Koh Samui was once a backpacker’s paradise. Now it is a paradise for those wanting a luxury beach resort experience. When visiting Koh Samui, however, you don’t have to just stay in your resort. There are several sightseeing attractions and things to do. While not spectacularly interesting, they provide enough variety for visitors. Here are three suggestions.
The elephant is Thailand’s national animal – a symbol of royalty and strength. Koh Samui has tropical rain forest in its centre and to travel through this verdant lushness on elephant back is to experience Thailand at its most natural. You will pass exotic fauna and flora, stop at refreshing waterfalls along the way and discover Samui in the most regal way possible.
You can meet the elephants near Namuang One waterfall. Many different tour operators organise guided elephant treks through the island’s tropical forests. Treks can last 15 minutes, half an hour, one hour or half a day, and each elephant has its own handler (“mahout”). These skilled “elephant drivers” are in charge of training, feeding and taking care of the animal, as well as riding the elephant with the “passengers” during the trek. A mahout normally stays with the elephant for its entire life and they form a very close bond with the animal.
Elephants are no longer used for work in the forests of Thailand and, therefore, for many animals, trekking guarantees their survival. It is always important, however, to make sure that the elephant looks healthy and seems well taken care of. If you don’t wish to ride the elephants, but simply want to spend time with them, buy some bananas from the handlers and feed and stroke the elephants. You may even be lucky and see a calf!
Asian elephants are smaller than the African ones, but are still quite large when fully grown. Usually there is a seat on top of the elephant, where one or two people can sit. The guide sits on the elephant’s neck. It’s a pretty bumpy ride and quite slow. Often the guide will let you sit on the elephant’s neck for a photo, and my wife was able to ride on the neck while the guide walked. The whole experience can cynically be called ‘touristy”, but I believe it is a good experience for all visitors who have not done this before. We took a 30-minute ride and frankly this is probably all most people need.
Several companies around the island run elephant ride operations and many can be booked through travel agents, often in combination with all day tours of the interior. Over fifty elephants call Samui home and all work in the tourist industry. Some companies take visitors up into the hills for magnificent views over the island, others go through waterfalls where riders run the risk of receiving a cooling shower. Chaweng Elephant Trekking (Tel. 077 231 210), Living Thailand (Tel. 077 418 680) and Island Safari Co (Tel. 077 230 567) are three companies that are well-known for tours but if you just want an elephant ride and you have your own transport you can make your way to the base near the Namuang 1 waterfall and negotiate a price there.
On Koh Samui, the monkey undoubtedly qualifies as man’s best friend. This isn’t surprising, since for centuries the people here have used monkeys to do the hardest part of the work climbing to the trees to “pick the nuts” on their coconut plantations. Until the advent of tourism, coconuts represented the main industry here, so these industrious little animals were greatly prized. Whether man qualifies as the monkey’s best friend is another matter.
Today, to see the monkeys at work just watch out for signs at the roadside which say “Monkey work coconut” or go to the Monkey Theatre which offers shows in which the monkeys display their dexterity, and not just at picking coconuts.
What you think of the monkey show at the Monkey Theatre will depend on your attitude to animals. Some people will find it amusing and clever while others will be horrified by a male and a female monkey being made to carry out ridiculous demeaning tasks which are an insult to these creatures. The monkey show is followed by a coconut picking performance followed by an elephant show. For a small fee you may even ride bareback on the elephants. The Monkey Theatre has 3 shows each day — 10:30 to 12:00, 14:00 to 15:30 and 16:00 to 17:30. The theatre is located on the left, one street from the main road, when leaving Chaweng on the way to Bophut. There are signposts pointing the way.
Even if you like the ‘show’, I think you will be disturbed to see the conditions in which the monkeys are kept. The monkeys are held in painfully small bare concrete cages that obviously hadn’t been cleaned in a very long time. Further down the line of cages were some older monkeys each in individual cages that were nothing short of prison cells with thick iron bars, concrete walls and a carpet of excrement. A couple of monkeys showed clear signs of distress by continuously rocking back and forth. As you approached each cage the monkeys would retreat to the back of their cages and cower, which suggests that they’re used to being badly treated. Frankly, this was enough for me and I would recommend that you don’t visit here.
If you decide not to go to the Monkey Theatre you will always be able to visit one of the numerous small “Monkey shows” which you will find on the roadsides for a few tens of baht. These mainly consist of monkeys trained to climb coconut trees and pick the coconuts. It is a pity to see these animals chained up but this is the way that they were treated when they were working the plantations. I’m sure that they would be much happier to be nowhere near here and free to live and play in the trees as they wished. Whether they have retained the instinct to gather their own food if they were free is something I don’t know.
This is a well visited site which some people will consider rather strange. The body of Samui’s most famous mummified monk, Loung Por Daeng, is on display at Wat Khunaram, in a specially constructed building. When he died more than 30 years ago, he was sitting in a meditation position. He is still in that same position and his body shows few signs of any major decay.
There are several versions of his life story but I believe this one is basically correct. Loung Por Daeng was born in 1894, and was a well respected family man within the local community when he first became ordained as a monk when he was in his early twenties. He spent two years in Wat Samret before exiting and marrying a local lady with whom he had six children. Upon reaching fifty years of age, once his children were all grown up, Loung Por Daeng, decided to dedicate the latter part of his life to Buddhism and returned to the temples where he felt so at peace. He was ordained as a monk in 1944.
He then travelled to Bangkok where he spent some time studying and learning more about Buddhist texts and meditation, one of the great passions of his life. It is believed that upon returning to Koh Samui he went to meditate in a cave. Later he moved to Chaweng and was one of the first monks to stay in the location that nowadays is known as Wat Pang Bua. Following this, he decided to return to his family home, which was located just behind the current Wat Kunaram where the temple school is located.
It is said that two months before his death, at the age of 79 years, he requested the company of his students to inform them that he felt his death was imminent and wanted to instruct them as to his last wishes. He requested that should his body decompose that he be cremated and his ashes scattered. He went on to request that should his body not decompose, he would like to stay at the temple and be placed in an upright coffin on display as a symbol to inspire future generations to follow Buddhist teachings and be saved from suffering.
In his final seven days of mortal life, he no longer spoke to anyone or ate or drank anything, concentrating solely on his mediation and the path to enlightenment. He died a week later in the same position that we can see him sitting in nowadays. He’s in amazing condition considering he died about 40 years ago. The sunglasses he wears were placed on his head by the present monks when his eyes fell into his head, some years ago.
Wat Khunaram is on the coast ring road between the Na Muang waterfalls and Hua Thanon. Admission to the temple is free, but visitors are reminded to dress in modest clothing. There are souvenirs to purchase and meditation spaces.
Something to Ponder.
Harry Truman, ex US President once said: I studied the lives of great men and famous women; and I found that the men and women who got to the top were those that did the jobs they had in hand, with everything they had of energy and enthusiasm and hard work.
For more information on Thailand see Experience Thailand an ebook available at www.amazon.com/kindle then search Len Rutledge.