Big Buddha and Wat Chalong

No trip in Thailand is really complete without a visit to a famous wat (temple) or massive Buddha image. During my recent journey to Ko Phuket, I hired a tuk-tuk to take me from my hotel (point A on map below) to see The Big Buddha (point B, and that is really what it is called) and then on to Wat Chalong (C).

Tuk-tuks in Phuket are bigger than those that I have seen throughout the rest of Thailand. In most areas, the tuk-tuk has three-wheels, a seat for the driver, and a single bench seat for 3 passengers (although 4 or 5 people will often cram themselves into one.) In Phuket, the tuk-tuks are built on Daihatsu Hijets, they have space up-front for the driver and a passenger, and they have two bench seats in the back that easily hold 6 people.

Bangkok Tuk-Tuk

Phuket Tuk-Tuks

Prices are not only higher than in Bangkok, but are also 2x to 3x those in Hua Hin, a resort area about 3 hours southwest of Bangkok. The locals refer to the Phuket drivers as the tuk-tuk mafia and they indeed seem to be well-organized and to prey on the large tourist trade. A driver quoted me 900 baht to go from my hotel to the airport in an open air tuk-tuk; for comparison, my metered, air-conditioned taxi ride from the airport to Patong was 500 baht. I ultimately found an air-conditioned taxi for the ride to the airport for only 700 baht.

In any event, my hired tuk-tuk drove through both Karon and Kata, and these beach areas looked quite a bit more up-scale than Patong. If I ever return to the southern portion of Ko Phuket, I expect that I will choose to stay at one of these beaches. From what I could see from the tuk-tuk, both towns have numerous outlets for shopping, plentiful massage shops, tailors to make you a suit or other custom clothing, the ubiquitous 7-Elevens for snacks and beverages, a large number of restaurants offering Thai and/or Western food, and fabulous beaches for tanning, swimming, and diving. What neither appears to have is the over-the-top, in-your-face nightlife of Patong’s Bangla Road.

The Big Buddha

Phuket’s Big Buddha

The first stop that I made was at the Big Buddha. This tall statue of Buddha seated on a base of giant lotuses is in a tropical rainforest on the apex of Mount Nagakerd, about 1,300 feet above sea level. Not surprisingly, this massive monument can be seen from quite far away, and the views of southern Phuket from the Big Buddha are also spectacular. The statue was undergoing some renovation when I visited, so Buddha’s head was enclosed in scaffolding.

Panoramic view of Kata Beach and the Straits of Malacca from the Big Buddha

The dimensions of the image are impressive — the statue is over 80 feet wide and 150 feet tall and it sits on 50 reinforced concrete pilings that go 40 feet deep into the earth. Construction was begun on the Big Buddha monument in May 2002 and the first concrete pilings were put in place that November. The Buddha’s hair curls, face and ear plates were installed in late 2007. Polished white jade marble from Myanmar covers the image.

As you enter the site from the car park, the first thing that you see is a large bell and a statue of King Rama V. When I visited, there was a couple who were posing for wedding photos in front of the statue and Buddha image. At the arrival hall is an area where you can buy souvenirs, read about the history of the construction, and make donations to help finish the building. There is also an altar with a cast bronze replica of the Big Buddha, and two monks were here giving blessings to anyone who requested one. I made a donation, the monk blessed my head and shoulders with holy water, and then he tied a colorful string around my left wrist for good luck.

Large bell and statue of King Rama V

Put a coin in each bowl for luck

Monks give blessings in front of bronze replica of Big Buddha

Monk who gave me a blessing

As is seemingly always the case, I had to climb a large number of steps to reach the Big Buddha statue. The view, however, was worth it. At the top, you can see the base of the monument that is not visible from below. Around the base are many other Buddhas in various postures. There are also several other shrines and images up to as well as bells and gongs.

What I found most interesting, however, was seeing a display of one of the lotus panels so that I could understand better how the Big Buddha was constructed. Visitors are free to visit the interior of the monument where they can see the infrastructure that supports the Big Buddha. There are also a couple more shrines inside.

Exterior example of Lotus panel

Inside view of Lotus panel

Shrine of Buddha sitting on two Nagas

Another shrine alongside the Big Buddha

Buddha protected by seven Nagas

Entrance into interior of Big Buddha

Shrine inside the interior of the Big Buddha

Interior of Big Buddha

Chang Stop

On the drive up the mountain to see the Big Buddha, I saw several places that offered elephant trekking. I asked the tuk-tuk driver to stop at one on the way down so that I could see and feed some elephants. The elephant is one of the real treasures of Thailand.

Baby elephant with handler and bananas

Adult elephant eating

Wat Chalong

After the brief Chang stop, the driver took me to Wat Chalong, the most important temple in Phuket and one of the most opulent that I have seen in my travels. Wat Chalong’s official name is Wat Chaitararam and it is dedicated to Luang Poh Cham, Luang Poh Chuang, and, Luang Poh Kluam, former abbots of the temple.

Luang Poh Cham provide medical help to citizens injured during the Ang Yi Rebellion, an uprising by immigrant Chinese tin miners in 1876. The laborers rebelled when the mine owners refused to provide them with opium. Being high on opium, however, turned out not to be such a good thing when fighting, and the locals ultimately destroyed the rebels. Luang Poh Chuang and Luang Poh Kluam succeeded Luang Poh Cham as abbot, and both were also practitioners of herbal medicine who were renowned for curing people.

Main temple at Wat Chalong

Worshipers applying gold gilding to statues of Luang Poh Cham, Luang Poh Chuang, and Luang Poh Kluam

Ordination hall at Wat Chalong

The most unique feature of this temple is the large beehive-shaped oven in which strings of firecrackers are ignited in thanks for prayers that have been answered. The sound is deafening and nearly constant. The people who sell and set off the firecrackers do so without ear protection — where is Thailand’s OSHA?

Firecrackers exploding

Firecrackers for sale

The newest addition to Wat Chalong is the grand pagoda, called Phramahathatchedi-Jomthaibarameepragat, that was dedicated in 2002.  The first two floors of this three-level, 200 foot tall chedi are full of Buddha statues and the walls are covered with murals that tell the life story of Buddha. On the third level, a bone fragment relic from Lord Buddha is displayed in a glass cabinet. From an architectural perspective, the chedi is interesting since it combines features and styles from southern, central and northeastern Thailand.

The grand chedi at Wat Chalong

Third-floor of tower where Buddha’s relic is kept

Buddha images and mural in grand chedi

Naga on stairway leading to second floor of chedi

View of Wat Chalong from top of grand chedi

Second floor of chedi with marble Buddha

Kop Khun Krab.

© 2012 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.

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