Koh Samui: South Island Temple Tour

It’s temple time here on Koh Samui. Some may say that if you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all, but I beg to differ – I just can’t get enough of them! Each temple seems to have its own personality and I’d like to get to know all of them; however, Koh Samui has about fifty so that’s not likely to happen … Anyway, after the cynicism of my last post, a response to the over-built and over-heated atmosphere of the Lamai Beach area, it was time to get off the strip and out into the real Koh Samui beyond the tourist traps of the south-east and east coasts. We flagged down a passing cab and hired Mai, the only female taxi driver I’ve ever seen here in South East Asia, to drive us around some of the temples on Koh Samui’s south and west coasts.

Our first stop was Wat Sila Ngu, a temple dedicated to snakes (Sila Ngu means golden snake), right on the water near the Muslim fishing town of Hua Thanon on the south coast. The gilded pagoda (chedi) which we saw upon entering has apparently been used many times in films and TV as a set. Luckily, there were no actual snakes there to greet us, just the sculptural kind …

This temple was founded in 1935 and is supposed to house a relic of the Buddha in its beachfront golden chedi, the stairs of which accommodate two gigantic cobra snake sculptures. A big new temple building the colour of Samui’s red clay soil is also being built on this site and it was interesting to see a Thai temple before its exterior paintings and finishing touches were added.

Once south past Lamai, the feverish over-development of the east coast thankfully abruptly ceases, and after the village of Hua Thanon we encountered beautiful green hills, water buffaloes grazing by the roadside, and small home cafes selling locals simple Thai food.

On an unmarked side street somewhere off route 4170 we turned into the small parking lot for the Buddha’s Footprint site. I wasn’t able to find out much about this place so I don’t know whether the Buddha was actually supposed to have stayed here or not. However, the place is in a state of disrepair, looking as if, at one time, monks actually lived and worshipped here but now their huts and altars have fallen into ruin.

In a rather decrepit small building accessed after walking 150 steps up a steep hill we found four enormous cement foot-prints, superimposed on one another. Each one is engraved with symbols and runic alphabets. From the shrine there is a great view across the plains to the mountains opposite, and, over the tree tops, to the ocean.

Next on the temple tour … At the most southerly part of the island lies Wat Laem Sor, a temple apparently constructed in the shape of a boat (a design which can only be seen from the hills beyond). It’s a kilometer or so off the main 4170 road but once again not well-marked so I’m not sure whether we’d have found it on our own.

As we pulled up to Bang Kao beach, on the temple grounds we saw an ornately designed chedi sitting at the rocky water’s edge. Covered in thousands and thousands of small yellow tiles, it appears golden when viewed from a short distance. To the west of the chedi is what appears to be a lake with mangrove trees and, with global warming, and the rising seas, it looks as though the shore here is being significantly eroded.

A few metres to the east of the chedi we saw a low glass-fronted building, the Boat Hall. Inside the hall is a wooden boat and on the boat a glass case containing the mummified body of Pho Luang Dang, the monk who built the chedi.

Famed for his meditation skills, he liked nothing better than to take a boat and visit one of the small islands offshore and spend some time there meditating. The Boat Hall was built after his death and in it are, in addition to the large boat, dozens of small models of boats.

Apparently people pray to the monk and if their wishes are granted they purchase a model boat and place it in the Boat Hall as a gesture of thanks. We tried the doors but unfortunately they were locked so we could only gaze on this panorama from outside the glass.

Also in the Wat Laem Sor grounds, but a bit of a distance away, lies the Khao (mountain) Chedi. Apparently until recently this site was a ruin but it is now being rehabilitated. A fairly steep concrete road, which our taxi driver decided was too steep for her vehicle, travels up a small mountain, at the top of which can be reached stone stairs; at the top of these lies the temple chedi (Jay Dee) site.

A graceful white pagoda, surrounded with many white and gold Buddhas, a large white boy-Buddha, and several shrines, including a large bell, beneath which a tableau of Buddhas being watched by Bambi was installed, greet the visitor.

From the top, the panorama of Laem Sor Bay and the nearby islands is beautiful.

Both chedis, the beachside golden one and the mountain top white one, are said to contain “bone-chips” of the Buddha in their foundations. The hill-top pagoda, built in 1903, was struck by lightning so many times that the monks decided in 1968 to build the new pagoda on the beach where presumably it was more resistant to the elements, taking the bone-chip with them, after which time the old chedi fell into disrepair. Later, when the hilltop ruins were refurbished, a new Buddha bone-chip was brought from Bangkok to replace the one removed to the beachside chedi.

Our final stop on the southern temple tour was Wat Kiri Wongkaram, home to yet another mummified monk, this one Loung Por Ruam, who was installed in yet another glass case upon his death in 1976.

This temple, while not in a particularly attractive setting, is an active community site containing several buildings and shrines (while we were there a funeral was going on). It’s located on Samui’s west side near Five Islands Beach. Before heading back the three of us stopped at a roadside eatery for some fried rice, cooked and served up hot as we waited, for not much money ($6.70 for three meals, a beer, and four waters) – local price.

My impression of Koh Samui from this tour was much more positive than it has been to date. Away from tourist central the island is laid back and beautiful.

See more pictures here.