What’s a Wat? – Temples and Bophut Beach, Koh Samui

After some yoga in Koh Phangan (no full moon parties, fortunately or unfortunately) and a few days taking advantage of Anneke’s hospitality, it was time to keep moving on and head back to Koh Samui, my first stop in Thailand. This time I stayed on the opposite side of the island from where I’d previously been for Vikasa yoga, booking a small hostel in the Fisherman’s Village of Bophut Beach.

This area of Koh Samui is known for its cute avenues of shops and restaurants, and a long white sandy beach better for relaxing than swimming. With not much else to do in the area, I came specifically to take several classes at Yogarden, a quaint and cozy studio in one of the Bophut neighborhoods.

The owner of the studio coincidentally had lived in Arusha, Tanzania during the late 90’s while her husband worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, so we shared our experiences living in the region. It was interesting to hear what it was like in the area immediately post-genocide, and her stories of visiting Kigali contrasted sharply with the modern, sleek, and well-organized city where I lived for the past two years. Working at the Tribunal meant your entire life revolved around reliving the genocide: frequent trips to ground Zero in Kigali, dinner conversations, and, of course, work. It sounded like a stressful and emotionally intense time… no wonder she decided to move to Thailand and open up a yoga studio!

I also took one day to explore the island and visit some of the many temples Koh Samui has to offer. My first stop was Wat Khunaram (“Wat” means temple in Thai) where the Mummified Monk is on display. At the age of 79 Luong Pordaeng died while meditating, and as his body did not decompose the Thais saw him as an inspiration to live a spiritual Buddha-filled life. His eyes, however, have decomposed, hence his stylish sunglasses.

Next I stopped at the Hin Lad waterfall, which apparently is a popular site for picnicking, cliff jumping, and elephant trekking. I forgot to bring a picnic but I did enjoy snapping pictures of a Chinese family very much enjoying their beers in the cool waters.

Koh Samui’s most iconic religious monument is the Big Buddha Temple, or Wat Phra Yai, which can be seen when flying into the airport. The Buddha statue, built in 1973, is 40 feet tall and a shiny gold, so it’s hard to miss. The statue depicts a time during Buddha’s journey to enlightenment where he resisted the temptations of the devil Mara, so it is a symbol of steadfastness and purity.

Hin Ta and Hin Yai Rocks are known as “Grandfather and Grandmother Rock”, as local legend tells of an elderly couple who died at sea while bringing their son to his wedding on Koh Samui. Their bodies were reincarnated as these rocks, showing their love and intention for their son to go forth with his wedding. I loved seeing the many shrines around the rocks – if you look closely, they’re filled with little figurines of grandmothers and grandfathers! Quite the religious diorama.

Wat Plai Laem was definitely the most impressive of the temples, as it’s actually a compound of several shrines with towering statues of a Laughing Buddha and Guayin, the Chinese goddess of compassion and mercy. Her eighteen arms are not meant to terrify but represent her nature to reach out and help those in distress.

It was a great way to wrap up my two weeks in Thailand, and leave the islands to take the train back north to Bangkok!

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