High in the sky on a breezy hilltop sits the Big Buddha of Phuket, a towering figure in gleaming white jade with its serene face gazing east. Aside from the beaches, the Big Buddha is a top attraction in Phuket.
Big Buddha – an Island Icon
Though it’s certainly busy with tourists now, the Big Buddha still has a certain magic that can take your spirit to lofty heights, along with your physical being. Yellow Buddhist flags dance and flap in the wind. The sounds of gongs and monks chanting float through the air with the breeze. Panoramic views take in the island’s lush Nakkerd hills, the yacht-studded Chalong bay and miles of the Andaman sea stretching out towards the blue horizon.
As a long-term resident of Phuket, I’ve seen the Big Buddha grow from just a rough concrete foundation 15 years ago to the majestic 45-metre white marble monument that it is today. (See how it’s evolved over the years here: http://phuket-big-buddha.com)
Sitting on one of the highest hills in Phuket, the Big Buddha offers incredible across the entire south end of the island, from Phuket Town to Chalong Bay, over Cape Promthep in Rawai and over the bays of Kata Noi, Kata and Karon beaches.
Unlike Phuket’s other well-known sacred site, Wat Chalong, which is 200 years old, the Big Buddha was built during the years of Phuket’s rapid tourism growth and as such it often attracts more curious visitors than local Buddhist devotees. You’ll notice signs at the entrance in English, Russian and Chinese, and before you reach the steps to the Buddha statue you walk past several vendors selling food, drinks, and souvenirs.
A Tourist Trap?
The Big Buddha in many ways reflects modern Phuket society in the tourism age. Tourists come here in droves, many of whom know little about Thai culture or Buddhism, detracting from its role as a sacred site. And the Big Buddha, like many other construction projects in Phuket, relied extensively on migrant workers. Burmese labourers spent years toiling at the statue to get every last tile of marble put into place.
Big Buddha didn’t even manage to escape Phuket’s notoriety for property scandals, as various Thai officials over the years have questioned the legality of building in the area. But the last time we’ve read anything about this, any legal questions surrounding the site’s construction and land usage appear to have been cleared up.
The steep road to reach the Big Buddha once narrowed to a rough dirt track as you approached the hilltop, with parts of the road cracking and crumbling down the hill – it made for a scary drive! But these days, the road is kept in reasonably decent shape and is not too difficult to manage with a car. On a motorbike it’s more of a challenge but doable for experienced riders. Near the entrance is a large parking area, so there’s no trouble finding a place to stop once you reach the top.
Hiking to the Big Buddha
For the more adventurous, there’s a slower and sweatier way to the top of Big Buddha hill, starting from the west side of the hill near Kata and Karon beaches.
Taking Patak Soi 14 across the road from the Siam Commercial Bank at Karon Plaza, just walk along towards Big Buddha hill and you’ll spot small signs along the way pointing the way to the trails. Hopefully the signs, which are rather flimsy looking, are still there when you try it. If I’d been clever enough to use a GPS tracking app during my walk, I’d post a detailed walking map of the journey, but instead I’ll let you have your own adventure finding your way up!
Part of the hike is along a road or partially paved track, but for about 1,500 metres there’s a steep dirt track through jungle. This section really gets the heart racing! I don’t know who takes care of the trail but it was in good shape when I walked it in late March 2018, and there are hand ropes along some of the steeper sections to help keep you from slipping.
A Sweaty Pilgrimage to the Top
The dirt path ends at the road, with about 500 metres to walk along the road before reaching the hilltop. Along the way, be sure to stop and take a look back to take in the spectacular sea views.
There’s another way up that’s longer, but not as steep or jungly, and you’ll share the trail at times with a few motorbike and ATV riders. If you’d rather take this way, then go left where there’s a sign saying it’s 4km to the Big Buddha. We took this way down the hill.
In all, the hike took about 2.5 hours up and back, with plenty of time spent stopping to snap photos and lingering on the hilltop to savour the cooling breezes! I managed to do the hike wearing regular running shoes, though sturdier walking shoes or lightweight hiking shoes with a better grip would have been ideal.
It’s best to go in the early morning before it gets too hot. But it’s still a hot walk! Vendors at the Big Buddha selling fresh coconuts and water have easy sales targets for their thirst-quenching drinks: sweaty hikers reaching the summit.
Visiting the Big Buddha
Whether you arrive by car or on a hike, the approach to the site is from the back of the statue and you can’t see the whole Buddha till you walk around to the front. This is when you suddenly feel small and insignificant at the full sight of this tranquil-faced giant statue jutting up into the sky. From here, walk up the marble steps and wander around the grounds, where there’s a smaller golden Buddha statue, some lookout points and gardens.
One of the caretakers might offer you a bronze leaf or a marble tile, which you can sign and have it placed on display for a small donation. Hundreds of these bronze leaves dangle in the breeze at various spots around the site, with well-wishes and messages of hope penned in several languages.
Exit steps lead to a meditation hall where you’ll likely see some saffron-robed monks chanting or sprinkling holy water on devotees (and interested tourists). All the steps make exploring the Big Buddha grounds difficult to navigate for anyone with mobility issues, but it’s possible to get a good view of the statue and surrounding panorama without taking any stairs.
On the road leading up to the Big Buddha, there are a handful of small restaurants with excellent views, ATV riding operations and elephant camps. I don’t recommend visiting the elephant camps – more on that to come!
Big Buddha Facts and Things to Know
Official name: Phraphutthamingmongkhol-akenagakhiri (just calling it “Big Buddha” is a bit easier, eh?!)
Size: 45 metres high and 25 metres wide
Style: Seated Buddha, adorned with Burmese white jade marble. The Buddha statue’s left hand rests in the lap while the right hand points down to the ground. This posture, “Calling the Earth to Witness”, represents the moment of enlightenment for the Buddha.
Why was it built: Many objectives are listed on the official Big Buddha website, including to make merit, to create a centre for spreading the Buddha’s teachings, as a gift to the late HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej, to be “a place for mental development, Samatha and Vipassana for wisdom and peace of people”, “to cultivate the mind for peaceful life and family as well as to maintain the institutions of nation, religion and the king”.
When it was built: I’ve read articles about the Big Buddha on travel sites saying it was built as a symbol of hope for the island after the December 2004 Asian tsunami struck Phuket, but this is not true. The project was well underway by then.
I first visited the site in early 2003, when the last section of the road up was still a dirt track and only the statue’s foundation had been built. There were a few monks living up there in a basic tin shack. I remember they offered my friend and I some water, and we were quite touched by that gesture since they really had nothing much to give!
Be aware: As this is a religious site, you’ll need to wear polite dress when visiting the Big Buddha. Bring a T-shirt with sleeves, or grab a sarong at the entrance, available for free for those in need of cover-up clothing.
Big Buddha Phuket
Top of Nakkerd Hill, Soi Yodsane 1, Phuket
Free entry, but donations welcome.
Where to stay near the Big Buddha
Chaofa West Phuket
46/44 Moo 10, Soi Yodsane 1, Chaofa West Rd, Chalong
Full disclosure, I have a biased view with this recommendation, given that my husband’s family owns these properties! But, ideally for a long-term stay, Chaofa West offers clean and comfortable apartments and pool villas along the road leading to the Big Buddha, fully furnished and serviced. Fabulous sunset views of Big Buddha hill to enjoy from the rooftop pools of Chaofa West Suites and Phompassorn Apartment. The two-bedroom and three-bedroom villas each have private swimming pools.
Shanti Lodge Phuket
2 Soi Bang Rae, Chaofa West Rd, Chalong
The sister guesthouse of the well-known Shanti Lodge of Bangkok, this is one of the few places on Phuket with a true traveller’s vibe. Extensive use of bamboo and clay in the design together with the well-tended tropical gardens and a waterfall pool gives Shanti Lodge a real jungle ambiance. Room choices range from a budget room with a shared bathroom to private bungalows with kitchens. Delicious food choices in the restaurant, with many vegetarian choices.
Aochalong Villa Resort & Spa
5/26 Moo 9 Soi Porn, Chaofa East Rd, Chalong
Small beachfront resort near Chalong Pier with two pools and tropical gardens. We’ve dined at the restaurant here before and found the food quite tasty. There’s good dining at the Phuket Yacht Club next door, too. Family friendly and handy if you’re planning to take island-hopping trips from Chalong Pier, as well as visiting the Big Buddha and Wat Chalong.