Think Samui, and you may imagine miles of gorgeous beaches lined by coconut fronds with plenty of room for everyone. True, this is one of the main aspects of visiting Samui, and each of the beaches has its own character. But the island also has a few natural attractions such as waterfalls and viewpoints that are worth getting to when you’ve had enough of the tropical sun.
Although there are far fewer cultural and historic attractions than elsewhere in Thailand, there are a number of interesting temples such as the famous Big Buddha. More on Samui sightseeing.
Starting with the beaches, Samui’s most popular is Chaweng. This looks awfully overdeveloped from the main street, but wander down one of the lanes between resorts and you will find yourself on a very nice stretch of sand. With some of the best swimming on the island, at sunset you can relax at beachside restaurants at the northern end. There are a couple of exclusive little resorts between here and Lamai, over the headland. This beach is also lengthy and lovely, with the sympathetically-designed resorts fronting it blending in well.
The other nice beaches are found along the northern side, with tiny Choeng Mon being a delightful perfect crescent tucked out of sight on the northeast coast. Big Buddha, by contrast, is a long sweeping beach from the Big Buddha itself to a rocky headland, beyond which you discover another lengthy stretch of near paradise in Bo Phut. It’s interrupted by a quaint fishermen’s village and is nicest towards its western reaches. Mae Nam is quieter still, miles of uncrowded beach fronted by small private resorts and with a more undeveloped feel, though by now you are really away from the action.
The long stretches of beach at the northwest corner and down the west side, past the local town of Nathon, are lovely though tidal and not great for swimming, sometimes with mud flats and little development. Thaling Nam in the south is a lovely, almost undeveloped beach worth seeking out on a rental bike. In fact there are not many tourist-friendly beaches in the south which has helped it retain its natural character.
Situated in the north east of the island, Wat Phra Yai is probably Koh Samui’s most visited attraction, famous for its 12-metre high Buddha statue sitting high above the steps which gives ‘Big Buddha Beach’ its name. The statue dominates the landscape and can be seen from miles away, and even from the air on arrival. Large prayer bells decorate the upper section and the views from the top out to sea are spectacular. It is a particularly popular attraction to visit at sunset, which gives some great photo opportunities. Around the temple there are some good souvenir shops with fine batiks and silver items, along with restaurants and drink stalls.
Close to the Big Buddha statue is Wat Ban Plai Laem, an interesting ornate temple built in 2004 and another of the most popular attractions on the island. The most striking feature here is the 18 armed Buddha statue set in the middle of a lake where hundreds of large fish are waiting to be fed by visitors. The temple was designed by Thai artist Jarit Phumdonmin who spent more than three years working on the fine details of the exterior. The interior walls are decorated with pictures detailing the life of the Buddha, as are the huge hardwood entry doors.
Wat Khunaram is famous as a shrine to the respected monk Lung Padaeng, whose mummified body is bizarrely on display in a glass case. The monk died more than 20 years ago while meditating and his body has been preserved in that position. There are ancient numerology sticks here, used to read your fortune, which are common on visits to temples. The temple has a modern style and is not as impressive as others in Thailand, but is a popular attraction and worth a visit. Wat Khunaram is situated on the southern side of the island on the 4169 ring road between the fishing village of Hua Thanon and Namuang waterfalls.
Uncle Nim’s Secret Buddha Garden, tucked away up in the hills deep in the islands interior, is one of the most extraordinary tourist attractions on Koh Samui. At the age of 77, Nim Thongsuk began to arrange some of his exhibits around a flowing mountain stream. The result is a remarkable outdoor art gallery dotted with sculptures inspired by the teachings of the Buddha. Uncle Nim remained dedicated to this project right up until his death, aged 91. The garden is approached from the southwest of the island, past Ben Saket and up a winding road through a military site. The views from here are stunning and it is an extremely peaceful and tranquil place to spend some time. There are also a couple of hilltop restaurants nearby with great views all the way across to Surat Thani on the mainland.
Hin Ta and Hin Yai are another two of the most visited attractions on Koh Samui. Otherwise known as Grandfather Rock and Grandmother Rock in English, these natural formations are quite remarkable in their own way, and you will always find visitors taking photos and giggling here.
The two ancient rocks have been weathered by the sea, wind and rain over hundreds of years, resulting in amazingly accurate representations of male and female genitalia. The rocks are located on the southeastern coast about half-a-mile south of Lamai. There are also some small shops selling local crafts on the road leading to the rocks.
Waterfalls, there are several of these on the island, though they do tend to dry up in the first half of the year. The Hin Lad Falls is perhaps the most popular and easiest to get to, located near Nathon. On the south side of the island are several others with the pair Na Muang I and II being the best of them. Compared to mainland national parks, these are hardly worth writing about but make an interesting excursion. More on Samui waterfalls.
The Overlap Stone, just south of Lamai, is another unusual natural attraction that offers a unique viewing platform. If you wish to explore the roads up in the mountains, a dirt bike and some experience is necessary, or you can take a mountain biking tour. More on Samui tours.