By Carla Sue Broecker
Our current trip on the Regent Seven Seas Explorer began when we departed Beijing, China on December 29. We have covered a good bit of sea since that time, and are currently in Ko Samui, Thailand. Located in the Gulf of Thailand, it is surrounded by about 60 other islands, which compose the Ang Thong Marine National Park and include other tourism destinations.
The island was probably first inhabited about 15 centuries ago and settled by fishermen from the Malay Peninsula and Southern China. It appears on Chinese maps dating back to 1687 under the name Pulo Cornam. The name Samui is mysterious in itself. Perhaps it was an extension of the name of one of the native trees, mui, or from the Malay word Saboey, which means “safe haven.” Ko is the Thai word for “island.”
Ko Samui has a population of about 55,000. Their tourist industry and exports of coconut and rubber drive their economy. It was a rather isolated community, disconnected from the mainland of Thailand, until the 20th century, and roads were not built on the island until the 1970s.
We anchored promptly at 8 a.m. This means that we needed to go ashore in a tender boat rather disembarking directly to the dock. In Ko Samui, the ship’s tenders are not used. Instead local ferry boats, much bigger than the ship has, take passengers to shore. The trip takes 20 minutes and is pleasant.
Regent has a “landing area” on shore any time guests are tendered in and it is quite nice. There is a little tent to protect guests from the sun and they have huge insulated urns of both cold water and fruit punch.
Six different shore excursions plus independent travel for those who couldn’t make up their minds were offered. We had selected a six-hour excursion called “Ko Samui Discovery” because it offered a lot of variety, including lunch at a restaurant off the ship. The ship’s food is wonderful, but it is always fun to take a chance at a place you will never see again.
The procedure is for guests to surrender their tour tickets in the ship’s theater and receive a small ticket indicating which bus or coach you are to be in when you get outside. Once your bus number is called, you proceed to security where they swipe your room key card into the system and this lets them know that you are off the ship. On return, they swipe you back in again.
When we reached the shore in the tender we were greeted by a nice young man named Wind, who was to be our guide for the entire excursion. He was accompanied by our driver, and we proceeded to a wonderfully appointed eight-person coach with leather upholstery, fringe and mirrors everywhere as is the Asian style, plus an air-conditioner that deserved a prize for efficiency and dependability.
Our first stop was a site called Big Buddha 15 minutes away. And this Buddha was big. Covered in gold, it dominates a monumental site sitting on the top of a mound and is reached by climbing a staircase with a colorful, striking dragon design leading up to the platform area on which the Buddha sits.
A monkey being trained to spin coconuts until their ripe stem breaks when it is 75 feet up in a coconut tree.
Statue of Guanyin, goddess of mercy and compassion, at Wat Plai Laem Temple.
The Sanctuary of Truth wooden pavilion, which began construction in 1987 at Pattaya, Thailand.
Around Big Buddha’s base is a courtyard and vendor area where religious artifacts, clothing and souvenirs are sold. There are also food stalls and small restaurants in which to enjoy a snack or a meal. That said, this is considered a sacred place, so visitors are admonished by large signs to dress politely. Shoulders must be covered, trousers or long shorts must be worn, and no beachwear at any time!
After a trip up and down the steps and a stop for a small dish of passion fruit sorbet, we were off to Plai Laem Temple.
Wat Plai Laem is a Buddhist temple compound featuring a white 18-arm figure of Guanyin, the goddess of mercy and compassion. The temple is fairly new but the artists who developed it applied techniques that are several centuries old.
The next stop was one of what must be dozens of elephant camps on the island. At this stop, those who cheered when Ringling Bros. Circus gave up displaying elephants would not have been happy. That said, we had a nice time and the elephants appeared to be well cared for. Two of them played soccer with one of the men from the audience. Well, the elephants kicked the soccer ball and the human tried to block it from getting into the net. Then two ladies and a man, individually, got elephant massages by lying on a rug on the ground with another rug on top and having the elephant bounce its trunk on their back. The man lay on his back and got a more risqué massage. You get the point. Most everyone was laughing.
Then, we were off to Nora Beach Resort for lunch, which was delicious. This was followed by a trip to see monkeys who were being trained to scale coconut trees, select the ripe coconuts, spin them on their stem until they broke off and let them fall to the ground. At this stop, we were offered some coconut oil to rub on dry skin. It works, and you can cook with it too.
Finally, we went to a rubber tree plantation where we witnessed the gathering of liquid latex and its refinement into rubber mat shaped pieces which are then shipped off for commercial use. It was moderately interesting.
It had been a long day and our guide, Wind, got us back to the dock to take the shuttle “home” to our suite. We had time for a hot shower and a 30-minute nap before a spectacular barbeque on the ship’s top deck began.
These barbeques are really food festivals. There is so much to choose from that you almost lose your appetite looking at the buffet, which stretches all the way around the swimming pool!
Overnight, we sailed to Laem Chabang, the closest port to Bangkok. We elected to stay close by and not take the almost four-hour trip each way to Bangkok. Instead, we took an excursion that focused on The Sanctuary of Truth wood pavilion, a staggeringly spectacular hand-carved structure that almost cannot be described.
Standing 300 feet tall, it was first started in 1981 and financed by Mr. Lek and Mrs. Prapai Viriyahbhun, and is not anticipated to be finished until 2050, if ever. Promotional literature describes The Sanctuary of Truth as featuring meaningful teachings by the philosophers in the ancient days and moral ethics through the works of art.
Uncounted laborers work inside the structure and add completed carved pieces to the structure, which is held together without nails. At least 100 or more other skilled wood sculptors, mostly women, work under covered tent-like structures carving new pieces in the finest detail. No one explained to us whether or not there is a master plan for the completed work that currently covers several acres overlooking the sea-side site.
It’s worth it to pay a visit. It’s the pride of the Thai nation.
We are going to be here for another day and so our next touring objective is Sriracha Tiger Zoo, where we have been before. I just can’t resist the opportunity to once again bottle-feed a tiger kitten. VT