Samui Wining & Dining
Going Native

Joining the locals and pilgrims for lunch at Pra Yai Restaurant, Big Buddha.


21Big Buddha is undoubtedly one of the top visitor attractions on the island. And it’s also a very spiritual and holy place for locals. Situated on its own island (Koh Fan) which is linked to the northeast of Samui by a hundred-metre causeway, it’s always a hive of activity.


Catching a glimpse of the golden statue as your plane descends into Samui Airport is often the first reminder that the island has more to offer than just sandy beaches. Construction on the 12-metre high Buddha statue began in 1972 and took more than two years to complete. And the causeway wasn’t built until the mid 1980s. Much of the land between the original island and the mainland has now been reclaimed. Over the years many pilgrims and tourists have come to visit the statue and made generous donations to help the abbot build facilities for the monks and a teaching centre for under-privileged Thai children. On festival and holy days the temple becomes the focus of the whole island with loud celebrations, pageants and market stalls.


On a day-to-day basis Wat Phra Yai, as the Big Buddha temple complex is known, is a regular stopping off point for visitors. All around the statue you’ll find dozens of shops selling souvenirs, jewellery, Buddha images, clothes and snacks. And amongst them are a couple of restaurants. At first glance, they look like retail shops but there’re three that have seating areas at the back. And the one we opted to try out for May’s ‘Local Restaurant of The Month’ is appropriately called Pra Yai Restaurant (the transliterated word for a Buddha image, Phra, can be written with or without an ‘h’).


It’s been owned and run by the same family since the late 1990s and it has several elements to it that make it stand out. In the first instance there’s the view, secondly the interior and thirdly the food. It’s the first restaurant you’ll see as you drive into the complex with the wide staircase and the Buddha image directly to your left. As you walk in, it has the look of a blend of antique shop, bric-a-brac stall and your great-grandmother’s attic. There’re carved wooden elephants, Native-American images, a whole range of ornaments, purses, porcelain, fish tanks and numerous paintings, carvings and old musical instruments on the walls.


Every time I’ve been I’ve noticed something different and in particular the intricate detail of the wood. The staircase to a living area upstairs was hand-made, as were some of the tables and chairs. They are solidly built as you’ll find out if you try to move them. Needless to say, they’re not quite sure where everything came from, it’s just been collected by various family members over the years. Near the door there’re a couple of modern guitars and a small amplifier, but these aren’t for sale. In quiet moments, the two chefs spend the time practicing their chords and they’re always keen to talk to any experts on the subject.


Move to the back of the shop and there’re about a dozen tables that have wonderful views over Plai Laem Beach. Out to sea you’ll gaze over the tiny islands of Koh Lum Mu Noi (on the left) and Koh Som with Koh Pha-Ngan looming largely in the background. Take a table by the open windows and look down; you’ll see hundreds of tiny fish swimming around and I suspect lots of people throw bits of food into the water below to attract them.


Originally the restaurant was wholly vegetarian but the demands of visitors have meant that the menu has expanded over the years. Around a third of the English-written menu is still vegetarian and there’re more than 100 dishes to choose from in total. They open at 9:00 am and close at 7:00 pm and have a decent breakfast selection of Thai and Western options. There’s good quality espresso, cappuccino and teas such as Earl Grey (40 baht, 60 baht and 30 baht respectively). They also have iced teas and coffee, cold beers (from 60 baht) and fruit shakes and juices (50 baht) of which the mixed berry is outstanding. Sandwiches (50-70 baht), burgers (60-90 baht), Thai and western soups (50-80 baht) and appetizers (80-120 baht) such as satays, spring rolls, shrimp tempura and spare ribs with garlic and pepper fill up the first few pages of the menu.


Moving on, there’re Thai and International salads (60-120 baht), then a page of curries (80-120 baht) that you can have with chicken, pork, prawns, squid and/or vegetables. Rice and noodle based dishes (50-70 baht) abound which you can have with pork, chicken, seafood, Thai-style sausages, Chinese sausages, pork sausages, vegetables, herbs and a variety of sauces. And there’re several more pages of main dishes (80-120 baht) that you can have with sweet and sour, oyster sauce, fried basil leaves, garlic and pepper and cashew nuts. Beside that there’re some pasta options (100-150 baht) like carbonara and bolognaise, three pages of vegetarian dishes and a couple of desserts.


On our latest visit, our staff photographer, Khun Grit, and I ordered four dishes to try: a sweet and sour prawn served in half a pineapple shell; chicken with cashew nuts; a green curry with pork; and a whole fish with a sweet pepper sauce. The latter isn’t on the menu but there’s a large seafood market a few minutes away and they have ‘specials’ on fish most days – just ask about it. They actually filleted our fish into strips, lightly fried them in batter and then arranged them again on the fish for presentation. And there were no bones in the fillets which I know can put some people off whole fish. I also liked the green curry as it was cooked a little differently from what you usually find. Their method is to fry the green curry paste with the vegetables and protein and omit the coconut milk; it’s medium spicy but with more intense flavours.


Pra Yai Restaurant is the perfect place to stop off for a bite to eat when you’re visiting the Big Buddha complex. All the staff there are very welcoming, the views are great, the food is really tasty and it’s great value-for-money in a prime tourist area.


Johnny Paterson


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