Jul 31 2012

Ko Samui’s Big Buddha and surrounds

Published by at 8:43 am under Sights & activities


Big Buddha (Wat Phra Yai) is an iconic Ko Samui image. Located on the 4171 at the end of Bang Rak, as one rounds the bend to Plai Laem, this huge statue is glimmering gold and visible from kilometres away. Perched atop a platform, it’s much higher above sea level than its own 12-metre height, and the views across the bay towards Ko Som and Ko Pha Ngan are spectacular, making the walk up the steep staircase worthwhile.

Big Buddha smiles as if containing a secret.

The stairs are guarded on each side by brightly painted and mosaic-studded nagas (Thai mythical sea serpents). Visitors drained by the heat and the trek up the stairs are cooled by a sea breeze as they gaze past ornate prayer bells and over the boat-filled bay. Big Buddha satisfies both the religious tourist as well as the sightseer.

The monks are friendly and willing to assist with the various rituals, including the prayer bells, blessing bangles, being sprinkled with holy water, and writing on a roof tile for a donation. For the record, these tiles do not get dumped — we have witnessed them being used after floods to repair the roofs of the temple buildings, so your prayer or message to a loved one remains in a sacred place — quite a nice thought really.

Monks love interacting with children.

Big Buddha was conceived with the idea of it being a monastery. When the monk in charge died, plans changed, and the giant Buddha was constructed in the 1970s. The statue sits on a small island, not much more than a rocky outcrop, called Ko Fan (Deer Island). A wooden bridge once connected the island to the mainland, a distance of about 200 metres. After this bridge was damaged in the late 1970s, landfill was dumped to create a causeway to Big Buddha. Unfortunately, this meant that the sea currents could no longer flow naturally and the coral in the small bay was destroyed. There is now talk of opening up the causeway, constructing a bridge and rehabilitating the coral, but we have yet to see evidence of this starting. Driving along Bang Rak, a huge scar on the hillside is evidence of where rock and soil were removed as landfill to create the causeway.

A local baby cools down in a tub of water at Big Buddha.

Wat Phra Yai has more to offer than just the Big Buddha, with an interesting assortment of shops, tea houses and galleries scattered at the statue’s base. Some shops sell predictable souvenirs, and prices are obviously more than in less touristy areas, but it’s still worth a poke around — just remember to bargain.

On the left when entering the temple grounds, lies -18˚C Below,  an ice-cream parlour selling ridiculously overpriced but delicious nevertheless ice cream. The sign proclaims to offer  ‘Probably the best ice cream on Samui’ — you decide. Several art studios sell paintings created on site. Many of these are copies of famous works, but these talented artists also display a selection of their own work, and will do commissioned pieces.

Probably the best, definitely the most expensive.

Quite intriguing is a local artist who makes monstrous statues – in both size and subject matter. Created by welding nuts, bolts, washers, old car parts, wire and any other metal together, the result are pieces that might make you say, “Oooh, it’s amazing, isn’t that brilliant, but where would I put it?” Who buys these bizarre creations? Most are quite nightmare inducing, including a very realistic recreation of the horror movie doll, Chucky.

Brilliantly crafted, but what on earth would one do with it?

The fish spa, where garra fish nibble away at the dead skin on your feet, is reasonably priced. Pay 300 baht, and sit as long as you like. Other shops sell pricy island-made spa products, but a tip is to buy the local coconut oil in small brown used Red Bull bottles with a brown paper label, known as Rasta Coconut Oil. It’s natural, pure and sells for 100 baht for a 200ml bottle at little stands.

If you have ticklish feet, this is utter torture.

Several accessories shops sell great leather handbags and sandals, as well as silverware. Wooden buddha carvings and jade buddhas are available, but particularly pretty are the handmade decorative rice caddies. Each container is hand painted and individual, and very well priced at around 350 to 500 baht each.

So pretty. Now what can I put in there?

At the water’s edge, you’ll find a selection of strange statues, including mythical characters and mermaids. Big Buddha is one of many temples on Samui, and Wat Plai Laem is only 300 metres away, also worth a visit.

Come this way please.

On a final note, a couple of reminders when visiting temple grounds: do dress conservatively with no midriffs and shoulders showing ladies and guys, please leave your shirts on. Remove your shoes when entering temples. Don’t pose on the statues, and take photos by all means, but use your discretion – don’t take a close up of people at prayer, and when in doubt, ask. Women should never touch a monk; if you do the poor chap will have to spend two days in a physical and spiritual cleaning ritual.

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