It’s gone in a flash. All you see is a temple gate as you drive past, and it’s all too easy to miss one of the island’s most intriguing temples. But it’s well worth stopping and spending some time here. It’s easy to get to, as it’s on the ring-road just past Rocky’s Resort, before you get to Ban Hua Thanon. Wat Sila Ngu is far from being a run-of-the-mill temple. Just translating the name from Thai adds a sense of the dramatic: ‘sila’ means stone, and ‘ngu’ means snake. Yes, that’s right – Stone Snake Temple. As you go round the grounds, you’ll see it really does live up to its name: snakes a-plenty have been carved here, and stand guard over the entire area.
Once inside the main gate, you’ll find a grassy area, usually deserted, where you can easily park. You probably won’t even see many people here. A huge tree stands guard with a canopy of spreading leaves and a swathe of coloured
ribbon around its base, signifying that it’s sacred. Already, though the main road is just beyond, a sense of peacefulness reigns. The walls of the temple keep out most of the sound from outside.
Parts of the grounds look neglected; the grass is long and some of the buildings clearly could do with some attention and upkeep. It might seem as if the temple has seen better days. But then comes the contradiction – a very sudden one.
Look over to your right and you’ll see, springing out of that same long grass a magnificent work in progress: a brand new temple that’s nearing its finishing stages. It’s a deep red clay colour of such uniformity that it may seem quite unreal when compared to the colours of the other temple buildings. But that’s only because it has yet to be painted, both inside and outside. The work here has been going on for years, and although the scaffolding has come down, the
temple itself remains unfinished. It’s cost millions of Baht so far, and the financial end is still not in sight.
Despite the arresting sight of the building, visitors seem a little shy of stepping inside. Perhaps it’s because the temple is unfinished and might be dangerous inside (it isn’t), or perhaps because it looks as if at any minute a crowd of painters will surely arrive. But once you do go inside – and you’re welcome to do so, as long as you are correctly attired – you won’t be disappointed. Unless you’re an avid temple-goer, then chances are you’ll never have seen anything quite like the interior. Your eyes will have to get used to the darkness – there are no lights left on inside the building – but even before your eyes have adjusted, faces will appear to be forming wherever you look. Your eyes aren’t tricking you either: some hundred or so figures have been sculpted so that they are half emerging from the walls. You’ll see whole bodies that appear to wresting themselves out of the clay walls. Most people go silent when they see this. It’s definitely awe-inspiring. If you’re a little familiar with Buddhism, then you’ll recognize many key scenes from The Buddha’s life, and that the characters depicted on the walls are all from well-known stories and scriptures. The main Buddha statue at the far end is still, at the time of writing, covered in plastic wrapping – no doubt to protect it until the building is finished.
Outside you’ll see the already completed hall, and a roof decorated with ‘cho-fa’ or sky-tassels. You may wonder what these tapering finials signify, and it’s anyone’s guess. Nobody actually knows. Although they are so common, there’s no record of why they came into existence. Interestingly, each and every part of a Thai temple has a significance but the cho-fa are an exception and remain forever mysterious. To Western eyes they appear very exotic, and if you go to Angkor Wat, you’ll see exactly the same form – they have remained more or less unchanged for over seven centuries. Khmer in origin, they became popular in Thailand, and are today considered a part of the nation’s heritage.
The rest of the temple grounds are equally worth exploring, and even if not so arresting, you’ll find dozens of instances of Thai culture – more than you would usually at a temple. Towards the sea, you’ll find a chedi or pagoda, a Thai spire which is thickly covered in gold paint, and is a place of worship for those living locally. It holds Buddha relics that were brought to Samui by monks, following a journey to Sri Lanka.
Close by, a staircase leads down to the sea. The steps are flanked by statues of two enormous gold cobras with their heads rearing up, as if to protect the temple from the sea. The beach here is a mix of sand and softly-rounded boulders and looks out over Ban Hua Thanon in the distance.
It’s also a place of burial and you’ll see spire-like monuments clustered together in a small garden. Some of the monuments have photographs of the deceased, adding a poignant note to the cemetery. You’ll also find an old tree here which grows over a niche in the rocks. It’s a consecrated spot and home to some small statues. In Thai culture, when a Buddhist statue has become old or broken, it can’t just be thrown away, but needs to be placed with others, in a special spot. You’ll see such collections at every temple on Samui.
Despite the tranquillity of the grounds and the slow feel of this temple, Wat Sila Ngu is a place where there’s a lot going on – more than you’d ever think if you simply glimpse it as you speed by. Come back in a few months, or a year or two’s time and maybe you’ll find whole parts of it will have changed, but you can be sure of one thing – its silent stone guardians will still be in place.