Generally considered to be the most popular island in the Gulf of Thailand, Koh Samui has been the favored vacation land for many people around the world for many years, and it continues to be discovered by many more people each high season. While there are concerns by some regarding overdevelopment (especially in the popular beach resort area of Chaweng), if the built up commercial aspects of a paradise island turn you off, there are plenty of alternatives to be found on every coast on this island, so don’t let reports of its “ruination” dissuade you from visiting this pleasant isle.
Despite developing from almost nothing in the 1990’s to the tourism heavyweight that it is today, there are many authentic experiences to be had here for those that are willing to find them.
Many of the attractions listed below can be accessed by motorbike or day tour. If you lack confidence in your ability to pilot a scooter, err on the side of safety and opt to be chauffeured around by a tour agency instead. This is much better than having your vacation ruined by spending part of it holed up in a hospital room.
With that necessary disclaimer out of the way, make your way to Wat Khunaram, which is located in the southern portion of the island. This temple is world famous for one reason only: it has a mummified monk on display in a glass case, for the entire world to see. The body in question is that of a former abbot, who is said to have correctly predicted the day of his own death. Despite the carnival-like atmosphere surrounding this place, the usual provisos concerning respect still apply here (i.e. clothing that covers your shoulders and your legs, shoes off before entering, etc).
Next, switch sides of the island to the northeast corner, where a giant statue of the Buddha dominates the skyline in the area at Wat Phra Yai. Climb the many steps to the base of this iconic attraction that soars up to 15 metres into the air, or save your breath and get a zoomed in picture of this massive symbol of Buddhism towering over all who reside in his shadow. Apart from this significant attraction, a multi-armed statue that seems to evoke Hinduism more than Buddhism (both faiths have many similarities due to their close geographical proximity when they were founded) also makes this temple well worth the trip.
Rounding out the trio of major cultural attractions on Koh Samui is Laem Sor Pagoda, found on a beach in the southwest corner of Koh Samui. It is widely considered to be the most important religious site for Buddhism on the island, perhaps because of its location away from the tourist hordes, but also because of its stunning physical location. With the ocean on one side, and tropical rainforest on the other, this pagoda is worshipped at by locals looking to get their prayers answered. If they are granted, the worshipper places a model boat inside a larger boat in a building a short distance away from the main pagoda. If you are looking for an off the beaten track highlight on Koh Samui, be sure to include this place on your itinerary.
Despite being home to a number of iconic alcoholic beverages (like Chang, Singha and Sangsom), Thailand lacks a culture of brewery/distillery tours. However, this appears to be changing lately, with a well-regarded facility in the south of Koh Samui called Magic Alambic Rum Distillery swinging open its doors to the general public. This operation offers many fine homemade spirits made from fresh cane sugar harvested from fields located on the island, and in flavours ranging from lemon to coconut to the straight up version of the firewater.
If you’re short on time, or you are not confident in your motorbike driving skills, then signing up for an Island Tour via one of the many tour agencies on the island is a good secondary option. See many of the sights previously mentioned in this article, as well as some of more touristy operations, such as Grandfather/Grandmother Rock, which boast rocks that resemble the … erm … genitalia of both sexes.
Anyway, despite hokiness of some of the stops, it’s well worth the price to see many of the island’s attractions in one fell swoop.
Finally, most guests here come to relax on the beaches of Samui, and to that end, there are many, with characters that range from party hearty to sleepy and sedate. Chaweng and Lamai Beach is basically party central, with nightspots on the beach and the main drag, charcoal BBQ’s that wait for you to order your choice of meat and/or seafood, and a culture of laziness that rules the day on the sands, until the sun sets and the cycle repeats.
Those looking for a holiday that’s markedly less hectic will want to pick a beach like Mae Nam in the north, where the lack of beer bars and lower tourist traffic makes it perfect for those with families, or Choeng Mon, which is similarly quiet, though you will pay much more for that privilege here.