Approach the south end of Phuket Island from any direction and the skyline is dominated by the enormous statue of Big Buddha. Its Thai name is as splendidly large as the structure itself – Phraputthamingmongkol Eaknakakiri. The structure sits atop Nakkerd Hill which offers superb views over the surrounding area including Chalong Bay a picture postcard feature of marine paradise.
To get there from Phuket Town take the Chao Fah West road (it's signposted for Chalong and Rawai). After about ten kilometres, you'll pass Wat Chalong on the left. About two kilometres further on, look out for a turning on the right – there's a big sign with an image of the statue on it. It's pretty easy to see. The road is called Soi Sane 1, but it's generally referred to as Soi Yodsane. It's quite a climb but perfectly navigable for saloon cars and even small motorbikes. The road is narrow and the lower part is lined with houses and small shops. The powers-that-be have recently installed speed bumps, so it's a good idea to take it easy. After a kilometre on the left, is Khun Dim's, a small watering hole where the district's cognoscenti often foregather for a sundowner... authentic local colour.
Five kilometres later you'll reach the Big Buddha car park. On the left is a large building within which are posted details about the construction progress, and there are also amulets, statuettes and other memorabilia for sale. From the car park, there's a stiff climb up 78 steps to reach the statue itself, and it's a pretty impressive sight. The structure is 45 metres high and sits on a base 25 metres in diameter. The podium is decorated with a large lotus flower motif. Construction is still a work-in-progress, but the scaff olding has all been removed now, and the form of the figure is clear. The views from this elevation are absolutely stunning. Clear blue skies and azure waters frame emerald-green islands, rocky promontories and silver sand beaches. It's delightful (and maybe surprising) to see that so much of the island is still verdant forest.
It's amazing to think that this huge tribute to Buddha, years in the building, has been entirely financed by voluntary funding. You can, of course, still make a contribution and become part of the blessing. For only 100 baht you're given a small marble tablet on which you can inscribe your name and thoughts. These tiles will be incorporated within the sacred structure. It's a wonderful concept. You can, similarly, write your name on an artificial Bodhi leaf and attach it to a gold bell. It's said to bring luck.
The site also contains an image of the venerated earth goddess – Wasunthara. Next to it is an image of Phra Siwali (the name given to a venerated Buddhist monk), and a large bell weighing one ton. As part of the ritual of merit-making, devotees strike this bell.
As Phuket has developed increasingly into an international destination, it has become in many respects commercialised and westernised. This is good and right – Phuket makes an enormous contribution to Thailand's wealth and status worldwide. However, the Big Buddha statue is tangible evidence of the country's spiritual underpinnings, and it's fit that visitors should view the structure, not only as an amazing piece of architecture in a place of outstanding beauty, but also as a sacred shrine.