Leaving aside the eternal diatribe on whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy, and leaving aside long discussions on the characteristics of Buddhism itself, which go beyond our context, we dedicated our time to visiting three temples located on the island of Phuket and which represent, in my humble opinion, the three most important places of worship among the 29 Buddhist monasteries on the island.
We are talking about Wat Chalong, the best known and most popular temple in Phuket; the Big Buddha, the youngest of the three, which dominates the southern part of the island from the top of a hill; and Wat Phra Thong, or Temple of the Buddha of Gold, probably the least known of the three by foreign visitors but certainly no less important, and no less adored by the local population. And it is precisely from the latter that we are going to start.
Wat Phra Thong
Whoever touches dies
Asian temples often have more legends than history behind them, and the Temple of the Golden Buddha is no exception to this rule, as it can indeed boast more than one legendary element.
Wat Phra Thong, in fact, houses an image of the deity which, it is said, was found semi-buried centuries ago in a plot of land located where the temple dedicated to it now sits. Probably sunk following an earthquake, every attempt to move it or to extract it from the location in which it was found proved unsuccessful due to a series of natural disasters that occurred immediately afterwards.
But it goes further.
A legend tells that in the past the statue was completely buried and only the flame on Buddha‘s head was allowed to emerge. A young shepherd who happened to pass by the area with his buffalo unknowingly tied the buffalo right to the protruding flame. A short time later he fell seriously ill and soon died, the same fate also befell the animal.
It is also said that the boy’s father, following a dream, went to take a look at this ‘stick’ to try to understand the cause of his son’s death. When he realized that it was a statue of the deity, he led the villagers to the spot to try to bring it to light. It wasn’t a great success. In fact, the story goes on to tell that the excavators had suffered attacks by swarms of hornets that came out of the excavated earth, raging against those who dug and leaving the curious, and against the old who simply lazily observed that sort of ‘ante litteram construction site’ unscathed.
Later in the years, during one of the many Burmese invasions of the city of Thalang, which at the time was the capital of the island of Phuket, the invading soldiers tried to unearth the statue to take it to Burma as loot. Once again, occult defenders of the divinity protected the sacred image. In this case it was a matter of swarms of small ants which, having emerged from the excavated earth, attacked the defiling soldiers causing death and disease. And though the soldiers who remained unharmed managed to set fire to the attacking insects, they were unable to dig deeper than the neck of the statue nor to steal it. It was just like this, partially buried, that the ruler of Nakhon Si Thammarat found the divine image when he came to free Thalang at the head of his troops.
Legends follow one another, and who knows how many others there are, but it is interesting to note how legends and popular stories can influence the perception and value of a sacred place like Wat Phra Thong. The image of the semi-buried Buddha, in fact, still enjoys the reputation of bringing death to anyone who touches it. It is for this reason that around 1750, a monk from Sukhothai convinced the villagers that it was better to build a propitiatory temple around the image of the Buddha and perhaps even a copy of the original statue that would accommodate religious displays and for the rites of the faithful without causing damage.
Today the Wat Phra Thong complex consists of several temples and even a museum displaying items from the tin mining era, mostly donated by locals.
The temple is particularly revered, coincidentally, by Thai-Chinese. In addition to claiming that the image comes from China, which I do not think can be excluded a priori, permeable as they are to any type of superstition and adopting every ‘it is said’, they would not touch the sacred statue even under threat, devoting themselves to filling a safer copy with attention.
Naturally we, women and men of the 21st century, do not believe in these fables and we are pretty sure that we can visit the temple and its Buddha without any fear. However, mindful of biblical calamities and desecrations of pyramids and various tombs, if for any reason we had to go to visit the temple with our domestic buffalo on a leash well… maybe let’s remember not to tie it to the first pole we see around… you never know.
For those wishing to visit Wat Phra Thong, the temple is open daily from 8:00 to 17:30. Coming from Phuket airport, there is a road to the left, just before the Thalang intersection, which leads to the temple. Pay attention because the indications are a bit confusing to say the least.
The largest and most revered temple in Phuket
The two most insistent rumours that those who visit Wat Chalong hear are the continuous and insistent tic tic tic produced by the so-called fortune sticks, rattled inside their cylindrical wooden container to give answers to those who want to know their future, as well as the deafening and equally frequent sound of firecrackers being set off by the faithful.
Wat Chalong was built in the early 19th century and its real name is Wat Chaiyathararam, but you will probably never see this name written on any road sign. It is the largest of Phuket‘s temples, and also the most visited, both by the inhabitants of the island and by those who come from outside, due to its fame of predicting fate using the aforementioned sticks.
Anyone can experience the thrill of shaking the container full of numbered sticks, the ‘Siem-Si’, with an ever more pressing rhythm, and of seeing one come out marked by a number that will send you back to a chest of drawers, also numbered. Each number corresponds to a leaflet with the coveted response. Anyone can do it as long as they know Thai or Chinese language, or at least have someone who can translate the answer.
The Thai faithful almost always come to the temple to ask for something that may concern health, wealth – this being a very popular one -, the name to give to a child about to be born or, incredible, lottery numbers. This is why bamboo sticks are waved, candles or incenses are lit, lotus flowers are offered or leaves of gold foil are applied to the images represented in the various temples. At Wat Chalong these activities take place in the central temple, where people flock to earn merit and fortune.
How about the firecrackers we were talking about at the beginning? Yes, I forgot the firecrackers: these are strips similar to cartridge belts formed by hundreds of firecrackers linked together which are detonated in a special container which, at the moment of the explosions, will set fire and flames. It is, in fact, just a way to express gratitude for answered prayers or to change responses that are not to your liking.
However, despite the superstition that prevails among Asians and in particular among Thais, it would be ungenerous to limit the importance of this temple to the ephemeral search for good luck.
Its history and the innumerable legends that surround this temple complex tell us, in particular, of two monks: Luang Pho Cham and Luang Pho Chuang, who played a leading role during a Chinese rebellion in 1876, dedicating to the care of the wounded thanks to their knowledge of traditional medicine.
History tells us that one of the pillars of Phuket‘s wealth in previous centuries was the tin mining industry, and most of the people employed in the mines were Chinese immigrants who, fed up, in the long run, with the bad working conditions, started what would later be called the Angyi Rebellion. At this point it would be worth spending a few words on the Angyi, at the risk of going off topic.
Angyi was a kind of Chinese secret society, founded by Sun Yat Sen between 1903 and 1908. It could be considered as the earliest form of trade union, having actively organised strikes and controlled the workforce in some sectors. In reality, to define them properly as unions would seem a bit excessive because their loyalty wavered between Chinese workers on the one hand, and wealthy employers, also Chinese, on the other.
The general strikes soon escalated into riots that left Phuket Town burned and looted, and while provoking equally violent reaction from other citizens of the island, they eventually managed to get better working conditions in the mines.
Our two monks had therefore fundamental roles in the context of this rebellion, and here the legends emerge: some speak of one and some of two. Some describe them, as already mentioned, as healers and assistants to the wounded, having transformed the temple into a welcoming place for refugees, and some regard them as the leaders who encouraged the local population to fight against the secret society. And some perhaps more aptly credit them with a role in putting an end to the rebellion.
Be that as it may, after the conflict Chaem received a title of honour from King Rama V, and both are celebrated by two extremely realistic statues in one of the temple pavilions.
Locals and many Thai tourists come to pray and pay homage to the two monks, but also to visit the most recent building in the Wat Chalong complex, the Phra Mahathat Chedi where, inside a glass case, a relic is preserved – a bone splinter of the Buddha brought from Sri Lanka, which was installed in the Chedi by King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Phra Mahathat Chedi reaches 60 meters in height and rises over three stories. The walls and ceilings are decorated with beautiful paintings illustrating the life of Buddha, as well as many sacred images in gold.
Wat Chalong is located almost 10 kilometres south of Phuket Town and can be reached by taxi or tuk tuk. It is open every day from 7:00 to 17:00. On weekends and Thai holidays the place can be very busy.
The Big Buddha
Happiness on top of Nagakerd hill
The Big Buddha is the last-born among the places of worship in Phuket. I actually remember seeing its huge head under construction in the local temple, and we are talking about 1994, during my first years of living in Kata. This Buddha image is located on a high hill that dominates almost the entire south of the island, and is clearly visible from many points of the island itself.
Beyond the grandeur of the statue and the beauty of the various deities that surround the main image, the breathtaking view that can be enjoyed from every corner of the area is by no means of secondary importance. In fact, the 360-degree view extends over the bays of Chalong, Rawai, Karon and Kata.
Buddha, as most of us know, was the son of a king who one day decided to give up his life of luxury and, through a long journey, became a perfectly enlightened being who attained the highest knowledge of the truth. I undoubtedly catch a certain symbology in this gigantic image, which, from above, seems to want to erect itself as a beacon of illumination.
The statue, which depicts Gautama in a seated position, is 45 meters high and 25.45 meters wide. It was built in concrete covered with white Burmese marble, and it cost 30 million Baht (about US$ 950,000), mainly from donations, just as the plot of land on the top of Nagakerd Hill, with the obvious approval of the Thai Royal Forest Department and notwithstanding that the image was built in a protected national forest. Access to the Big Buddha is allowed every day from 6:30 to 18:30. It can be reached by taxi or tuk tuk from any part of the island.
Three beautiful and certainly interesting places to visit from a cultural and tourist point of view, but what gives importance and meaning to the places indicated are the faithful, the true backbone of Buddhism.
Whether for faith or for a strong sense of superstition, the population is very close to its religion and its ministers, whether men or women. This is evident from everyday life which leads people to the temples or to wake up at dawn to donate their food offerings, which leads young and very young people to spend a period of noviciate in the temples to acquire merits for themselves or for their families and who asks for advice, graces, intercessions or, more simply, winning numbers, looking for a shortcut, if not exactly for wealth, at least for a certain well-being.
Right now, let’s look at the practical; Nirvana can be dealt with at a later stage…
Thailand, and Asia in general, are reflected in these attitudes. These places of worship become an interesting slice of daily life that immensely helps to understand the mentality of these peoples.
A piece of advice: dress appropriately when going to religious places in Thailand in order to show respect to the local people. We therefore invite you not to wear clothes that are too flashy or skimpy.