Samui’s foremost tourist attraction is the Big Buddha temple, and you’ll no doubt have seen many references to it. There are scores of tours that stop by daily. But for some strange reason, an equally amazing temple, just a few kilometres away, remains much less visited. Wat Plai Laem is on the agenda of far fewer holidaymakers, and it tends to be the local islanders who come here. Big Buddha is in fact merely an outlier of Wat Plai Laem, which is considered to be the main temple in the area. To reach Wat Plai Laem, just drive past Big Buddha and keep following the road north and then east as it leaves Bangrak, and then on your left you’ll see Plai Laem temple. It’s easy to spot: you’ll see a massive statue with 18 arms!
Wat Plai Laem is much quieter than Big Buddha, and has none of its in-your- face commercialism, but it’s definitely not an earnest kind of a place. On the contrary, it’s filled with colour, and there’s light-heartedness here, even if it may seem filled with symbols, motifs and ideas that are incomprehensible to most westerners. Even people who follow a religion may be bemused by what they see.Speaking of the differences in religions, the abbot, Phra Maha says, “I believe that all religions are essentially the same and that it’s really a question of following one’s chosen religion in the right way, with true understanding.” He acknowledges that the temple complex here is hard to comprehend if you’re from outside Thailand, but even without understanding, it’s an unusually uplifting experience to come here. And sometimes just witnessing what’s going on may somehow cause a shift in mood and perspective.
You may think that the entire temple is as old as the hills. It isn’t. It was only built in 2004, and is the design of well-known artist, Khun Jarit Phumdonming, who spent three years on the decoration, which follows traditional styles. That’s why it looks ancient.
Step inside the main temple and you’ll be amazed by the interior walls, which contain dozens of paintings telling the story of the life of the Buddha. They’re all bright and have a hallucinogenic sharpness.
Bring your camera – nobody minds you taking photos, so long as you don’t disturb the people who have come to pray here. It’s a working temple, and worship here is taken seriously. Everything here is covered in artwork; even the shutters on the windows are carved and painted with symbolic scenes. Whether you’re taking pictures of tiny details or large scenes, there’s plenty to engage the eye.
The grounds of the temple also contain two absolutely giant figures. The 18-armed goddess we mentioned already is a statue of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. Her origins go back some 2,000 years, and she represents unconditional love, fertility and health. She rose out of obscurity in China, but nowadays you can find statues of her as far away as Japan.
She is a bodhisattva – an enlightened being. The Bodhisattva vow is one taken by Mahayana Buddhists to attain complete enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. The goddess began her work by reaching out to help all who were suffering. The legend goes that their need was so great that it shattered her arms. This was seen by the Buddha Amithaba and he gave her a thousand arms so she could help more people.
Her statues symbolically show just a few of those arms. Traditionally, each one of her hands holds out some kind of help for those who are suffering. The goddess goes by many names, with Kwannon and Kanon, being just two of them. There are hundreds if not thousands of stories about her, and she’s much beloved throughout the region.
You’ll also find a very different figure at Plai Laem, that of Budai, who is a Chinese deity. His name simply translates as ‘cloth bag’ and indeed he’s depicted as holding out a largish bag. Budai is traditionally depicted as a fat, bald man wearing an amazingly happy expression.
He’s poor but content. He likes fun and is often depicted with adoring children. He’s seen as an incarnation of the future Buddha, a holy figure who will come to the Earth and herald a time of happiness and abundance. He’s also known as the Laughing Buddha, but should not be confused with the Buddha that we all know, Gautama Buddha.
Wat Plai Laem is definitely not to be missed when you’re visiting Samui – many people make a regular visit here. As we’ve said, it’s an uplifting place, even if it seems a far cry from any usual kind of religious place.