Five Must-Visit Temples and Shrines in Koh Samui
The island of Koh Samui has a surprising number of beautiful religious edifices for it’s size. You will discover Buddhist Temples (Wats) and Chinese Shrines all over the island. The combined influence of Thai and Chinese culture results in some unique and stunning sites. Here are my picks of the must-visit temples and shrines in Koh Samui.
1.WAT PLAI LEAM
Taking out the top spot for me is perhaps the most spectacular of all temples on Koh Samui – Wat Plai Laem. Designed by eminent Thai artist, Jarit Phumdonming the temple complex features three major monuments over a lake and offers an enlightening view into Chinese-Thai beliefs. The central ceremonial hall features stunning artwork and colourful murals depicting the life of Buddha. This is flanked on the right by an imposing 18-arm statue of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy and Compassion. Worship of Guanyin has it’s roots in ancient Chinese culture but her influence has spread throughout Southeast Asia. A giant laughing Buddha statue sits proudly to the left of the central island temple and smaller shrines dedicated to Ganesha, Vishnu, Shiva and Sakka can be found scattered around the complex.
WHERE TO FIND IT:
- Situated on the north east coast of the island Wat Plai Laem is easy to find just off the main ring road very close to the Big Buddha Temple and Bangrak Beach. 3 kilometres directly north of Samui International Airport and 7.5km away from Chaweng Beach.
- Wat Plai Laem is open to visitors all day during daylight hours. It is particularly lively during Chinese festival events such as Chinese New Year. Entry is free, but donations are welcome.
- The lake surrounding the temple is teeming with fish and for a small donation to the temple its definitely worth getting a bag of food to feed a seething mass of fish!
- If you take the time to sit and look at the lake you might be lucky enough to see turtles coming up for air.
- The best time of day to visit Wat Plai Laem is close to sunset when the brilliant colours of the temple are even more vibrant.
2. SECRET BUDDHA GARDEN
Hidden away in the jungle covered hills in the middle of the island the Secret Buddha Garden is the creation of fruit farmer, Nim Thongsuk who started work on his statue garden in 1976. The gardens are peaceful and unique, nestled in the jungle with a stream of waterfalls flowing through large structures and sculptures of animals, humans and deities. Also known as Tamin Magic Garden the place feels like something out of a fairy tale. I happily spent a few hours here exploring the hidden statues and being massaged by the waterfall throne until the tour busses arrived and ruined the tranquility.
WHERE TO FIND IT:
- I took a motorbike to the garden which is in Samui’s interior, to the north-west of Lamai Beach. 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. The road is rough but the views are spectacular and it’s fairly well signposted. Alternatively you can visit as part of a tour.
- The garden is open from 9am-5pm daily and when I visited in 2019 the entry fee was 80 bhat per person.
- Go early to avoid the tour busses. It’s definitely worth it to have the gardens to yourself.
- Wear swimwear or bring a change of clothes and towel so you can sit under the waterfall on the rock throne. A great massage and also very refreshing in the Thailand heat!
3. WAT PHRA YAI – BIG BUDDAH TEMPLE
The most famous of Koh Samui’s temples is the magnificent 12-meter tall seated Buddha at Wat Phra Yai. Overlooking the ocean it is one of the most iconic images of Koh Samui, proudly welcoming visitors arriving into Samui’s airport by air or into Bangrak Pier by boat. At the base of the temple you will find a small market with food stalls. Make sure you visit the sculptures of mermaids and sea deities before climbing the grand staircase flanked by two Nagas (mythological snakes) up to the Big Buddha.
WHERE TO FIND IT:
- Big Buddha Temple is easy to find at the end of Bang Rak Beach. Situated on a small island which you enter by a causeway off the main ring road.
- The temple is open to visitors all day and entry is free. A donation to the temple is welcome.
- For a more cultural experience go in the early morning hours to witness locals making offerings to the temple and experience the monks morning chanting.
- Dress politely and respectfully, cover the shoulders and knees and remove shoes or you will be asked not to climb the stairs.
- Take a stick from the bowl at the top of the stairs and walk around the outside to ring the bells as you take in the stunning scenery.
4. WAT KHUNARAM – THE MUMMIFIED MONK
It’s not every day you see a Mummified Monk wearing a pair of RayBan sunnies! So if you’re in Koh Samui its definitely worth paying a visit to Wat Khunaram. The under-composed remains of the monk Phra Khru Samathakittikhun, renowned for his meditation practice, are on display to inspire future generations to follow Buddhist teachings and be saved from suffering. After his death in 1973, which he famously foresaw, his body remained under-composed. Upon his written instructions, he was placed in an upright position within a casket at Wat Khunaram. The body shows little sign of decay even after 40 years except for the disintegration of the eyes – hence the RayBans!
WHERE TO FIND IT:
- You will see the temple on Route 4169 (the ring road) between the Na Muang waterfalls and Hua Thanon. Approximately six kilometres west of Lamai Beach.
- The temple is open during daylight hours and entry is free. A donation is welcome to support the temple.
- This is an active temple, local Buddhist people come here to make merit and be blessed by monks, it is particularly busy early morning or late afternoon.
5. CHAO ENG SAE SHRINE
Walking around the back streets of Chinatown in Mae Nam I stumbled across Chao Eng Sae Shrine. Tucked away down a laneway this small but beautiful Chinese shrine is covered in intricate carvings and artworks. Beautifully ornamented and an interesting example of Chinese Temple architecture the shrine is lit up a night with lanterns and lights which showcase the vibrant colours.
WHERE TO FIND IT:
- The shrine is in Koh Samui’s Chinatown in the suburb of Mae Nam. It can be found by walking down the main Chinatown road towards the beach and turning right at the alleyway closest to the beach.
- Entry is free when the temple is operating but open windows still give you glimpse inside after hours.
- The best time to visit is during the Mae Nam Walking Street market, held every Thursday from 5pm-11pm. The market stalls are set up outside the shrine which is lit up at night.
TEMPLE DRESS CODES
In order to not cause offence it is vital to dress appropriately at temples and religious sites. Most temples that tourists visit will have signs asking visitors to cover up, yet you still see many people who ignore the advice – don’t be that person!
WHAT IS APPROPRIATE TO WEAR?
- The basic rule is to cover your shoulders and knees (all genders)
- On the bottom – longer shorts, pants/trousers or a knee-length-or-longer skirt.
- On top – a T-shirt, blouse or polo is fine, any shirt that fully covers your shoulders – no singlets/tank tops.
- A sarong or scarf worn over shoulders is acceptable (or used as a makeshift long skirt).
- Most temples will also require you to remove your shoes before entering.