Thursday, October 2, 2008
Phuket is one of the southern provinces of Thailand, a predominantly Theravada Buddhist country. US Navy ships occasionally make port visits there, or up north to Bangkok. Recently our deployed ship made a port visit, and so I had the fortunate opportunity to see some of the Buddhist sites on the island. I took a small group of Sailors with me who were also interested in seeing some of the local sites (in between shopping for souvenirs and suits)! There are some particularly interesting places: the largest Buddhist temple in Phuket is Wat Chalong. It is a temple complex of several large buildings, very beautiful and imposing. It was probably first built in the 19th-century, and houses a relic of the Lord Buddha that was brought from Sri Lanka. You can view the reliquary easily. Also prominent in the main hall are statues of Phuket's most famed monks, Luang Pho Chaem (1827-1908), and Luang Pho Chuang (1875-1945). You can purchase amulets with his image on them (although I didn't); many Thais believe such amulets are auspicious for the wearer. Unfortunately there are very few signs in English, though we did see a large number of visitors, both local Thais and foreigners.
Another site we visited was the Phra Puttamingmongkol Akenakkiri Buddha, more commonly known as the "Phuket Big Buddha." It is destined to become one of Phuket's major attractions! It's actually a new structure (many of our Sailors assumed it was ancient) and is not 100% completed yet, but it is easy to visualize how it will look once construction is finished. It's 148 feet high, and we were actually able to see it from our ship as we were anchoring off the coast. It is on the summit of a small mountain; on the road up, there were signs with a quote from Buddha's last sermon: "Whoever sees the Dhamma sees me." The statue is of a seated Sakyamuni Buddha. Scaffolding is still all around the statue, and the outer marble casing still needs to be added before it is complete; visitors can donate 100 baht to write an inscription on a marble tile that may (or may not!) be used on the Buddha. (Nishi Hongwanji-ha did the same fundraising to replace the roof on its Goeido or Founder's Hall in Kyoto). There is a smaller gold statue of the Buddha sitting atop Mucalinda that is already finished. The construction is being funded mostly by donations. There is a warehouse-type building near the construction site where you can donate for the construction, read about its history, and buy amulets and books (there are some in English and other languages). Also you may give offerings and receive a blessing from the one monk on duty. I hope to come back and see the Phuket Big Buddha when it is complete.
Phuket was a great place to visit. It's a very religiously diverse place; we saw several mosques on the way to and from town, and there are a few Christian churches, and Chinese temples. Phuket was devastated by the 2004 tsunami, and although all the debris has since been cleated, you can tell it is still in the process of recovery.
If you are able to visit Thailand, make Phuket's Buddhist sites one of your destinations!