Ang Thong National Marine Park is a pristine archipelago of 42 islands in the Gulf of Thailand with towering limestone mountains, thick jungle, white-sand beaches, fertile mangroves, waterfalls and hidden coves and lakes to explore. Within sight of Koh Samui, Ang Thong park is a protected area of more than 100 square kilometres of land and sea, and home to a rich variety of exotic wildlife and sea creatures. Snorkelling, hiking, sea kayaking, diving, sailing and simply relaxing on one of its idyllic beaches are the main activities to enjoy on Ang Thong.
Most Ang Thong visitors arrive on a join-in day trip or by boat charter from Koh Samui or Koh Pha Ngan. For those who wish to stay overnight, there are simple bungalows and camping tents available for rent at the Park Headquarters on Koh Wua Talab, where a simple restaurant is found as well. Though the park has started to get busy with day-trippers in the peak season, the Ang Thong islands remain the postcard-perfect image of a tropical paradise.
Ang Thong Marine National Park, established in 1980, covers an area of more than 80% of the entire archipelago. Its national park status has ensured that development has been minimal and only licensed tour operators are allowed entry into the park.
Ang Thong gained widespread renown when it appeared in the novel ‘The Beach’ by Alex Garland, as the destination where backpackers in search of a secret island utopia set up camp. The subsequent movie starring Leonardo Di Caprio was actually filmed on Koh Phi Phi, but by then Ang Thong was firmly in the imagination of many as an appealing holiday escape. Only one of its islands, Koh Paluay, is inhabited, home to a sea-gypsy community that largely maintains its traditional fishing lifestyle.
Ang Thong has some of the most unusual and spectacular scenery in all of Thailand. Its steep limestone cliffs, some rising as high as 400 metres, have been formed into wondrous shapes by centuries of erosion. This ‘Golden Basin’, as ‘Ang Thong’ translates into, features four distinct types of forest, all teeming with wildlife. Some of the creatures to be spotted here are langurs (long-tailed monkeys), little herons, hair-nosed otters, pacific reef egrets, white-bellied sea eagles, sea turtles, iguanas and pythons. In the surrounding sea many colourful fish can be seen, offering some decent snorkelling and diving sights.
With 42 islands to discover, a complete tour of Ang Thong would take weeks, but most with limited amount of time find their way to Koh Mae (Mother Island), which has a stunning beach and an inland saltwater lagoon called Emerald Lake (Thale Nai). A popular climb up pathways and a wooden staircase takes you to the peak of a nearby mountain where you get the full view of this glittering sea-green body of water. Koh Sam Sao (Tripod Island) features a coral reef, a large and dramatic rock arch and some great hiking grounds.
As a national park, only government-approved tour boats may enter Ang Thong, which may be booked on Koh Samui, Koh Pha Ngan or Koh Tao. Sailing liveaboard cruise trips and speedboat charters may also be organised. Most tours stop at a few different locations and combine a day of hiking, sightseeing, kayaking and lounging on the beaches. Some of the hikes require a good level of fitness, so be sure to check with your guide or agent about the degree of difficulty before setting off!
Ang Thong is 28 kilometres from Samui and 32 kilometres from Pha Ngan. The national park entry fee (sometimes included in the tour cost) is 200 baht for foreign adults, 100 baht for foreign children, and 40 baht for Thai nationals.
The best time to visit Ang Thong Marine National Park is March to October when the seas are calmer. The park is sometimes closed due to inclement weather in the months of November through January.
Big Buddha temple sits majestically on a small rocky island off Koh Samui’s north-eastern corner. Known locally as Wat Phra Yai, its golden, 12-metre seated Buddha statue was built in 1972 and remains one of the island’s most popular attractions. Set on Koh Faan, Big Buddha temple is reached by a causeway that connects it to the main island. The Big Buddha can be seen at a distance of several kilometres and is often the first landmark people see when arriving to Samui by air.
The Big Buddha sits in the Mara posture, with the left hand’s palm up resting on the lap and the right hand facing down, the fingers hanging over the knee and grazing the ground. It depicts a time during Buddha’s journey to enlightenment where he successfully subdued the temptations and dangers thrust at him by the devil-figure Mara by meditating and remaining calm. The pose is a symbol of steadfastness, purity and enlightenment.
Around the base of the tall statue is a courtyard and vendor area where amulets, religious artefacts, clothing and souvenirs are sold, and there are two more Buddha images set in pavilions. There are also food stalls and small restaurants to enjoy a snack or a meal. A staircase with a colourful, striking dragon design leads up to the platform area on which the Buddha sits.
Buddhist devotees come daily to make offerings of fruit and flowers and light incense at the base of the statue, while curious tourists are welcome come and to observe these graceful religious rituals any time of day. In addition to offering an insight into the local culture, the platform affords excellent beach and sea views. By night, the Big Buddha is bathed in the golden glow of spotlights, making for a holy and exotic sight.
All over Thailand the wat serves as a major centre for cultural festivals and Big Buddha temple in Samui is no exception. During such festivals as Loy Kratong or Songkran the temple becomes crowded with people making merit and enjoying the entertainment, food and markets set up in celebration. The beach nearby was originally called Bang Rak, but due to the prominence of the temple at its eastern end it is now more commonly known as Big Buddha Beach. There are a number of hotels and guesthouses along its sandy shoreline, and plenty of places to eat and shop.
To get to Big Buddha temple, take the main route 4169 up to the northeast region of Samui, then turn off on route 4171. The temple is about 3 kilometres directly north of Samui International Airport, 3km east of Bophut Beach and 7.5km away from Cheweng Beach. The temple is open to visitors all day, but for those hoping to catch a true cultural experience it’s best to go in the early morning hours, the time when local people bring their food and other offerings to the temple and the monks do their morning chanting.
Since this is a sacred place, visitors are advised to dress politely. Be sure to wear shirts or scarves that cover the shoulders, trousers or long shorts, and no beachwear when visiting the Big Buddha temple.
Fisherman’s Village Samui is a historical part of Bophut, with rustic-style buildings housing boutique stores, trendy restaurants and a small selection of hotels lining the narrow Beach Road. Every Friday, the whole area becomes the site of the Fisherman’s Village Walking Street market, attracting huge numbers of shoppers from across the island for the amazing variety of wares and the lively atmosphere.
This old part of Bophut Beach obviously takes its name from the fact that it was once home to a thriving fishing community. More recently, the fishermen have moved on and the main pier has collapsed, but the old wooden shophouses remain, with a warren of narrow alleys running between many of them, giving the village a charming old look and feel.
A couple of the entrances to Fisherman’s Village Samui are marked with arches, but the area broadly consists of Bophut Beach Road and surrounding small streets. It runs from the Happy Friday Restaurant at the easternmost point, where the road meets Route 4171 to The Wharf Samui in the west. Bophut Beach Road is open to vehicle traffic most of the time (except for Friday evenings) but is one-way and is barely a car-width wide for most of its length.
Many of the buildings on the beach side of the road are open at the back, offering remarkable views across the sea towards Koh Phangan. These are mostly restaurants, many of which have tables which spread out onto the sand of the adjacent beach. Unsurprisingly, many of them specialise in Thai seafood, though you will also find a wide selection of western and international offerings and even one or two pubs and bars.
With its rustic appearance, huge selection of boutique shopping, dining and accommodation options and, of course, the weekly market, Fisherman’s Village Samui is particularly popular with tourists and especially attracts couples and older travellers as well as those on a tight budget. The picturesque main road is an attraction in itself any day of the week and looks particularly striking in the half-light of dusk.
Hin Ta and Hin Yai, some fascinating rock formations on Koh Samui’s south coast, have been a source of mirth and wonder on the island since they were discovered by the locals many years ago. Art often imitates Nature, but less common is Nature imitating Art, especially the Art of the Ribald. But in Thailand anything is possible and these rocks, known as Grandpa (Ta) and Grandma (Yai), look, respectively, like male and female genitalia.
Set on the rocky coastline between Lamai and Hua Thanon, Hin Ta and Hin Yai raise indulgent chuckles or embarrassed titters from those who go to see them. This unusual and titillating sight has, naturally, given rise to a legend explaining how the rocks came into being.
The Hin Ta/Hin Yai legend is a tale of tragedy tinged with hope, as described on a signboard near the rocks: “A folklore of Samui Island tells the story of an old couple by the name of Ta Kreng (Grandpa Kreng) and Yai Riem (Grandma Riem) who lived with their son in the southern province of Nakhon Si Thammarat. Since their son had come of age, they felt that it was time he got married.
“One day they decided to sail to the neighbouring province of Prachuap Khiri Khan to ask for the hand of the daughter of a man named Ta Monglai. During their sea journey, their boat was seized by a storm. The old man and his wife were unable to swim ashore. They died at sea, turning into rocks as proof to the would-be bride’s parents of their true intentions. The rocks stand there to this day.”
The views from the rocks and vicinity are spectacular, stretching across the sea to nearby islands. Close to Hin Ta and Hin Yai is a small white-sand beach that is not suitable for swimming but offers a refreshing place to cool your feet after a day of island exploration. The pristine waters here are so clear that colourful marine life can often be seen from the surface.
Hin Ta and Hin Yai are found near the traditional Muslim fishing village Hua Thanon and in the surrounding area there’s a lush landscape of plantations and buffalo fields, offering a brief glimpse of how life might have been on Samui before the rise of tourism.
Those who forget to bring their camera may easily find a variety of postcard pictures of the rocks and other Samui sights in the vendor stalls set up here to cater to the steady stream of curious visitors. Many souvenirs plus drinks and snacks are for sale, including the must-try Thai sweet called ‘galamae’.
Opening Hours: . Entry to the rocks is free of charge and available all day in daylight hours.
Location: Hin Ta and Hin Yai are located off Route 4169 on Samui’s south-east coast, about two kilometres south of central Lamai Beach. It’s about 11 kilometres away from Chaweng Beach and 17 kilometres from the airport.
How to get there: As one of Koh Samui’s most popular attractions, every taxi driver will know how to get here, or you can arrange to stop here when booking a tour of the island.
Koh Tao – meaning ‘Turtle Island’ – lives up to its name, being the scuba diving destination of choice in Thailand. The perfect white-sand beaches which ring the hilly 21 km² island are surrounded by the crystal-clear waters of the Gulf of Thailand. The vibrant coral reefs there are home to a wide range of exciting and colourful sea creatures, including turtles, naturally.
The compact island is 55 km to the north of Koh Samui and was only really ‘discovered’ in the early 1980s, but now supports a varied selection of hotels, from budget guesthouses and beach bungalows all the way up to five-star luxury resorts. The choice of restaurants and nightlife establishments has also been constantly growing, to the point that there is now something for almost every taste. So far from civilisation while still being relatively easily reached, it is the idyllic tropical island paradise.
There are few attractions other than the beaches on Koh Tao. The island is home to some of Thailand’s best, with pristine white sand, nodding palm trees and glittering blue seas. There are many choices available, most of which are accessible along the small and rather rough road network. The main and most popular ones are as follows:
The southernmost beach on Koh Tao is sheltered by rocky headlands, creating a peaceful oasis of fine white sand and gin-clear sea, while still having a good choice of beach bars and restaurants.
Commonly known as “Rocky Bay”, this is one of the furthest beaches from Mae Haad, but one of the best. It has the clearest water and the cleanest beach, with only a small selection of quite exclusive resorts there. It is sometimes also called “Shark Bay” for the number of black-tip reef sharks you can snorkel among.
Right at the southern tip of Koh Tao, the view to the north is spectacular, showing both Chalok Baan Khao Bay and Haad Tien beaches and the hilly interior of the island. There is a 50 baht entrance fee to the viewpoint, as well as a short and relatively easy hike. It is named after the two friends who discovered the view while looking for somewhere to build a house.
Located at the southern end of Sairee Beach is a large rock formation bearing the initials of King Rama V, who visited the island in 1899. Don’t even think about adding your own mark to the highly-revered stone.
A group of three tiny islets off Koh Tao’s northwest coast – which you can get to for about 200 baht return – the beach which links them is iconic and probably the most photographed part of the area. Naturally, the small beach is usually quite busy, but is still worth a visit.
The island’s main town, where you will find the pier as well as plenty of guesthouses, shops, bars and other services. Naturally, this beach is among the busiest.
Located in the hills in the north of the island, the view of Mae Haad and Sairee Beach is spectacular. It is reached either by taking a long, challenging walk up the hill from the 7-Eleven in Sariee or by motorbike up a steep and risky road. Access to the viewing platform costs 100 baht, with the money supposedly going towards building a better road.
Probably Koh Tao’s best-known beach, where you will find the majority of the nightlife, including beach bars and restaurants. Despite being the longest beach on the island, it is also one of the busiest, being immediately to the north of Mae Haad and home to a lot of budget accommodation.
The largest of the east-coast beaches, this is the busiest and most populated area on this side of the island.
Probably the most challenging viewpoint to get to, on Koh Tao’s highest peak, Two Views is part of a circular hiking route starting from Sairee. The namesake views are over Sairee Beach to the west and Tanote Bay to the east. On a clear day, you can even see Koh Phangan, Ang Thong Marine National Park and Koh Samui.
Wat Plai Laem is a Buddhist temple compound on Samui’s north-east coast of Samui, featuring a striking white 18-arm image of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy and Compassion. Close to the Big Buddha temple, Wat Plai Laem offers visitors a view into Chinese-Thai beliefs as well as some elaborate Buddhist-themed art and architecture.
Wat Plai Laem is a living and active temple, where devotees come daily to pay homage to Guanyin and the Buddha, who is also depicted in a number of statues and murals around the temple. This is a relatively new temple but the art techniques used in its creation are centuries-old and based on ancient beliefs. Adding to its feel of tranquillity, the temple is surrounded by a lake, which is teeming with fish. Visitors who make a donation to the temple are given a bag of food to feed the fish.
At Wat Plai Laem the giant Guanyin statue, a towering white structure set in the centre of the temple grounds, forms an imposing and serene presence. The worship of Guanyin dates back to ancient China, but her influence has spread across East and Southeast Asia in the generations since. A showcase of Koh Samui’s strong Chinese heritage, the temple’s intricate designs were created by one of Thailand’s foremost artists, Jarit Phumdonming. The Goddess is flanked by two long halls that feature colourful murals and frescoes depicting Buddhist mythological stories.
Guanyin is believed to be a source of unconditional love and a protector of all beings. Her multitude of arms is seen as an illustration of her ability to reach out and provide help across the world. She is also seen as a fertility goddess and many who come here pray for her help in bearing healthy children. As well, Guanyin is believed by some to help protect to sailors at sea.
Other standout features at Wat Plai Laem include a large white laughing Buddha statue, beautifully carved teak entry doors, and an elaborate ubosot (ceremonial hall) set on an island in the lake.
Opening Hours: Wat Plai Laem is open to visitors all day during daylight hours, and is particularly lively during Chinese festival events such as Chinese New Year.
Remarks: Since this is a sacred place, polite dress and conduct is a must. Be sure to wear shirts or scarves that cover the shoulders, trousers or long shorts, and avoid wearing beachwear. Worshippers often don white clothing when visiting the temple. Entry is free, but donations are welcome.
How to get there: To get to Wat Plai Laem, take the main route 4169 up to the northeast region of Samui, then turn off on route 4171. It is very close to the Big Buddha temple, about 3 kilometres directly north of Samui International Airport, 3km east of Bophut Beach and 7.5km away from Chaweng Beach.
Na Muang Waterfalls, a majestic set of two cascades on Koh Samui, show that the island’s beauty is not limited to its beaches. Found inland about 12 kilometres south-east of Nathon Bay, the Na Muang falls are reached by taking a walking path from the entrance to the park.
The first waterfall, Na Muang 1, flows down into a pretty natural pool that provides a cool escape from the heat. About 30 minutes by foot further uphill is the smaller yet equally inviting Na Muang 2.
Namtok Na Muang, or ‘Purple Waterfalls’, are so named because of the striking purple shade of their rock faces. There are other waterfalls to visit on Koh Samui, but these are considered to be among the most scenic. Na Muang is a popular place for families to relax and swim, and there is an elephant safari camp nearby where you can organise a ride through the jungle. Many Samui tours include a refreshing stop at the Na Muang Waterfalls on their itinerary.
Na Muang Waterfalls are set in lush jungle surrounds, easily accessible just off the main ring road Route 4169 about halfway between Nathon and Lamai Beach. Visitors with a reasonable level of fitness will be able to reach the falls on foot. The paths leading to the falls can be steep or slippery in places so be sure to wear some sturdy footwear and take care when walking. Though access to the waterfalls is free there is plenty along the way to spend your money on, including several stalls selling snacks and souvenirs and offers of a guided tour of the area.
Between Na Muang 1 and 2 is the Na Muang Safari Park, which features elephant rides as well as monkey shows and other entertainment that kids especially will enjoy. An entire day could be spent at the falls swimming, hiking, exploring, picnicking – a cool and peaceful alternative to the beach.
Location: Na Muang Waterfall is off Route 4169 south of Koh Samui’s inland mountains between Nathon and Hua Thanon.
Remarks: There is no entry charge to the Na Muang falls, so be aware that some local ‘guides’ try to ask for money for access or assistance but this is not necessary since the route is easy to travel on your own. Bring swimming gear and be sure to wear quality sandals or walking shoes to enjoy the walking trails safely. The best time to go is in the wetter months of September through November when the waterfalls are in their full flowing glory.
How to get there: From Nathon, drive along the main road for about 11 kilometres until reaching the signed entrance road to Na Muang falls. The park entrance is about one kilometre up this road. Na Muang 1 is reached by a 100-metre walk from the parking lot, while Na Muang 2 is a further 100 metres away along a more challenging path.
Secret Buddha Garden is hidden away high in the hills in Koh Samui’s interior, offering majestic views and an unusual collection of statues amid lush jungle surrounds. The gardens are a creation of an old Samui fruit farmer, Nim Thongsuk, who in 1976 began erecting several statues and temples around his family’s verdant land.
The statues depict a number of animals, deities and humans in various poses, including one of Khun Nim himself, in a relaxed position sitting on a rock. Khun Nim continued to work developing his garden until his death at the age of 91.
The garden surroundings are cool and peaceful, with a waterfall and stream flowing through, all shaded by thick jungle foliage. The Secret Buddha Gardens are found in Samui’s interior, to the north-west of Lamai Beach. With the steep and bumpy road, getting up here is a challenge best done in a 4WD vehicle. Many visitors choose to come here on a day trip that includes a tour of the gardens.
Secret Buddha Garden, also known as Heaven’s Garden or Magic Garden, is the kind of place where each visit brings some new discoveries. With statues of all shapes and sizes scattered around the grounds, a wrong turn or a closer look behind a tree may yield yet another hidden surprise.
During his working years, the Garden’s founder Khun Nim was known as an innovative durian farmer, who helped Samui become famous for this prized pungent fruit. Upon his retirement he opened his family’s land to the public and assembled a team to develop the garden, sculpting many figures representing mainly Buddhist folklore. Each statue has a story to tell, and most Thais will know the meaning and mythology behind these evocative works of art.
Secret Buddha Garden sits atop the Tar Nim Waterfall peak. The views from within gardens and on the road leading up to it are spectacular, with many stops to enjoy the island panorama along the way.
Location: Secret Buddha Garden is found on a hilltop, just off Route 4169 (ring road) at Baan Saket.
Remarks: If visiting Secret Buddha Garden on your own, the entry fee is 80 baht per person.
How to get there: In Baan Saket, get on the air force road leading up to Ta Nim Waterfall. The road turns into a dirt track for the last 400 metres of the ascent. There are many signs along the way. Only experienced drivers should attempt the road, best done in a 4WD vehicle.
Those who do not wish to make the trip themselves can visit the gardens as part of an adventure day trip such as a jungle/safari tour or ATV ride. These are easily arranged with most tour agents on Samui. There are some steep paths and a lot of steps to get around within the gardens, so those with limited mobility may find it a challenge.
Ladyboy Cabarets might not be everyone’s cup of tea but on Chaweng Beach you can enjoy a sparkling evening out with this fun form of entertainment. Thai society is generally more open to ladyboys than many other cultures, and its katoey, or the ‘third sex’, have played a prominent role in the nation’s entertainment industry for generations. Thailand’s katoey are world famous, partly because there are so many of them and also because they are so feminine. In fact it can be difficult to tell if the beautiful young lady paying you attention was a lady at birth… as many an unwitting tourist has discovered!
A typical show involves lip-synched interpretations of popular songs, complete with elaborate costumes and make-up. Some of the performances are skilfully choreographed and the tone is light-hearted, sprinkled with glitter and glitz.
Most of the cabarets in Chaweng are located near the Centara Grand Beach Resort, which makes for interesting competition before the show. The ‘girls’ hand out flyers and sometimes drag you in to their bar forcibly! Keep an open mind and enjoy the show!