According to history, the island of Ko Samui remained practically independent and indifferent to mainland Thailand until the late 20th Century. It was a self-sustaining island that operated within its own distinct culture; many people, even the Thai, were not aware of its existence. Slowly, the island became known to its neighboring islands and to mainland Thailand, and in the last 20 years or so, it became popular as a tourist destination. It may therefore come as a surprise to some people to learn that Samui has been inhabited as early as the 15th Century, possibly even earlier, by Chinese traders and Malay fishers. This can be seen in the ancient structures that still stand in Samui today, such as the Old House, which was designed as a Chinese-style house.
This Old House has been standing on the island for two centuries. It is a display of the island inhabitants’ Chinese roots. It is one of the island’s tourist attractions, and its owners Grandpa Si and Grandma Maen Hancharoen gladly open the house to anyone who wishes to visit.
Ko Samui had appeared in old Chinese maps from as far back as 1687. On these maps, it was identified as Pulo Cornam. Its appearance in old Chinese maps supports the theory that it had been inhabited by Chinese fishers centuries before the island became known to the rest of the world. Buddhism being the predominant religion in Samui, with 90% of its residents being Buddhists, also shows the strong influence of Chinese culture on Ko Samui’s local residents.
The Chinese-style Old House is not the only existing architectural proof of Chinese influence on Samui. In Bophut, also called fisherman’s village, the main road has rows of old Chinese houses on either side. These houses are now residential-commercial structures, with the first level having been converted into small shops while the higher levels served as the owners’ residence – an arrangement so typical of the Chinese houses/shops we see in different places today. Food is another thing in Bophut that bears the influence of Chinese culture.
Aside from the fisherman’s village, Na Thon, Ko Samui’s only town, also has old Chinese-style houses. As in Bophut, these houses have been converted for commercial use. Various items, such as souvenirs, jewelry, and shirts are being sold in these old Chinese-style houses turned shops. The owners of these houses also use the upper levels as their residence.
The village of Maenam has a Chinese temple. It is rather small compared to the other Buddhist temples found on the island, but it is rich and more colorful. Inside, the temple is decorated with snakes colored red, green, yellow, and white. Outside the temple, there stands a tall red post designed with a snake twirled all around it. The Chinese roots of Koh Samui are very evident from the 200-year old Chinese-style Old House to the old houses in Bophut and Na Thon to the Chinese Temple in Maenam.