Big ideas for Phuket are usually concocted and carried out by starry-eyed entrepreneurs. But the biggest idea for the island yet comes from a surprising source: the sacred beliefs of a peaceful religion founded more than 2,500 years ago. Rising from the hills of Chalong, forming a gleaming presence that can be seen from clear across Phuket’s south, sits the Big Buddha. Some years ago, the huge statue was commissioned for a temple in Kata, but at some point someone looked up to the top of the verdant hill rising behind the temple and thought, “Why not?” Thus, an ambitious plan was born.
The Big Buddha project is helmed by Suporn Wanichkul, Chairman and Founder of the Phra Phuttha Mingmongkol Eaknakakeeree Foundation, who says that not only is the project a homage to the Buddha, but it also aims to promote cultural tourism in Phuket and introduce visitors to a side of the island away from Patong’s party zone. “Now, when people think of Phuket they will not only think of beer bars or ago-go bars with girls dancing around a pole,” he says.
Predictably, perhaps, if you believe the Buddha’s pronouncement that “life is suffering”, the rise of the Big Buddha has not been without its problems.
A project of religious significance sited well above the island’s 80m limit on construction makes for a tangled web of building approvals and concessions. It culminated when local officials complained that the project had not been completed within the permitted scope and timeline, and ordered it to be finished within the year. By and large it was.
Before reaching the steps to the Buddha, visitors pass through a large hall with amulets and other religious artefacts for sale and donation boxes aplenty. The sparkling white Burmese marble that adorns the Buddha statue’s exterior, from the spiral hairpieces to the ears and fingernails, was paid for, piece by piece, by visitors and locals keen to add their names as benefactors to the project.
Indeed, the entire project has been financed by donations alone, a remarkable feat that shows Phuket’s solid economic standing and international appeal. Visitors are invited to donate a set amount for one square marble tile, on which they may write a message. Tiles on display show an incredible variety of languages, hopes and well-wishes.
But has it been too much of a good thing? Has the overflowing car park and packs of tour groups tromping around cluelessly undermined its sanctity and meaning? On a frenetic island where money is sacred, is the sacred now at risk of turning into a money machine?
The struggle of the Big Buddha’s direction could be seen as a microcosm of Phuket’s larger fight to balance money, power, culture and community. It’s the burning question on the mind of many for Phuket: “What’s next?”
On the Big Buddha hilltop, however, there are encouraging signs to be found. In the large meditation hall on one afternoon, a small group of Thais and foreign tourists are seen receiving blessings from two monks, a peaceful scene familiar to anyone living in Thailand, but for visitors it reveals the contemplative, tender side of Thai culture not always evident in the brash tourist areas.
And one need only look to the monument itself for more answers and inspiration. Fittingly for Phuket, an island with hedonistic pleasures aplenty, the Big Buddha silently sends a message of calm and spiritual strength through its seated subduing Mara pose.
In Buddhist lore, Mara was a demon who was something of an ancient Soi Bangla sex-show tout. During the young prince Siddhartha’s journey towards enlig htenment, he was met by this devil of desire. Mara inundated him with a host of naughty temptations, even offering up his own young daughters in an attempt to lure him away from his spiritual path. To fend off the overwhelming feelings of lust, longing and hunger, Siddhartha sat in meditation and pointed the fingers of his right hand down towards the ground, summoning the earth goddess Toranee. A statue of Toranee is housed in a shrine by the steps to the Big Buddha.
Wringing her long hair, Toranee released a flood of water that washed Mara away, helping clear the way for Siddhartha to become the Buddha, the Enlightened One.
Though Phuket’s Big Buddha project is no stranger to scepticism and controversy, one thing is certain: those of us who might feel a little lost in paradise at times now have a gentle, guiding beacon to look for in the sky
Phuket Big Buddha Facts
Width 25.45 metres at the base.
Height 45 metres, making it 10 metres taller than Christ the in Rio de Janeiro and nearly as tall as New York’s Statue of Liberty, which is 46 metres from foot to torch.
Made with Reinforced concrvete adorned with white jade Burmese arble.
Daily visitors As many as 1,500 in high season.