Although lacking the vast array of traditional cultural attractions of other less-developed Thai holiday resorts, Koh Samui has a little bit of everything. The necklace of palm-fringed white sand beaches will keep even the most discerning sun worshippers happy, while those seeking an altogether more spiritual high can head to the famous Big Buddha Temple or the serene Secret Buddha Garden. There is also a mummified monk here and rocks shaped like human genitalia, catering to anyone who rates their tourist attractions on a strict scale of quirkiness.
Though slightly overdeveloped in places, the beaches on Samui continue to hold their own as the island’s biggest draw. Chaweng is the most popular and can sometimes appear dauntingly crowded in high season, but ducking down the lanes between resorts will usually draw out a patch of undisturbed white sand just waiting to receive you. This beach is perfectly set up for swimming, and boasts some of the best beachside restaurants on the island.
Just over the headland is Lamai Beach, which offers a lengthy stretch of sand with a smattering of tasteful resorts. A number of exclusive hotels line the coast between here and Chaweng, but most of the other nice beaches sit on the island’s northern side. Choeng Mon is a tucked-away unassuming crescent-shaped cove on the northeast coast, while Big Buddha Beach occupies a long stretch of sand from the iconic Big Buddha temple to the headland. Bo Phut to the west is broken up by a sleepy fishing village, while Mae Nam is probably the quietest option for those really looking to get away from it all.
The south of the island does not yield many swimming-friendly beaches, but as such has managed to retain much of its traditional Thai character. Thaling Nam is worth seeking out for those who have hired transport, while the tidal beaches and occasional mud flats near Nathon in the northwest are striking but not so good for swimming.
Wat Phra Yai, also known as the Big Buddha temple, is the most visited non-natural attraction in Samui. Particularly popular at sunset, the 12-metre high sitting Buddha is complimented by stunning views out to sea above Big Buddha Beach. The huge prayer bells on the temple’s upper section are a sight to behold and fine jewellery and batiks can be sourced from the surrounding souvenir stalls.
Designed by artist Jarit Phumdonmin, Wat Ban Plai Laem boasts a much more impressive level of intricate detail than many Thai temples. The depictions of Buddha’s life, which can be marvelled at on the massive hardwood entry doors and the interior walls, took more than three years to complete. There is also an impressive 18-arm Buddha which occupies a lake where fat fish enjoy a never-ending feeding session courtesy of the temple’s visitors.
While not as visually stimulating as some other Thai temples, Wat Khunaram is worth a look just for its bizarre display of the mummified body of a monk, who died more than two decades ago while meditating. Presented in a glass case, the preserved figure still sits in the position he was found. The temple, which is also the top place to get your fortune read on the island, can be located in the south near the Namuang waterfalls and Hua Thanon village.
Uncle Nim’s Secret Buddha Garden is an oasis of tranquillity deep in Samui’s interior hills. Its founder, Nim Thongsuk, created a remarkable outdoor art gallery, based on the teachings of Buddha, around a babbling mountain stream. Beginning the project at the tender age of 77, Uncle Nim added to the garden vigorously until his death at the age of 91.
Perhaps Samui’s silliest attractions, Hin Ta and Hin Yai are not to be missed by anyone seeking a giggle. Translating to mean Grandfather and Grandmother rocks, weathering over hundreds of years has resulted in amusingly-accurate representations of male and female genitalia.