Ten Rarely Seen Sights in Surat Thani Province
Five hundred kilometres south of busy Bangkok is the rural and quiet province of Surat Thani. It is internationally famous for possessing the resort island of Samui—the major tourist drawcard for the east coast of Thailand.
Because of Samui most tourists quickly pass through the province on their way to the Samui without sparing a thought for what else they might see. This is their loss. The city and the mainland have more than a few sights, many that are rarely experienced by foreigners.
Surat Thani is Thai for City of Good People!
Here is a list of 10 things that you should see and do in Surat Thani.
1. The City Pillar Shrine — “Chao Pho Lak Mueang”
Let’s start with the spiritually important heart of Surat Thani—the City Pillar Shrine. Most Thai provinces have a pillar shrine (and it is a pillar). These are titularly deities, housed in a shrine building, that guard the province and its people against ill fortune.
Public ceremonies are regularly performed at the shrine—the birthday of the King of Thailand, and other important events. It is also customary for locals to come here and make an offering at a rite of passage in their life. Marriage, university, or even a new motorbike, all need all the good luck available and a visit to the Shrine can supply this.
The tradition of a city pillar (with the obvious phallic imagery) dates back centuries to the Hindu influenced period of Thailand. The largest shrine is in Bangkok (naturally). The Surat shrine dates to 1982. It is attractive, built of white stone, with a little gold, modeled on a thousand-year-old chedi (repository of Buddhist relics), in the province.
Inside the shrine is the golden pillar, 3 metres tall, with four heads, housed inside a clear cylinder. On the walls are several cultural artefacts: including a gong, elephant statues (not rare in Thailand), and a few others.
If you wish you can make an offering and pray at the shrine (if you are there with your Thai girlfriend, this is a good idea). First, give a ‘donation’ (20 baht = 60c) for the flowers, candle, incense, and cloth used in the ceremony, at the small shop next to the shrine.
Next, begin the ceremony at the shrine entrance, where you kneel before a table and offer the flowers to the Spirit, light the candle and incense, and then place them in holders (easy to see).
The next step is inside the shrine. Tie one of the colourful pieces of fabric to each of the four pillars, place the gold leaf on the pillar, and strike each of the drums three times. If you are unsure, just watch what others around you are doing, or ask for help. Thais will appreciate that you are showing respect to the Shrine, and will be glad to help you.
When you visit, remember this is a religious shrine. So, take your hat and shoes off, and speak in a low voice.
The Shrine is an excellent photographic subject. By day it is gleaming white, while in the evening the grounds and building are brightly lit. This is a good time to come by and practise your night photography.
It is easy to find, in fact, hard to miss, the Shrine is a major landmark of the city. Look for it on the western side of Surat city, near the Tapi River. This is also the Sunday evening market area.
2. Vegetarian restaurant
This is the one and only 100% vegetarian and vegan restaurant in Surat City. Being Buddhist many Thais like to eat vegan on special days in their life. These special days can be anniversaries or symbolic days, such as the first Sunday of each month, or a birthday, a wedding anniversary, a public holiday, celebration, whatever.
When you visit, do not expect 5-star service or decor (mice have been seen to run across the floor), nor menus, nor any other such fancy stuff. What you will see behind a glass display case are half a dozen or so containers of pre-cooked food.
There is no English, so just point at what tickles your fancy and the smiling lady owner will be ladled onto a layer of brown rice on your plate. You might have no idea what most of the food is, but it will taste ok. As with most Asian veg restaurants, there is fake meat, and, as always, it is very realistic, but, again, it is all vegetarian.
Keep in mind that the food is spicy.
Sit in one of the somewhat rickety tables and eat your grub. As a foreigner expect to be noticed. The good news, the price, cheap cheap cheap. Say $1-$2 for a meal.
The restaurant is located in the city centre, opposite the Guanyin temple, and just down the street from the Coliseum Mall. It is a family run, informal business. The restaurant has no real name, and the hours are irregular, but lunch and dinner for sure.
3. Guanyin Shrine
After you finish your tasty vegan meal, take a walk across the road and visit, and pay your respects to, the Goddess of Mercy—Guanyin
Guanyin is an important diety in Thailand and throughout eastern Asia, where she is regarded as a Buddhist saint. She is the personification of the female spirit, who intercedes and helps women in need.
People visit the temple, stand before the statue, and tell her their problems. Guanyin will be found all over Thailand. Located wherever she can gaze out over the city, extending her benevolence to all.
Her Surat statue is inside a Chinese styled temple, near the city centre. Several times a year there are large ceremonies at the temple.
The statue is 10 metres high, and in light, grey stone, surrounded by colourful Chinese themed dragons and artistry. It is a happy place.
If you visit, you are welcome to make an offering, say 20 baht, then stand in front of the statue and pray. The full ceremony involves walking three times around the statue, incense, and ringing the gong in front of the statue. If you are unsure, there will be a friendly local ready to help you.
4. The Tapi River
This is the main river of the province, and it runs through the city centre. It is slow moving, quiet, and peaceful. Sailing to the River mouth, six kilometres distant, is an equally peaceful and relaxing two or three-hour journey there and back.
Start by renting a long tail boat at the city pier. There are groups of locals with boats always lounging along the pier. They will invariably enquire if you want a boat ride as you walk by. If you express interest a vigorous, but fun filled price negotiation will ensue. A fair price is 700 baht ($20) to the river mouth and back.
These boats may look small and flimsy to first-time visitors, but they are entirely safe and the local boatmen are experienced—though don’t go to sea if a storm is brewing!
Once cruising down the River you will see houses on the riverbank, local folk fishing for their dinner, and children and adults swimming in the warm water. Also small mangrove swamp islands, other boats larger and smaller, and birds flying overhead.
You can stop at any of these islands and take a look, most have a few families of fisher folk, who lead a quiet life on the water, and who will be very surprised to see you! One thing, if you do go for a walk, keep an eye out for dogs. They will regard you as a stranger and sometimes attack.
When you reach the River mouth you will see offshore houses on stilts, a few large ships way into the distance, and the sun glistening on the water. Here the water can be a little bumpier. Your boatman will take you out to sea a little way, and then convey you home via a different route, as there are many small channels leading back to the city.
Spending a few hours on the River sounds idyllic, but it will be hot and humid, with the blazing tropical sun reflecting off the water—so hat, shades, and bring along a big bottle of water. Also, the boat motor puts out over 80 decibels plus of sound. When you reach the river mouth, ask your guy to turn off the motor for a while, and drift. Pleasant. He will not know English, just gesture at your ears and point around, he will get the idea.
The only disconcerting aspect of this river adventure are the coconuts floating in the water. They disconcertingly resemble human heads!
5. Night Market in Surat City (“Sarn-Jall”)
A feature of every Thai city, town, and village is a night market. These markets are made up of small stalls, each selling something different—food in all its varieties, clothes, DVDs, hats, shoes, walking sticks, and most other things you can think of. In Surat, it is ‘fixed price’, for foreigners. For locals, the price is slightly lower, and bargaining is common place.
You can try, but getting a true bargain is not easy, and when it comes down to it, the price is still cheap and is it really an achievement to bargain down a little old lady, who may make $10 for a long day of work?. You can get a plate of food for a dollar and a bag of fruit for 50c.
The night market opens in the late afternoon and continues on until 10 pm. Be prepared to see a few beggars. These people are the disabled, blind, or crippled, and will hold a cup, maybe play music or sing, asking for donations. Slip them 20 baht.
Your first visit to the night market will be a delight. It is a fun, light hearted place. Locals will be glad to see you (a little lite entertainment in their lives), you will meet a few other travellers, and it is a place to buy those authentic, local, Thai souvenirs.
The market is located just back from the River, along the main city road. Impossible to miss.
6. Monkey Training College — because even monkeys have to go to school!
Did you know that 600 people die each and every year from falling coconuts? You will learn this when you visit the Monkey Training College (Monkey school, as it is informally known) of Surat Thani. This school is about a 15kms east of Surat city and teaches short tail monkeys how to fetch coconuts down from a tree, and then put the freshly plucked coconut into a bag, ready for the farmer to take to market. Very cool.
A fully trained and eager male monkey can harvest up to 1,500 coconuts a day, while a female monkey can do only 600! A poorly human does about 80 a day. Easy to see who is the best at coconuts…
The number of visitors varies, sometimes only one person a day, sometimes several tour buses. You host will be the very congenial Miss Somjai Saekhow. She is the daughter of the founder of the school, and she is a dedicated and talented trainer of monkeys, who speaks excellent English.
Somjai will run you through the steps of monkey training and explain the facts behind it all. She will answer all of your questions.
The school trains a maximum of ten monkeys a time, and each of these monkeys keeps the trainers busy. Monkeys want to play, and they must be entertained, coaxed, and kept happy. They are exhausting creatures, particularly the boy monkeys, apparently!
The average monkey requires three months of basic training. The cost to the farmer is 6,000 baht ($200, two weeks minimum Thai wage). The best age to train a monkey is at 2-4 years, and they can harvest coconuts until age 20 when they become too frail to be productive.
This school is open on even numbered days (also on odd days, by arrangement) for visitors to see just how monkeys are trained. The cost for the tour is 400 baht (~$12), for a small group, and takes two hours—which includes all the coconut you can eat, all the questions you can ask, an opportunity to play with the monkeys, to take as many photos as you want, and to see how it is done.
The monkeys are treated well. Their training is based on Buddhist principles of non-violence. After they are brought to the school the monkeys are medically examined and vaccinated. There is no punishment or physical reward. Monkeys are social animals and respond well to kind words. Somjai will tell you that, during training, she always allows the monkey to pull down their coconut, otherwise they become depressed.
Getting to the school is not difficult. It is marked on google maps, and it is about 4 kilometres off the highway linking Surat with the neighbouring province of Nakhon Si. So, just hop on a tuk tuk or mini-bus in the Surat bus station, and ask the driver to drop you off at the road to the monkey school, 100 baht. He will know what you mean (or if he does not, wait for the next).
This might help, the Thai word for monkey is “Ling”. Keep repeating. At the turn off there will be a motorbike taxi driver (they are always around) who will take you to the school for another 20 bath. Easy and cheap, maybe half an hour in total. The reverse to come back.
The school has two chalets (bamboo huts) available for rent. A thousand baht a night (expensive), but there are monkeys. Lots of fun.
A visit is recommended.
7. Chaiya National Museum
Because of the historical importance of the town of Chaiya, the Museum of Surat province is in Chaiya town. The 1950s building houses a collection of artefacts stretching back through historical times to early pre-historic settlements of two millennia ago.
The artefacts on show are largely those discovered locally. There is a good amount of English signage present, enough to get by. The other good thing is that the Museum freely permits photography. Entry is 100 baht ($3). Expect to spend two hours there.
The Town of Chaiya
Chaiya is located about 30kms north of Surat City, on the shores of Bandon Bay. For those with an interest in culture and history, this is the place to be. The town houses the provincial museum, ancient temples, and a Buddhist university.
The town itself is now small and quiet, but it has a large history. A thousand years and more ago it was an important city in the largely forgotten Srivijaya Empire (8th-13th century), that included what is now southern Thailand. Chaiya was also a major stop on the southern Thai silk road, which carried goods between China and Europe. Stretching between the west coast of Thailand and Chaiya are many archaeological sites. Certainly worth a look.
You can reach Chaiya by taking any bus travelling north towards Bangkok from the main Surat bus station. About an hour later they will drop you off in the town. Or you can rent a bike or a car for the day. Your choice. There is even an infrequent train heading north that will stop for you.
Apart from its cultural attractions, the town is also delightfully rural and charming.
8. Wat That and Srivijaya Stupa
This Wat (temple) is right next door to the Museum. Its importance lies in its ancient Stupa. A stupa is a shrine containing the relics (bones, fingers, etc. of a Buddhist saint). The shrine here contains relics of the Buddha.
The Stupa dates back to the 8th century, to the days of the Srivijaya kingdom—though what you see now has been reconstructed in white and gold. If you saw the Provincial City Pillar Shrine before visiting Chaiya you will see a distinct stylistic resemblance. The design of the pillar shrine was based upon this Stupa, and it is also the provincial symbol.
The Stupa is inside an enclosed courtyard, with other, smaller stupas around, along with statues of the Buddha. Many locals visit the Stupa to pay their respects and to pray. Of course, take off your shoes before entering, and show due courtesy.
The Stupa is a beautiful sight. The surrounding cloister also has a spiritual air. This is a great photographic subject. Making a small donation (20 baht, ~60c) is the thing to do. If you do make a donation, feel free to ring one of the bells in the cloister!
9. Chedi Wat Kaew, Chaiya (also known as Wat Rattanaram)
There are several ruins of ancient temples in Chaiya (one is located at the entrance to the train station, convenient), however, Wat Kaew is the most important. There are two wats at the site. The first is the modern Thai temple, but behind this is the ancient, brick temple, known as Chedi Wat Kaew. This second temple houses Buddhist relicts and dates back to the 9th and 10th centuries, the same time period as Wat That.
The Chedi is built in the Srivijaya style, from unmortared brick (it has been restored). There is an opening in the Chedi, which contains a statue of the Buddha. The Chedi is about a kilometre to the south of the Chaiya train station.
The sign at the Chedi states that it may have been built in imitation of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and that there may be buried treasure hidden nearby!
10. Wat Suan Mok (The Garden of Liberation), Chaiya
The Garden of Liberation is a Buddhist temple dating back to 1932, when a Thai Buddhist monk by the name of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (Buddhadasa being a title of respect), founded the temple in order to escape the materialism and corruption that he believed had crept into Buddhism. The goal of this temple is to carry out research and development so as to keep Buddhism up to date, and compatible with modern scientific knowledge and thought.
As soon as you enter the grounds you will notice that this temple differs from the other 99.99% of temples in Thailand. There are no gold buildings, nor huge statues, nor threatening Naga serpents.
The extensive, serene grounds are lightly forested, with much open space, with areas for meditation and contemplation, with only a few buildings visible. There is a large bookshop, but mostly in Thai. For foreigners, the temple runs monthly, ten-day meditation courses, starting the first of each month. If you are interested, check the website below for details.
Visit Surat Thani!
These ten items are just the start of what is great in Surat Thani Province—other than exotic islands. There are other temples, hot water springs, jungle walks, a national park (tubing!), and so on. Much to see. Rather than merely travel through the province take a few days to stop and look around. You will see a seldom seen part of real Thai life.
Don’t take a taxi, take a local bus, skip the 5-star resort, and live in a local hotel. A little rough, but you might just find something unexpected!