Dec 04 2012
Many feel that Ko Samui has become too developed, and in part, that may be true. Luckily it’s possible to escape the crowds and discover the Samui of yesterday only a 45-minute drive from popular Chaweng beach. The unspoilt southwest is known as the Virgin Coast; from the ring road, turn off at Route 4170 either coming from Nathon, or going clockwise, just past Hua Thanon. Follow the signs to Baan Taling Ngam, until you reach two massive elephant statues guarding the entrance of the road to the rustic little village.
A trip to Taling Ngam is well worth at least a day outing, if not a couple of nights at one of the secluded resorts. The area has seen the least change on the island, retaining its identity as a quaint village. It was originally named Taling Punk (Damaged Shore) after taking abuse from a storm in 1900. After it recovered, it was renamed Taling Ngam, or beautiful shore, in 1942. Here, families are mainly descendants of Thai and Chinese migrants who made their living through fishing, quite content with keeping their traditional lifestyle. The bay used to be a port used by merchant traders over 100 years ago.
Driving the Virgin Coast, you’ll see many traditional wooden Southern-style houses with out-buildings, containing the extended family. Add to that a granny sitting on the patio or tending the veggie patch, several chickens digging in the dirt, coconuts piled high ready to be taken to market, and an assortment of dogs stretched out in the road, and you have your average Taling Ngam neighbourhood.
There’s no 7-eleven, Family Mart or Tesco Expresses in sight. Rather, you’ll find the front rooms of houses converted into little convenience stores, manned by granny or whoever is home. Tables are set up roadside, selling freshly picked bananas or sticky rice. The landscape is mostly coconut groves and banana plantations, making a green backdrop for the beach. Don’t be alarmed to see a buffalo or two enjoying a dip in the sea, or lazing under a palm tree. Locals harvest shellfish along the shore for dinner, and longtail boats bring in the day’s catch to the harbour.
Some of Samui’s best beaches can be found along the Virgin Coast. You’re not likely to find a vendor, so bring some drinks and snacks in the backpack, or head to one of the few resorts. The water is calm and shallow, and there’re no rowdy crowds or jetskis around.
To top it off it’s the best spot on the island to catch the setting sun over the beautiful and mysterious Five Islands. They’re known locally as ‘Ko Si Ko Ha’, meaning ‘Four Islands-Five Islands’, as one is hidden behind another and are home to swifts, known for their famous nests, the main ingredient in birds’ nest soup. The birds are protected as their nests sell for thousands of US dollars. Sea gypsies are the only human inhabitants of the Five Islands, their small wooden homes perched on rocky outcrops – much like nests themselves. The gypsies are employed to guard the nests from poachers trying to get their hands on this strangely precious commodity. The well-known Five Islands Restaurant, a popular location for weddings and viewing the sunset, offers longtail boat trips to view the islands.
Village life centres around the local temple, Wat Kiri Wongkaram. The grounds house the mummified body of well-known monk, Luang Por Ruam, who continues to be very much a presence at the temple today, even though he died in 1966. His body, now displayed in a glass case, simply didn’t decompose after death, and has remained in its mummified condition for decades. Considering the humidity, and that no preservation chemicals have been used, the condition of his body is thought to be miraculous, and somewhat baffling to scientists. Apparently… his hair and fingernails continue to grow, and the nail clippings are made into protective charms. Luang Por Ruam was born near the temple in 1879 and journeyed to Burma where he was initiated into Buddhist practices. He later returned to Samui to live a life of purity and meditation.
Samui in fact has two mummified monks, the other being at Wat Kunaram, Lamai. In 1979 the temple’s then head monk, Pra-kru Pairoj Kiriwong, organised the building of the Elephant Gate to make the entranceway to the village and temple more welcoming. Princess Galyani Vadhana (elder sister of Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej) came to Taling Ngam to bless the gate and black gemstone elephant’s eyes that gaze down on all passing through.
Anyone preferring a peaceful break on Ko Samui will be pleased with what Taling Ngam has to offer. Should you not wish to spend your entire holiday away from where it’s all happening, then at least venture here for a day trip, and be sure to stay for sunset.
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