The Thai lunar New Year in April is a unique cultural tradition in itself, but a holiday on Koh Samui at this festive time of year also offers a golden opportunity for visitors to explore an assortment of fascinating local spiritual treasures.
In the Land of Smiles, Songkran festival (Thai Lunar New Year) is a wonderful time to explore the Kingdom’s extensive repertoire of cultural highlights. The festival runs through April 13-15, and visitors in Thailand at this time can expect to see the more traditional aspects of Thai life come to the fore.
While Samui only covers an area of 230 square km, it packs in it boats more than its fair share of intriguing spiritual customs and cultural gems. IN fact, visitors are spoilt for choice when it comes to putting together a cultural bucket list on Samui.
Below are five favourite sites for cultural inspiration on your next trip to Thailand's most popular boutique island.
Big is Beautiful
Koh Samui's Big Buddha statue has become something of an island icon over the last 10 years; so much so that a trip to the island would be incomplete without a visit to the famous shrine. The impressive 12 metre golden statue of the Lord Buddha sits in the Mara posture and can be seen from a distance of several kilometres – even form the air as you arrive and leave the island by plane. Perched on the small island of Koh Farn, the shrine is connected to the main island by a narrow causeway. Buddhist devotees make regular visits to the shine in order to make offerings of fruit, flowers and incense – a gentle ritual that holiday makers often emulate and observe. The shrine is particularly busy during Songkran, as many people travel to the Big Buddha to make merit and enjoy food and entertainment that is offered outside the temple for Thailand's annual new year celebration.
During Songkran, Thai families traditionally visit important temples to give alms to monks and to pray for good luck in the year to come. Wat Plai Laem is one of Samui’s most striking temples; situated on the north-east coast of the island. This temple is most famous for its magnificent 18-arm statue of Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy and Compassion. As well as providing a window on Thai Buddhism, a trip to Wat Plai Laem also offers visitors an insight into to Chinese-Thai beliefs. Local devotees visit the temple to pay homage to both Lord Buddha and Guanyin, as well as to feed the teeming shoals of carp that fill the temple's lake – an act of generosity that is also considered a form of merit-making.
For those interested in Samui’s Chinese cultural heritage, a trip to the little known temple of the Goddess Zhao Mei Guan Im – near Baan Taling Ngam on the island's southwest coast – should definitely be high on the sightseeing itinerary. Constructed just 30 years ago, the temple is fairly new, but what it lacks in years it more than makes up for with the stunning illustrations that adorn its walls, each of which depict the life of this Chinese goddess. In addition to the spiritual splendour on offer, visitors can also take in spectacular views of offshore islands.
A trip to Samui’s Wat Khunaram offers visitors an unexpected surprise, as the temple is home to a mummified monk. Luong Pordaeng died in 1973 in a seated meditation position – a pose he has also occupied for the last 30 years whilst on display to visitors and devotees. From a Western perspective, the idea of a mummified monk on display for all to see may seem somewhat shocking. However, for the local Thai community, the preserved body of Luong Pordaeng is something to be revered. In the Buddhist faith, death is part of the natural order and provides the chance to be born again into a better place, which is one step closer to enlightenment. Prior to his death, Luong Pordaeng instructed his followers that if his body did not decompose, he wanted to be put on display as a reminder of the Buddha’s teachings. As such, this monk still serves as an inspiration to Thais and visitors alike – 30 years after his physical passing.
Tucked away in the interior of Samui’s majestic jungle-covered mountains lies the Secret Buddha Garden, a place of sacred tranquillity. The garden is the work of Samui fruit farmer Nim Thongsuk, and features an assortment of striking statues and shrines dedicated to the life and teachings of the Lord Buddha. Visitors can take a wonder through the tropical gardens and enjoy a moment of quiet reflection amongst Nim Thongsuk’s creations, which he began to construct in the 1970s at the age of 77 and continued until his passing 13 years later. The Secret Buddha Garden is located high in the Samui hills and built around Ta Nim Waterfall, so be sure to take your camera to capture the unique tropical scene.