Wat Phra Yai, better known as the "Big Buddha", is an iconic Ko Samui image. Located on route 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 staircase worthwhile. 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 prayer bells and over the boat-filled bay. Big Buddha satisfies both the religious tourist as well as the sightseer.
Big Buddha was initially intended to be a monastery, but 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. At the water’s edge, you’ll find a selection of statues of mythical characters and mermaids.
The monks here are friendly and well-acquainted with tourists – 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. The site can get incredibly busy with tour bus after tour bus – avoid this by going early in the day – we visited most recently at seven in the morning (yes, we're an early riser!) and had the entire site to ourself.
Unlike most Thai temples, the base of Wat Phra Yai is surrounded by a clutch of souvenir and trinket shops, cafes, tea houses and galleries – there is even a fish spa! Most sell predictable tourist garbage, at very inflated prices, but some may find it interesting — just remember to bargain.
Big Buddha is one of many temples on Samui, and if you're looking for a more traditional Thai temple, Wat Plai Laem is only 300 metres away, and is well worth a visit.
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.
By Stuart McDonald
Last updated on 23rd September, 2016.