Even in the most popular island holiday hotspots Thailand’s fascinating culture is on show for visitors to see and experience.
Some of Phuket’s stunning colonial mansions have been transformed into museums
In addition to gleaming beaches and azure oceans, Thailand boasts a fascinating and intriguing local culture that’s developed over centuries.
For visitors keen to delve into authentic Thailand and explore the Kingdom’s culture and history, a number of tourist attractions offer a fascinating and rich source of information. Of course, most of the country’s finest museums are located in the capital city, Bangkok, but islands like Phuket and Koh Samui – which are better known for their stunning beaches and seaside havens – also offer plenty of opportunities for edutainment.
Ranging from historical showcases to quirkier, outdoor attractions, the cultural and historical attractions on Koh Samui and Phuket provide an eclectic selection of insights and intrigue for visitors to enjoy. There’s something for everyone, whether you’re travelling with your partner, or as part of a large family group.
We take a closer look at some of the finest edutainment choices for visitors looking to spend an interesting afternoon out on Phuket or Koh Samui.
Phuket’s fascinating history
The Phuket Mining Museum boasts a selection of intriguing displays
Steeped in fascinating history, Phuket is home to far more than a gorgeous coastline peppered with stylish beach clubs. For hundreds of years, the island has been a stop on well-established trade routes through the region and it was the island’s tin mining boom in the 19th century that played a pivotal role in its development. That was when Chinese immigrants settled on the island and the expansion of the tin and rubber industries brought them wealth and paved the way for the construction Phuket’s finest heritage buildings.
One of the best places to learn more about Phuket’s intriguing past is at the Phuket Cultural Centre at Phuket Rajabhat University. A fascinating array of exhibits are spread across three floors, and visitors keen to explore them will unveil a number of astonishing facts about Phuket’s history. In addition to showcasing the local life of southern Thai people, there are also a number of artefacts that relate specifically to Phuket’s unique history. There is a selection of tin mining paraphernalia, as well as Thai shadow puppets, ceramics and models. It’s worth emailing ahead to arrange a tour in English because much of the information about the displays is currently only available in the Thai language.
The Phuket Mining Museum is located in Kathu and one of the island’s true historical gems with an array of intriguing exhibits, including tin mining models and a re-creation of a typical scene in a 19th century local opium den.
Phuket Trickeye Museum is a fun trip for the whole family
If you’re not much of a history buff there’s still plenty of other museum-style attractions to explore on Phuket. The Phuket Trickeye Museum, for example, offers a full afternoon of fun for families, couples, or groups of friends.
This interactive painting exhibition is essentially a tour of fascinating optical illusions, where participants can get involved with the exhibits they see. The museum houses approximately 100 painted and sculpted treasures, which have been created using the trompe-l’oeil technique. In English, this translates to ‘deceive the eye’ – which is exactly what all of these exhibits do.
Highlights of the displays include a painted depiction of Phuket Old Town featuring an enormous hole that’s filled with lava. Don’t be fooled by the gallery of famous canvases hanging on the walls either, these weren’t really painted by Van Gogh and Da Vinci. In fact, they’ve been re-created in such an entertaining way that you’ll find you’re smiling at every turn.
Thanks to the array of illusions at the Phuket Trickeye Museum, you’ll also find that this establishment provides some of the most Instagrammable moments of your vacation. The museum is situated on the corner of Montri and Phang Nga Roads in Phuket Town, next to the Pearl Hotel.
Local Samui Culture
Wat Lamai is an excellent place to learn more about the history of Koh Samui
Like Phuket, Koh Samui offers an eclectic array of attractions, ranging from gleaming golden wats to wildlife parks, cultural centres and quirky outdoor exhibits.
If you’re keen to immerse yourself in local Thai culture, the island is home to a number of Buddhist temples and Chinese shrines, which still play an important role in daily local life.
If you’re based in a villa near Lamai, Wat Lamai and its Cultural Hall are well worth a visit. This is one of the best places to learn more about the history of Koh Samui and it’s also a popular venue for local weddings, funerals and other important events. The temple is an intriguing place to learn about local island life through observation. The temple fairs are undoubtedly a highlight on the local calendar, and are well worth checking out if you’re in the area.
A permanent exhibition is also housed in the Cultural Hall that offers a range of insights into Koh Samui’s past. In addition to ancient brass and earthenware cooking implements used by the island’s earliest inhabitants, there are swords, muskets and a 2000-year-old ceremonial drum.
All of the explanatory notes for the exhibits are in Thai, so it might be worth bringing an English-speaking Thai acquaintance along if you want to learn the full back story of each item.
The winding paths at the Secret Buddha Garden offer a magical experience
Buried deep within the velvety green jungle-clad interior of Koh Samui lies the Secret Buddha Garden.
Hidden on one of the island’s loftiest peaks, the gardens are the life’s work of local fruit farmer, Nim Thongsuk. In 1976, he began erecting various statues and shrines across his family’s land. Over the years, the collection gradually grew and the site is now home to an expansive display of intriguing stone figures. The statues represent humans, animals and gods, and include one of Thongsuk himself, who died at the age of 91.
A stroll amongst the shaded paths of the tranquil gardens will reveal a whole new perspective on Koh Samui – the deep spirituality that forms the beating heart of the island. Every twist offers a new surprise and a new figure, creating a magical atmosphere for visitors to enjoy. Thanks to its off-the-beaten-track location deep within Samui’s interior, it’s quite a long drive to the Secret Buddha Gardens, but the far-reaching views from the approach road are spectacular, and the unique statues make this outdoor attraction one of the island’s must-visit cultural hotspots.
Phuket Old Town provides a fascinating cultural experience for visitors
Bursting with unique, traditional character, visitors will find the streets of Phuket Old Town as fascinating as any museum. The culturally rich district was developed on the wealth generated during the island’s 19th century tin mining boom, and many of the stunning Sino-Portuguese colonial mansions and colourful shophouses still stand today. There’s also a peppering of striking Chinese shrines in the area, in addition to an amulet market and a selection of intriguing boutiques. A guided tour could be one of the highlights of your trip.
If you’re travelling with young children who aren’t so keen on history, check out these fun and entertaining options:
- Phuket’s Seashell Museum is home to a spectacular collection of rare seashells gathered from around the globe. Situated in Rawai, it’s the perfect stop to keep little ones entertained, and may even provide some inspiration for their next shell-collecting mission.
- If your kids are animal lovers, then Koh Samui’s Na Tian Butterfly Garden promises an entertaining visit. In addition to the colourful butterfly gardens, there’s also an insect museum.
- Situated in Cape Panwa, Phuket Aquarium is home to an eclectic collection of fascinating sea creatures. The underwater walk-through tunnel is a highlight.