Culture & Religion on Koh Samui
Koh Samui is a living, working island with distinctive local cultures, habits and customs. The first settlers that landed here were Chinese traders and Muslim fishermen, and both of these groups still inhabit the island today living peacefully alongside their Thai cousins.
Local markets like the one at Laem Din behind Chaweng, the Nathon fresh food market, and Hua Thanon fishing village are good places to get an authentic taste of local life. Tourism may be the main source of income on Koh Samui, but look beneath the surface and you will find a proud and vibrant local culture.
The culture of an area is a series of influences affecting the way of life. Culture is something which is both consistent and ever changing. The relaxed way of life on Koh Samui is reflective of its own unique culture and there are many factors shaping this culture.
The monarchy is very closely associated to the Buddhist religion. The monarchy was responsible for the creation of the unique script of Thai characters and has been instrumental in the progression of Thailand (and Koh Samui) by encouraging education and development. Respect for the King and Queen is evident in homes and businesses.
Thai people in Koh Samui are normally very friendly and have high tolerance towards foreigners. Remember that Thai people are very proud of the monarchy and revere the King and their religion (95% are Buddhist), so please don’t disrespect it. Buddha images, temples, etc are also considered sacred. Always enter a temple with respect and wear appropriate clothes. Don’t point your feet to someone while sitting and do not touch the head of a person. In Koh Samui as with other tourism islands the inhabitants are used to visitors, so there are no problems as long as you just show the same respect people show you.
The Buddhist religion has a large influence on the culture of the people in Koh Samui. The spiritual nature of the people and the many beliefs bring many religious tones to the culture. Respect for monks and elders is a part of the daily life and culture of the people. Homes and businesses have special areas set aside for daily worship.
The vast majority of the Koh Samui people are Buddhist. There are also a remarkable number of wats (temples) on Koh Samui, as well as monasteries the largest and most famous being at the Big Buddha. Monks in the mornings can be seen collecting alms in the villages. The faithful participate in early morning services at the local wat. They can also be found at other times of the days in the temples worshiping, performing tasks and making merit.
A majority of the fishermen in Koh Samui are Muslim. The largest concentration being in Hua Thanon where there is a large mosque. The Muslim symbol of the moon and star is easily identifiable throughout Koh Samui. In the Muslin areas veiled women are be seen on the streets and in the markets.
There is a large number of expat Christians on Koh Samui. St. Anna Catholic Church is in Nathon with regularly scheduled services. Regardless of religion, Thais enjoy a celebration and take part in Christmas and other major Christian holidays.
There are a number of other religious groups on Koh Samui. Many bringing their wisdom for only short periods of time, the major non-organized religion on Koh Samui is respect for Nature. Living in Peace and Harmony with the environment is a powerful experience. Many visitors have found religion on the peaceful mountaintops or isolated pristine beaches here on Koh Samui.
The family unit is very important to the Thai people, particularly in Koh Samui where most people working on the island come from elsewhere in Thailand. Often at certain times of the year, Thais who work in Koh Samui leave to return to their families causing local businesses to close in many cases due to lack of staff. In Koh Samui, family is extended to friends and neighbours. In Thai culture, it is common for married couples to live with the parents and respect always paid to the elder members of the family.
Koh Samui has a personality and culture of its own. There are over 100,000 people who make Koh Samui their home. The vast majority of those people are Thai but only a minority of them were born on Koh Samui. Most are from Northern Thailand where the weather is slightly milder. There are also many Chinese Thai people running shops and resorts and a growing number of Burmese and Indian / Napalese working in restaurants, markets and on tours. There are also a significant number of foreign residents affecting the culture, which can be measured by several schools aimed at foreign students teaching an international curriculum and a university of tourism.
In Thailand and Koh Samui, food occupies an important place in the daily life. Eating is a big affair and usually a group of friends or family eat together, sharing several dishes. You can find out more information about food on our recommends restaurants page .
In Koh Samui you will find restaurants serving dishes from all over the world, as such is the influence of foreigners on this little island. Of course there are excellent Thai restaurants creating dishes from all regions of the country as well as a local specialty, seafood. Other than Thai, you can find among others: Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Italian, French, German, Swedish, Mexican, Arab and Indian. So if your missing home or don’t get on well with Thai food, there is plenty of choice available.
With the introduction of tourism to Koh Samui, Thai culture is proudly displayed to visitors wherever possible. There are many exhibitions of traditional Thai dance, music and singing in Koh Samui. Thai people love to entertain and they enjoy performing for the visitors.
Keep Samui Clean. There are many unofficial trash cans by the road side which get emptied daily. Please throw your rubbish in a trash can.
Thai Festivals are an important part of daily life on Koh Samui. The larger celebrations are Chinese New Year in February, Songkran (Thai New Year) in April and Loi Krathong (Festival of Light) in November. These all involve processions, temple festivities, food fairs and live performances. There are also regular food and cultural events staged by the Tourism Authority in Koh Samui’s capital, Nathon.
April is the end of the Buddhist lunar cycle and therefore heralds three days of New Year festivities in Thailand. Songkran is in Koh Samui from 12-14th of the month and includes both traditional and more modern forms of revelry. Families pay a visit to their local temple to make merit and share food, and later in the evening parties are thrown all over the island. Water is an important symbol of the festival, and on at least one of the days, usually the middle one, local people go out into the street and pour water over each other, often by the bucketful. The original gesture was to pour a cup lightly over someone’s shoulder but nowadays it’s more like the biggest water fight on the planet. In the spirit of the festival, the Koh Samui authorities are asking everyone to maintain an atmosphere of light hearted fun, and to be aware of the dangers posed to riders and passers-by “Sawasdee Pee Mai”.
New Year’s Celebrations
The traditional December 31st New Year is celebrated with much enthusiasm in Koh Samui. It is also a public holiday. The Chinese New Year usually in February based upon the lunar calendar. This celebration takes several days. And the Thai New Year, Songkran, starts on the 13th of April and lasting at least 2 or 3 days, depending on where you are in Thailand. This is the water festival where the whole country descends to the streets to cool off from the summer heat by having a country wide water fight!
This beautiful and festive holiday is celebrated throughout Thailand. The timing of this event is based on the lunar calendar and is held on the Full Moon in November. Thai’s and visitors alike construct or purchase Krathongs. These small boats are decorated and contain 3 sticks of incense, a candle, a coin and other items. The candles are lighted and placed in the water. There are several major festival venues on Koh Samui, the most obvious being the wats (temples) at Big Buddha and Plai Laem. Chaweng lake also sees thousands of visitors for Loy Krathong, where they let off fire lanterns and a firework display.
Temple fair / market
Temple fairs take place throughout the year, passing from village to village. Popular with locals of all ages, the bigger ones combine a fun fair with live entertainment, market stalls, and local food. The temple fair is probably the only place where you can buy a new pair of flip flops, watch a Kung Fu film, have your fortune told, and indulge in a bag of deep-fried grasshoppers all in one evening.
Buffalo fighting is a hugely popular sport among locals on Koh Samui and champion buffalos can be worth several million baht. The fighting season varies according to ancient customs and ceremonies so it’s difficult to predict when a bout will take place, but if you visit Koh Samui at the right time, there are stadiums in the south at Ban Saket, and also in Ban Makham, just outside Nathon. Unlike the Sanish version, the buffalos fight each other, locking horns until the weaker one submits. The atmosphere around the ring is usually very lively.
Country bars & karaoke
Country bars are the preferred venues for many local people on a night out in Koh Samui and generally feature live local music, good food and a few drinks with friends. It’s always best to go with Thai people if you want to fully appreciate this local revelry, but foreigners on their own are just as welcome to join the party. Look out for cowboy style logos and bars with a small stage, most of which are located around Koh Samui’s main island ring road.