Samui Wining & Dining
Wat Kiri Wongkaram is not on the main tourist drag, but it’s worth a visit.


So you’ve had enough of the tourist hot spots and want to escape the crowds for a day, and soak up a little local culture. You could head to Big Buddha (Wat Phra Yai) or Plai Laem Temple, and they’d both be great stops and worthy of a visit. But, you wouldn’t be escaping the crowds at all. So where should you head to?

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

        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. As is common in Thailand, village life revolves around the local temple – in this case, Wat Kiri Wongkaram. The

temple grounds are serene as one would expect, and you’ll see dogs lazing about and monks sweeping up leaves – but here, there’s a little mystery too. This temple houses the mummified body of the 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 purpose-built 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, if not somewhat baffling to scientists. Apparently his hair and fingernails continue to grow, and the nail clippings are made into protective charms.

          In 1979, the temple’s then Abbot, 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. If you’re a little confused as to the location, and thought that Samui’s mummified monk was elsewhere – you wouldn’t be wrong. But remarkably, Samui has two mummified monks, the other one being at the better-known and more visited, Wat Kunaram, near the Namuang Waterfalls.

          You don’t find many Western visitors at Wat Kiri Wongkaram. In fact you don’t find many visitors at all. The temple is old and not fancy. There’s a crematorium attached to the site, and memorials around the grounds. Village activities are held here, and there’s also accommodation for novice monks, a funeral building, and large meeting hall. It’s a friendly place, not at all intimidating, and nor is it in any way eerie, despite the on-going presence of its most famous resident.

          Another way to soak up local culture and tradition when visiting is to make use of a beautiful artefact in the small shrine house. Visitors can spin the wheel on this piece, and it will come to rest on a number, which corresponds with a number on a wooden table behind the wheel. Under the corresponding number on the table you’ll find pieces of paper that tell you your fortune – whether you believe in it or not, it’s still fun to do, but remember to remain respectful at all times – this is not a carnival stall.

          As this temple isn’t visited anywhere near as often as Wat Khunaram, a monk will still come to the room with the mummified body and give you a personal blessing in return for a small donation to the temple – which is much appreciated in order to maintain the grounds and buildings.

          Driving or walking through Taling Ngam village, you’ll see many traditional wooden southern-style houses standing in compounds with other outbuildings, containing the extended family. You’ll usually find someone practicing Thailand’s favourite pastime – sweeping – as well as several chickens digging in the dirt, a towering pile of coconuts ready for processing and an assortment of dogs stretched out in the road. You’re not likely to see a franchise minimart in sight. Rather, you’ll find the front rooms of houses converted into little convenience stores, manned by whichever family member is home, as well as tables set up roadside, selling bananas, grilled chicken, or used energy-drink bottles filled with home-processed coconut oil. The landscape is lush and green, predominantly coconut groves and banana plantations, and where the green ends, a pristine beach starts, accessorised with brightly coloured long-tail fishing boats, and a few… unlikely bathers. Don’t be alarmed to see a buffalo or two enjoying a dip in the sea, or lazing under a palm tree. They’re happy to share the beach with adventurous tourists, so don’t worry, and enjoy the photo opportunity as they’re docile, and there’s usually a handler nearby.

          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. 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. It’s easy to see why photographers find Taling Ngam one of the best places to visit on the island to hone their skills.

          So by only sticking to the main tourist areas on the northern and eastern coasts, you’d be doing yourself an injustice, and missing an opportunity for adventure and sightseeing. Take the time to explore Taling Ngam, as well as Wat Kiri Wongkaram – just don’t forget your camera!


 Rosanne Turner/em>


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