Samui Wining & Dining
BUDDHA’S NOT-SO-SECRET GARDEN
It’s still marvellous, but thousands of tourists don’t help!

P112-1There’s a place on Samui that’s really very special. It’s a timeless place. Somewhere the world stands still in its own little bubble. It’s isolated, peaceful, startlingly beautiful and almost mystical. It’s hidden away up in the mountains at one of the highest points on the island. And it’s generally known as the Secret Buddha Garden.

          

It’s been there for a good many years, being gradually added to and extended right up until the death of its creator, in 1989. It’s always been a sacred sort of place – and I mean that in a worldly way, not a religious one, as it’s one of the few places you can really believe that there are spirits drifting peacefully between the trees and streams. And even just a decade ago, it was truly magical; a place where you could immerse yourself in its beauty and lose yourself in its peace. But all things change in the due course of time.

          

At one time it was really hard to get to: it’s actually five kilometres up and away from the ring-road, but back then most of this was a rough dirt road. Today however it’s now all nicely concreted, making it an easy ride, even on a little motorbike, although it’s very steep in a couple of places. It’s right on the same side-road that’s used by the elephant trekking, Samui Shooting Gallery and that also has the Sky Fox Zip line, although that’s a lot further up the road. Look for the landmark of Wat Khunaram (with the Mummified Monk); the road you want is right across from it.

          

Of course, you could do it the easy way, along with the thousands of tourists who flock there every week, and take an organised tour. But I’d advise wholeheartedly against that. The tranquillity of the magic little place is completely wiped out by the grinning hordes with their selfie sticks – I counted 14 safari-tour tour vans, blaring Thai pop music, parked up and fighting to get in or out,It’s still marvellous, but thousands of tourists don’t help! last time I was there.

          

The way to go it is to get there early in the morning, before about 11:00 am – the place opens at 8:00 am – and that way you’ll have it mostly to yourself, as the bulk of the tourist vans don’t come until midafternoon.

          

The whole place was the inspiration and life’s work of one man, Khun Nim Thongsuk, a local personality and durian farmer, who began work on it full time in 1976, and continued to work obsessively each day until his death, at the age of 91. And when you get there, marvelling at the sheer inspiration of it all, you can almost begin to see how it all might have come about.

          

The plot of land here is on a mountain slope, in a cleft in the mountain side. A natural stream tumbles and glides through at the base, feeding the huge fruit trees which form a towering canopy above, in some places making a kind of leafy tunnel with a vault high overhead. It’s a place of almost startling natural beauty – a place of contemplation and harmony.

          

And so the first few stages must have been a simple and joyful attempt to introduce a bit of terra-forming, to make a small dam with a pleasing cascade down and onto the rocks beneath . . . and then to shape and form some natural platforms and sitting stones that the tinkling water could turn around. And then a couple of statues in memory of Khun Nim’s mother and father.It’s still marvellous, but thousands of tourists don’t help! And then one of Khun Nim himself to complement them. Quite who the two drowned, stone figures in the water are (you’ll have to hunt for them) is a secret that died with Khun Nim!

          

And then, over the following 12 years, all kind of heroes, monsters and symbols from Thai mythology began to appear – interestingly there’s no hint here of the Buddhist religion, despite the name. You’ll spot the maidens from the legend of the Kinaree, but the significance of the giant bird defeating the snake is obscure, as is the meaning of the courtly officials, scribes and musicians who are gathered around it in a ceremonial semi-circle.

          

Similarly, little cameos appear in groups, here and there, but nobody seems to know what they represent – although my feeling is that there is a great deal of very personal memory and nostalgia here; you’ve only got to look closely at some of the faces (particularly the maidens!) to realise at once that these are real people, not some kind of stylised representation. You’d think that some curious scholar would have done a bit of research and made up a nice little tourist booklet with photos and explanations. But this is Thailand, and as long as the tour buses and the money (80 baht a head admission) roll in then then everyone shrugs, smiles and says ‘mai bpen rai!’ (Never mind!)

          

Some final hints and tips. Go on a sunny day – the effect of the dappled sunlight coming through the trees and glancing off the water is ethereal, as it highlights textures and colours that you’d otherwise miss. Don’t wear flip-flops: hardly anything is on the level and they’ll keep slipping off as you pick your way over the rocks. And be prepared for wet feet, as the only way to cross to the other side of the stream is on partly-submerged stepping stones. But keep all this to yourself – it’s a secret!

          

Rob De Wet


 


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