Samui Wining & Dining
Mountain Excitement

6Discovering Magic Garden, one of Samui’s secret hidden treasures.

It’s all about imagination. When you were a child did you ever conjure up faces in the wallpaper of your bedroom, or see dancing figures in the middle of a fire? Most probably. But did you have the inner drive to turn those surreal images into art? Probably not. Out here on Samui, a humble farmer found he could imagine mythical beings when he looked at the rocks and hillsides of a small valley. Dreaming wasn’t enough for him; he started carving the rocks into the figures he saw. And still others he made from scratch. Today his valley, which is usually known as either Magic Garden, or Heaven’s Garden, is a poignant testimony to the almost miraculous drive that dreams can provoke.

It wasn’t easy work for him. The setting was just a rock-strewn, jungly dell on a mountaintop. The sheer difficulty of the terrain would have put most people off doing anything here but, for Ta Nim, as he was nicknamed, this was exactly where he chose to spend the last years of his life. He sculpted a panoply of mythical beings that are possessed with almost tangible energy. Some look like they're just about to rush down the slopes in a mad dance. Others resemble the animals last seen in Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings – weird and wrong-sized. And yet more statues are half-covered in greenery and blend in so well with the surroundings that you may have to look hard to see them at all.

Most have a friendly expression. Their eyes, however, seem half lost in thought, as if they are contemplating something at great remove from the rest of us, that only they can perceive. Although they are frozen in stone, the statues seem almost mobile. Turn your back on them, and you have the unnerving sense they might just start moving (or following you!).

Much of what you see in the garden comes from the rich tapestry of Thai mythology, which actually has its origins in India. As such, these mythical beings have spent hundreds of years of existence in people’s minds; many generations have grown up hearing about their exploits, which are still celebrated even today in films, puppetry and dance.

Although the sculptor has passed on, the garden remains as a testimony to his vision. It’s well-preserved and looks today much as it did during his last days of work here. It’s easy to visit but, because it’s relatively far from the ring-road, few visitors include it on their itinerary. Were the garden in Chaweng, it would probably a major tourist attraction.

The journey to the garden only adds to the fun, however. Taking the concrete road from Ban Saket you head straight up into the hills (don’t worry; the road is immaculate – no 4-wheel drive vehicles needed here!). This is one of the very few drivable roads that allows you to head into the mysterious centre of the island. The vegetation changes the higher you go and the views are dramatic. Bring your camera – you'll certainly need it once you get to the garden. About half-way up, you'll come to a military checkpoint, complete with soldier, who is naturally armed. This is enough to make most people think twice about driving on, but don’t hesitate – the soldier will only wave you on, anyway. His function is to protect the nearby radar base. Continue on up the road until you come to the signs for the garden at the very top of the hill on the right-hand side (this close to Samui’s highest peak).

Steep steps lead down into the valley and a rough path takes you further. It’s a gentle stroll, and not a long one, but every few metres you’ll see statues, even a whole crowd of them. Many are dressed in the fashions of the ancient Thai epic, the Ramakian, with spire-like helmets. Some appear to be about to wage war, others are more peaceful-looking. Their stone eyes seem to be watching you and you sense in some arcane way that the entire valley is aware of your presence. Try taking some photos of the statues. When you look at them later, there’s still that sense that they are in some way conscious beings.

Not all the figures are mythical though. In a tiny opening in the rocks you’ll come across the form of an old man wearing modern garb. Much in the way that some directors give themselves a tiny part in their own movies, Ta Nim has included himself in his own work; he comes across as a modest figure, and a very small one. And it’s his diminutive size that makes it difficult to imagine that he managed to sculpt all these creations by himself.

A stream runs through the entire garden and even if it burbles quite loudly at times, the surroundings seem to be oddly silent and undisturbed. The quietness is slightly mesmerizing. Perhaps this was why Ta Nim chose the valley as a giant canvas for his imagination to get to work on.

There’s always shade in the garden and, if you really want to cool down, you can dip your feet in the stream. Most visitors spend at least half an hour exploring the area. It’s best to come early, by the way; although the garden never really gets crowded, just a few people are enough to detract from the magical atmosphere.

After visiting the garden, there are a couple of small cafés nearby if you need refreshment. The garden is also a good place to begin exploring the maze of paths that cross the plateau which forms the central part of Samui. But beware. There are no signposts and it’s easy to get lost. And if you do, it might not be long before you, too, begin to get a glimpse of those mesmeric realms that Ta Nim saw. People merely presume that mythical beings don’t exist. What’s rock-solid certain is that the heart of Samui is a beguiling place that few visitors get to see.


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