Samui Wining & Dining
History Mystery
A mummified monk, a Japanese sailor and a British wartime pilot. Is there a connection?

 

History Mystery Samui has many natural and historical places of interest. And the tourist information literature highlights dozens of recommended sites to visit. Amongst them is the mummified monk, who died in 1973, at Wat Khunaram which has been featured in a National Geographic television show. It’s on the ring-road in the south of the island near to the Nam Muang waterfalls. But what many visitors, and people who live here, don’t know is that there’s another mummified monk. And this one is even older.

           

It’s in one of the island’s lesser known temples but Wat Kiri Wongkaram houses another revered monk – and also a clue to perhaps some of the first, unintentional, visitors to the island in the last months of the Second World War.

 

Wat Kiri Wongkaram is in Baan Taling Ngam village on the west coast. Local islanders, and Chinese fishermen who visited and settled on Samui, have lived in this part of the island for hundreds of years. Their descendants still live on the same lands and in the same, remodeled, houses. It’s known that the village was named Taling Punk, meaning ‘damaged shore’ after being washed away in a violent storm in 1900. And was renamed Taling Ngam or ‘beautiful shore’ in 1942. It overlooks the ‘five islands’ chain and this part of Samui is considered one of the best places to watch the wonderful sunsets across the water.

 

After the storm of 1900, work began on the temple and its name means ‘mountainous temple’. Not because of where it is, it’s at sea level, but because of the valleys and mountains that surround the village. It’s easier to appreciate if you’re a few hundred metres out at sea and looking back. Unlike some of the more elaborately decorated temples on Samui, Wat Kiri Wongkaram has the look of a typical working village temple. Inside, the walls are lined with memorial shrines to villagers who’ve passed away over the years. The main halls and accommodation areas for the monks look like they could use a lick of paint. However, there are just eight monks who currently live here and several are rather elderly. 

 

The current Head Abbott, Pra Maha Jam-Reuan, is a Samui native and was born in 1935. He was ordained as a monk at just 17 years of age and still resides at the temple. Depending on what time of day you visit you may see some of the monks in the grounds. Quite often, one of them will be meditating beside the mummified monk’s shrine over on the left. It was constructed quite recently and stands out from the other temple structures. Take off your shoes at the bottom of the steps and feel free to go into the room. There’s a little information about the monk at the entrance and inside you’ll see him resting in a squatting position within a glass cabinet. It’s partly obscured with gold leaf which Thais stick on as a sign of reverence and for good luck but you can still see him clearly.


His name is Luang Por Rerm and it’s said that his hair and nails still grow. They’re cut periodically and used as protective charms. He was born near the temple grounds in 1879 and ordained as a monk at 21 years of age. Later he travelled to Burma and is believed to have spent the next six decades or so immersing himself in deep mystical Buddhist practices. In later life, he returned to Samui and passed away in 1966 at the age of 87, some seven years before the monk at Wat Khunaram. When you come out of the shrine, take a walk between the two largest buildings and you’ll see the back of another small shrine. When you walk around to the front of it you might think that there’s another mummified monk sitting behind a glass case. It does look like it and it also has gold leaf, although this time actually sticking to the body rather than the glass. It appears to be real but is in fact a statue depicting what Luang Por Rerm looked like in life and this image is equally revered.

 

To the right of this shrine you’ll see a gap in the wall that leads to yet another part of the temple complex. It’s OK to wander through; however, if you hear chanting and see smoke coming from the long chimney you may want to turn around as this is the funeral building and cremation house, and you may be intruding on a private ceremony. In the middle of the temple grounds there is a free A4 information sheet, although it’s quite a few years out of date. You can leave a small donation in the box beside it. And likewise, at Luang Por Rerm’s shrine, you can also leave a donation for the monks; any amount will be gratefully received.

 

To find the wat, coming from Chaweng, head south past Lamai and after Hua Thanon village on the ring-road you come to a sign for the 4170 (it’s also signposted for the Tiger Zoo and the Aquarium). Take this left turn and after 13.5 kilometres you’ll come to a side road on the left with two huge carved elephants either side of it. Turn in here and the temple is one kilometre down the road on the right.

 

And now let’s go back to that clue to the World War II incident. On the free information sheet it says that a Japanese supply ship, escorted by two warships, was sunk by two British aircraft in July 1945. It says that the ship sunk in the shallow waters between the village and the five islands (if you walk a hundred metres past the temple it leads onto the beach and you can clearly see the islands). It goes on to say that there were no survivors from the supply ship and that a British airplane was shot down by one of the warships and that a crewman of the airplane survived. And that the ship was later salvaged.


None of the locals know anything more about this fascinating story but Steve Burton, an engineer and diver who lived on Samui for several years and dived extensively around the island, offers some insights. He confirms that there’s no sunken ship in these waters now, but says, “The water in this area is very shallow, maybe only 5-10 meters deep, and so this large vessel almost certainly settled onto the bottom rather than sinking outright, and thus would have been floated off and salvaged. I have dived in this area many times and there’s nothing there apart from crab traps and fish traps, though strangely I do remember rather a lot of them being around this location for no apparent reason at the time, so there could still be some very broken up debris on the bottom.”


Steve has a friend called Peter Walker, who’s a photographer, videographer, historian, diver, amongst many other things, and has done excellent research over the years into sunken wrecks and events in the Gulf of Thailand during the Second World War. He has some evidence from an RAF source that suggests that the logs from RAF Squadron 159 record the sinking of the Toho Maru near to Koh Samui on the 15th of June 1945. There’s no mention of any British aircraft being shot down on that date, although it is known that 159 Squadron was based at the time at RAF Digri, Bengal, British India. They flew Liberator aircraft on bombing, mining and reconnaissance operations over Burma, Siam (Thailand), Malaya, Indo-China and the Dutch East Indies during 1945.


And official US Department of the Navy records state that on the 15th of June 1945, the 10th Air Force attacked a Japanese convoy in the Gulf of Siam, damaging the destroyer Kamikaze and the minesweeper W.4 and sinking the merchant tanker Toho Maru off Samui Island. This is backed up in the minesweeper’s record which state that on the15th June 1945 off Samui Island the 10th Air Force Consolidated B-24 ‘Liberator’ heavy bombers attack the convoy and sink Toho Maru and damage W-4 and Kamikaze. Later, the Kamikaze rescues 200 of Toho Maru's survivors.”


In none of the records are any events recorded as happening anywhere near Koh Samui in July of 1945, only on the 15th of June 1945. It seems certain that the Toho Maru was sunk, by either a British or an American crew in a Liberator aircraft. There probably were survivors from the ship that were picked up by the other two ships and the Toho Maru was likely twed off for salvage soon after. But could one of the stricken sailors have made it ashore? It’s not too far for a good swimmer and the waters are warm. And was a British aircraft shot down and the pilot or other crew able to bale out safely? Who knows, maybe they’re still somewhere deep in the mountains waiting it out. Not knowing that they were in fact the first tourists to visit Samui.

 

Or did one of them reappear at the temple in later years claiming to be an elderly monk who had been away on a spiritual journey for the last six decades?


Johnny Paterson

A mummified monk, a Japanese sailor and a British wartime pilot. Is there a connection?

 

Samui has many natural and historical places of interest. And the tourist information literature highlights dozens of recommended sites to visit. Amongst them is the mummified monk, who died in 1973, at Wat Khunaram which has been featured in a National Geographic television show. It’s on the ring-road in the south of the island near to the Nam Muang waterfalls. But what many visitors, and people who live here, don’t know is that there’s another mummified monk. And this one is even older.

           

It’s in one of the island’s lesser known temples but Wat Kiri Wongkaram houses another revered monk – and also a clue to perhaps some of the first, unintentional, visitors to the island in the last months of the Second World War.

 

Wat Kiri Wongkaram is in Baan Taling Ngam village on the west coast. Local islanders, and Chinese fishermen who visited and settled on Samui, have lived in this part of the island for hundreds of years. Their descendants still live on the same lands and in the same, remodeled, houses. It’s known that the village was named Taling Punk, meaning ‘damaged shore’ after being washed away in a violent storm in 1900. And was renamed Taling Ngam or ‘beautiful shore’ in 1942. It overlooks the ‘five islands’ chain and this part of Samui is considered one of the best places to watch the wonderful sunsets across the water.

 

After the storm of 1900, work began on the temple and its name means ‘mountainous temple’. Not because of where it is, it’s at sea level, but because of the valleys and mountains that surround the village. It’s easier to appreciate if you’re a few hundred metres out at sea and looking back. Unlike some of the more elaborately decorated temples on Samui, Wat Kiri Wongkaram has the look of a typical working village temple. Inside, the walls are lined with memorial shrines to villagers who’ve passed away over the years. The main halls and accommodation areas for the monks look like they could use a lick of paint. However, there are just eight monks who currently live here and several are rather elderly. 

 

The current Head Abbott, Pra Maha Jam-Reuan, is a Samui native and was born in 1935. He was ordained as a monk at just 17 years of age and still resides at the temple. Depending on what time of day you visit you may see some of the monks in the grounds. Quite often, one of them will be meditating beside the mummified monk’s shrine over on the left. It was constructed quite recently and stands out from the other temple structures. Take off your shoes at the bottom of the steps and feel free to go into the room. There’s a little information about the monk at the entrance and inside you’ll see him resting in a squatting position within a glass cabinet. It’s partly obscured with gold leaf which Thais stick on as a sign of reverence and for good luck but you can still see him clearly.

 

His name is Luang Por Rerm and it’s said that his hair and nails still grow. They’re cut periodically and used as protective charms. He was born near the temple grounds in 1879 and ordained as a monk at 21 years of age. Later he travelled to Burma and is believed to have spent the next six decades or so immersing himself in deep mystical Buddhist practices. In later life, he returned to Samui and passed away in 1966 at the age of 87, some seven years before the monk at Wat Khunaram. When you come out of the shrine, take a walk between the two largest buildings and you’ll see the back of another small shrine. When you walk around to the front of it you might think that there’s another mummified monk sitting behind a glass case. It does look like it and it also has gold leaf, although this time actually sticking to the body rather than the glass. It appears to be real but is in fact a statue depicting what Luang Por Rerm looked like in life and this image is equally revered.

 

To the right of this shrine you’ll see a gap in the wall that leads to yet another part of the temple complex. It’s OK to wander through; however, if you hear chanting and see smoke coming from the long chimney you may want to turn around as this is the funeral building and cremation house, and you may be intruding on a private ceremony. In the middle of the temple grounds there is a free A4 information sheet, although it’s quite a few years out of date. You can leave a small donation in the box beside it. And likewise, at Luang Por Rerm’s shrine, you can also leave a donation for the monks; any amount will be gratefully received.

 

To find the wat, coming from Chaweng, head south past Lamai and after Hua Thanon village on the ring-road you come to a sign for the 4170 (it’s also signposted for the Tiger Zoo and the Aquarium). Take this left turn and after 13.5 kilometres you’ll come to a side road on the left with two huge carved elephants either side of it. Turn in here and the temple is one kilometre down the road on the right.

 

And now let’s go back to that clue to the World War II incident. On the free information sheet it says that a Japanese supply ship, escorted by two warships, was sunk by two British aircraft in July 1945. It says that the ship sunk in the shallow waters between the village and the five islands (if you walk a hundred metres past the temple it leads onto the beach and you can clearly see the islands). It goes on to say that there were no survivors from the supply ship and that a British airplane was shot down by one of the warships and that a crewman of the airplane survived. And that the ship was later salvaged.

 

None of the locals know anything more about this fascinating story but Steve Burton, an engineer and diver who lived on Samui for several years and dived extensively around the island, offers some insights. He confirms that there’s no sunken ship in these waters now, but says, “The water in this area is very shallow, maybe only 5-10 meters deep, and so this large vessel almost certainly settled onto the bottom rather than sinking outright, and thus would have been floated off and salvaged. I have dived in this area many times and there’s nothing there apart from crab traps and fish traps, though strangely I do remember rather a lot of them being around this location for no apparent reason at the time, so there could still be some very broken up debris on the bottom.”
 
Steve has a friend called Peter Walker, who’s a photographer, videographer, historian, diver, amongst many other things, and has done excellent research over the years into sunken wrecks and events in the Gulf of Thailand during the Second World War. He has some evidence from an RAF source that suggests that the logs from RAF Squadron 159 record the sinking of the Toho Maru near to Koh Samui on the 15th of June 1945. There’s no mention of any British aircraft being shot down on that date, although it is known that 159 Squadron was based at the time at RAF Digri, Bengal, British India. They flew Liberator aircraft on bombing, mining and reconnaissance operations over Burma, Siam (Thailand), Malaya, Indo-China and the Dutch East Indies during 1945.
 
And official US Department of the Navy records state that on the 15th of June 1945, the 10th Air Force attacked a Japanese convoy in the Gulf of Siam, damaging the destroyer Kamikaze and the minesweeper W.4 and sinking the merchant tanker Toho Maru off Samui Island. This is backed up in the minesweeper’s record which state that on the15th June 1945 off Samui Island the 10th Air Force Consolidated B-24 ‘Liberator’ heavy bombers attack the convoy and sink Toho Maru and damage W-4 and Kamikaze. Later, the Kamikaze rescues 200 of Toho Maru's survivors.”

In none of the records are any events recorded as happening anywhere near Koh Samui in July of 1945, only on the 15th of June 1945. It seems certain that the Toho Maru was sunk, by either a British or an American crew in a Liberator aircraft. There probably were survivors from the ship that were picked up by the other two ships and the Toho Maru was likely towed off for salvage soon after. But could one of the stricken sailors have made it ashore? It’s not too far for a good swimmer and the waters are warm. And was a British aircraft shot down and the pilot or other crew able to bale out safely? Who knows, maybe they’re still somewhere deep in the mountains waiting it out. Not knowing that they were in fact the first tourists to visit Samui.

Or did one of them reappear at the temple in later years claiming to be an elderly monk who had been away on a spiritual journey for the last six decades?

Johnny Paterson

 
 


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