Samui Wining & Dining
A Natural Preserve

A monk at Wat Kunaram still sits silently in meditation – 37 years after his death.

52Nothing lasts forever. And taking a walk through jungly Samui is a lesson in how fast everything decays. The forest that appears so green and vibrant keeps that way because nature is on the attack: it ruthlessly clears away anything that’s had the misfortune to die. Don’t step on any coconut tree that’s fallen – it may look solid but there’s probably nothing inside – except a million ants, all busy turning wood into earth. This is just one tiny example of the Buddhist idea of the ‘impermanence in all things’, as it’s sometimes called.

But there’s one place on the island where time seems to have stopped and decay slowed to an infinitesimal pace; one place where impermanence gets the boot. And, ironically, it’s at a Buddhist shrine. You can read the story here – it’s bizarre enough – but it’s much more interesting to check it out for yourself.

Wat Kunaram is a mid-sized temple on the ring-road as you approach Ban Hua Thanon from the direction of Nathon, it’s on the right just a few hundred metres after the Na Muang waterfalls. You turn right through a temple gate and have immediate parking right in front of what is one of Samui’s abiding mysteries. Unless you come early, you probably won’t have the place to yourself as it’s a very popular stop for just about every visitor to Samui. But maybe you don’t want to be alone here. Because just inside there’s a shrine and, protected by nothing more than very simple glass casing, sits a dead monk. And his full name is Phra Khru Samathakittikhun, but he’s better known for his informal title – Loung (uncle) Pordaeng. He may look as if he died just a couple of years ago but in actual fact his death took place in 1973. By some arcane process, that no-one’s been able to figure out, he became mummified.

He was a respected figure in the local community and when he reached 50 he decided he wanted to spend the rest of his life following Buddhism. He was ordained in 1944 and later became abbot at Wat Kunaram. He famously called his disciples to him before he died. He told them he had foreseen his own death and said he should be cremated if his body began to decompose. However, if it didn’t, then he wanted it to be preserved. He wanted others to be inspired by Buddhism and learn how they could find a way to overcome their own suffering. In his last week on earth, he stopped speaking and didn’t eat or drink. He spent his time meditating and died in exactly the same position that he’s in today.

Unlike the mummies of Ancient Egypt, however, no scientific methods were used to preserve him – at least that’s what we are told. He isn’t wrapped from head to foot in bandages and neither has he undergone extensive chemical-preservative treatment of any kind. This you can see for yourself. He’s wearing just the usual monk’s robes. Plus, disconcertingly, a pair sunglasses, as his eyes have decayed faster than the rest of him. He was certainly in better shape some five years ago, though only slightly. He looks withered in the sense his flesh has dried out, but he certainly hasn’t decomposed. Thousands of visitors come to see this strange sight and also to pay their respects. The monk stares straight ahead with his sightless eyes, meanwhile, as if challenging you to work out just why he’s still there.

As this is a typical Thai temple, albeit with a deceased monk on view, a little formality is required. You should dress respectfully, although the monks don’t seem be concerned if tourists are in shorts or wearing spaghetti-strap tops. You’re certainly welcome to take photos, too, and mostly they come out well – but best not to use a flash, as the light tends to bounce off the glass casing.

There are other things to do at Wat Kunaram. Whilst you’re on the podium looking at the monk, you’ll probably see people kneeling down and shaking bamboo cylinders filled with sticks. They are hoping to discover that they are in for an auspicious future. You can partake too in this fun piece of self fortune telling. Each of the sticks is numbered from 1 to 28 and the idea is that you decide on one – without first looking at the number, of course.

Once you’ve made your choice, simply go to the wall to the right of the monk and there you’ll find stacks of fortunes written in Thai, English and Chinese. Simply look for the number that matches yours and you’ll have an instant fortune. Donations for this are, of course, most welcomed (and expected) by the temple. Some of the fortunes are rather bland whilst others are far-reaching. But, nonetheless, any may turn out to be far truer than you might have thought. Or had possibly wished for. 

Perhaps your fortune isn’t looking too brilliant? Perhaps you’re in need of some reassurance to offset your bad luck? Well, to the right of the shrine, you’ll find a monk sitting, waiting to bless visitors to the temple. He may even beckon you over. If you go over to join him, he’ll start offering a prayer for you and will shake a wooden whisk over your head, sprinkling you with drops of water. Following this, he’ll loop a simple string bracelet over your arm; a common practice in Thai temples.

Before leaving, you should make a beeline for the gong that stands to the left of the mummified monk. People step forward and try to make the gong sound by rubbing the palms of their hands on the raised hemisphere at its centre. It either works or doesn’t. The gong either remains silent or begins to emit an incredibly loud, sonorous noise. Most people can’t get any sound from it at all. If it works, it requires no effort at all to make it close to deafening. Some find it ridiculously easy and wonder what the fuss is all about. Yet, they won’t be able to explain just how they did it. And even more strange, they may come back next day and find themselves totally unable to repeat their earlier success.

With plenty of mystery at Wat Kunaram, it should definitely be a part of your itinerary. When you return home after your holiday, your photos will be strangely fascinating for those who look at them: the dead monk seems to be a living example that the laws of physics can be utterly defeated.

 


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