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Biggest Buddha rises above Phuket

By JAMES SHRIMPTON, AAP, 14 December 2007

Phuket, Thailand -- Rising on a scenic hilltop in southern Phuket island is a 45m-tall Buddha which its builders see as an icon to match the statue of Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio de Janeiro, the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour or the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

The tallest Buddha in Thailand, it's made of concrete to be covered by Burmese white jade with a golden pinnacle, with some enthusiasts calling it a new wonder of the modern world.

The statue's 6.72-hectare site affords panoramic views of the port town of Chalong, its beaches and pier, boats off the coast, surrounding rainforests and to the northwest, some of the beaches at resorts south of Patong and the Andaman Sea with its dozens of rocky islets.

One regional guide has already described the Giant Buddha, which is costing 60 million baht (more than $NZ2.25 million), as Phuket's most important cultural icon - although its official opening is not scheduled until mid-2009.

The complex, which will include a museum at ground level, has been hailed as a future major tourist attraction for Phuket - along with its beaches, resorts, island visits, boating, diving, snorkelling and other water sports and golf courses.

Tourism officials say about 300,000 Australians are expected to have visited Phuket this year by month's end, nearly double the 2006 figure, many taking advantage of Jetstar's exclusive direct non-stop flights to the island from Sydney.

Today the huge statue - 24.45m wide at the base - is surrounded by scaffolding but the Buddha's facial features can be seen, although partly obscured also by green cloth.

The face was moulded in concrete on the ground as one huge mask divided into sections - to be replicated in white jade - then raised piece by piece along with the two long white ears.

A bone fragment from the body of Buddha (563BC-483BC), one of many such relics in Buddhist shrines around Asia, has been promised by the church for inclusion in the statue complex.

The Giant Buddha dwarfs a 34m-high statue on Hong Kong's Lantau Island described as the world's largest tallest outdoor seated Buddha.

Less than 100m away in the shadow of its towering brother is an already-completed golden Buddha statue made of 22 tons of brass and standing 12.5m high.

Thousands of Thai pilgrims each week now drive up a newly-upgraded road to the crest of 380m-high Nakkerd Hill to view progress on the Giant Buddha, to pray, chant and to enjoy the views, along with an increasing number of tourists of all (or no) religious persuasions.

Monks from all Phuket's Buddhist temples supervise the work. They also hold a ceremony there at 10.30am on Saturdays.

The Giant Buddha is being built with public donations on the hilltop land made available by its owner, businessman and prominent leading Buddhist Suporn Vanichkul, who is president of the Mingmongkoi Foundation formed to launch the five-year project.

Khun (Mr) Suporn said donations towards the construction had been received from everywhere, from local companies and individuals, supporters in other Thailand provinces and overseas.

Tourists help, too. Every day at least 150 visitors hand over 20 baht and write their names with a blue stylus pen on a porous red brick, to be used in the construction of the complex.

Sponsors can donate white tiles for 500 baht ($NZ19.20) apiece.And the golden topknot for the Giant Buddha's head is available to a sponsor for 500,000 baht (nearly $A17,000).

Khun Suporn said the statue would be finished in white jade although some media reports said it would be of white marble.

Visitors to the site have included Thailand's Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya, eldest child of King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit, who attended a prayer meeting here earlier this year.

Khun Suporn said the Great Buddha would be dedicated to the King, who celebrates his 80th birthday this month (December), and the smaller statue to the queen.

The statue's official name, incidentally, is the Pha Puttamingmongkoi Akenakkiri Buddha.

It's one of a number of several projects planned or under way on Phuket island. They include:

  • The Phuket Welcome Gate near the Sarasin bridge linking the island to the Thai mainland, now completed at a cost of 46.67 million baht (about $A1.57 million), includes 29 concrete pillars with plaques describing Phuket's history in Thai and English.
  • A proposed man-made island, named Zoran, 3km off the Royal Phuket Marina, to cost an estimated 6.6 billion baht (more than $A227 million) with mooring berths for at least 50 yachts of all sizes on a circular quay, with villas, a resort and shops.
  • A proposed sports park and convention centre on government land in northern Phuket, costing up to five billion baht ($A170 million) with a training centre for dozens of sports, a large resort and spa.
  • The near-completed Kathu Mining Museum on the Kathu-Koh Kaew road, costing over 50 million baht ($A1.7 million), telling the history of Phuket's tin-mining industry.

IF YOU GO

The Giant Buddha site is a short drive from Chelong at the southern end of the Thai island of Phuket.

Details visit Mingmongkolphuket.com or www.phuket.com.

For details of holidays in Phuket and elsewhere in Thailand, call the Tourism Authority of Thailand on (02) 9247-7549 or visit Tourismthailand.org.



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