If you only visit one temple on Ko Samui, make it Wat Plai Laem. The active Buddhist temple boasts several eye-grabbing statues on either side of an ordination hall that appears to float above a pond filled with fish.
Wat Plai Laem’s most prominent features were created in the early 2000s with guidance from Thai artist, Jarit Phumdonming. Like the nearby Big Buddha Temple, it’s a classic case of Thai people constructing iconic Buddhist images that highlight the wealth and prominence of a place (in this case Ko Samui). Some will find the bright colours and grinning statues garish, but overall we feel that Wat Plai Laem is a positive example of traditional Thai and Chinese-Thai temple design, executed with a modern flair.
To the right of the ordination hall sits a roughly 15-metre-tall image of Kuan Yin (or Guanyin), known in Thailand as Chao Mae Kuan Im. This East Asian “goddess” is one identity of Avolokitesvara, bodhisattva of compassion in Mahayana Buddhist beliefs (the Tibetan Dalai Lama is believed to be an incarnation of the same bodhisattva). It’s an unusual depiction that differs from the more feminine images commonly found in China and Vietnam.
Here, no clear gender is apparent in Kuan Yin’s facial features, with the head crowned by a golden Chinese-style Buddha image. Each of the 18 arms holds a “tool” that Kuan Yin employs to ease the suffering of sentient beings. One leg lies on a seat of lotuses while the other steps on to the back of a dragon, which sometimes carries Kuan Yin across the ocean to help shipwrecked sailors. The entire image towers over the fishpond and is reached by a long tile walkway.
An equally impressive image of Budai, the Chinese-style “laughing Buddha”, sits on the other side of the ordination hall. Often considered to be an incarnation of Maitreya, a Buddha of the future, Budai is so chubby because he is said to “swallow up” the suffering of sentient beings. The highly Chinese-looking icon is depicted holding prayer beads with a huge grin on the face.
At the centre of the pond stands a large ordination hall built in the traditional Central Thai style atop a “raft” of pink lotuses. The structure looks quite stunning as it rises above its own reflection shimmering on the calm water, especially in the late-afternoon light. Inside it features a naga-hooded seated Buddha image that appears to reflect the Sukhothai style of art. Colourful Thai-style murals adorn the walls, displaying key scenes from the life of the Buddha.
Several smaller statues grace the grounds, including images of powerful Hindu gods: a four-faced Brahma; a four-armed Siva with a cobra around its neck; a blue-skinned Vishnu and green-skinned Indra; and a Ganesha, the elephant god. Another statue of laypeople donning white clothes and pushing a Dharma wheel behind a monk symbolises the interconnection between the laity and monastic community in Theravada Buddhism. Also check out the gorgeous nagas sparkling gold and emerald as finials on a nearby wihaan.
Wat Plai Laem is a fairly large and active temple with a residence for monks and an attached school. Most Thais who visit buy a packet of fish food for 10 baht to nourish the fat catfish that thrive in the pond. Unlike at the Big Buddha Temple, you won’t find many vendors selling trinkets here, though there is a coffee shop.
Do be respectful of Thai culture by dressing appropriately: shorts should reach the knees and any sort of shirt that exposes the shoulders or belly will offend the Thais.
How to get there
Wat Plai Laem is located a few hundred metres inland from Bang Rak Beach, just northwest of the Big Buddha Temple off Route 4171 – look for a temple gate marking a lane that shoots north off the main road. Open 08:00-17:00. Admission is free.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 24th September, 2016.