocks into the figures he saw. Today his valley, which is usually known as either Magic Garden, Secret Buddha Garden or Heaven’s Garden, is a poignant testimony to the almost miraculous drive that dreams can provoke. Much of what you see in the garden comes from the rich tapestry of Thai mythology, which actually has its origins in India.
It’s easy to visit but, because it’s relatively far from the ring-road, few visitors include it on their itinerary so I had the whole garden just for myself.
The garden is located on the hill Khun Nim Peak. Taking the concrete road from Ban Saket you head straight up into the hills (don’t worry; the road is immaculate – no 4-wheel drive vehicles needed here!). Continue on up the road until you come to the signs for the garden at the very top of the hill on the right-hand side. Bring your camera – you’ll certainly need it once you get to the garden. Also bring 80 Baht with you – that is the price to enter the garden.
4. Temple Teepangkorn
When you are trying to find places to visit, you will not find much about this place. I noticed it on the map when I was looking where Secret Buddha Garden is. It is about 4 km far from the garden. When I was looking at the map it seemed to me that there is a normal road.
I was expecting a road similar to the one that leads to the garden. I was wrong. So wrong. It was a rocky road similar to the ones for motocross. Alone on my mini scooter, I scrambled through the jungle. It was a great and crazy adventure! It was so bumpy that my phone and glasses fell out from my scooter. Fortunately, locals who drove in a jeep behind me found it. When I realized that I lost my phone I started panicking, turned my scooter and drove back to look for it. Along the way, I saw the jeep and it started honking at me. I stopped and young boys peeked out the window and handed me my phone and my glasses! I was so lucky to meet them!
Google showed to me that the path to the Buddha takes only 15 minutes, but it took me about half an hour. It was hard but it’s definitely worth it. The view over Lamai was breath taking. I was about to leave the complex when one old monk told me to visit another building. Inside, I found a museum with the things and tools that locals were using for farming, ranching, hunting and etc. On the top floor the stairs lead outside to the observation tower, from where you have the magnificent view of the Buddha looking at the sea.
Later, I found on the internet, that agencies are offering a safari trip there only with jeeps with 4×4. I’m not surprised at all! The road back to Lamai was also very adventurous and I saw many signs saying “motocross trail” 😀
5. Secret monk and his cave
Also one of the spots you won’t find on the internet. I found it thanks to Geocaching app and it was almost like a treasure hunt. I was able to see only the sign on the map and compass showing me the direction and the distance. The secret monk is hidden somewhere on the coast. There was no path to this place on the map so once I ended up in Four Seasons resort, which was closest to the spot, but they told me, they never heard of that place and I cannot get there through their grounds. After a few bad turns, I found out that first I have to go to Beryl Bar. From the bar a small path led to the cave. After 10 minutes of walking along the rocky coast (I recommend sturdy shoes or trainers), I reached a tunnel that leads to the monk’s cave. But you don’t need to go through it. You can just walk around. There was nobody but me, a monk statue gazing at the sea and a cave filled with Buddha statues. You can notice a bed, some dishes in the cave and they even dry their clothes there.
I was a little nervous because I was told that the monks live there, so I waited if someone shows up. After returning to Beryl Bar I was told by the owner that no one lives there anymore, but monks still regularly go there.
Relax is needed too in Koh Samui
After all my crazy adventurous travels, I planned a relaxing escape for my last three days. I spent one night at the private ‘resort’ Sandalwood Luxury Villas, located on a cliff top part of Lamai. Sandalwood Luxury Villas has only 10 private villas and a breath taking view of Chaweng beach and a large part of the island. You can read more about it here.
Then I visited Tongsai Bay resort located close to Wat Plei Laem. Tongsai Bay is much bigger than Sandalwood Luxury Villas, but yet it is very peaceful and you can enjoy your own private villa. In addition, all the villas have stunning views of the beach and the bay. More about my experience from this resort here.
My week went fast and I had to leave this wonderful paradise. I definitely plan to come back one day and see other spots of which I didn’t have time to visit.
Koh Samui is a genuinely awesome place that I can’t recommend enough. It surprised me and amazed me to the max, making a brilliant week away!
Have you been to Koh Samui? Were you amazed or surprised by anything there?