Samui Wining & Dining
A striking statue marks Samui’s Chinese past and present.

A striking statue marks Samui’s Chinese past and present.Early morning, and a dense little group of mostly elderly men and women are sitting over tea and snacks, their talk animated. It’s a convivial scene, and would seem fitting in any restaurant, just about anywhere. Yet the place where they’re talking sits at the top of a shrine, in its very heart, and is overshadowed by an astonishingly large statue of a military figure. Nobody seems to be even glancing up, but all will be aware of the statue, that of General Guan Yu. He’s actually the reason why they’re here. And not just that, he’s the one who binds them together.


The group here today, are all descendants of Chinese people from the island of Hainan, who came to Samui a century or more ago, and who were to eventually build the statue and the buildings around it, the ensemble officially known as the Guan Yu Koh Samui Shrine. The General, Guan Yu, was renowned in his time not just for military prowess, but for his virtues that paved the way for people to live together in harmony. There are statues of him more or less anywhere Chinese people have settled; this particular statue on the ring-road in Ban Hua Thanon is the largest in Thailand, some 16 metres high, and one of the largest in the world. As such, it’s hardly the average military statue, a polite addition to urban topography, and a nod in the direction of some worthy, barely-remembered figure. This one’s different. The General appears totally life-like, and rather than being cast in grey or white marble, is a wondrous, multi-coloured affair. The General’s expression isn’t staid; he’s not caught in a solemn moment whilst reviewing troops – he’s about to swing into action. But more important than all of that, he doesn’t belong in the past, but is a figure representing both now and the future. He is a fully-fledged god to the Chinese, and venerated as such.


Khun Virach Pongchababnapa is the person in charge of the shrine, and everything that goes on here. A mine of information when it comes to how the Chinese first settled on Samui, he wants to preserve the history of his people. He’s decorated the hall inside the shrine with photographs of ancestors,A striking statue marks Samui’s Chinese past and present. and there are even some voice recordings. In 1872, the first Chinese shrine was built in Ban Hua Thanon. It was later moved, and today’s shrine replaces it. For some visitors the fact that the Guan Yu shrine was designed in 2008 comes as a surprise, as it looks so traditional.


The shrine includes some buildings (more are under construction and will include a hotel) which are grouped around the statue. People come here to learn the Chinese language, and it’s a place where donations are collected, in this case for children who need more educational resources, such as computers. It will still take some years before everything is complete, and even if it may look old, the shrine is a place that looks to the future as much to the past.


The shrine is along the road heading away from Lamai as you approach the centre of Ban Hua Thanon; you’ll pass the Guan Yu Koh Samui Shrine on your right. It’s worth stopping and taking a closer look at the shrine here. There’s a lot to see, certainly enough to work up an appetite. And if you want to eat, then the small restaurants clustered around the shrine are highly recommended. Prices are on the cheap side, but the food’s delicious. You can eat specialty Hainanese Chicken Rice at the eatery of the same name; the recipe is Khun Virach’s own. There’s also a line of eateries where you simply sit down and order food from any of them; a tea or coffee from one, a main course from another and desserts from a third. Nobody minds. In this way, you can get to eat say, a soup, followed by leg of pork, then coconut ice-cream, rounding off with a tea or coffee.


A visit to the Guan Yu shrine is certainly worth it; check out not just the shrine itself but also the nearby fishing port of Ban Hua Thanon close by. Both the shrine and the port are very traditional. They’re strangely unaffected by tourism and it’s a chance to see a different side of Samui.


Dimitri Waring


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