Samui temples are a world apart from the rest of the island; often glimpsed with wonderment from the seat of a car, minivan or a motorbike and then gone in a second. Perhaps there’s even a turn of the head, and a mental note to go and take a look later. But Samui is known for its ability to distract, and good intentions somehow just get left behind – so much to do and barely time to triage the island’s pleasures and enjoy a handful of them. The clock’s ticking, and too soon the plane will be on the tarmac and it’ll be time to go.
Some visitors never even get to see a temple, and in doing so they miss out on some unforgettable sights. Temples are everywhere on Samui, deeply respected by locals and definitely worth any number of visits. More than the sum of their parts, they offer not just an insight into Samui’s culture, but are filled with atmospheres and a sense of mystery all of their own.
Here’s a brief round-up of some of the most popular Samui temples. Remember that there’s a dress code, so be sure to cover bare flesh.
Wat Plai Laem
If you decide to see just one temple, make it this one. Located in the northernmost part of Samui, building started early this century, and is the design of well-known artist, Khun Jarit Phumdonming, who spent three years on the decoration, which follows traditional styles. It’s easily recognizable thanks to its multi-armed statue, which you’ll see from a distance. This is the goddess of mercy, Kwannon; her arms are stretched out to help all who suffer. Close by her, you’ll see an equally impressive figure, that of Budhai, the Buddha of the future. His time has not yet come, but when it does, the world will enter a period of great contentment and prosperity.
There’s a lot to see outside but don’t forget to visit the main temple itself. You’ll be amazed by the interior; its walls are completely covered with vivid paintings symbolizing the life of the Buddha. If you have time, feed the fish in the temple lake. There’s a vending machine that for 10 baht will give you a whole basket of fish food – and an automated blessing, chanted by a monk.
Just a couple of kilometres away you’ll find Big Buddha (which is a smaller part of the Plai Laem temple complex). The famously tall Buddha sits above the extremely commercial scene going on below: people come to the temple for many reasons. It’s a serious place, but that doesn’t mean you can’t shop there. People come to eat at restaurants and buy local souvenirs as well as to pray. In the evening, a sense of calmness descends on the temple, and vendors sit out on chairs, quietly pondering the day, no friction between the spiritual and material world.
Big Buddha sits on its own island, which is reached by a causeway. The off-island has something of the feel of a temple fair that never packed up; instead of going home the vendors decided to stay on forever, turning their stalls into shops. But if you go up the staircase to the statue of the Buddha, you’ll find the atmosphere becomes very tranquil, no matter what time of day it is.
This temple in South-West Samui is home to a very famous monk, Loung Pordaeng, who predicted that after his death, he’d probably not decompose. In 1973, whilst meditating, he quietly died, and he was right – his body didn’t decompose, but simply became mummified. Thousands of people come to take a look at him. He’s preserved seemingly forever in a glass case, where he sits gazing out to his audience. Bizarrely he’s wearing sunglasses. But there’s a reason for this: his eyeballs have become desiccated and are a bit unnerving to look at. Behind him, you’ll see a collection of all the sunglasses that he’s previously worn. Nobody can work out why his body isn’t subject to decomposition. Nearby, if you wish, friendly monks will bless you and present you with a white braid for your wrist. If coming with a companion, make sure you get a photo of this moment.
Don’t forget to try the gong that’s just outside the main building. You rub it, not hit it, and if you do it just right, the most amazing reverberation will fill the air. Most people find it impossible to get the gong to make the smallest sound, while a few can do it at will – but are totally unable to explain how they succeeded.
Wat Hin Lad
Just south of Nathon, the approach to the temple is via a long road that becomes locked by hills by the time it finishes up at the temple. A few carts and eateries sell snacks and basic food, making this a good stop-off point if you’re journeying around the island. A rocky pond filled with carp is situated right at the temple entrance. Walk across the bridge and you’ll find yourself in the temple gardens, with maze-like paths criss-crossing the grounds. It’s hard to see anything as there’s so much vegetation.
Close by the temple entrance a path leads up to a series of beautiful waterfalls, definitely worth exploring but the two-kilometre hike requires the utmost caution: it’s strewn with rocks, boulders and slippery points and is only suitable for those with hiking skills and sturdy footwear.
Wat Sila Ngu
Translate the name of this temple into English and you’ll get ‘Stone Snake Temple’. Despite the dramatic sound of the place, it’s incredibly peaceful. You’ll find it south of Lamai. Take a walk around the grounds and you’ll see there are indeed plenty of carvings of stone snakes. They eternally stand guard over the entire area which seems utterly quiet for most of the time.
The temple is in the process of construction and has cost millions of baht so far. Once inside you’ll see there are a lot more statues, this time depicting events from the Buddhist scriptures.
Close by the main temple building you’ll see a chedi or pagoda, thickly covered in gold paint. Inside, the shrine contains Buddha relics that were brought to Samui by monks following a journey that they made to Sri Lanka. Steps lead down towards the sea and a small beach that looks out towards the fishing village of Ban Hua Thanon.
Temples are certainly not to be missed out when you’re touring around Samui – many people feel they’re highlights of their holiday. The temples are all uplifting, whatever your religious belief, and there’s always an engaging lightness about them. But be prepared to be bemused; unless you’re a student of both Thai traditional architecture and Buddhism, you can only try to understand the mysteries of what you see – but it’s all enjoyable and well worth it.