A dose of culture with stunning views
The Big Buddha of Phuket is a gleaming white 45-metre-tall statue that sits atop the highest peak of the Nakkerd Hills in Ao Chalong. Visible from many places across the south of the island, the Big Buddha’s become one of the most popular attractions on Phuket since construction started on it in the early 2000s. It’s known to most as the Big Buddha because the statue’s official name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue: Phra Putthamingmongkolekanagagiri.
Big Buddha’s sheer size makes it an impressive sight up close, and the 360-degree views from the hill are among the best in Phuket, taking in Phuket Town, Chalong Bay, Rawai, Kata, Karon and out across the sea.
Construction is ongoing, with endless additions around the statue’s base being built as well as a concrete staircase, large car park and meditation hall. The statue is frequently wrapped in scaffolding.
Upon arrival there’s the usual array of vendor stands selling snacks and souvenir items, then visitors are ushered through the meditation hall — a large open building with a tin roof. At the hall’s entrance are a number of amulet sellers, as well as tables displaying several ways to donate to the Big Buddha project. This may be off-putting for some but the project is funded entirely by donations. For Thai Buddhists, this is a form of merit-making.
One option is to pay for a marble tile, with a suggested donation of 100 baht for the smallest tile. Those who donate are handed a black marker to sign their name and write a message on the tile. No one is pressured to donate, however, so it’s possible to visit the Big Buddha for free.
Inside the meditation hall is a platform where a line of monks are sometimes seen sitting and chanting. From here, a covered concrete path and staircase lead up to the Big Buddha. It’s only about a five-minute climb but some may find it tough going in the heat, and there are no ramps to accommodate baby strollers or wheelchairs.
The statue has been constructed with reinforced concrete and encased in 135 tons of Burmese white marble. A smaller, 12-metre-high golden Buddha image is set beside it. About two-thirds of the way up the stairs is a golden statue of Toranee, the Earth Goddess who according to Buddhist legend helped him during his journey to enlightenment by wringing water out of her long hair and creating a flood that washed away the demon Mara.
With about 1,500 visitors a day, a mix of Thai and Burmese worshippers and tourists of all ages and nationalities, the Big Buddha feels like a bit of a tourist trap at times, especially since the addition of the tatty-looking sign “The Big Buddha of Phuket”, all set to be snapped by thousands of unimaginative photographers.
To avoid the heat and the tourist crowds it’s best to go early in the morning, though doing a late afternoon visit and then stopping at the Nakkerd Restaurant just downhill for a Thai meal and ice-cold beer, and watching the sun set over Karon bay is a pleasant way to wind down the day.
Exploring the Big Buddha site takes up to around an hour, though you could spend a few hours here if you wished to just sit back and enjoy a bird’s eye view over southern Phuket. There are some impromptu meditation training sessions as well, which could entice some to linger on and chill out a while longer.
Getting to the Big Buddha requires a drive through a residential neighbourhood then up a steep and winding road for six kilometres up to the top of Nakkerd Hill. Though the road surface has been improved in recent years, motorbike riders might find it a challenging journey. Inexperienced drivers should hire a taxi, since accidents are not uncommon along this road. There was talk once of building a cable car to connect the Big Buddha to Kata-Karon but nothing has come of it yet. Walking up the hill from base to top takes about an hour — wear a hat because there’s not much shade along the way.
As Big Buddha gains popularity as a tourist site, there is ever more commercial activity along the road leading up to it. As of mid-2012 there were at least five restaurants, an ATV riding centre, an elephant riding operation, and it appeared as though a simple bungalow resort was under construction. Those looking for a half-day cultural tour (by car or motorbike) could easily visit the nearby Wat Chalong and possibly the lesser-known Wat Luang Supha, which is home to a highly revered 116-year-old monk.
The Big Buddha is open daily year round, but rainy-day visits would be unpleasant at best since the winds can be strong at the top of the mountain and the road treacherous, and the views would be obscured by clouds and fog. It gets very busy on Thai Buddhist holidays — a good time to visit if you’re keen to take photos of local cultural activities but best avoided if you don’t like crowds.
There doesn’t seem to be a strict dress code for the Big Buddha but this is a sacred site so visitors are asked to dress politely.
Lana Willocks is a freelance writer from Canada based in Phuket. Her love affair with Thailand began on a university exchange programme in Bangkok, then she returned to Phuket on the auspicious date of 9-9-1999 and never left.
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