Ever notice how being on island terrain makes you feel more adventurous? Recall if you’ve ever traveled to the British or US Virgin Islands, French Polynesia, the Bahamas…or anywhere off the beaten path, completely surrounded by water. Sure, swatting mosquitoes may have temporarily become your new profession and there most likely is sand stuck between every toe, but between the salty sea breezes rustling through the palms, the rhythmic waves beating the shore, and the sun hot on your back, you feel…different.
It’s not as though you truly believe that you’ll find treasure when you don your snorkel gear, or discover a never-before-seen breed of bird or monkey during a jungle hike, but when you’re on an island, it’s not as though you’ve completely ruled the possibility out. It’s the adventurer’s spirit that remote and tropical territories bring out in all of us. In Koh Samui, Thailand, the hidden gems are there…you just have to find them.
Unfold your tourist map and search for two gems in particular: The Magic Garden and Hin Lad Waterfall.
The Magic Garden is no tourist’s trap; it’s exactly how its name describes—magical. But as for the garden, it’s not lush, flowering plants that the name suggests, though the property lacks for no greenery. The “garden” (to my experience) is the stunning collection of rock sculptures placed both purposefully and organically throughout the area. I categorize it as a hidden gem because of its location, highly obscured in the Koh Samui mountains; open only to those who venture and conquer the steep and winding road leading you there. It’s not a hike. It’s barely a scooter ride, though it’s doable for the more daring. Hire a driver or jump on a group jeep tour to uncover this island secret.
At only 80baht to enter ($2.50USD), Magic Gardens gives you back a setting for photographs that is worth much more. The enchanting sculptures of animals, monks, gods, and mythical creatures have such life and personality, you wonder if a spell froze them all in their natural habitat, celebrating some holiday with music and dancing. A stream flows through the center, giving your visit a lovely soundtrack, both sides of which are naturally connected by ways across if you’re looking. The story behind the garden is just as much a part of its charm, but I’ll leave that to you to discover.
It’s as much a temple as it is a garden, for you feel the reverence and dedication for the statues, which honor their likenesses. If you are the artistic type, make sure your camera is charged or bring a sketchbook. If you are the meditative type, bring a yoga mat or a blanket to sit and soak in the gentle sounds of nature. Some believe there is a restorative power in the presence of natural running water, which is why I also categorize Hin Lad Waterfall as another hidden gem of Koh Samui.
Hin Lad Waterfall, though easier to find on your own, is harder to get to. It involves a rigorous hike up a dirt path on the side of a mountain. If you’re debating the trek, (take it from me, who debated turning around every 10 minutes…) don’t. Use my pro tips and stick it out. The payoff is worth it in more ways than one.
- Bring a water bottle with you. I made the mistake of not, but thankfully had baht on me to buy a water from the saint selling them out of a cooler at the top.
- Dress light.
- Wear or pack a bathing suit and a towel if you’d like.
- Bring a paper or battery-operated fan if you are quick to over-heat.
- If you plan on swimming, dress in clothes you don’t mind wearing wet for the hike back.
- Bring a snack or even a picnic meal and blanket.
First off, talk about satiating the adventurer’s heart! The entire hike takes climbers through a jungle setting alongside the stream from the falls that you can hear getting louder with each stretch of the path. Besides the rushing water, birds, croaking amphibians and chirping insects add to the soundscape. It’s an athletic walk, so take breaks along the stream banks and splash any hot parts of you with the chilly fall’s water if you like; there are many opportunities along the way to rest if needed.
Going a moderate to slow, but steady, pace, it takes an hour up. The top is quite the scenic view, a perfect opportunity for photos and a swim. In the darker, churning waters at the base of the falls, the water is deeper with good areas to jump off low rocks, but be warned! Little fish nibble at you. They’re harmless, but alarming if you’re not used to the sensation. This is the apex of picnic spots among the many others on the way to the top. There is a good collection of larger, softer boulders to sit, sunbathe, or picnic on. The way down is an easy-breezy 20-30 minutes and you get to act as a walking directional sign for hikers coming up the mountain, pointing out how much farther they have to go and offering encouragement.
I said the payoff is worth it in more ways than one because, for one, it’s a great work out. For another, if you didn’t picnic during the journey, there is a great restaurant at the base named after the falls. The food is tasty and affordable and the view is that of the Hin Lad Temple across the coy-filled pool at the fall’s base. If you’re not hungry, it’s guaranteed the coy fish still are. Any one of the food carts lining the street leading to the temple sell bags of fish pellets made for that exact purpose.
I’m not saying these are the only hidden gems on Koh Samui, they are only two of them. Unfold your map, talk to the locals, do a little research, take my advice, and go off the beaten path. It takes you to some magical places that you can share with friends, family, a special someone, or even someone you just met. The experience is undeniable. There is adventure to be had, especially in the crooks and crevices of Koh Samui, Thailand’s “treasure island.”