UPDATE! Since we first posted about Koh Samui monitor lizards in 2013, we’ve learned a lot – and some of our readers have kindly shared their lucky lizard sightings, in all sorts of different locations. High time for an update, and some recent reader photos of their monitor lizards.
Monitor lizards on Koh Samui?
Coming to Koh Samui to relax and nap on the beach? Today we share an email from a Koh Samui Guide customer, who kindly wrote to us with his story. It might inspire you to keep your eyes wide open as you explore the island. There’s so much more than sunny beaches!
Here’s Rick’s story:
“We enjoyed our trip and your guide very much. One exciting moment we had was nearly colliding with a 1 meter long monitor lizard that popped out into the road in front of us. This was between Cheong Mon and Big Buddha, on the more northerly road. Unfortunately we didn’t have a chance to get our camera out in time. While there, we did a bit of internet searching to see where these creatures might be spotted more regularly. Only came up with post on a reptile forum from someone who saw them frequently as she crossed a stream between her hotel and the beach. She didn’t say which hotel or which beach.”
“In the event we return to Samui (and I believe we will), any idea where we might spot some of these enormous lizards in their environment, without putting ourselves in harms way?
Monitor lizards in Thailand?
Certainly we’d read that “they’re out there in the jungle”, but we were surprised to hear that monitor lizards can be spotted in habited areas, too. So we started some research – even headed to the library – and asking all of our Thai friends. Here’s what we’ve found:
Meet the Southeast Asian water monitor
The reptile forum that Rick kindly supplied identifies the Samui monitor lizards as ‘Varanus salvator macromaculatus’, or the Southeast Asian water monitor. There’s been very little scientific study of this Thai sub-species, as its name is associated with a strong insult. Put politely, in the olden days these scavengers ate the chickens and small livestock of farmers; bad news in meagre times. The common name for monitor lizards today invokes horrible luck – to demonic proportion. On the ‘spectrum of beloved animals’, the water monitor is the lowest of the low – which might explain why our inquiry to Thai friends was met with little enthusiasm and bored shrugs (source, p 134).
No natural predators
Though no one has specifics (see above – near total lack of domestic Thai study) – water monitors are protected in Thailand and have no natural predators. As such, they’re prolific across most of Thailand, though are less known in the north (source, p 135).
They can swim faster than you
Much faster. These ugly-muglies are strong swimmers and will swim and hunt in ocean waters (source, p 137). They can move very quickly through water – so quickly that they can steal and eat crocodile eggs, and get away with it. Water monitors can stay underwater for up to half an hour! (source).
This research paper explains the difference in markings: it’s a regional thing, though the creatures within are same-same. For example, yellow circular spots are more common through Thailand, while the uniformly brown/grey monitors are typically found from southern Thailand through Malaysia and Indonesia.
Where to see monitors in Thailand?
Best place to spot a water monitor in the wild?
Within 200 metres of water (though they’ll wander slightly further during rainy season). They might burrow in a riverbank or hang out in a log, and climb tree as well. Wouldn’t you, with claws like that?
Thailand’s Chao Phraya flood basin has the country’s largest wild populations, though many live in Bangkok canals (and even Lumphini Park). On Koh Samui, you might see them near water in or on “forests, mangroves, scrubland and beaches” (source). Preferring to encounter reptiles with a thick pane of glass between us and them, we wouldn’t actively search for Samui’s monitor lizards – though Rick’s encounter suggests that “right place, right time” works wonders.
Readers’ Koh Samui monitor lizard sightings
Monitor lizard sighting #2
A few months after Rick’s note, we had another email from Harry, who was staying on the southeast side of Koh Samui, near Lamai. He too had a monitor lizard sighting:
“About 200 metres from Buddies [*Ed. note: now Manathai Resort Koh Samui, formerly Buddy’s Oriental Samui Beach Resort], going towards Lawang village. You cross a stream to get there. There’s 2 resident monitors. One about 1 meter (female?) and 1 about 1.3-1.5 (male?) when we have been on the bridge in early evening we have spotted them immediately both times. Great to watch.”
NOTE! Harry also had some great luck spotting unusual birdlife – so we’ve duly updated our birds of Thailand page as well.
Monitor lizard sighting #3
Next, James kindly got in touch to share what he saw, right on the northeast tip of Koh Samui at Six Senses resort:
“We just returned from a trip to Ko Samui last week and spotted a huge black/brown specimen on the rocks by the sea below our hotel. Sadly I did not manage to get a photograph. We were located right at the N/E tip of the Island near Bophut at dining on the rocks. Thought it worth sharing!”
James also added that the lizard was “stomping around on the rocks. Definitely a throwback to the dinosaur era! A pleasure to see such an animal”.
Monitor lizard sightings #4, #5 and #6
Clockwise from left: Rachel spotted a monitor lizard in Lamai, Geoff’s saw a monitor enjoying a beach day at Tongsai Bay and Samar saw his hiding in plain sight at Bangkok’s Damnoen Saduak floating market.
Thanks Rick, Harry, James, Rachel, Geoff and Samar!
While monitors might usually be a mundane sight for locals (except when they try to get inside your house), it’s always exciting to spot something that’s new to you – isn’t it the whole point of travel? So keep your eyes peeled as Koh Samui’s monitor lizard population is definitely alive and well.
Monitor lizard FAQs
#1. How common are they?
While no figures exist for Koh Samui monitor lizards, they’re regular roadkill in Malaysia and, of the Singapore Zoo, the New York Times explains: “if you spot a water monitor or long-tailed macaque, know that they’re not zoo residents — just locals looking for a free meal.”
#2. Are they venomous?
Not exactly. As with most wild animals – they’d rather have nothing to do with you, and will only attack people out of defense. Like Komodo dragons, their saliva has terrible bacteria and victims (including prey) die from a bite’s resulting infection. (A video of monitor lizards at the London Zoo shows zookeepers using venom defender gloves to handle the reptiles).
#3. How big are monitor lizards?
Adult water monitors average 1.5 metres long, or just shy of five feet (source). However, another source puts them at 2.5 metres long – let’s agree they’re roughly as long as us and that you probably don’t want to get close enough to measure.
Remaining to be seen on our Koh Samui creatures wish-list are pink dolphins (UPDATE! pink dolphin – check!) and any of these Thai butterflies. Have you seen something unusual on Koh Samui? Let us know at info[at]kohsamuisunset.com, or tag us in an Instagram @kohsamuiguide.