Samui Wining & Dining
A GLIMPSE INTO THE PAST
Explore Samui’s less-developed southwest coast, for a taste of yesteryear.


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So you’re lying on Chaweng Beach, sipping from a coconut, and the umpteenth vendor approaches you selling their wares. Now as fun as shopping on the beach can be, sometimes you just want a little peace and quiet to read a book. No music blaring from the bar next door, no jet-skis and no people yelling into their mobile phones. Wouldn’t that be nice for a day?

      Well luckily it’s possible to escape the crowds and discover the ‘real’ Samui, only a 45-minute drive from the commercial areas of the island. The unspoilt southwest is known to some as ‘The Virgin Coast’, and the village of Taling Ngam forms part of this 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.

       Most visitors to the island don’t venture past the tourist hotspots. Don’t be one of them. 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, it’s almost as if time has stood still.

          Originally named Taling Punk (Damaged Shore) after a destructive storm in 1900 ruined the coastline, it recovered over time and was renamed Taling Ngam (Beautiful Shore) in 1942. Local families go back several generations, mainly descendants of Thai and Chinese migrants who made their living through fishing. Once used by merchant traders over 100 years ago, this was one of the first seaports on the island. Locals provided water and provisions to boats that ventured past on their journey through Southeast Asia.

          Many traditional wooden southern-style houses can be seen still standing in compounds, with other out-buildings containing the extended family. Add to that a granny sweeping outside (there’s always one), several chickens digging in the dirt, a towering pile of coconuts ready for processing and an assortment of dogs stretched out in the road, and you have your average Taling Ngam neighbourhood. There’s hardly a 7-Eleven, Family Mart or Tesco Express 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 bananas, grilled chicken or the crop of the day. The landscape is lush and green, predominantly coconut groves and banana plantations. Here the jungle truly does meet the beach. Oh, and on the beach, don’t be alarmed to see a buffalo or two enjoying a dip in the sea, or lazing under a palm tree, they’re docile, and there’s usually a handler nearby. You’re also likely to see shellfish being collected by hand, or little clams dug out by wiggling toes in the sand, for the evening meal. Long-tail boats bring in the day’s catch.

          Although much of the coastline is rocky, the waters here are clear, calm and shallow, perfect for kids – and buffaloes. Grab a shady spot under a palm on the beach, and enjoy it all to yourself. Just mind you’re not directly under the line of fire, so to speak. The buffaloes have hard horns to deflect falling coconuts – but you don’t! To top it off it’s the best spot on the island to catch the setting sun over the beautiful and mysterious Five Islands.

          So what are these mysterious islands? They’re known locally in Thai as ‘Koh Si Koh Ha’, meaning ‘Four Islands Five Islands’, as one is hidden behind another. They’re home to swifts, known for their famous nests which are 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 the nests themselves. These 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 long-tail boat trips to view the islands.

          Ah, the sunsets. You’d be forgiven for thinking they’ve been Photoshopped, but they haven’t. Taling Ngam is perfectly positioned to make the most of the evening sky as the sun goddess, Ra, tries to outdo her sunset creation from the previous day. Sometimes they are pretty pastels, dotted with cotton-candy type clouds. Other nights are a dramatic show of towering cumulonimbus clouds, highlighted by a glowing orb sinking into the bay. You’ll find a few excellent beach establishments to enjoy a couple of sundowners. Beyond the Five Islands lies the mainland and the coastal towns of Donsak and Khanom. Home to a series of mountains vaguely visible in the distance, they add depth to the skyline as the evening turns various shades of red, orange, pink and purple. Be sure to add ‘sundowners at Taling Ngam’ to your ‘must do’ on Samui list.

          Village life centres around the local temple, Wat Kiri Wongkaram. As with most temple grounds, there’s a sense of serenity. However, here there’s a little mystery too. 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. The fact that Samui has two mummified monks is remarkable, the other one being at Wat Kunaram, near the Namuang Waterfalls. Luang Por Ruam was born near the temple in 1879, and in the early 20th Century made a journey to Burma where he was initiated into Buddhist practices. He later returned to Samui to live a life of purity and meditation.

          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 the 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 Samui will be pleased with what Taling Ngam has to offer. The area is home to some of the finest resorts on the island, including Conrad Samui, and InterContinental

          Baan Taling Ngam, although a few budget and mid-range options are available too. Sure, not everyone wants to be ‘away from it all’, but it’s worth at least a day trip that lingers into cocktail hour. It’s a great place to practice the photography skills too, not only for the sunsets, but also the interesting village life and a few buffalo portraits. A visit to the Virgin Coast will be a most memorable part of your Samui experience. ;

         

 Rosanne Turner

 

 


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