As is the case in many parts of Thailand, Samui’s temples offer some of the best sightseeing and photographic opportunities on the island. The wat (temple) is an integral part of Thai life, and as well as being the location for religious ceremonies and worship, these ornate locations also host meetings of the local council and even act as a venue for funfairs and concerts.
A visit to the temple provides an interesting insight into local life, but visitors must remember to dress appropriately – knees and shoulders covered – and not to disturb the calm, meditative atmosphere. If you get a bit tired of temples, there are several other interesting sites on the island to offer a change from the beach.
The number one sightseeing attraction on Samui is perhaps Wat Phra Yai, a much visited temple where the famous golden Buddha statue graces the headland that separates Ban Plai Laem and Big Buddha Beach. The 12m smiling deity, which gives ‘Big Buddha Beach’ its name, dominates the temple grounds and offers some excellent photo opportunities, particularly at sunset. The upper platform is lined with huge prayer bells and at the entrance to the temple you can see the island’s only fully automated donation machine.
There are some excellent souvenir and craft shops scattered around the car parking area, along with a skilled silversmith and a Batik painter, as well as a cafés and a tattoo artist. During big festivals, like Songkran (Thai New Year, April) and Loi Kratong (The Festival of Light, November), the temple at Big Buddha comes alive with food stalls and beauty competitions, and concerts. Yet on a normal day there’s an air of tranquillity that feels far more appropriate to such a picture-perfect setting.
Another sight seeing gem on Samui is Wat Ban Plai Leam, a newly-constructed and very ornate temple just around the corner from the Big Buddha statue. Designed by renowned Thai artist Jarit Phumdonming, the outside features a huge multi-limbed statue of the Goddess Shiva, while the inside walls are decorated with pictorial representations from the life of the Lord Buddha. The elaborate entry doors were made from two giant slabs of hardwood and carved with images from the life of the Buddha.
The artist spent more than three years adding the finer details to the temple’s external walls and has produced a kaleidoscope of colour and design. The tradition of temple art dates back centuries and Wat Ban Plai Laem provides a good example of the influences and styles that are still important in modern Thai religious architecture.
Wat Khunaram is Samui’s famous shrine to the mummified monk, known as Lung Padaeng when alive. This highly respected monk has been well preserved – beings as he died in the early 1970s – and today can be seen sitting behind a glass case meditating. There is a special gazebo to protect him from the elements and next to his bandaged form you can read your fortune using ancient numerology sticks. The temple itself is quite modern and located on the opposite side of the road from the Namuang Falls, not far from Hua Thanon fishing village, on the southern side of the island.
The Secret Buddha Garden is not a temple, although it feels like one. It is located high in the hills above Ban Saket in the southwest of Samui. In a small valley, a 77-year old Buddhist devotee sculpted and placed figures from his dreams along a flowing mountain stream. Uncle Nim’s statues are a sight to behold, as are the views from this spectacular mountain location.
Hin Ta and Hin Yai are the islands’ most visited attraction after the Big Buddha temple. Affectionately known as Grandfather and Grandmother Rock (in English) and situated a few kilometres southwest of Lamai, these two ancient stones have been slowly moulded by the elements into accurate representations of male and female genitalia. A sight well worth a photo (or a giggle) and there are some natty little shops selling coconut handicrafts on the road that leads down to the rocks.
To get a glimpse of traditional Thai island life, head for the south of Samui where you can wander among the coconut plantations and small villages that offer life as it was before the tourists arrived. Here you’ll find modest Muslim fishing village Laem Set. It was one of the island’s first settlements.