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Big Buddha challenges you to look beyond the superficial.

Big Buddha challenges you to look beyond the superficial.Big Buddha tends to surprise first-time visitors. Even shock them. No matter how many times you’ve visited temples, it’s not what you expect. If you’re used to temples that are generally quiet, and good places for meditation, then Big Buddha will prove to be very, very exceptional. It’s not just the most visited temple on Samui, it’s also the island’s most visited tourist spot. It’s extraordinarily popular, yet most holidaymakers who come to see it fail to appreciate what it’s really about, and instead get sidetracked by all the distractions.


Big Buddha was built in 1972, on what used to be a very small island, Koh Fan. To get to it, you had to wade out or go in a boat. Later, a causeway was built, so nowadays you just drive across it and never realise this was a place set apart. The causeway is a narrow strip that sees a lot of traffic. A few people make the journey on foot and if you do, you’ll realize that it’s a great spot for taking photos of the island’s north coast. It’s particularly fine in the evenings, when you can experience beautiful sunsets, or in the cool of the early morning.


Once you actually enter the temple grounds, you probably won’t be aware of the time of day at all; you’ll be so taken up by what’s going on. You’ll find a huge array of stalls, small shops, souvenir stands and restaurants. You can have a drink, snack or meal here and if you’ve left it to the last moment to buy presents for family and friends back home, then you can easily find some great gifts. Big Buddha challenges you to look beyond the superficial.There are hats, bags and clothes being sold, along with jewellery, shells and all manner of keepsakes. It’s easy just to get pulled into the unexpected shopping opportunity that’s offered to visitors.


But don’t be deceived. This is all happening on one level, both physically and metaphorically. The island is a hill and if you look up you’ll see the enormous statue of the Buddha that dominates the temple. An impressive staircase heads up to the statue itself, and as you climb you’ll look up to see the immense statue beginning to get ever larger and larger. Look behind you and the same stalls and shops that clamoured for your attention just minutes ago seem just a momentary distraction. You’ll notice the balustrades are comprised of massive undulating serpents. These are called naga, and are mythical creatures that chose to protect Buddha when he was resting.


The staircase is both steep and long, and even if you’re in good shape will tend to leave you a bit breathless. But now you’re at the top, you’re in a more refined world. This is the heart of the temple and you’ll find people praying here, kneeling at the base of the statue, deep in contemplation. You can pray here, light a candle or just soak up the atmosphere of the place. If you look out from the temple you can see across to Koh Pha-Ngan, just over 10 kilometres away.


If you’ve come here to meditate, you’ll be challenged by the noise around you. Beside the statue, there’s a small courtyard which has a series of bells. People are encouraged to walk round the courtyard and make each of the bells ring in turn.Big Buddha challenges you to look beyond the superficial. And since there are a lot of people who’re doing that, it can get quite noisy!


As for the statue itself; you’ll notice there are two symbols that the Buddha’s head appears to lean against. You’ll see a large wheel, and this is a dharma wheel, the symbol of Buddhist teachings. There’s also a boat, and this is His Majesty the King’s royal barge, which can be seen on special occasions sailing down the river in Bangkok.


Climbing the steps is definitely worthwhile, but the Buddha statue at the top is not the only one; close by the steps themselves you’ll find a small shrine with a very different kind of Buddha statue. You may well be taken aback as this image doesn’t exude an expression of calm but one of fun and happiness. People pray here too, and there are often children kneeling in front of the statue, hands joined together in devotion. This Buddha is Maitreya, who is said to be a Buddha who will come at some point in the future, and herald a new age of wellbeing and longevity. As such, he’s a very optimistic figure. By the way, you’ll find a giant version of Maitreya at nearby Wat Plai Laem, a large temple complex, which Big Buddha is a secondary part of. It’s here at Plai Laem temple you may encounter the abbot who’s in charge of Big Buddha.


To get to Big Buddha, simply drive north along the Bangrak coast road until you come to the turning, marked by a large temple gate; beyond you’ll see the causeway. Crowded as the complex can be, you’ll find ample parking as you follow the road through the temple. Wat Plai Laem is also worth visiting and is just a further few minutes away. To get there, just drive past the Big Buddha turning and follow the road round until you see it.


The Big Buddha complex certainly has a lot to offer its visitors, and out of all the temples you’ll ever see in Thailand, this one will certainly be unforgettable – unless you do no more than go shopping here, which would be sadly missing the very reason for its existence. It’s definitely a place of worship. Spend a little time here and you’ll see this for yourself. And if you look closely you’ll find a thousand tiny details that will surprise and delight you, and make your visit a memorable experience. Alas, too many people head back across the causeway not having really ‘seen’ Big Buddha at all.


 Dimitri Waring


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