Notre Dame Cathedral ranks high on tourist’s “must see” list while in France, just as the Segrada Familia does in Spain. The temples and shrines here in Koh Samui, a popular island off the eastern coast of Thailand, are the same. For a small island, Koh Samui has much and more to boast about; a handful of those rights of reputation are in the form of ornately glittering temples (or “wats”) and monolithic religious shrines, most set within an ocean view, and each carrying its own surprising detail delighting all who come to either sightsee or worship.
Which wats should make the list?
Phra Yai aka “Big Buddha”: Here, the many steps leading to the monolith frame the scene making it look smaller than the reality of its size. Glittering Naga serpents guard the Buddha from the bottom and a fantastic view of the coastline awaits you at the top.
Wat Khunaram: Here is the home to the island’s most famous mummified monk, Loung Pordaeng. His body remains wrapped in the orange monk’s robe and his friends left him in the shade, sporting a humorous pair of sunglasses.
Wat Plai Laem: The more recently constructed and ornately painted and decorated Wat Plai Laem hosts an 18-arm image of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy and Compassion, alongside many other treasures on the same grounds. The inside of her temple is adorned with scenes on scenes of murals depicting famous Hindu stories.
Laem Sor Pagoda: This pagoda is to be found at the southernmost tip of Koh Samui at the end of Bang Kao Beach. Its golden hue makes for an astonishingly beautiful contrast to the blue skies and the turquoise sea behind it.
- First off, dress properly.
Men are expected to wear pants or long shorts and shirts covering their shoulders, while women are also to cover their shoulders and legs above the knee. It is very hot on the island all year round, so dress consciously with that in mind. Bringing a light scarf to wear over your shoulders may be a more viable choice than a long sleeve shirt if you overheat quickly in the sun. Most temples supply complimentary or inexpensive scarf loans if you’ve come dressed inappropriately. Many of these temples are still actively inhabited by monks who wish not to be tempted by the too-“fleshy” of dressers. If you’ve arranged a group tour or have set a route to sight-see the island on your own, it is likely that multiple temple visits are on the list, so having your own proper clothing excuses you from having to borrow the temple’s recycled tourist garb.
- Take off your shoes.
Always remove your shoes when stepping into the entrance of all temples. It’s an easy rule to remember as almost every temple has a sign asking you to do so and there is usually a collection of visitor’s shoes reminding you at the entrance. It is, remember, not just a tourist attraction, but a place of worship, so disregarding this request is rude and disrespectful. Have no fear, they had the shoeless in mind when laying the floor tiles and rarely will you find the ground too hot for bare feet. If you plan to visit many in one day, skip shoes requiring socks and stick with sandals.
- Bring coins.
One of the delights of temple visits are lighting incense and small candles all over various locations while inside. Religious or not, it’s a treat for the senses to relax for a bit and smell the heady aromas of temple incense. These are sold either at carts in front of the temple or may also be unattended, accompanied by a donation box. A 5 baht coin is plenty generous to light a few sticks. Other shrine donation boxes are labeled for different causes: the monks, the temple grounds or orphans. Feel free to donate if you feel led.
- Take pictures!
Thai monks and temple personnel understand that tourism helps fuel their income so they are just as happy that you are there as you are. Take pictures and enjoy!