A big red head – that’s what you see towering above the old houses when driving along the ring road in Hua Thanon, just south of Lamai. So what is it? In 2014, prominent islanders of Chinese descent organised the construction of a massive image of Guan Yu, a Chinese general who lived some 1,800 years ago and is now revered as a god of war.
Historians are unsure of exactly when Guan Yu was born, but project organiser Virach Pongchababnapa told us that he died in the year 219 CE after serving under the warlord, Liu Bei, during the late Eastern Han Dynasty. He played a crucial role in a civil war that led to the demise of the Han and the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period. His heroics here sensationalised in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a great work of ancient Chinese literature.
Guan Yu now represents loyalty, righteousness, bravery and honesty among the Chinese people, particularly in Southern China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and their descendants overseas. Countless shrines pay homage to him, including the 350-year-old Leng Buai Ia Shrine in Bangkok’s Chinatown. In Taoism he is revered as a guardian deity, while Chinese Buddhism looks up to him as a bodhisattva.
Few Guan Yu shrines are as large and elaborate as the one on Samui, which boasts a bronze statue of the war god valued at more than 20 million baht and standing several metres taller than the Big Buddha up in Bang Rak. Dark-green and-gold armor supports a determined-looking red face with a flowing black beard, backed by a long-handle sword piercing the sky. A couple of concrete buildings that look like giant retro speakers stand on either side.
The actual shrine room is situated behind the statue, reached by concrete ramps and steps. It is beautifully crafted from ceramic tiles, wood pillars and brushed concrete, punctuated by all sorts of Chinese lanterns and banners. A small image of Guan Yu is enshrined alongside images of Yuchi Jingde and Qin Shubao, two other generals holding prominent places in Chinese history. Framed portraits of influential Chinese-Thai residents of Samui are hung from a sidewall.
The Guan Yu Shrine is popular among the many Chinese travellers who come to Ko Samui, but it was empty when we swung through early one morning. Vendor stalls dish out Chinese-Thai favourites like kuay tiao (noodle soup) and khao man gai (chicken rice) on either side of the car park.
How to get there
Guan Yu Shrine is located off the inland side of the ring road in Hua Thanon village – look for a red gate on the right if you miss the looming red head while approaching from the north. Open 08:00-17:00. Admission is free.
By David Luekens.
Last updated on 24th September, 2016.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.