Also known as Thai Boxing, muay Thai (also spelt moo·ay tai) is a blistering, explosive and highly dynamic fighting art involving punches, kicks and strikes, as well as clinches. Granted provisional recognition as an Olympic sport and known as the ‘Art of Eight Limbs’, the combat sport aims to employ the entire body as a weapon, with a focus on the hands, elbows, knees and feet. The art is open to both male and female practitioners.
Punches include jabs, straight punches, hooks, uppercuts and swings, while the most common kicks are the front jab, the hook kick, the diagonal kick and the roundhouse, often delivered to the opponent’s leg or knee with the shin to cause debilitating pain and to take pace out of his or her footwork. As muay Thai fighters heavily use the bone for strikes, they extensively condition their rock-hard shin bones. Thai boxers are also known for the endurance training, practising moves for up to six hours a day.
Unlike many other Asian martial arts such as Wing Chun, Taekwondo or Karate-do, Thai boxers focus their training around real fights rather than performing patterns or forms. This focus, coupled with the intense conditioning, high levels of fitness and seasoned fighting experience makes Thai boxers particularly tough opponents, although careers are short for professionals, as fighters burn out quickly.
Before a competition match starts, fighters wear a Mongkol headband as well as Pra Jiad (armbands) and perform the Wai khru ram muay ritual dance that precedes fights, with the fighter circling the ring in a counter-clockwise direction and then praying, bowing the head three times, while music is played. The ritual is performed to show respect to the fighter’s coach and school.
Schools and gyms on Ko Samui, Ko Pha-Ngan and Ko Tao can offer introductory classes, full courses or refresher courses for experienced fighters and many also provide accommodation as well. The oldest and most established Thai boxing club on the island is the Lamai Muay Thai Camp. Many outdoor gyms have classes in the morning or late afternoon, when the air temperature is lower. There are also several places you can watch competition fights in Chaweng – you can’t miss the vans advertising bouts every night along Chaweng Beach Rd.
The definitive tree on Ko Samui, the coconut palm is not just a highly photogenic shape and a symbol of easy-going beach life, it’s also a very important cash crop and one that has a deeply symbiotic relationship with the people of the island.
Wherever you go on Ko Samui, you’ll be greeted by the languorous, lilting form of coconut palms, their slender trunks reaching to the sky and fanning out into a fan of fronds. You will encounter coconuts that have rolled onto the beach to germinate, young leaves bursting hungrily from their shells. Husks litter the ground between trees and if you cycle around the south coast, you’ll pass vast piles of harvested coconuts baking beneath the sun.
Growing up to 30m in height, coconut palms thrive readily on warm, sandy soil and have developed a high tolerance for saline conditions; coupled with their love of sunlight, regular rainfall and high humidity, they are regularly found near the Ko Samui shoreline.
The coconut and its palm are the source of many valuable resources, from coconut meat to cold-pressed virgin coconut oil (used in cooking for frying), coconut water, coconut milk (produced from the coconut kernel) and copra. You’ll see many resorts employing palm fronds as a versatile and lightweight roofing material. The wood of the tree is also a valuable material for use in building while the carved shell of the coconut is often used decoratively – you’ll see them for sale along Chaweng Beach Rd, colourfully painted and glazed.
With an estimated three million coconut palms on the island, coconuts are the second largest source of revenue on the island after tourism and until recently, the fruit was the main source of income for Ko Samui. Each coconut palm produces around 70 coconuts annually and Ko Samui still provides Bangkok with over two million coconuts every month.
Usually put on as a show for tourists, farmers occasionally still use pig-tailed macaques to climb trees to harvest coconuts (they can harvest up to 1000 of the fruit in one day). To find out more about coconuts and the role of the crop on the island, the modest Coconut Museum provides a simple introduction.
Temples and Religious Life
The island is sprinkled with Buddhist temples (wát), which can provide the most traditional windows to authentic Thai life away from Ko Samui’s more manufactured tourist dimension.
Many temples are venerated for revered temple abbots who live or lived there, for their architecture, their history or their setting. Sacred motifs in Buddhist temples include the lotus bud and the lotus flower, which grows from the mud at the bottom of a pond or lake, symbolising perfection emerging from impurity. Many temples on the island also have rows of small chedi (stupa) that contain the remains of noted nuns or monks.
Most temples on the island are Theravada Buddhist, though not all. Wat Plai Laem is notably a more Mahayana temple, evident in its large statues of bodhisattva (or Buddhas-to-be) worshipped across China, Japan and South Korea.
As there isn’t one prescribed day for worship, temples are always open to worshippers who come to make merit, by lighting incense sticks and offering lotus blossoms before the temple’s principal Buddha figure. You may even see worshippers shaking Chinese wooden fortune sticks (kau cim) from a cylindrical bamboo container to entreat celestial powers to divine their future. Outside of the temple, you will also see small decorative houses on pedestals with offerings of fruit and incense. These are spirit houses, an animistic tradition that gives a comfortable dwelling place for a site’s earthly guardian. You will also notice spirit trees, in which spirits reside, garlanded in bright and colourful ribbons in temples or at the wayside.
Temples are often associated with local schools on the island, as teaching used to be conducted solely by monks in Thailand (most schools in Thailand are still located on temple land to this day).
Remove your shoes if entering any of the temple halls and don’t wear over revealing clothing or swimwear; shirts to the elbow and trousers that go to the knee are expected.
There are several Chinese temples on the island that are less Buddhist than Taoist; the most famous are the Chinese Temple in Mae Nam and the Hainan Temple in Na Thon. There’s a green mosque in the Muslim village of Ban Hua Thanon and the Catholic Church of St Anna is near Na Thon on the west of the island.
Ko Samui Treks
It can be hard to shake the holiday programming to recline on a beach lounger with a loaded cocktail glass, swim lazily through a cerulean sea or sit down to a seaside Thai seafood dinner with a sunset backdrop, but that’s to ignore the ample trekking opportunities that make the island so intriguing.
Many treks explore the uninhabited jungle heart of the island, climb up to high-up viewpoints for long views over the island, but other more manageable hiking trails run around the shoreline. Nature lovers will find the jungle interior stuffed with exploratory possibilities for discovering the plant and animal life only dimly glimpsed from the ring road.
An undemanding but intriguing hike runs from Beryl Bar, near the northwest tip of the island, north along the rocky shoreline to a Buddhist statue that sits gazing out to sea. The hike is only a few hundred metres, so it's a very easy journey, though you’ll be picking your way over the rocks. As you pick your way along the shoreline, note the fossilised coral and brooding dark geology of the coast. After around 10 minutes, you may notice a golden figure or two peeking out from the rock face; upon rounding a cliff, you'll see a large figure seated just around the corner.
The trek up to the Mae Nam Viewpoint and the View Top is a more ambitious hike that takes you into the jungle interior and puts the hilly topography of the island in clearer perspective. Many visitors undertake this journey by scooter, but it can be done on foot; the very adventurous can continue down to Na Thon on the west coast. The trek to the Na Muang Waterfalls is another doable hike, best undertaken when the falls are in full flow.
Set off early in the morning when undertaking more challenging hikes, to avoid the draining heat. Remember to load up with lots of fluids to keep hydrated and pack sunscreen and insect repellent. On more demanding treks, make sure you take a good pair of sturdy and strong shoes.